The Lost Keyes Diggings - Montana

Old Bookaroo

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The Lost Keyes Diggings - Montana

Perhaps because it was never part of the Spanish Empire; perhaps because it was settled later than much of the American West; perhaps because many who journeyed from the east passed through rather than settling there, Montana does not have as many lost mine legends as many other states. The ever-reliable Thomas Probert has just eight pages of references to tales of lost mines and buried treasures – fewer than for Arizona’s Lost Dutchman alone.

It is hardly a surprise that the tale of The Keyes Diggings isn’t well known. Obscurity does not mean the story lacks interest, however.

Like most such stories, this rich find was never a mine. It was, at best, a prospect that yielded a great deal of golden treasure in short order. So “Diggings” (or, “Diggin’s” to the purist) is the proper name. The saga is brief. I’ll let the great Granville Stuart begin to tell it.

[1863.] July 21…Thirteen men are here en route to Fort Benton. They are from the Florence mines: say that the soldiers had a fight with the Indians on Snake river, in which they killed eight hundred Indians and captured two thousand ponies; which is so big a story that we do not believe it.

Gold Prospectors.JPG

They have twenty-five thousand dollars worth of gold dust with them in buckskin sacks; and intend building a boat at Benton, and going down the Missouri river to the states in it. We advise them not to do it; and also admonished them against exhibiting so much treasure, as there were some people in the country who were not particular as to how they came into possession of gold dust, just as they got it. They did not seem to pay much attention to our warning and went on their way.

[The footnote continues the saga.] Their fate was not known until many years later; when William Keyes spent the winter of 1871 on the Missouri river, below Rocky point, and there married an Indian woman. Seeing her husband with gold dust, she told him of a squaw who had some and related to him the story of how she came to it, which is as follows: -

A village of about one hundred lodges of Sioux Indians were camped on the bank of the river, and they saw a boat with white men coming down. The warriors at once began firing at them. The men in the boat had a small cannon, which they loaded and fired at the Indians; but so heavy was the recoil that it loosened a plank in the bottom of the boat and it began to sink. The men beached it on a sand bar, but on it there was no shelter and they were still within reach of the Indians’ rifles. The white men had only the cannon and revolvers. They did not use the cannon after the first shot, and the Indians killed them all; then crossing over to the sand bar, they stripped them naked , scalped them, and cut them up in a most horrible way; and then proceeded to plunder the boat. Finding the buckskin bags filled with the gold dust, and not knowing what it was, they emptied it out on the sand and took the sacks, which they could use for many things. One squaw, out of curiosity, kept one bag of gold and put it in her parflash [parfleche]. Keye’s wife persuaded this squaw to show him the bag of dust; later she accompanied him to the scene of the massacre.

Keyes tried to find where they had emptied the gold. In the spring he and his wife came to Fort Benton and told their story to John Lepley, a wealthy cattle owner on the range between Shonkin and Arrow creek, whom they persuaded to go down the river with them to make further investigation. The sands of the bar had washed and were so changed that they found but little of the gold; but were convinced that the party murdered was the men from the Florence mines.

Forty Years on the Frontier, as seen in the Journals and Reminiscences of Granville Stuart, Gold Miner, Trader, Merchant, Rancher and Politician, Volume I, by Granville Stuart, edited by Paul C. Phillips (1925).

There is, of course, more to the story. At least, there are other versions. An important one may be found in the faded pages of a magazine so obscure not even Thomas Probert could locate when it was first printed, although he did discover the reprint in Johnny Pounds’ old Treasure Hunter.

Lost Keyes - Montana Map.JPG


Mitchell's new general atlas... Washington (1879). Fort Benton is due south of the "N T" in "VENTRE."


“LITTLE OUTDOOR STORIES”
THE LOST CHARLIE KEYES MINE


BY DAVID LANSING


In an untamed corner of Montana I met the young man who told me the following tale:

Hunting after lost mines is an acute symptom of a sprinted intellect. Oh, yes, I've been one of the fools who thought he could find the Peglet and the Breyfogle and the Lost Cabin. Why, down in the California desert, so many prospectors have gone dippy this way that when a man needs a tin hat to keep his brain from milling, they call him locoed any more. They say he's "Breyfogled" and let it go at that.

But for action and what I might call feverish interest, the trip | made after the lost Charlie Keyes mine was the finest ever. No, | didn’t find the mine, but there was a mine all right. It’s there yet, and now and then you'll still hear of a husky and hopeful gent with nothing better to do who is trailing off down the Missouri to find the spot where Charlie Keyes dug out his load of nuggets thirty years ago.

