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"The Old Mining Town of Kendall, Montana," ca. 1900. Kendall, located in central Montana's Judith Mountains, received a rush of gold miners in the 1890s. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society Research Center via Big Sky Country Digital Network.

Mining played an important role in Montana's evolution from wilderness to an organized state. The first miners were high-risk fortune hunters who rushed into profitable areas and quickly abandoned unprofitable sites. These miners had small placer operations—mining methods that used water—which required simple equipment such as a gold pan, pick, shovel, and a water source. Other placer miners added items such as a rocker, which two people operate to sift the minerals from the rock. Both methods of placer mining required manual labor and water for washing the gravel and sand away from the heavier gold. Small miners often worked long, hard days for a couple dollars worth of gold.

Montana had three major strikes that produced large amounts of gold. In July 1862, a prospector named John White and his partner discovered gold at Grasshopper Creek and founded the town of Bannack nearby. Grasshopper Creek produced five million dollars in gold dust in its first year. In May 1863, two prospectors left Bannack to search for gold, bringing them into conflict with the Crow Indians who took the miners' equipment and sent them packing. On their way back, the men camped along Alder Creek and decided to pan a little. Their panning produced gold and within a few months hordes had flocked to the area around Virginia City.

On July 14, 1864, a group known as the Four Georgians began working Last Chance Gulch. These men found the gold plentiful and easy to remove. Over the next four years, Last Chance Gulch produced nineteen million dollars in gold. Soon the city of Helena grew up around the gulch.