Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills

You didn’t really think I was done with Bitter Bierce did you?

I came across this book entirely accident while hanging around the Spearfish Public Library with my mother. Bierce expert Don Swaim says it’s the only book on an obscure part of Bierce’s life.

How could I resist this one?

Review: Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills, Paul Fatout, 1956.Ambrose Bierce and the Black HIlls

In May 1879, Bierce’s column in the San Francisco newspaper Argonaut suddenly stopped appearing, and he spent the next year-and-a-half in an experience which was to embitter him further, yield little money, and which he spoke of very little in later years.

He became involved with the Black Hills Placer Mining Company.

Bierce finally gave into his wife and mother-in-law and left England in 1875 though he was a successful journalist in London. On his return to San Francisco, he worked in the Assay Office at the local branch of the United States Mint. That, along with all the talk about California mining and the Black Hills gold rush which started in 1874, may have gotten him interested in mining. His father-in-law, Captain H. H. Day, was a famous mining expert, and Bierce liked him a lot more than Day’s daughter or his wife.

In March 1877, Bierce was back at the Argonaut. Fatout thinks it was this period that the Black Hills began to show up in Bierce’s fiction. The title “The Night Doings at Deadman’s” may have been inspired by the name Deadman Gulch near Rockerville, in Dakota Territory, and it was Rockerville which was to be at the center of Bierce’s time in the Black Hills. I think Fatout’s on far less certain ground when he says the “gulches, sluice boxes, pans, and a Territory” of Bierce’s “The Famous Gilson Bequest” may derive from the gold rush in Dakota Territory. Those appurtenances of placer mining certainly would have been in California too.

Bierce did not keep a diary, but Fatout does use a great deal of his correspondence from the time. Mention is made in 1879 of a requirement to buy a stamp mill (the machinery used to crush gold ore into pieces small enough to mechanically get its gold out – chemical extraction of gold ore using cyanide was about a decade in the future) for a mine at some place called Brandy City.

Bierce had no formal training in mining engineering, but he was intelligent and talked to his father-in-law. He was a trained topographical cartographer from his Civil War days and possessed a knowledge of the mathematics of engineering.

Sometime in 1880, he got ensnared with the Black Hills Placer Mining Company. The man responsible intended no ill on Bierce despite what happened. He was Sherburne Blake Eaton, a lawyer and friend with Bierce from back in their time together in the Civil War when both served on the staff of General William B. Hazen. After the war, they both served as Treasury Agents, a period covered in Bierce’s memoir essay “Way Down in Alabam’”.

Fatout, a Bierce scholar, says that Bierce never was so warm, so confiding of his thoughts and feelings, as during the period of this story when he wrote to “Sherb”.

The Black Hills Placer Mining Company was formed on December 8, 1879 with a great deal of New York money with the most notable investor being Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Its purpose was to bring water seventeen-and-three-quarter miles from a Sheridan dam (this is not the current Sheridan Lake Dam in the Black Hills) to Rockerville, a town twelve miles from Rapid City, then and now the principal city of the Black Hills. Rockerville had promising amounts of gold ore, but a reliable source of year around water was needed to run water through those sluice boxes and put in those gold pans and wash ore off the sides of the hills.

A promising idea. Selling that water and buying up the land around the flume that would carry the water could have been profitable. But the Black Hills Placer Mining Company was spectacularly mismanaged and riddled with corruption.

Bierce accepted a position as “General Agent” with the company, and arrived in Rapid City on June 1, 1880.

Well, theoretically, he was the general agent. But the company had two factions. One was headed by company treasurer Marcus Walker and company president Alexander Shaler. Eaton and Bierce were in another. And Bierce was to find himself less than in control of his responsibilities to get the flume built by August 1st.

The man who seemed to have the confidence of Shaler was “Captain” Ichabod M. West.

