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Virginia City, MT: Where Modern Montana Started

Updated: May 6, 2021

History: On May 26, 1863, six men looking for gold decided to do some prospecting in an area known as Alder Gulch. Their first pan turned up $2.40. and they were on their way to discovering the richest placer gold strike in the Rocky Mountains. The men made a quick trip to nearby Bannock, about 60 miles away, to get supplies, and while they attempted to be discreet about their discovery, they found themselves followed back to their strike by some two hundred other miners. Nine mining camps quickly sprung up, and less than a month later, the town of Virginia City was platted.

Varina was the name proposed by a Southern sympathizer for the new settlement, a nod to the president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis's wife. Judge Dr. Gaylord Bissell, a staunch Unionist, wouldn't have it. The judge crossed out Varina and put down Virginia City. Within a year, the population reached nearly 10,000, made up of Euromericans, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, and African Americans. This led Congress to create the Territory of Montana, and Virginia City would be the first territorial capital. The new mining town would also start Montana's first newspaper (Montana Post), first public school, and first Masonic lodge.

Miners, business profiteers, and ladies of the evening all moved in to Virginia City take advantage of its growing wealth. Robbers and murderers came as well. These “Road Agents” were responsible for killing nearly a hundred people in 1863 and 1864, leading to the formation of local law enforcement who called themselves the Vigilantes. They tracked down and hanged more than 15 road agents between December 1863 and January of 1864.

By 1875, most of the mining climbs around Alder Gulch had dried up, and when gold was discovered in Last Chance Gulch in Helena, most left Virginia City to pursue their dreams of riches there. Today, some 150 residents still call Virginia City home.

What's In Virginia City Today: You can visit the site just outside of town where gold was discovered in Alder Gulch on May 26, 1863. Many of the buildings along Wallace Street (the main street through town) are still in use today, although most are stores and restaurants. Some, however, are frozen in time and look as they did back in the 1800s. Boot Hill, which sits overlooking town, is home to many of the town's original settlers, including some of the men who first discovered gold there.

Join Front Seat Tours on our visit to Virginia City, MT, on Sunday, June 27, 2020. We'll have our own tour guide show us behind the scenes of the historic gold-mining town and some of the interesting history that most visitors don't get to see or hear about. We'll also spend some time at nearby Nevada City and Boot Hill. For tour info, click here.

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