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November 12, 2020

The Guns of Granville Stuart and the Stuart Stranglers

By Seth Isaacson

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Serving as a cornerstone during Rock Island Auction Company's December Sale of the Century are the extraordinary items from John Fox. Fox's collection was built up over a lifetime and contains many firearms tied to his home state of Montana. One group of items within the collection is especially significant: an impressive array of firearms owned and used by gold miner, Montana pioneer, rancher, vigilante leader of "Stuart's Stranglers," author, and statesman, the "Father of Montana," Granville Stuart (1834-1918).

Known later as "Mr. Montana," Stuart led a remarkable and provocative life that parallels the history of the American West. He was a nationally known figure and lived the most notable years of his life as a pioneer in Montana during the second half of the 19th century. His life story was a grand adventure with gold, shootouts with outlaws, conflict and friendship with Native Americans, and even years spent in faraway lands.

His biography feels like a Western movie, but his life was more grisly and fascinating than anything on the silver screen. Some of these firearms are directly tied to Granville's vigilante activities, and one was purchased afterwards to defend his life from reprisals. Each is part of his epic life story, and as a group, they are some of the most unique firearms that Rock Island Auction Company has ever had the opportunity to bring to market.

A collection of rifles owned by Granville Stuart available at Rock Island Auction Company.

Even more than his counterpart, Theodore Roosevelt, Stuart represented the rugged individualism that the West was famous for. Unlike Roosevelt, he was not born into wealth but instead worked hard over his lifetime for his status. Stuart's complicated views on race, religion, alcohol, guns, and justice were reflective of the frontier community, but he was also well-read on a wide variety of subjects, including firearms, and spoke multiple languages. His actions–and those of the men he led–are understandably controversial, but undeniably riveting.

Early Life and the Settlement of Montana

Stuart was born in what is now West Virginia and spent much of his youth living in Eastern Iowa. There, he became an excellent hunter, a talented marksman, and gained a fond appreciation for firearms that lasted the rest of his life. Though Stuart certainly held many of the racial prejudices of his day, the Meskwaki were among his childhood friends which appears to have tempered the hatred many Americans had for Native Americans. In fact, he became fluent in some Native American languages, and traded with various tribes.

Granville Stuart and his brother, James.

His father, Robert Stuart, went to California as a '49er during the Gold Rush, so Granville and his brother James (1832–1873) followed him out to the gold fields two years later in 1851. The brothers worked separately from their father, but ultimately none of them found great wealth in California. Their father returned home to the Midwest, but when the brothers attempted to rejoin him in Iowa in 1857, they were blocked by a severe bout of illness that left Granville bedridden.

With winter rapidly approaching, along with the violence of the Mormon War to their South, the brothers were sent down different path that would forever change their lives. They ended up in Montana, then still part of the Oregon Territory.

Bird's-eye view of Deer Lodge, Montana, sketched by Granville Stuart in 1878. On a return trip to the Deer Lodge Valley, Granville composed this image looking eastward over the town. At least three churches are shown, and the Territorial Prison with its surrounding wall is on the far right.

Though credited with making the first major gold strike in Gold Creek in 1858, both Granville and James Stuart found more success operating businesses in the area as prospectors continued to move in. The Stuarts founded the town of Deer Lodge in the wake of this success and also formed lasting partnerships with other local leaders like Samuel T. Hauser (1833-1914) who would later serve as governor of the Montana Territory.

A Taste of Justice

In 1862, James became the local sheriff and the brothers got their first taste of vigilante justice. Though semi-official "miners' trials" were sometimes arranged, mob justice ultimately decided most cases. Often ending in hasty hangings, at least one of the attempted arrests led to a deadly shootout. With no patience for thieves, the Stuart brothers weren't to be messed with and would even venture miles outside of their jurisdiction to catch, and ultimately execute, suspected criminals.

Lot 48: Henry Nettleton Sub-Inspected U.S. Colt Cavalry Model Single Action Army Revolver Attributed to the Famous Stuart's Strangler Raids with Factory Letter and Documentation.

