April 26, 2009 by Gsmith
In the fall of 1879 a lonely communist wandered into a nondescript mountain valley. The only witness to the events of the day was his mule, Murray. Together they set up camp next to a nameless stream.
By midday he had pitched a tent and started a fire. By dusk, he had panned 40 dollars in gold — an immense sum for six hours work. The prospector had no desire to start a panic or to wander into the nearest trading post to blow his wealth on liquor or women. He had bigger plans.
The campsite would become the town of Murray, Idaho, which is located today along the banks of Prichard Creek. The pioneer would describe the area in a letter, a few years later, after the old prospector decided he then had enough gold to start an autonomous society.
What he needed at the end of 1881 was people — the right kind of people.
I have made a discovery that will give employment to at least 15,000. Two streams there are, well prospected by myself alone. One is sixteen miles along, the other about twelve, as near as I can judge, with average width of sixty rods.
I have found gold on three other streams of almost the same size, but have not tested them enough to know how they will pay out. The two streams of which I speak will pay their whole length, and probably most of their tributaries, and there is an abundance of good timber and water the whole length. Bedrock from five to twelve feet… Gold coarse, and of high quality…
Two good and natural town-sites sit on either end, where will be built cities representing thousands in less than two years. The country is traversed with hundreds of mineral-bearing lodes of quartz.
For good reasons which need not be explained, I would like to see as much of this wealth go into the hands of the liberals and atheists as possible, and also would like to see a city built in which we can have our own laws and customs, with all of this vast mining region to support it. This we can do if we go cool, cooperate, and work together as brethren…
This letter and dozens like it were received in the first days of 1883 by socialists throughout North America. The author was A. J. Prichard, a moderately famous — some would say notorious — prospector with a radical reputation who had wandered North from the badlands of New Mexico and Colorado.
If luck holds, as it surely must, this will soon be infidel country… I dream of a city of anti-religious liberals living in a brotherhood of working-men… Our dream will grow and prosper as our city will…
While the details are lost to history, it must have been one of these secretive missives that started the great rush to what’s now known as Idaho’s Silver Valley and beyond. Only months after sending his invitations, a rough stampede of gold-seekers descended by the thousands upon Prichard’s location, filing claims as far south as present day Pendleton, Oregon, and as far north as Kelowna, British Columbia.
As soon as his secret no longer held any weight, Prichard took out an open advertisement in the socialist Truth Seeker magazine. By then it was too late.
Desperate to stave off what amounted to an invasion, Prichard filed illegal claims in the names of his socialist friends, some of whom never arrived to improve them. The Northern Pacific Railroad broke the area for a mass colonization in the summer of 1883. Prichard’s world was wide open, wealth was for the taking, and everyone seemed to want a piece of the action.
One of the takers was none other than Wyatt Earp, the legendary gunfighter still lionized in American folklore. Earp became the sheriff of the newly incorporated Kootenai County, and almost immediately set himself up as a claim-jumper, using his badge and reputation as a gunfighter to intimidate workers. Years after the fact, the San Francisco Examiner described Earp’s position in Idaho’s mining district as the brains of a lot-jumping and real-estate fraud scheme… Earp sat in his saloon while his henchmen went out and did the dirty work. (August 16, 1896)
Prichard allowed himself to get tied up in court defending his claims, and spent much of his significant fortune defending his mineral rights from violent predators. He won at least a dozen lawsuits against Wyatt Earp alone, among too many others to count. Most were won by default, and all too often Prichard would make the weary trip back from the courthouse to find yet another squatter violating his claim, the tent pitched no sooner than he made the journey to settle the last dispute.
Earp used the ill-gotten proceeds of his claim jumping to start and maintain the White Elephant, a saloon in nearby Eagle City.
It’s estimated today that less than one hundred communists answered Prichard’s call. True to their ideals, most died in relative anonymity. Prichard himself died in the winter of 1900, alone in his modest cabin and almost penniless. Everything he made was, in his words, given to increase the welfare of all… gold being of secondary importance, and progress being primary…
History is gracious enough to credit him (though not his politics) for opening up North Idaho and inland British Columbia for settlement. Idaho, known as The Gem State, derives nearly 90 percent of her mineral wealth from the very location pioneered by Prichard. The Silver Valley has already produced an estimated four billion (2008) U.S. dollars worth of silver alone. Lead production is the largest in the United States. The area is also distinct for being the only location for star sapphires in the Western Hemisphere.
Prichard’s communist ideals, originally drowned out by the thousands of desperate men who surrounded them, took root in the popular consciousness and grew with the settlements he had scratched from the rocky earth. His dream of a worker’s state would blossom a generation later, expressed in revolutionary struggle which would change the political landscape of North America for ever.
The author is grateful to the Idaho Bureau of Mines and Geology, which provided the portrait of Hutton, and to the libraries at the University of Idaho and the librarians at the Spokane, Washington City Library.
Coming tomorrow: Unlikely Heroes of the Working-Class