Annette Lyons

A exert from VIGILANTE WOMEN by Virginia Rowe Towle 1966 by A.S. Barnes & Co.

Library of Congress catalogue card No. 66-21063

Mrs. Thomas J.(Annette) Dimsdale Foster

A Lady Who Was Almost By-Passed by

Western History

 

In the early days of the West, legends flew with the frequency of bullets. And some of them were just as wild. The legend of Professor Thomas J. Dimsdale is a case in point. In most of the official histories of Montana, Dimsdale is pictured as a pallid, consumptive bachelor who viewed and recorded the blood-and-thunder days of the Montana Vigilantes with journalistic precision and the detachment forced by ill health.

Facts, though sparse and unsatisfying yet authentic, have come to life which turn the anemic bachelor into a rather luxurious frontiersman. Scant but exciting records have revealed that this First Gentleman of Montana Territory during the Vigilante reign was a married man biographies to the contrary!

Most biographies will tell you that Thomas J. Dimsdale was an Oxford man who came from England to Canada and then down to the Idaho Territory, settling in Virginia City. Some biographers contend that he left England because of poor health and was urged to live in the mountains. Others say his debtors were breathing hot down his neck. Other writers contend it was a combination of the two-ill health and unpaid bills.

Anyway, these Dimsdale chroniclers all agree that he arrived in Virginia City by way of Canada in 1863. In An Introduction to the Vigilantes of Montana a fourth printing done in 1936 by the University of Oklahoma Press  E. De Golyer, one of the country’s best known collectors of western Americana, and an authority on western nonfiction, writes this of Professor Dimsdale:

The author, Thomas J. Dimsdale, was an educated English man and one time Oxonian who arrived in Virginia City via Canada during the summer of 1863. He suffered from consumption and had come to the mountains seeking health. During the winter of 1863-64 he taught a private school, tuition $2.00 a week for each pupil, and also conducted a singing school. A man of culture and refinement, he drew to himself all that was best of the society of that time in Virginia City. He is described by Granville Stuart as “a gentle, kindhearted Christian man.”

Montana was organized as a Territory on May 26, 1864, with Bannack as temporary capital. Governor Edgerton appointed Dimsdale the first Superintendent of Public Instruction. He also became the first editor of the Montana Post, the first newspaper of consequence to be published in the territory. Its press and equipment were brought from St. Louis to Fort Benton by River, thence by wagon to Virginia City.

Dimsdale wrote Vigilantes of Montana as a series of articles, the first of which were published in the Post, August 26, 1865. The articles were collected and republished in a paper bound book in 1866, the first book to be published in Montana. Copies of this book are superlatively rare. Dimsdale died September 22, 1866, at the age of thirty-five, mourned by all who knew him.

Note there is no mention of a marriage, a wife, or personal life in this estimate of Dimsdale.

During our years of research we never found Professor Dimsdale's wife Annette (or, as she was called in Virginia City, "Nettie") mentioned. In his chapter on "Dillingham's Murderers" in The Vigilantes of Montana, Dimsdale wrote: "A woman is a queen in her own home." Perhaps Mr. Dimsdale did not believe in the queen wandering far from her throne. Yet in the obituary on Nettie published in the August 29, 1874, issue of the New North-West, of Deer Lodge, Montana, one reads: "Living at Virginia City during the reign of the Vigilantes, she [Mrs. Dimsdale] was an eye witness to many of the wild scenes daily occurring, and had, perhaps, more experience in the hardships and excitements of pioneer life than any other woman in Montana. Brave and generous, she had many warm and true friends, who will be pained to hear of her death."

So Nettie Dimsdale must have been active outside her own home. She must have taken part in the town's activities, must have had many friends and acquaintances there. The worn out phrase "There's always a good woman behind every successful man" never saying whether she's patting him with a gentle hand or prodding him with a kitchen knife could come into its own here, because Mrs. Dimsdale might have been Tom's silent partner.

She could have gathered items for his newspaper, the Montana Post the first full fledged newspaper in Montana with Dimsdale as the first newspaper editor in that area. She could have covered the Halloween Ball, a theatre party, a dinner honoring Governor Edgerton. Perhaps she helped bring some of the village children into the world, and thus wrote a birth column. She, no doubt, laid out some poor soul, and then composed the obituary for the Montana Post. She might have even proof read his first book. Nettie surely could have been of great help to this "Man of Many Firsts," her assistance going far beyond mending his socks and cooking his favorite meal, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Dimsdale's opinions on women and their place or rather their lack of place in the outside world were well defined in Vigilantes of Montana. The passages in which he wrote so chidingly of the role the women folks played in getting Dillingham's murderers freed were quoted earlier in this book. That's where he brings out the women-should­stay-at-home cliché.