Although largely disconnected from the Civil War, Montana was far from peaceful in the mid-19th century. Not only were thieves, murderers, and other criminals uncontrolled and rampant in the area, but vigilante groups were extremely common as well. In 1863, Granville Stuart recorded details of another round of vigilante actions that feels like a story straight out of a classic western.

Sheriff Henry Plummer of Bannack and Virginia City was a convicted murderer who actively led a local group of outlaws in robbing travelers outside of town. In response, Sheriff Plummer and his associates were not voted out of office or arrested by superior authorities; they were publicly hanged by local vigilantes instead. In total, nearly two dozen men were hanged during the vigilantes' crackdown.

The Rifles of Granville Stuart

In 1863, James led an expedition to Yellowstone during which he is believed to have carried this Sharps Model 1853 rifle. It was later documented as passed down to one Granville's best friends Edgar S. Paxson, a well-known western artist, in 1919. The expedition came under attack from the Crow, and two of his 14 men ultimately died as a result. Samuel Hauser was among the men in the party.

Lot 47:Historic Documented James and Granville Stuart Exhibition Quality Factory Game Panel Scene Engraved Sharps Model 1853 "Slant Breech" Breech Loading Percussion Sporting Rifle with Documentation Attributed to the 1863 Yellowstone Expedition

The Stuart brothers continued to remain locally prominent and expanded their business holdings. Though agnostic and opposed to organized religion, the brothers joined the local Masons which helped further solidify their connections to key territorial leaders. Granville was elected as a territorial legislator, town councilman, county commissioner, and school board member; he also served as the prison commissioner during this time as well. By 1866, Granville Stuart had amassed considerable local influence and wealth with many comparing him to Davy Crockett, especially the local ladies.

Lot 46: Historic Well-Documented Granville Stuart of Deer Lodge, Montana, Individually Shipped Early "Big 50" Sharps Model 1874 Buffalo Rifle with Factory Letter

In 1872, Granville Stuart ordered a Sharps Model 1874 rifle C,53877. Only the second year of the firearm's production, this .50 caliber rifle was an excellent choice for a man in the West. A .50 caliber Sharps could handle any game in the region, and these rifles were very popular with buffalo hunters. He was clearly happy with the rifle given his later orders for additional Sharps.

The following year, James Stuart died rather suddenly from a gastrointestinal disease on September 30. His death devastated Granville Stuart who had long looked up to his older brother. At that time, he is believed to have inherited the Sharps Model 1853 noted above. The following year, he also ordered multiple firearms including two Winchester "One of One Thousand" Model 1873 rifles. One of the Winchesters was for his younger brother Thomas who had also settled in Montana.

Lot 42: Historically Significant, "National Treasure," Factory Documented, and Iconic Factory Engraved "One of One Thousand" Winchester Model 1873 Lever Action Rifle Inscribed to Montana Pioneer and Frontier Vigilante Leader Granville Stuart with Extensive Documentation, Factory Letter, and Pack Saddle

These two Winchesters were ultimately exchanged and sent back to the factory because Granville was displeased with the company for not meeting the terms of his order including what he deemed "plain" 1 of 1,000 markings on the rifles. He received two more as replacements. One of them is Winchester Model 1873 number 7282 which is factory inscribed with "Granville Stuart/1875" on the left and certainly met his approval.

The factory clearly went out of their way to make him happy the second time around. His complaints about the first rifles led to the distinctive "third style" One of One Thousand markings only seen on his and Thomas' rifles, and the "fourth style" that followed was clearly based on the style used on their rifles. He wrote to Winchester on September 6, 1875, telling them the new rifles were "perfect in every particular," and "far superior to any rifle made." He ordered another One of One Thousand for one of his friends and indicated it exceeded all expectations and also added that "If poor Custer's heroic band had been armed with these rifles they would have covered the earth with dead Indians for 500 yards around and it is probably a portion of them would have been alive when Gibbon and Terry's forces reached the bloody field. Why [the] Government does not adopt your arms is beyond any comprehension."

