29 June 2013

Nicholas Wall: Montana’s First Rebel Prisoner of War and Territorial Empire Builder

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

Nicholas Wall: Montana’s First Rebel Prisoner of War and
Territorial Empire Builder

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
June 26, 2013

This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that settled in Montana. This month features Major Nick Wall who was captured and held as a Confederate prisoner of war, banished to the western territories, and established a trading empire in Territorial Montana. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com.

Nicholas Wall was a man of many talents and important firsts in Montana history.  He was the first Confederate Prisoner of War to come to (later) Montana Territory. He was a key member of the Montana Vigilantes and among the most important founders of Montana Territory, yet few Montanans have ever heard of Captain Nicholas Wall.

Nick Wall was born in 1820 in Alexandria, Virginia. He was a young master of steamboats on the Mississippi River in the 1840s and operated a steamboat agency in St. Louis during the 1850s. Wall lived with his family in St. Louis where they had one domestic female slave in the household in 1860. Major Nick Wall was the Officer of Commissary with the Missouri Volunteer Militia when they deployed to the southwestern Missouri border with Kansas in late November 1860 to suppress raids by Kansas Jayhawkers on the eve of the Civil War. As Commissary of the Brigade on this Southwest Expedition, Major Wall made all purchases and issued all rations and stores. The brigade returned to St. Louis in mid December to be welcomed home by immense crowds.

By early May 1861, Missouri teetered on the edge of secession. Missouri’s pro-secession Governor Claiborne Jackson supported by Brig. Gen. Daniel M. Frost, commanding the Missouri Militia, and other southern leaning officers on his staff including Major Wall were determined to lead the state out of the Union. The Civil War began in Missouri on May 6, 1861 when the Missouri Militia was ordered into encampment at Camp Jackson at Lindell’s Grove on the outskirts of St. Louis. Camp Jackson posed a symbolic and potentially real threat to the Union in Missouri. In response, Captain Nathaniel Lyon led loyal Union troops composed mostly of German immigrants into deployment to surround Camp Jackson. In the face of overwhelming firepower, the Missouri Militia surrendered without firing a shot and their secession flags were hauled down.

Major Wall and the other officers and men of the Missouri Militia were held as Confederate prisoners of war and marched through the streets to the St. Louis Arsenal. During the march riots and gunfire broke out and continued for two days. The prisoners including Major Nick Wall were released on parole that required them to remain in St. Louis or go to the western territories.

After signing his parole, Nick Wall’s Civil War was over. During July 1861, Captain Wall commanded the steamboat Emilie in place of Captain Joe LaBarge who ironically was removed from his command because of his pro-southern leanings. In the spring of 1862 the Emilie with Capt. LaBarge in command and Capt. Wall as Clerk departed St. Louis loaded with 143 miners and adventurers bound for the gold fields of Idaho. Steamboat clerks were responsible for the cargo and passengers.

The Emilie arrived at Fort Benton June 17, and Captain Nick Wall stepped ashore in what would become Montana territory to establish the most sophisticated trading empire of the 1860s. With the miners, Wall headed west, following the Mullan Road to western Montana where gold had been discovered in quantities at Gold Creek near today’s Drummond. Arriving near today’s Deer Lodge, Wall leased cabins from Johnny Grant and set up a small store, doing a brisk business with newly arriving miners.

Just weeks after his arrival, Wall had a visitor at his store. Young Tom Cover arrived with a group of men who were out of money and provisions. Looking Cover over, Wall advanced him life saving provisions, and before long Cover, with another party, discovered gold on Grasshopper Creek, the beginning of the Bannack boom. In payment Cover filed a claim in Nick Wall’s name. Wall moved his store to Bannack and early on became a partner with A. F. Graeter and others in the Bannack Ditch that furnished water to the placer miners.

After a successful trading year, Nick Wall returned overland to St. Louis for the winter, establishing a commuter pattern he would follow throughout his Montana years. During the winter of 1862-63 Wall formed a partnership with wealthy St. Louis steamboat line owner and merchant John J. Roe who was acquiring wealth from pork packing during the Civil War.

On his return to the mountains in early June 1863, Capt. Wall rode into Bannack and then on to Fort Benton to receive a large shipment for John J. Roe & Company shipped up the Missouri River by Capt. Joe LaBarge’s steamboat Shreveport commanded by his brother John LaBarge. Through a combination of low water and extremely bad judgment, Shreveport’s freight was offloaded at Snake Point, an almost inaccessible point near Cow Island. Disgusted at this setback to his new company, Capt. Wall immediately sent a letter of protest and then returned to St. Louis to join John J. Roe in seeking damages in district court from LaBarge, Harkness & Company. In mid-September accompanied by young Edgar G. Maclay, Capt. Wall returned to Bannack, and on November 1 Wall and Maclay arrived in the new boomtown of Virginia City in the heart of Alter Gulch’s massive placer mining strikes. A new John J. Roe & Company store opened, and Captain Wall erected a rather pretentious looking house at the rear of the store. True to his nautical habit, his home resembled the “Texas” on the upper level of steamboats.