West was a grifter and a conman, a man obviously possessed of great charisma given all that he got away with before and after his involvement with the Black Hills Placer Mining Company. He really was a veteran. But his discharge from the Eleventh Michigan Cavalry was as a first lieutenant. (French visitor to the Black Hills around this time, Edmond Baron de Mandat-Grancey commented in Cow-Boys and Colonels that an amazing number of men had the title of colonel and other honorific ranks.)

When Bierce took over, he was not impressed with the planned project. It consisted of many large wooden trestles and tunnels, a lot of which could have been replaced by easier and cheaper ditches. And West seemed to spend way more money than was needed for his construction contracts. Bierce suspected kickbacks paid for West’s large house in Rockerville, his mistress, and the private telephone line that went to Rapid City.

Bierce was supposedly to replace West as the company agent except the later was never formally fired, and Bierce’s appointment was not done until June 18th.

A woman accused West of embezzling her stock in the company, but West weaseled his way into a postponed trial by feigning insanity.

Bierce also found out that, though the company had paid half the entire budget for the project to West by July 1st, thousands of dollars in back wages were owed and there were many debts to suppliers. That didn’t stop Walker from paying him more money on July 18th.

Bierce was to spend a lot of his time convincing workmen to continue work without pay, postdating checks, and trying to keep company creditors at bay. He put in long hours with no help. The company didn’t even provide anyone to clean his office. He traveled extensively, making many trips to Deadwood, then Rapid City’s rival as the Black Hills’ top town, did the books, and kept the clueless corporate management in New York City abreast of events.

His plea to hire a detective to investigate West was denied. He did hire one man to secure payroll shipments for the company. He was listed on the payroll by the sardonic Bierce as “Boone May, murderer”.

Boone shot a lot of people in his time, but they were generally thought of as “undesirable citizens”. His most celebrated exploit was, after hearing about a $2,000 reward for Frank Towle, a bandit he had shot the previous day, when he went back to the body, chopped off the head, and carried it back to Cheyenne for the bounty. He never actually was convicted of murder. A jury acquitted him of that charge in the killing of one Curley Grimes who tried to flee May’s custody around Fort Meade (modern day Sturgis, South Dakota), seemingly before Bierce arrived in the Hills. Bierce found May “quite harmless if tenderly treated”.

May is special because he is mentioned in the only thing Bierce ever published about his time in the Hills – and that was 15 years after the event: “A Sole Survivor”. On internal evidence, that deadly encounter on the road between Rockerville and Deadwood that Bierce coyly talks about may have been on the night of August 10, 1880.

The project still wasn’t done by the set date of August 1st.

Bierce kept inviting his dilettante bosses – he was baffled that they seemed to care so little about learning the details of a project they had invested so much in – to come to the site. There were also rumors in the anti-Bierce faction that he was embezzling. He wanted Walker to come out so he could personally account for the time and money he had spent and to have help handling the company’s money.

Fatout doesn’t entirely make clear when Walker arrived. It was seemingly in the second half of August.

Walker questioned just about everything Bierce had done. He insulted the men he hired. It wasn’t even clear by what authority Walker was acting since he had taken a different position in the company.

It was all too much for Bierce:

With remarkable forbearance Bierce endured disregard and insult, patiently answered Walker’s thousand and one questions, and promised hearty co-operation in any investigation they cared to make. The strain of keeping his temper must have been tremendous, for he was not a man to take slights and insults lying down. He was not one to submit meekly to discourtesy, shabby imposition, and above all to any arraignment, open or hinted, of his integrity. The growing pressure upon his self-restraint forecast an eruption, and after several days of nasty badgering he magnificently blew up.

Bierce wrote to Eaton:

Mr. Walker had once already practically informed me that I was a liar for saying I had exaggerated the difficulties and labor of my position, and once that I was a coward, because I had insisted on his presence while issuing to the laborers, obligations which I had no assurance there would be money to meet, and of a kind of which those very men held many which I could not pay, although nearly a month overdue – insisted that he, as Treasurer, should assure the men they would be paid …

All these days I had courted investigation and held my temper, for I saw that if I objected to anything it would be construed as an objection to an investigation. This last disregard of official and social courtesy I would not endure. I got “mad” – all over mad – and I should now despise myself if I had not got mad.