Lot 50: Historic Well-Documented Granville Stuart Special Order Sharps Model 1874 Sporting Rifle Used to Win the 1875 Montana Territory Match with Factory Letter and Additional Documentation

Among the other arms ordered in 1874 was also the special order Sharps Model 1874 Sporting Rifle (C,53112) in lot 50.  This rifle was invoiced on December 14, 1874. He also wrote to Sharps in 1875 about ordering spirit level front sights and Vernier peep sights, and ordered another rifle for a friend in July of 1875 after the friend had seen his Sharps and liked it.

Lot 51: Granville Stuart's Favorite Rifle: A Historic, Well-Documented, and Exceptionally Fine Special Order Sharps Model 1874 Creedmoor No. 1 Rifle Won as a Prize in the 1875 Montana Territory Match with Factory Letters, Original Records, and Additional Documentation

The following year he won a rifle that is said to have been his absolute favorite, a special order Sharps Model 1874 Creedmoor No. 1 Rifle. Samuel T. Hauser ordered three Sharps Creedmoor No. 1 rifles with target tang sights and spirit level front sights on September 8, 1875. Per the included copy of a Western Union Telegram to Sharps, "one is for prize offered by territorial fair other two go in match. . .ship in five days or not at all. . ." The latter comment was to ensure that the rifles would arrive in time for the Montana Territorial Fair which was going to include rifle matches between Granville Stuart's team from Deer Lodge and Hauser's team from Helena.

A Collection of rifles owned by Granville Stuart available at Rock Island Auction Company.

The rifle offered as the prize was C,54980 and was won by Granville Stuart. The match was covered extensively in the local newspapers. On October 2, 1875, the papers indicated Stuart's score at 1,000 yards was 24. Only his brother, Thomas, bested that score with 28. The highest score on the Helena team was 22. The rifle was the prize for the 500 yard match. In a letter about that match included with the lot, Stuart notes that he and the other members of the Deer Lodge team were using regular Sharps rifles while Hauser and the Helena team were using the Creedmoor Rifles. The Deer Lodge team won with a score of 209 out of 240, and the Helena team scored 196. Stuart wrote to Sharps saying, "I am pleased with the appearance of your No. 1 Creedmoor rifle, but have not fired it yet. The 12 pounders I got last spring are good enough for common people as we proved by beating this Helena team notwithstanding their using the No. 1 style." This comment makes it clear that he used the rifle discussed above from lot 50.

Cattle, Winchesters, and the DHS Ranch

Meanwhile, Stuart continued to see financial success. In 1879, Stuart partnered with Andy Davis and Samuel T. Hauser to establish the Davis, Hauser and Stuart cattle company as well as the DHS Ranch and moved his family from the towns that he had helped form to the open range. Though clearly in possession of several fine guns already, Stuart loved guns, so the following year he ordered the beautifully John Ulrich engraved Winchester Model 1876 rifle, serial number 10001.

Lot 43: "One of the Most Historic & Deluxe 19th Century Winchesters Known": Legendary Montana Pioneer Granville Stuart's John Ulrich Master Panel Scene Engraved, Signed, and Inscribed Winchester Model 1876 Lever Action Express Rifle: "The Boss Game Gun of All Creation" with Factory Letter

The rifle is engraved "Granville Stuart/1880" on the elevator and features a scene of what is almost certainly Stuart himself shooting a grizzly on the left side. He noted in his letters: "Enclosed find four pictures which I wish you to engrave in the highest style of art on my Express Rifle ordered yesterday," and then proceeded to indicate where he wanted each scene engraved. Some of the engraving patterns were copied from Stuart's own sketches given he was a lifelong artist himself, but at least two of the scenes strongly resemble paintings that Stuart had likely scene prints of: the stag is based on the well-known 19th century painting "Monarch of the Glen" by Sir Edwin Landseer, and the main buffalo scene is similar to "Buffalo Bull Grazing on the Prairie" by George Catlin.

