May 26, 1863. Six prospectors set up camp along the banks of a nameless, alder shaded creek. Footsore and travel weary, they had left the gold camp of Bannack in February, now they were returning empty-handed after four months of misadventures, including a recent nasty encounter with a band from the Crow tribe. After they settled into camp, they wandered down to the creek to see if they could scrounge up enough gold dust to buy some tobacco when they got back to Bannack. Instead, they found the world's largest surface field of gold. Although they tried to keep their find a secret, by fall nearly ten thousand people inhabited the fourteen miles of Alder Gulch.
Within the first three years the gulch produced thirty million dollars of gold, and in total it yielded an estimated one hundred twenty million dollars of gold. However, Virginia City might be most famous not for its gold but for the Vigilance Committee-the storied Vigilantes. During 1863-64, a well-organized and highly secretive gang terrorized what is today southwestern Montana. The so-called “Innocents” were responsible for robberies and stage coach hold-ups from Virginia City to as far away as Missoula and Lewiston, Idaho and were accused of murdering over one hundred people. Fed up with inaction of the Bannack/Virginia City sheriff Henry Plummer, on December 23, 1863 a group of Virginia City residents met in secret and formed the Vigilance Committee. Over the next few weeks, the Vigilantes executed twenty four suspected members of the gang-including Sheriff Henry Plummer, the leader of the gang-without trial. It was said that by 1865 Virginia City was so safe (or so cowed by the Vigilantes) that a resident could leave a pan of gold in the street without any fear of it getting stolen.
Montana became a U.S. Territory in May of 1864, with Bannack as its first capital, and many of the Vigilantes went on to become the Territory's most influential residents. In 1865, the territorial capital moved from Bannack to Virginia City. However, the sun had already begun to set over Virginia City. By 1870, only a few people called the Alder Gulch home and in 1875 the Territorial capital moved to Helena. In the 1940s, a wealthy collector named Charles Bovey began restoring many of the historic buildings in Virginia City. He had also amassed a huge collection of gold rush era buildings and artifacts from around the state. Many of these he moved to Nevada City, recreating the town with authentic historic buildings. In the 1970s Virginia City became a National Historic Landmark. Today, around two hundred people call Virginia City home, and it continues to be the county seat of Madison County.