My partner and I were young and foolish and we went at it in dead earnest. At Fort Benton we picked up all there was to know of the old story that had been thrashed out a million times. Here are all the facts we had to work on: Along in the early seventies this Charlie Keyes, a prospector, was coming into this country with his partner, John Lepley. There were no railroads, so of course they came up the Missouri in a steamboat. Passing a point near the mouth of the Musselshell, about a hundred and fifty miles below [down river from – not directly south of] Fort Benton, Keyes who was an old California miner, was looking the country over from the hurricane deck, and observed to Lepley:

“If I can read signs right there’s gold in the hills over yonder and I’m coming back here some day and do a little prospecting. It certainly looks good to me.”

Lepley recalled this remark later. But they did not hop off, and they wandered out of Fort Benton, prospecting over in the Prickly Pear district, and walked plumb “over the Last Chance Gulch near Helena, where gold was found by the wagon-load a few years later. They worked along on Silver Creek without much luck, until winter was coming in. Then Keyes decided to go back to Fort Benton, try to raise a little coin, get a new grub-stake and work around farther east. He did not like the notion of staying out for the winter with no gold in sight and mighty little cash in their clothes. Lepley balked and preferred to stick it out and hold down their claims and take care of the camp. So they agreed to part company for the time, and Keyes laid down the law most emphatic in his farewell address to his partner:

“If I send for you, Johnny, you drop everything and come. | don’t care a damn what it is, but drop it and come quick.”

Keyes didn’t go into details, and afterward Lepley. reckoned that those gold signs along the Missouri must have been stewing in his memory. Anyway, there is where Keyes headed for as soon as he could. He stayed in Fort Benton a little while, and then drifted down the Missouri and camped out with the soldiers at old Fort Union, which stood east of the mouth of the Musselshell. He hunted buffalo for the garrison for several months for his grub and wages, and was looking the country over and prospecting under cover, on the side.

When he had the country pretty well mapped out he cut loose from the fort andwent off on his own hook and vanished. The next thing heard of him is when he turns up at Fort Benton, with five thousand dollars’ worth of nuggets in a sack. He left his gold with the bank, turned some into cash, and got a receipt for it.

We found the record in the moldy old books of the bank when we tried to get on the trail twenty-five years later. This showed that Charlie Keyes had found the mine, all right.

He stayed in Fort Benton long enough to get together a big outfit, which included a bunch of Blackfeet Indians, to pack his goods. Keyes, his party and his kit and his mining tools and a lot of timber for building sluices started own the Missouri in flat boats to return to his mine. And that was the last ever seen of them alive, excepting one little Blackfeet girl. From her it was learned that the party had been wiped out by a band of Sioux, who had an unpleasant habit of looking for river travel in those days. The first steamer up river in the spring found ten bodies and buried them. The Sioux took the little girl along with them, but she escaped a few years after and made her way back to her tribe of Blackfeet. This catastrophe put a stop to hunting for the Charlie Keyes mine for ten years or so, or until after the hostile Indians were cleaned out of Montana.

We found the survivor on the Fort Belknap Reservation, a wrinkled hag of a Blackfeet squaw who told us all she could remember, which wasn’t much. She could recall that just before the massacre she had heard Keyes say they were “two sleeps” away from his mine, and that the place where he said this was close to old Fort Copeland. Now this fort long ago disappeared, but after a search we found an old map on which we located Fort Copeland, and felt that we had something definite to work on.

Lepley was dead, but we were lucky enough to find Mose Solomon, who had been on the steamboat when Keyes first came up the Missouri. The old man recalled that Keyes shaded his eyes and looked south across the hills and said:

“There’s my country.”

This pinned the location of the mine down to a small area. It was near the junction of the Musselshell and the Missouri and two days’ journey south from old Fort Copeland if the squaw’s memory could be trusted. So my pal and | set sail down the Missouri in a flat-bottomed skiff, prepared to rake the country with a fine-tooth comb.

Do you know, we scraped our way down stretches of that old river that set a man back thirty years in the history of the west. There were surely some relics of other days. We spent the night with one old cuss who had been an Indian trader in the merry days of the buffalo. The ruins of the old stockade were around his house, where he used to trade whiskey for robes.

“| didn’t calculate to keep any whiskey on hand that was more’n twenty-four hours old,” said the old codger without a blush of shame. “I used to stand with one foot on the top of the stockade and the other on the roof of my shack, and hand down a cupful of whiskey to an Indian who handed me up a buffalo robe in exchange. Two or three of my men sat on the roof with loaded rifles, for the liquor was sudden and searchin’ and we wa’n’t takin’ no chances. Business usually wound up in a grand orgy outside, and we sat inside with the gate

barred till the skies cleared. We generally made the whiskey out of alcohol and colorin’ matter. Once I found | was clean out of stuff to paint it with, and | chucked in a quart of red ink that had been shipped to me by mistake. It made such a hit with the critturs that | had to send to Fort Benton for a case of it. The red-ink brand of liquor was my long suit after that.”