Lot 43: "One of the Most Historic & Deluxe 19th Century Winchesters Known": Legendary Montana Pioneer Granville Stuart's John Ulrich Master Panel Scene Engraved, Signed, and Inscribed Winchester Model 1876 Lever Action Express Rifle: "The Boss Game Gun of All Creation" with Factory Letter

Winchester clearly spared no expense in preparing the rifle "in the highest style of art." Noted author R.L. Wilson even went so far as to call this rifle "one of the most historic and deluxe 19th century Winchesters known." Stuart himself was very pleased with the rifle and no doubt showed it off. On July 7, 1880, he wrote to Winchester stating: "It arrived while I was gone & is a beauty-I am satisfied with its looks. If it proves to be as good as it is beautiful (women seldom do) it is a world beater." On August 28, 1881, he wrote to the editor of Field magazine about a variety of Winchester related topics and added that Winchester's “Express 50-95” is "the boss game gun of all creation." Importantly, Stuart's deluxe “Centennial '76" rifle also predates and influenced the engraving on several other important Winchester 1876 rifles engraved by Ulrich: Lt. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's, Theodore Roosevelt's, and Colonel Archibald Rogers' as well as another ordered for his friend H.T. Lowery, a partner in the firm Flowree & Lowree.

Both of the "One of One Thousand" and one of Stuart's two Winchester Model 1876 rifles are documented by Granville Stuart Abbott, Stuart’s grandson, as used by Stuart while he was the leader of Stuart's Stranglers, and the "One of One Thousand" was "carried constantly as he rode the Montana range."

Stuart's Stranglers

Stuart's Stranglers were formed in 1884 in coordination with other cattle ranchers in the region to combat horse thieves and cattle rustlers which plagued the area and put a dent in the profits of the large cattle companies. A young Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow rancher in the region at that time, even tried to join up, but Stuart turned down the help of Roosevelt and the Marquis de Mores on account "of their youthful recklessness and obvious inexperience and because their prominent names might bring unwanted publicity to a secretive operation."

A public hanging in 1870.

The Stranglers' activities have been covered in multiple articles and are especially covered in detail in the book "As Big as the West: The Pioneer Life of Granville Stuart." Their actions took place outside the law and certainly had the potential to result in punishment or even death. Despite popular opinion being on their side, they may have taken the lives of some innocent men merely associated with the real criminals. Much of the details about their activities are not known, but at least 18-24 suspected criminals were killed by the vigilantes in the summer of 1884, and some, including Theodore Roosevelt and 20th century historians, have claimed they had killed around 60 men.

In fact, Stuart himself publicly rejected the plan at a stock grower's association meeting, perhaps in part to avoid giving the outlaws prior warning and to provide plausible deniability for the blood spilling to come. This is discussed on page 239 of "As Big as the West," and within the above mentioned letter of provenance, and the Stranglers' activities are also thoroughly covered by the book, various articles, and some of the included documentation. The Ainsworth sub-inspected Colt Single Action Army revolver includes documentation indicating it was used by one of the Stranglers during the raids.

The "Vigilantes," 1885. The artist, Rufus Zogbaum identified Granville Stuart in his diary but not in his published work. In that public account, he talked f the unnamed vigilante leader wearing high boots and a broad-brimmed hat. Both appear on the third figure in the drawing, whose back is turned and face is not shown.

On July 3 or 4 of 1884, Sam MacKenzie was hung from a tree by the Stranglers. Granville had previously written, "Unfortunately we have no proof that would convict" MacKenzie and his associates, but "if we catch Mackenzie, we will try & arrange matters so that he will steal no more horses. We over here are certainly willing to stand in with anybody who catches any of this gang & makes an example of them, that being the only way we will ever stop their stealing."

Then, on the July 7, 1884, they went after a presumed horse thief held up in a cabin with several armed men. The Stranglers captured the group's lookout, entered the cabin, shot four men inside, and then hung the lookout and left him swinging despite a $10,000 reward on his head. This was quickly followed by the lynching of William Downes and "California Ed" at Downes' trading post, and with three attacks completed, the Stranglers grew more ambitious.

