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November 24, 2020

RIAC Mysteries: Who Owned This Henry Rifle?

By Seth Isaacson

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Rock Island Auction Company comes face-to-face with interesting pieces of history every single day. From Tarentino movie props, mysterious engravings, and Tommy guns used by famous gangsters, we see some unique, rare, and truly remarkable items with even more astonishing stories.

But how do we determine how authentic some of our items are? Well, we have a group of specialists we call describers dedicated to analyzing each item that passes through our doors before it hits the auction table to make sure they are what they say they are.

That being said, we often times run into items that require a bit more research than others. When this happens, a challenging puzzle presents itself to our describers and the race is on. At Rock Island Auction Company, we sell guns and solve mysteries.

J.B. Stuart Inscribed & Engraved Henry Lever Action Rifle: Lot 49

Here is just one story to uncover the mysterious owner behind this “J.B. Stuart” Henry Rifle found during Rock Island Auction Company’s December 4-6 Premier Auction.

Who Owned this Rifle?

This fascinating factory engraved Henry rifle from the Montana frontier has remained a bit of a mystery for decades because the elusive identity of its owner. A simple “J.B. Stuart” is written on the top of the rifle’s receiver that is surrounded by a wealth of scroll and punch dot engravings. While the initials and last name present on the rifle might make the answer seem obvious, any detective can tell you that sometimes the answer might be a bit more complex than it appears.

Lot 49: J.B. Stuart Inscribed & Engraved Henry Lever Action Rifle

A quick inquiry into people living in that area, with these initials, at this time reveal multiple different possibilities. So where do we go from here? How can we determine the identity of someone with so little information? Again, perhaps the evidence is suggesting something that might be going unlooked. There is always more than meets the eye.

It was previously theorized to have been owned by Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart or Montana pioneer James Stuart and subsequently his younger brother Granville Stuart.  Notes included with the rifle from noted collector and enthusiast, John Fox, state that it was "from the Stuart family–but still shrouded in mystery. The exact origin is unknown - could be James Stuart or could be J.E.B. Stuart, the Confederate General (first cousins). The rifle has not been outside of Montana since period of use."

Lot 49: J.B. Stuart Inscribed & Engraved Henry Lever Action Rifle

Fox notes that it was owned by a collector named Jennings from Anaconda, Montana, until his death around 1956 when it was sold to George O'Conner. Mrs. Jennings told O'Conner that the rifle was from "James Stuart." O'Conner could not confirm that Granville Stuart's elder brother's middle initial was "B,” and a definitive answer could not be reached.

Understanding the Clues

Could this rifle have belonged to James Stuart? It’s not totally clear, however, the rifle is pictured as part of John Fox's western arms collection in R.L. Wilson’s "The Peacemakers: Arms and Adventure in the American West" and Edmund E. Lewis’s "The Story of the Winchester 1 of 1000 and 1 of 100 Rifles,” where the owner is speculated and discussed.

Confederate Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart (1833-1864)

The first text states that the rifle was "possibly" owned by Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart "who was a first cousin of Granville and James" Stuart, and the second states it belonged to Granville Stuart. The rifle is also pictured on page 155 of the Les Quick's book "The Henry Rifle: the Story of Benjamin Tyler and His Famed Repeating Rifle" where similar comments are made about the rifle possible being linked to Granville Stuart's family and J.E.B. Stuart. Quick notes the rifle "deserves further research."

Digging Deeper

In researching the rifle myself, it quickly became clear that it was not owned by Confederate General James Ewell Brown Stuart (aka J.E.B. Stuart) as had been speculated before. The absence of the “E.” already seemed strange if it was his, but the dates also don’t line up. J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern and died on May 12, 1864. Wiley Sword in "The Historic Henry Rifle" places this rifle as manufactured in February or March of 1865, so the rifle could not have been owned by the famous Confederate general.

