June 30, 2015

The Indelible Mark of Francis Thompson

by Rich Aarstad, Senior Archivist

Montana Historical Society librarian Laura E. Howey sat down on October 31, 1899 to read a letter she had received regarding Francis Thompson, one-time Montana pioneer who spent a brief three years in the goldfields of the West.  Recent Montana newspapers had published obituaries for Thompson prompting her to write to his heirs in hopes of acquiring any letters, diaries, or other records of his time in Montana.  To her surprise the letter opened, "Your kind letter addressed to the 'Heirs of Francis M. Thompson' I have received in person.  As long as the Montana papers say nothing but good of me it is rather interesting to read their obituary notices, but should the case be reversed, I should prefer that they let me continue my allotted time."  One can almost hear the amusement in his voice when he penned his response, but then everything about Montana charmed Thompson from his very first arrival in 1862 until his death in 1916.
Francis M. Thompson
MHS Photo Archives 945-291

Perhaps no single pioneer left such a lasting mark on Montana as Francis M. Thompson.  Born in Colrain, MA on October 16, 1833 to John and Elvira (Adams) Thompson, he attended Science Hill Select School and Williston Seminary in Massachusetts.  At the age of 23, Francis made his way to Cincinnati, Ohio and began a career in banking.  Six years later, feeling restless and less than inspired about joining the Union Army, he departed for the goldfields of the territories to make his fortune. On his arrival at Fort Benton, then a part of Dakota Territory, Thompson made the acquaintance of the Vail family who traveled west to operate the Government Farm at Sun River crossing.  Traveling with them was Electa Bryan, the sister of Mrs. Martha Vail.  A year later Thompson fulfilled the duties of bride's maid for Electa Bryan who married Henry Plummer, the notorious sheriff of Bannack City.

Looking to establish a business in the mining community of Bannack, Thompson headed for the goldfields on Grasshopper Creek in 1863.  During the winter of 1863-1864, Francis Thompson witnessed the birth of the vigilante movement, as the honest miners and business men of the newly-created Idaho Territory banded together to rid themselves of the dreaded outlaw gang preying on the innocent men and women of the Territory's mining communities.  When he learned that the Vigilantes planned on arresting and executing Plummer for leading the outlaw gang, Thompson spent the last night with his friend and did not warn the unsuspecting sheriff of his impending doom.  The Vigilantes struck the next day, hanging Sheriff Henry Plummer, Deputy Buck Stinson, and Ned Ray. Thompson served as the executor of Plummer's estate paying for the construction of a coffin and burial of the outlaw chief (receipt below). He sent the remainder of Plummer's assets to Electa, who
Receipt for purchase of Henry Plummer's coffin and burial
MHS Archives Collection SC 297
returned to Iowa several months prior to the execution.  Thompson worried for a time that his friendship with Henry Plummer would tarnish his reputation with the respectable residents of Bannack, but Sidney Edgerton, the leading government official of Idaho Territory, and his nephew, leader within the Vigilantes, Wilbur Fisk Sanders, assured him that his reputation was secure.

Francis Thompson also played a role in the creation of Montana as a new territory.  Allying himself with Edgerton and Sanders, he used what political influence he had in the effort to get Sidney Edgerton appointed as territorial governor.  Upon his return from Washington D.C., Governor Edgerton wasted no time in drawing a sharp demarcation between those who were members of the Union (Republican) Party and those he branded as traitors for their allegiance to the Democratic Party.  As such, Montana's first election was a microcosm of the political angst that divided the nation and led to a bloody Civil War.  The Democrats swept the election for Congressional delegate and enjoyed a one vote majority in the Territorial House of Representatives.  Voters of Beaverhead County elected Francis Thompson to represent them in the Council for the first legislative assembly.
Thompson proved a leader in the legislature by carrying bills to fund public education, establishing the Montana Historical Society, and designing and sketching the territorial seal for the new territory.
Original sketch of  proposed seal for the
Territory of Montana made by
Francis M. Thompson
MHS Archives collection SC 839

Upon the completion of the legislature, Governor Edgerton appointed Francis Thompson Commissioner of Emigration for Montana.  Returning east he settled in Greenfield, Massachusetts.  From there, he worked on recruiting settlers for the new territory as well as promoting the various economic opportunities available to interested investors.  It is uncertain if Thompson intended to return east permanently, but a few months later he married Mary Nimms, and his days of wanderlust and adventure in Montana came to an end.

Having passed the Massachusetts Bar in 1876, Thompson settled down and served in public office as a judge.  He did retain a lifelong interest in Montana and kept in close touch with friends such as Wilbur Sanders.  As the new century unfolded, he began an active correspondence with the librarians of the Montana Historical Society, describing his contributions to the creation of the territory and the Montana Historical Society.  He was especially proud of the territorial seal that now graced the Montana state flag.  Thompson delighted in sharing his early memories and penned a reminiscence of his time in the West entitled, A Tenderfoot in Montana: Reminiscences of the Gold Rush, the Vigilantes & the Birth of Montana Territory.  In three brief years Francis Thompson had left an indelible mark on Montana that still exists today; public education, the state flag, and the Montana Historical Society remain hallmarks of the Treasure State.  His friend Wilbur Fisk Sanders summed up Thompson's contributions best.  "No man ever came to Montana and staid so short a time, left so deep an impress on history as did you, and it is a pleasure to know, in a rude time, the influence was wholly wholesome."

Selected Bibliography 
  • George D. French Receipt, 1864 (Collection # SC 297)
  • Martha Edgerton Plassmann Papers (MC 78)
  • Montana Historical Society Research Center Records (MHS 3)
  • Montana Territorial Legislative Assembly (LR-Terr. 1)
  • Francis M. Thompson Papers (SC 839)
  • Francis M. Thompson, A Tenderfoot in Montana: Reminiscences of the Gold Rush, the Vigilantes & the Birth of Montana Territory, edited by Kenneth N. Owens. (Helena, Mont.: Montana Historical Society Press, 2004).