LITTLE BELT MOUNTAINS — The “gold mine” was an outhouse hole filled in with garbage.
The treasures were more than 100 years old — large pieces of broken brown liquor bottles, the delicate leather sole of a shoe, a .45-caliber cartridge casing and a sardine can, some of its lettering still legible.
Perhaps the most amazing treasure for Jono Mogstad and his crew of student archaeologists digging at this old placer mining site in the Little Belt Mountains was a small pewter lid embellished with delicate floral designs. It may be the top of a cream container for a tea set. Maybe it was owned by Millie Ringgold, a freed black slave who settled at the town site during an 1879 gold rush.
“My area of interest in school and history is in gender studies and ethnic minorities, which makes Millie a perfect candidate for study,” said Mogstad, 32, a University of Montana student from Geraldine leading the dig as part of his master’s thesis. “She was the last living resident of this town.”
Old Yogo Town is deep in the Little Belt Mountains, due west of Utica, along Yogo Creek. This is the country that a young Charles Marion Russell became fond of when he first came to Montana. Russell, who later gained fame as a Western artist, even used Ringgold as one of the characters in his painting “Quiet Day in Utica.” The artwork portrays a crowd watching a cowboy riding a bucking bronc on the town’s main street.
Russell’s mentor, Jake Hoover, may have been the first man to find gold in Yogo Creek, which ignited the rush in 1878. Purchasing a wagon and mules, Ringgold left for the mountainous area from Fort Benton to seek her riches a year later. She had arrived in Fort Benton, along the Missouri River, after traveling upstream on a steamboat while working for a U.S. Army officer.
In Old Yogo Town, Ringgold established a boarding house, restaurant and bar while also filing her own mining claims and searching for gold. One old photograph shows a heavyset woman in a striped skirt, worn jacket and crumpled wide-brimmed hat. Leaning against a fence she stands in front of a collection of four connected log structures — possibly her restaurant, bar and boarding house.
All that’s left on the hillside above Yogo Creek are depressions in the earth where the miners dug out level ground for their cabins, all grouped closely together. Mogstad has found the footprints of 30 structures. Ranchers long ago carted off the boom town’s buildings, putting the lumber to use for fences and outbuildings. A brown sign that features Russell’s bison skull trademark is the only marker of the site.
With his two-week dig Mogstad is hoping to preserve the area for future study, and add to what is known of the town and its residents.
“The research that’s going on here will help us evaluate the site for the national historic register,” said Sandi French, archaeologist for the Lewis and Clark National Forest and overseer of the work. The town site is located on forest property between Skunk and Bear gulches. Funding for the dig is shared by the Forest Service and the University of Montana.
“This team is looking at details, the social makeup, division of labor, things that don’t show up otherwise,” French said. “It’s a neat single-episode placer mining town that was never reworked, so we can sort out the archaeological record here.”
For Mogstad, one of the main goals is documenting Ringgold’s cabin site. Because she lived at the site until she died in 1906, it should have the most artifacts.
“As people left, she bought abandoned claims,” Mogstad said. “She named them after U.S. presidents.”
Ideally, he’d like to find anything gender-specific — a bobby pin, garter belt clip or anything that says a woman lived there.
Six students paid to work the dig, doing much of the difficult physical labor of scraping dirt out of the holes one bucket at a time with trowels, mapping any finds for reference, then sifting the dirt through a screen in search of any small artifacts. Mogstad and two other UM teaching assistants are guiding the work.
Spencer Propp, 19, of Billings, happily paid for the three-week course — two weeks of digging onsite while tent-camping in the mountains, one week of cleaning and cataloging the finds at the university.
“I’m getting four credits in only three weeks; that’s a pretty good deal,” he said.
Propp said history has always fascinated him and he wanted to do something active, so archaeology is appealing.
“It’s just a blast,” said Theodore Charles, 20, of Bellingham, Wash., another student. “We get to learn the history of an area. It’s a sneak peak at the people who lived here. And we’re preserving the area for generations to come.”
Like most miners, Millie Ringgold never did strike it rich, despite her persistence. Yogo sapphires were later found and mined downstream, bringing in more money than the placer gold strike ever accumulated. Cascade County officials carted Ringgold off to the poor house near the end of her life. But she returned to her home, where she died in 1906. Ringgold is buried in the Utica cemetery, but at her old homestead pieces of her past are being resurrected.
Contact Brett French at email@example.com or at 657-1387.