With the mining boom at the big gold strikes at Grasshopper Creek and Alder Gulch thousands of miners, merchants, and adventurers flocked into this eastern region of the new Idaho Territory. In the presence of huge amounts of gold and in the absence of civil authority or organized government, travelers were subjected to robberies and murders. “Miners courts” tried to fill the void and by mid December one of the murderers, George Ives, was apprehended and brought to trial in Virginia City.

A young Civil War Union veteran, Colonel Wilbur Fisk Sanders of Bannack, accepted the dangerous challenge of prosecuting Ives, who was known as a close associate of Sheriff Henry Plummer the leader of the gang of troublemakers. Despite threats to his life, Sanders began to prosecute. Throughout the Ives trial, Col. Sanders was a guest of Capt. Wall, and Wall’s men served as guards at the trial and at his home. Early in the Ives trial, probably the night of December 20, 1863, Capt. Wall met covertly in the back of Kinna & Nye’s store with four fellow Masons, Paris S. Pfouts, Alvin W. Brookie, John Nye, and Wilbur F. Sanders. Mason bonds trumped North-South sentiment, and out of this meeting came agreement to form a vigilante movement to bring order out of the lawless chaos. After Ives’ conviction and hanging, Capt. Wall departed Virginia City by horseback for St. Louis. His arrival at Salt Lake City on January 12, 1864 brought the first news to the outside world of the vigilante actions to clean up the gold fields.

During this winter sojourn in St. Louis, Capt. Wall and John J. Roe refined the next step in their plan, and by the spring of 1864 their new steamboat line, the Montana and Idaho Transportation Company, began operations directed by Roe’s son-in-law Capt. John G. Copelin. By late April, Capt. Wall was back in Montana Territory just as it was being formed, taking charge of Roe company operations. During this summer, E. G. Maclay suggested to his boss that they begin an overland freighting operation, thus perfected their network: shipping cargo up the Missouri River by company boats; overland freighting the cargo by company wagon trains; and selling the merchandise in John J. Roe & Company stores. Over the coming two years, Capt. Wall built the overland freighting operation, forming the famed Diamond R freighting line—the “R” representing their St. Louis moneyman, John J. Roe.

As his work force of men grew, Capt. Wall attained the capability to raise a volunteer armed force at Fort Benton to react to increasing incidents in May 1865 with Blackfoot renegades such as the Ophir massacre on the Teton/Marias River by Calf Shirt’s band. Capt. Wall’s volunteer force was later replace by the Montana Militia formed by Acting Gov. Thomas Francis Meagher.

For the next two years, Capt. Wall managed and built the powerful John J. Roe & Company operations in Montana. As Last Chance Gulch boomed and the town of Helena grew, Wall moved his company’s headquarters to Helena. Throughout his time in Montana Territory, he was known and respected and the company prospered, but Capt. Wall remained quietly out of politics. As the Montana placer mines faded, in June 1868 Capt. Wall arranged the sale of the great John J. Roe & Company including the mammoth Diamond R to E. G. Maclay & Company, a group that included men working for the company.

Despite his withdrawal from management of the company, Capt. Wall continued to spend summers in Montana Territory, looking after his interests in the Bannack Ditch and mining properties. Mainly, the popular Nicholas Wall, the first Confederate Civil War prisoner of war to come to the Upper Missouri, visited the towns and friends he had made in his wartime exile years. On October 2, 1880, Capt. Nicholas Wall passed away in St. Louis to be interred in an exceptional mausoleum at Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Sources: [John J. Healy. Life and Death on the Upper Missouri: The Frontier Sketches of Johnny Healy. Edited Ken Robison; M. Hopewell. Camp Jackson History of the Missouri Volunteer Militia of St. Louis. St. Louis: George Knapp & Co. Printer, 1861; Montana Post; Missouri Republican; Missouri Democrat; St. Louis Globe-Democrat 3 Oct 1880; Edwin Ruthven Purple. Perilous Passage A Narrative of the Montana Gold Rush, 1862-63; Hiram Martin Chittenden. History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River Life and Adventures of Joseph La Barge Pioneer Navigator and Indian Trader for Fifty Years identified With the Commerce of the Missouri Valley. New York: Francis P. Harper, 1903; Hoffman Birney, Vigilantes; Mable Ovitt, Golden Treasure; Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, 3;

            1. Nicholas Wall Family Mausoleum in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis.