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Rolla Butcher

Rolla Butcher

Accusations of desertion and bigamy, conspiracy and fraud, perjury, interests in seven mines in Butte and the lot holding the city hall, and 160 acres in Santa Clara County, California. And that was mostly after Rolla Butcher died.

Rolla Butcher was born about 1825 in what is now West Virginia. He worked as a cabinet maker, surveyor, and merchant and married Eleanor McCune, six years his senior, in 1846. They had six children, but only John and Webster survived infancy. In the late 1850s, Rolla abandoned his family in Virginia and joined a wagon train to California.

Census records show that Rolla knocked around the west for decades, in the gold fields of California in 1860, in northern Utah in 1870, and in Walkerville, Montana, in 1880. Through all those decades, he was accompanied by his wife Emma – not Eleanor – and three or four daughters.

Rolla was in Butte by 1875, when on Jan. 2, he registered a claim for the Alice Lode in Walkerville. He sold a third of the interest to Frank Ramsdell in May, who sold it to bankers William Clark and Samuel Larabie for $600 by the end of 1875. The following year, Rolla and Emma sold their remaining two-thirds interest in the Alice for $3,000 to Joseph Walker, one of the Walker brothers for whom the town is named. Ultimately, the Walkers brought Marcus Daly to Montana to develop what became one of the richest silver lodes in the district, producing some $4 million in silver bullion in the seven years after Rolla sold it.

Butcher settled a bit north of the Alice in an area that came to be called Butchertown, although whether that was because of him and his family or the establishment of a large slaughterhouse there is not completely clear. The location was just west of today’s Moulton water treatment plant.

He was twice elected a county commissioner (probably for Deer Lodge County, which included Butte and Walkerville until 1881) and invested in additional mines and real estate. In late 1881, the Butcher family moved to Santa Clara County, California, where he acquired a 160-acre ranch. And then on Jan. 13, 1882, Rolla Butcher died, intestate, but with an estate valued at perhaps $100,000, including $25,000 in cash he’d received for the Star West Mine, east of Missoula Gulch and south of the Travona, about where the Interstate goes through today. He also had interests in the Poser, Mountain Con, Great Republic, Burnett, Andy Johnson, Bonanza, and Kit Carson claims as well as “the lot upon which the city hall now stands” (in 1894, that is, the old city hall on Broadway Street).

Following Butcher’s death, his widow Eleanor and sons promptly arrived from West Virginia with “indisputable” evidence that Rolla and Eleanor’s marriage had never been dissolved. A new face also appeared, one Charles Archbold, claiming to be a mining partner with Rolla. The eastern heirs ultimately alleged Archbold and the second Mrs. Butcher (Emma) to have engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the rightful heirs of Rolla’s fortune. The ensuing legal proceedings played out in Superior Court in San Jose, California.

The case in the summer of 1884 pitted the eastern Butchers (Eleanor) as plaintiffs against the western heirs (Emma). While it seemed that there was abundant evidence for bigamy and the other allegations, a technicality required Eleanor and her sons to file amendments to the case, and after multiple extensions, Eleanor and her lawyers had done nothing. On Sept. 5, 1884, as reported on page three of the San Francisco Chronicle, the case was dismissed in favor of the defendants. Eleanor and her only surviving son, Webster, got nothing.

Thanks to Mary McCormick for much of the research on which this article is based.

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Local geologist and historian Dick Gibson has lived in Butte since 2003 and has worked as a tour guide for various organizations and museums. He can be reached at rigibson@earthlink.net.

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