Fatout notes:

One of the most pronounced Bierce traits was that of releasing grievances, not behind the back, but face to face in frank words that called a man fool, damn fool, impertinent ass, boor, liar, hypocrite, or thief. Then, having spoken his piece, he subsided immediately into amenity, as if to say that no matter what a man was, he deserved politeness.

Walker appeared to apologize, but Bierce rightly suspected he would still produce the report he originally intended.

In September, to save the company’s finances, Bierce suggested abandoning the original idea of leasing water rights to Rockerville miners. Instead, he suggested the company buy up mining claims that were worthless without the water only the company was in the position to provide.

When the company charged him with mishandling funds and general incompetence and bad hiring decisions, Bierce fired off a long letter on September 14th answering the charged. It included a short letter of resignation.

Eaton convinced Bierce to “stand by the wreck until we say go”.

The company’s debts mounted. Vanderbilt was not going to write a check to cover them.

Finally, in October, the water arrived in Rockerville, but it was only a trickle of the needed amount and stopped short of the main diggings. Winter was coming, and it wasn’t going to be used then.

On Oct. 7th, Bierce presented an accounting of money owed to him. But he never saw any of the promised $5,000 in annual salary or stock options. The only money he saw from the venture was $500, and his friend Eaton paid that out of his personal funds.

After spending a couple of months in New York City and talking to Eaton, Bierce was back in San Francisco by January 1881 and back as a journalist.

But Bierce’s adventure had one final sting left. His time with the Black Hills Placer Mining Company embroiled him in a lawsuit which, in 1889, he ended up paying $213 as a settlement. (A judge he consulted with about the lawsuit said

Your letters and evidence are so exceptionally clear and intelligent as to excite every lawyer’s admiration. … The fact is my dear Bierce, you are a natural lawyer yourself and would have been an ornament to the profession.

I’ve only hit the highlights, of course, in this tale of a writer on the make outside of literature. 130 pages out of the book’s 190 pages are devoted to the details of the intrigue around the Black Hills Placer Mining Company.

Fatout sets the scene with some opening historical material that includes photos and maps.

He also devotes a couple of chapters on the aftermath.

Eaton went on to become involved with a much more successful company when he became Vice-President of the Edison Electric Light Company. West on to further successful scams after leaving Dakota Territory, and Bierce’s low opinion of Shaler was confirmed when, latter in life, Shaler was involved in taking bribes as New York City’s health commissioner – though he also got the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions during the Civil War.

Rockerville did get some use out of the flume until the late 1880s, but it started to deteriorate – as Bierce predicted. By 1890, it stopped working. The company’s assets were sold off to creditors long before that though the company wasn’t dissolved until 1914.  Since Rockerville is a place in the Black Hills I’ve spent very little time, I appreciated Fatout’s epilogue here, and it’s partly informed by talking with some people who were actually there when the flume was being constructed.

Fatout concludes with:

Here for a few devilish months in 1880 a good man worked very hard at a thankless job. He was industrious, loyal and honest, and he was defeated. But in defeat he was a better man than the victors, a better man than he himself was at almost any other time in his life. Such behavior is worthy of remembrance. His name was Bierce – Major A. G. Bierce, General Agent.

Obviously recommended for Ambrose Bierce fans, but it’s also an interesting look at a bit of South Dakota history.


More Bierce related material is on the Bierce page.

2 thoughts on “Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills

  1. Julie Barker October 6, 2018 / 2:13 am

    I found this very interesting as Ichabod M. West is a 2nd great grandfather. You may be interested to know that Ichabod died from syphilis in 1902. After reading this, it’s not too surprising.

    • marzaat October 6, 2018 / 11:52 am

      Thanks for the comment. There’s a lot of detail in the book about West. It’s always interesting when you can find some details in history about what your ancestors were up to.

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