Lot 49: J.B. Stuart Inscribed & Engraved Henry Lever Action Rifle

The next logical individual to look into was Granville Stuart's elder brother James Stuart. However, his middle name or initial, if he had one, has not been uncovered by previous owners of the rifle as noted above. It does not appear that the Stuart brothers had middle names. Their gravestones do not include middle initials and the absence of a middle name was certainly not uncommon at the time. Thus, it seems highly unlikely to have belonged to this James Stuart.

All Roads Lead to Montana

Given the rifle’s provenance, its original owner was likely living in Montana or the surrounding territories in the second half of the 19thcentury. In searching through period newspapers, cemetery records, and other sources, I found what seems to be the most likely candidate: James Barzilla Stuart (1837-1934). Like James and Granville Stuart, after growing up in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, he was one of the early Montana pioneers and, after coming to the region, was a successful gold miner, cattleman, and frontier vigilante.

Despite the same surname, he was not one of James and Granville Stuart's blood relations, but some of his family members had the same names as the other Stuart family, for example his mother was named Nancy like Granville Stuart’s, one of his brothers was Robert Stuart, a ‘49er just like Granville Stuart’s father of the same name, and he also had a younger brother named Thomas just like Granville Stuart.

Many of the details of his life have been pulled using his various 1934 obituaries. His life story is told in historical novel form in "Another Man's Gold" written by his great-grandson Rod Johnson, and promotional materials for the book also discuss many of the true details of Stuart's colorful life on the Montana frontier.

No Stone Left Unturned

J.B. Stuart came to Montana in search of gold after fleeing impressment into the Confederate Army. By joining a cattle drive, Stuart ventured to the gold fields of Virginia City in 1863. Like Granville Stuart, he moved from livestock to gold prospecting and back to livestock.

He was among the early pioneers of Alder Gulch and the Bitterroot Valley and spent much of his life in Stevensville, Montana, (John Fox’s hometown). He is identified as one of the members of the Montana Vigilantes who lynched the suspected outlaw "Whiskey Bill" Graves on January 26, 1864, near Fort Owen during a spree of vigilante justice in the territory to crack down on the numerous road agents and criminals plaguing the region.

The hanging of Henry Plummer.

Many of the criminals, including "Whiskey Bill," were connected to a group led by the infamous Sheriff Henry Plummer of Bannack. Plummer was already a convicted murderer before becoming sheriff and has been the subject or inspiration for outlaw leaders in multiple novels, films, and television series. "Whiskey Bill" was one of three suspects in the robbing of a stagecoach on its way to Bannack from Virginia City.

The wave of frontier justice is well covered in "As Big as the West: The Pioneer Life of Granville Stuart" by Milner and O'Connor and "A Decent, Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes" by Allen. The latter indicates "Old Man" Clark and two vigilantes, one of them apparently J.B. Stuart, found "Whiskey Bill" snow-blind near Fort Owen.

The vigilantes took “Whiskey Bill” away from the fort out of respect for the local Native Americans who abhorred hanging and strung him up from a tree on January 26, 1864. They left his body swinging. He remained there until a local rancher cut him down and buried him in a shallow grave below the tree.

The robberies and lynchings did not end with the spree of at least twenty-one hangings related to Plummer and his suspected road agents in 1864. For example, in July 1865, vigilantes strung up Jack Silvie at Helena's famous "Hangman's Tree." He had confessed to having been a part of Plummer's gang and to have committed at least a dozen murders. Over a dozen other executions took place in Helena alone before 1870. In addition to his mining, vigilante, and stock connections, J.B. Stuart also volunteered during the Indian Wars.

Case Closed?

It is not clear whether James B. Stuart kept this Henry rifle up to his death in 1934, but by all accounts the rifle remained in Montana up until Rock Island Auction Company took custody of it as part of John Fox’s famous collection of western antique arms. It is a fascinating rifle and is sure to find a prominent place in a new collection when it is sold on December 4, 2020. For a full description of the rifle, please refer to the catalog description. Aim your sights high!

Lot 49: J.B. Stuart Inscribed & Engraved Henry Lever Action Rifle

True Henry rifles from the Old West are rare and important antique arms. Will this rifle return to another Montana collection? Only time will tell. Regardless of where it ends up, it is unlikely to be offered for sale again any time soon.

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