There were things to remind you of the days when all the trade of the Northwest came up the Missouri in steamboats. We passed tons and tons of rusted mining machinery on the banks, where boats had blown up or run aground and abandoned the stuff. And once we drifted by a big stern-wheeler squatted in a field where the river had left it thirty-odd years ago. A lot of half-breeds had knocked doors and windows in the sides and were living in clover.

[Here the author drifts off into two questionable anecdotes with no relation to the Lost Keyes Diggin’s]…

We worked out all our signs, and found the Musselshell and where old Fort Copeland [Copelin ?] used to be and we shaded our eyes and looked south and said:

“There’s my country,” and marched “two sleeps” and didn’t sleep a wink. Our directions, which sounded mighty hopeful and definite at long range, kind of lost themselves when it came to prospecting every inch of ground within “two sleeps” of the south bank of the Missouri. We stuck at it for two months, wore ourselves to a frazzle, and couldn’t find a color.

Charlie Keyes may have lost a mine, but we didn’t find it, and it was an awful big batch of landscape to mislay a mine in, you can bet on that.

Well, after we were discouraged and getting very peevish and short with each other, we made back-tracks for Fort Benton, leaving behind us two worn-out gold-pans and a busted shovel. If you’re not too weary please listen to the joyous sequel.

By and by a blacksmith on a ranch over toward the Big Snowy Mountains thinks he'll take a whirl at looking for the treasure of the dead and gone Keyes person. He was an old prospector, and he had been brooding over this lost mine proposition for some five years or so. In fact he was a little disordered that way. He roamed around the Musselshell country until he ran across the rusty gold-pans and the shovel we had left behind. With that he goes clean up in the air, is cock-sure that these relics belonged to the late lamented Charlie Keyes and that he had found IT.

He turns up in Glasgow, a cow-town to the northward, and can’t keep his precious secret. He'll blow into a thousand fragments if he don’t spread the glad tidings, and in due time | get a telegram from my partner who is up in that section:

“Come at once and avoid the rush. The mine is found.”

In my blissful ignorance | think we'll have a chance to beat out the stampede because we’ve been over the ground, and I hustle off to meet my partner, wondering who found the mine and how he found it, and never connecting it for a minute with those foolish pieces of hardware we had left in the wilderness. We pack down to the Musselshell fairly sweating under the collar, and find out, of course, what started the excitement.

It wouldn’t be decent to try to tell you how disgusted we were. We knew there was no gold in the district, but as sure as I sit here there was a town of a thousand people sprouted up around our old gold-pans and shovel and they were coming in by hundreds every day and making the dirt fly like a locoed colony of prairie dogs.

“Alexander City” was the name of the town, in honor of the crazy blacksmith who was responsible for it. We were going to quit and go about our lawful business again, but the leading citizens wouldn’t let us. They argued that we were the wise men of the camp, that we knew these diggings like a book, and that the town needed us. We didn’t dare to tell them there was no gold anywhere near this fine big collection of lunatics, for fear they would lynch us.

So I suggested to my partner that we sink a shaft anyway. It would keep us busy and the crowd interested and make a diversion so that we could sneak away.

We went down sixty feet, cussing freely at the foolishness of the whole performance. Then we washed for color and we didn’t get a show of it. Alexander City was a busted boom. But Alexander City wasn’t allowed to know it quite yet. We were almost busted ourselves and self-preservation was entitled to draw cards in that game. We jollied the population along by running a cross-cut in our shaft, and at the same time we worked some other claims after a pattern devised by my partner.

He had brought along a nugget in his clothes, to tuck away as a cash reserve in case of urgent need. We would open up a prospect on one of our claims and wait for a tenderfoot. When Providence sent him our way seeking a location, we would offer to let him dig in one of our prospect holes upon the solemn promise that he’d give us everything he found. This was to let him see that the country was good, and if he found gold, then he’d have a tip to steer him about locating somewhere near our claim.

Gold Prospector using Rocker.JPG

The pilgrim naturally wanted to make sure that there was gold in the camp, and he most cheerfully accepted the proposition, agreeing, mind you, to give us any gold he found on our property. Meanwhile my partner’s nugget had been carefully salted in the bottom of the hole.

Then one of us would hide behind a screen of sage-brush and watch the victim dig. It was easy telling when he found the nugget, for he couldn’t conceal his agitation, and maybe we could see him stow it away in his clothes. Then we would jump him and ask him whether he had found anything. Of course he would deny it, and then we'd search him and find the nugget inside his shirt.

It would not do to let the camp know that a thief had been found in its midst. It was explained to the victim that lynching was a certainty if he was exposed, and the case was settled out of court. My partner had been made a justice of the peace for Alexander City and he collected a ten-dollar fine from the guilty tenderfoot and the costs were taken out in drinks.

Does it sound like a hold-up? Not a bit of it. We put our trust in these strangers, we had their word that they would be square with us and they tried to hog our nugget. We did our little toward making virtuous men of them. If we had not punished them they might have gone on and become presidents of big life insurance companies.

Alexander City faded swiftly away, you couldn’t find its remains to-day, but the Charlie Keyes mine is still there. And men will be looking for it after you and | are dead and gone.

The Outing Magazine; The Outdoor Magazine of Human Interest, March 1907, Vol. XLIX, Number 6. It is important to note that in the index this piece is listed as “fiction.” I have my doubts about that.

I became aware of this story when I found a copy of Keyes Lost Diggings by Peter Netzel (2016). He reprints several contemporary newspaper articles about the search for the Lost Keyes that include somewhat different versions of the loss. Unfortunately, in his little book the author repeats several times the same account – 19th Century newspapers were not shy about borrowing pieces from other periodicals. However, I would recommend his book to anyone interested in this story.

Netzel includes an excerpt from “Montana the Gold Frontier” also by Granville Stuart. I have not been able to find a copy.

The book has two rather poorly reproduced Montana maps. Maps and lost mine yarns go together like pirates and rum. Happily, as is the case with many states, Montana distributes an excellent “Official Highway Map” Free copies are available from the Montana Office of Tourism.

Lee Cross wrote an important article about the hunts for the lost prospect published in the old True Treasure Magazine (Summer 1967, Vol. 1, No. 3) – and reprinted in the more available Famous Lost Mines of the Old West (1971). This collection of over 30 articles from back issues is a valuable resource. Don’t be put off by the article title “The Lost Keys Mine.” I suggest Cross didn’t spell Charlie Keyes’ last name correctly because he recounts versions he was told in the early 1900’s. His piece is not based on library research.

Finally, Thomas Penfield published a very brief version of the “William Ketes” lost mine, with his usual lack of factual accuracy. You can safely give that one a miss.

Good luck to all,

The Old Bookaroo
 

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Crow

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Hello Bookaroo.

I could not find a William Keyes in what records I have access to. (Note I have not tried with different spelling variations as yet. )But the wealthy cattle rancher John Lepley he was 62 in 1898 as his probate record shows and he was born born around 1836.

He lived at Shonkin Creek, Chouteau, in 1880 Census. its seems many of descendant brothers children sisters children and he had four daughters. was still there into the 1950s at least.

So that part of story can be confirmed independently al least.

Crow
 

OP
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Old Bookaroo

Old Bookaroo

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Hello Bookaroo.

I could not find a William Keyes in what records I have access to. (Note I have not tried with different spelling variations as yet. )But the wealthy cattle rancher John Lepley he was 62 in 1898 as his probate record shows and he was born born around 1836.

He lived at Shonkin Creek, Chouteau, in 1880 Census. its seems many of descendant brothers children sisters children and he had four daughters. was still there into the 1950s at least.

So that part of story can be confirmed independently al least.

Crow

As always, I appreciate your post!

William Keyes is a mistake on Penfield's part. Several of the newspaper articles in Netzel's book gives his first name as Christopher (Chris). In other accounts it is Charlie (Charles, I presume). I'd start with Christopher.

Good luck to all,

The Old Bookaroo
 

Crow

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I was unable with what resources I have at hand unable to confirm much more. the ghost town of Alexander City Montana or the fort. I tried Charles, Christopher. No luck for Montana or California.

I will keep an eye open from as time dictates.

d1.jpeg


d6.jpeg
d3.jpeg


I think your correct some aspects of story has bee polluted by fault memory in retelling?

I saw John Lepley probate will. It was 5 pages long. The property above is Shonkin Creek, Chouteau,

In the first picture showing the mountains in background they might of been the mountains Keyes was referring too? that said it hard to know where facts end and where the fiction begins. The search area is too vast.





Cheers Crow
 

OP
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Old Bookaroo

Old Bookaroo

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"... hard to know where facts end and where the fiction begins."

Word to live by, Crow. Words to live by.

Good luck to all,

The Old Bookaroo
 

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