On July 15, 1884, Granville–armed with at least one of his Winchesters–led six or seven Stranglers on an expedition from the DHS Ranch to takedown much more perilous targets: "Old Man James," and several other suspects known to be armed and dangerous. The cabin at James' wood yard contained five accused horse thieves, and another six were in a tent on the property. One of the men was Stuart's own nephew "Dixie Burr." They were guided by the son of a Quantrill Raider, a man suspected of horse theft himself, who knew the location of the outlaws and their stolen livestock.

The Captives, 1885. Zogbaum shows five men who had escaped when the Stuart's Stranglers attacked James's woodyard. A contingent of soldiers and Indian scouts captured these fugitives and brought them to the Popular Creek Agency. The person in the foreground with his arm in a sling is Granville's nephew, the ill-fated Dixie Burr.

On the way, Stuart's group was joined by other Stranglers, led by his neighbor. In "Forty Years on the Frontier," Stuart indicated the men split into groups for the attack: five surrounded the cabin, three watched the tent, another three at the "ice house," and another who stayed with the horses. When James came out in the morning, the Stranglers demanded that he release the horses. He complied, but then returned to the cabin. Once inside, James and the other outlaws fired at the Stranglers from gunports in the cabin walls. During the exchange of bullets, two of Stuart's vigilantes managed to get onto the roof of the cabin and set it on fire. One of the outlaws at the tent was shot and killed. Stuart's nephew was wounded in the arm, but he, James, and some of the other suspected thieves managed to flee. At the end of the exchanged, two of the Stranglers were also dead.

Stuart notified U.S. Deputy Marshall Sam Fischel and the officers of Fort Maginnis of the battle and the escaped fugitives. Though Stuart's men had acted outside the law, Marshall Fischel and the military were sympathetic to their cause in part due to their own problems with thieves on the Montana frontier. When a few of the men fleeing the shootout were captured by the army, Marshall Fischel deputized some of the Stranglers in order to bring the outlaws back to Fort Benton for trial. Having had their own blood spilled and in no mood to risk acquittal of their adversaries, the Stranglers took matters into their own hands once again. Fifteen masked men "well primed with Winchesters" rode into Marshall Fischel's camp and sent him and others away at gun point telling them that if they so much as looked back, they would be shot down. They then hung four of the five outlaws from a log suspended between two cabins and then set it all ablaze. The fate of the fifth suspect is not clear, but he may have been Stuart's own nephew and could have perished from his wounds. He is known to have died that day.

Lot 45: Cabinet Card Portrait of Granville Stuart by L.A. Huffman

Their remaining activities are not clear but rumors abound. One claimed the vigilantes and their horses used a special train to move quickly about the territory to capture their quarry. Regardless, their actions put terror in the hearts of many would-be outlaws, and they eventually gained the national attention they so avidly wished to avoid.

If they were worried about repercussions from the law, their concerns must have been soon quieted. Asked about the violence, John Schuyler Crosby, the territorial governor, stated that because the government had not provided the ranchers with protection from the outlaws, the situation required "some application of hemp and lead during the year by the 'cowboys,' as our stock-herdsmen are called." Stuart's good friend Sam Hauser was subsequently elected governor further providing cover for their actions, and among his first actions was appointing Stuart as the president of a newly formed board of livestock commissioners. Some of the board's first moves were hiring former Stranglers as inspectors and detectives giving them the legal authority they had lacked in the summer of 1884.

Legacy of Granville Stuart

Though Stuart's vigilante days were then done, his adversaries were not necessarily done with him. His actions had understandably angered the family and friends of the men the Stranglers had killed. Some of them may have been innocent, mere associates of the true outlaws, or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Regardless of the men's guilt, their loved ones certainly would not have looked kindly upon the vigilantes.

