It has always been somewhat of a mystery to me how Western saloons, often in isolated mining camps or other communities with no easy access to the outside world, managed to get the liquor needed to satisfy their thirsty clientele. For many “Old West” locations, railroads were distant, stage coaches sporadic, and mule trains infrequent. The answer may lie with Samuel Jaggers, a saloonkeeper and liquor dealer in the mining town of Bannack, Montana, during the 1860s. In a 1903 newspaper interview Jaggers told all.
Sam Jaggers was an Englishman, born in March 1832 in Beulah, a small town in Wales, the son of Joseph and Elizabeth Jaggers. He was baptized into the Church of England. When he was 16 he emigrated to the United States along with other family members and settled in Illinois near Galena, a town on the Mississippi River, famous for being the home of Ulysses S. Grant and other Union generals after the Civil War. Sam’s earliest career is lost in the mists of history. His first recorded employment was in the hospitality industry, spending three years as manager of Galena’s United States Hotel. He also appears to have gained some standing in the community, serving as the town’s justice of the peace for eight years.
In 1851 at the of 23 Sam married Jane Moore, 20, a woman of Irish ancestry, in Lafayette, Wisconsin, a town about 35 miles from Galena. They had six children: James, Mary Anne, Joseph, Robert, Elizabeth and Henry Manuel. After 12 years of marriage, Jane died in 1863, leaving her husband to raise their minor children. In 1866, apparently drawn by a gold strike in Montana, Jaggers uprooted the family and headed for Virginia City, a boomtown of thousands of prospectors and fortune seekers in the midst of a frantic gold rush — today a “ghost town.”
Apparently not finding rowdy Virginia City to his liking, Jaggers soon looked 85 miles west to Bannack, Montana. Shown above during its heyday, the town was founded in 1862 after an area gold strike. Named after the local Bannock Indians. it had served as the capital of the Montana Territory briefly in 1864.
At its peak, Bannack had a population of about ten thousand. There were three bakeries, three blacksmith shops, two stables, two meat markets, a grocery store, a restaurant, a brewery, a billiard hall, three hotels, including the Meade shown above, and four saloons. All of the businesses were built of logs as were the private houses. Jaggers settled his family in one of them.
In 1870 Sam also married a second time. His new wife was Mary Catherine Hamilton, born in Huntington County, Pennsylvania, the daughter of native Pennsylvanians who had migrated to Montana. The couple would have four children, Grace, Fanny, Harry and Madline. Grace and Harry died as youngsters.
Extremely remote, Bannack was connected to the rest of the world only by the Montana Trail. This was a wagon road that served settlements during the gold rush era of the 1860s and 1870s. The trail was used for freighting and shipping supplies and food goods from Salt Lake City to sites in Montana. It could be a dangerous journey. Outlaws and marauding Indians, as well as uncertain weather, made the Montana Trail a risky road to travel.
Arriving in Bannack, Jaggers looked around for opportunities and found one in a saloon for sale by local James Harvey. As later described by the Englishman, Harvey’s was one of the best in the mining camp. “It had a first class bar, not one of the hand-made ones like the majority of the saloons of pioneer days had, but it had real oak furniture and it had a real plate glass mirror behind the bar.”
Those remarks were part of an extensive interview Jaggers gave in 1903 to reporters for the Dillon (Montana) Examiner in which he described the life of a frontier West saloonkeeper and confided: “I now want to tell you boys about how we made our liquors…,” adding humorously I suspect, “…and I am sure you will not give it away.”
According to Jaggers, all the liquors coming to Bannack saloons originated from Los Angeles in a form he called “high wines,” in effect, “white lightening.” “Once the high wines had been safely landed in our cellars, us saloon keepers set about making various liquors demanded by the horny-handed miners….If a man wanted any kind of liquor, he got it, and it did not make any difference whether he asked for whiskey, brandy, rum, gin or some brand of wine, he got it, and it all came originally from the same barrel.” The taste could be altered, Jaggers said, by the amount of fusel oil the proprietor added, a mixture of alcohols extracted from the fermentation process.
Remember events in 1867 Jaggers continued, “…There was a whiskey famine in the territory and for while it seemed as if a dire calamity was staring the country in the face.” Hearing that there were two barrels of whiskey for sale at Deer Lodge, Montana, Sam in haste made the 115 mile journey there on horseback and bought the whiskey for $750 in gold dust— equivalent to $16,500 today. One of the barrels was good stuff, he related, but the other was the worst whiskey he had ever tasted. While the liquor was being delivered, Jaggers got an idea. He bought two cases of peaches and returning to Bannack mashed them into pulp and dumped them into the rot-gut, mixing them well. “…The result was it was converted into a whiskey that miners would walk ten miles after the close of a hard day’s work, in order to pay 25 cents for a sample of it.”
After about five years running his Bannack saloon and serving a term as justice of the peace, Jaggers may have sensed that the boom in Bannack was headed toward “bust.” He sold his saloon and for several years tried his hand at prospecting. By now a wealthy man, Sam subsequently purchased a ranch outside of Bannack and began to raise cattle. An ad for a lost cow at Horse Prairie and the Big Hole range displays Sam’s brand, a horseshoe-shaped mark burned on both sides of his steers.
Jaggers’ life as a rancher was not placid. Montana was still the Wild West where dangers lurked everywhere. His young daughter, Fanny, caught the eye of Bob Wells, described by a local newspaper as “a bold, bad man of Montana.”
When Sam objected to his attentions to Fanny, Wells “in true brigand style” met her returning to her father’s ranch home on horseback, with a male escort. Drawing a gun the outlaw forced the man to ride on. He then tied the girl’s bridle rein to the pommel of his saddle and headed for Idaho. Jaggers was quick to offer a reward for Wells’ capture. In the end Fanny was returned home, apparently unharmed, but not long after was married to a 39-year-old man from Horse Prairie, Montana.
Three years later Sam and his family would be embroiled in a murder trial. The dead man was John Bushnell, a Bannack saloonkeeper with a grudge against Jaggers and his sons. Drunk, in mid-September 1887 Bushnell met James “Jim” Jaggers in the bar of a local hotel and began cursing him. According to a press account in the Helena Independent, Jim tried to be friendly and did not retaliate. Nevertheless, Bushell went home, got his six-shooter and went back to the bar. Bushnell took “deliberate aim” at Jim’s back but was seen by the hotel proprietress who screamed, alerting Jim Jaggers. He drew his pistol and the two fired almost simultaneously. Bushnell missed and Jim got off a second shot that killed his assailant instantly. A sheriff’s inquest and trial ensued in which the jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.
Sam Jaggers survived these traumatic incidents to live just short of 83 years old, ancient by Western standards. In 1885 he earned a biography in a book on Montana history, hailed as “one of the extensive stock men of the prairie.” He died on March 2, 1810, and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery at Dillon, Montana. Sam’s family provided him with a unique gravestone, featuring an elaborate carved design, a poem, and the motto, “Gone but not forgotten.” I agree. Jaggers will forever be memorable for his candor in revealing how drinking establishments in isolated Western towns could obtain enough liquor to satisfy their thirsty clientele.
Note: The impetus for this post came from the verbatim publication of Jaggers’ 1903 interview with the Dillon Examiner in the book, “The Golden Elixir of the West: Whiskey and the Shaping of America.” by Monahan and Perkins. I was able to find other information about Sam from a variety of sources, but sadly no picture of him. The photo below shows Bannack as it looks today, a ghost town registered as a National Historic Landmark and preserved by the State of Montana as a park and tourist attraction.