Lot 44: Historic Granville Stuart's Documented Personal Concealed Carry Gun: Colt Model 1877 Thunderer Sheriffs Model Double Action Revolver with Handcuffs

In June of 1885, Stuart was warned by Sheriff Thomas Irvine of Miles City that he had heard some men were bent on killing him. In response, Stuart wrote, "Thanks for the friendly warning. I knew those chaps were talking about killing me but didn't take it to heart worth a cent. . .but perhaps I had as well get me a short D.A. 41 Cal. Colt and keep it about my clothes in the future." This Colt Model 1877 Thunderer Sheriff's Model revolver he purchased, along with a pair of handcuffs, were confirmed by his daughter to have belonged to him. She indicated that Stuart kept the Colt with him the rest of his life. After Stuart's death, her husband Edward Charles "Teddy Blue" Abbott used it as his daily carry piece. In addition to being Stuart's son-in-law, Abbott is noteworthy as the author of "We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher." This book inspired the award winning novel, "Lonesome Dove."

By the late 1880s, despite their efforts to quell outlaw activity and the clear approval of the government, Stuart was in dire financial straits. His finances were deeply entangled with the DHS ranch and the cattle industry took a series of severe hits in the following years. Draught, oversupply of cattle, overgrazing, and severe weather caused a crash in 1886 and 1887. In the summer, temperatures soared as high as 118 degrees and then plunged to 40 below zero in the winter of 1887, which decimated the cattle herds. Stuart's friend, and now famous western artist, Charles Marion Russell's paintings based on a sketch of one of the dying cows was titled "Waiting for a Chinook" and was published in "Studies of Western Life with Descriptions by Granville Stuart."

The latter part of the 1880s was also devastating for Stuart's family in other ways: his spouse died from a postpartum infection on October 17, 1888, and his mother, who had since moved to Montana from Iowa, also perished the following month on November 30. His wife of 26 years, Awbonnie (1847-1888), was a Shoshone girl he married when she was just 12, and he tried to shield his mixed race children in a changing society.  He was generally a supporter of assimilation rather than annihilation unlike some of his western counterparts. Those two blows were not the last. His eldest daughter Katie, who he had hoped would step in to care for her younger siblings and cousins, also followed them in death on May 27, 1889.

Granville Stuart pictured among some of Montana's most influential figures and leaders.

Though certainly fallen very low, Stuart set about rebuilding his life and prevented himself from falling permanently into depression and poverty. He remarried on January 8, 1890, to Belle Brown (1863-1937), a teacher who had formerly taught at the ranch. Stuart also secured himself a position as a state land agent in March 1891. In 1894, he received an even more prestigious government post: "Envoy Extraordinary & Minister Plenipotentiary to Paraguay and Uruguay." President Cleveland had selected him to represent the country abroad. As discussed in "As Big as the West," his vigilante reputation helped secure the position rather than harm it and was seen as demonstrating his revolve and ability to ensure the U.S. was respected by its South American counterparts. He returned to Montana 1898 and worked as the head librarian of the Butte Public Library in 1905-1914 and died in 1918 while working on his book "Forty Years on the Frontier," which was published after his death.

More recently in 2008, he was a Legacy Inductee into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, and not surprisingly, he and the vigilantes he led have been the subject of popular and historical publications for generations.

The Firearms of Granville Stuart available during Rock Island Auction Company's Sale of the Century.

If you'd like to learn more about Granville Stuart and his adventurous life, see the sources below that were influential in shaping the descriptions in our catalog as well as this post. "As Big as the West" is certainly well worth your time. For more details on the individual firearms, please see our print and/or online catalogs. Each of the items are discussed in detail, including the publications they are featured in and the various documents related to them. We hope to see you all at Rock Island Auction Company's upcoming December Premier Firearms Auction.


Allen, Frederick. A Decent Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

Boardman, Mark. "Granville Stuart: Gentleman Vigilante," True West, October 21, 2016.

DeArment, R.K. "Gang Crackdown: When Stuart's Strangers Raided the Rustlers," Wild West Magazine, August 2007.

Grazer, Brian, and Charles Fishman. A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Milner II, Clyde A. and Carol A. O'Connor. As Big as the West: The Pioneer Life of Granville Stuart. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Mueller, Oscar O. "The Central Montana Vigilante Raids of 1884," The Montana Magazine of History, Vol. 1, No. 1, Jan. 1951.

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