In recording the murder of old Chief Snag at Bannack by a bunch of drunks gone berserk, Dimsdale wrote: While the firing was going on, two ladies were preparing for a grand ball supper in the house adjoining the scene of the murder of Snag. The husband of one of them being absent, cutting house logs among the timber, his wife, alarmed for his safety, ran out with her arms and fingers extended with soft paste. She jumped the ditch at a bound, her hair streaming in the wind, and shouted aloud "Where's Mr.? Will nobody fetch me my husband?" We are happy to relate that the object of her tender solicitude turned up uninjured, and if he was not grateful for this display of affection, we submit to the ladies, without any fear of contradiction, that he must be a monster.

Could Tom have been thinking of his Nettie and her continued tender solicitude for him when he wrote the above? Could he have been dreaming of his Nettie, and, grown softly sentimental, become convinced that she, too, would have done the same for him as the Bannack woman did for her mate?

A quirk of the Dimsdale nature that must have baffled Nettie was the odd combination of her husband's rather prissy nature and the he-man roughness with which he reported conversations of road agents. In one paragraph there would appear a delicate French phrase, and the next would repeat the vile language of a Boone Helm. Of course, Tom may have given Nettie the same explanation of this ability to exactly quote the road agents that he gave in his book, explaining this special skill of his as follows: We have recorded a few, among many, of the crimes and outrages that were daily committed in Bannack. The account purposely literal anal exact. It is not pleasant to write of blasphemous and indecent language, or to record foul and horrible crimes, but, as the anatomist must not shrink from the corpse, which taints the air as he investigates the symptoms and examines the results of disease, so the historian must either tell the truth for the instruction of mankind, or sink to the level of a mercenary pander, who writes, not to inform the people but to enrich himself! Can't you just see Nettie's good, well scrubbed face wrinkled by smiles of pride as she basks in her husband's nobility?

Somehow I have the feeling that Nettie made this little man feel tall, and furnished him with an unlimited supply of pride, and self-confidence. He liked his women noble, hero worshipping (nice if he could be the hero), and almost invisible. Females belonged in the background, in Dimsdale's way of thinking. Ending this same theory, Dimsdale wrote "From Blue Stockings, Bloomers and strong minded she-males generally, Good Lord, deliver us."

Of course, Dimsdale could have been writing bitterly of Nettie when he mentioned his distaste for a woman doing a man's work, for Nettie seemingly wandered far abroad, helping in anything that needed a hand. She might have irritated him by following paths he considered too progressive, unfeminine, generally lacking in the widely accepted smelling-salts-handkerchief-dropping­dainty-vapourish mores and modes of the day. Or she could have inspired these expressed ideas of Dimsdale's by her gentleness, subservience, gentility, and her attitude of always looking up to her husband, humoring even his eccentricities. We're inclined to believe she followed the second line of action sweet docility!

Dimsdale was not broad minded but he did have the curiosity, the determination, to write "things as he saw them." That no doubt accounts for his vivid descriptions of the hurdy-gurdy girls, the brothels, the dance halls, and some of the feminine characters who had become coarse and calloused in their pursuit of gold. He blames many of the shooting scrapes in the early Dance Houses on quarrels over women, sweethearts, hurdy-gurdy girls, and prostitutes. But always you find Gentleman Tom reaching out for the better things of life, even in the rough and ready mining camp of Virginia City. He headed the literary society there. He organized a singing group. He helped put on the nicer town dances. Thus we feel certain that Nettie, his wife, must have been someone he was very proud to introduce at these affairs, to have as his assistant in his widely assorted activities.

Along with the other wives of Virginia City Vigilantes, Mrs. Dimsdale must have constantly battled fear for her husband's safety. Because, although he was frail physically, morally he faced the turbulent, gun shooting, knife stabbing dangers of Virginia City without flinching, either editorially or physically. Because of his frank, fearless articles, and his known Vigilante activities, this gentle man had many enemies. And this Nettie Dimsdale must have known . . . as all wives intuitively sense any danger lurking near their husbands.

She, too, must have waited patiently, tremblingly, until the Montana Post was "put to bed," must have sighed with relief and uttered a prayer of gratitude when she heard his footsteps approaching late at night, or early in the morning if the Vigilante session had been long, if the paper an unusually large one.

On May 5, 1866, the Montana Post of Virginia City carried the following announcement on Page 3, Column 3:

MARRIED

On the 1st instance, at the residence of the bride, Virginia City, by Colonel Stafford, J. P., Professor T. J. Dimsdale, of the Montana Post, to Miss Annette Hotchkiss.

That's more brevity than T. J. ever used on his writings. Also, the date of Professor Dimsdale's death is given as September 22, 1866, by all reliable historians. Thus, if Annette and Thomas were not wed until May 1, 1866, they were only married some four months and a half when death did them part.

The Deer Lodge Montana paper, issue of August 29, 1874, published the most complete obituary of Annette Dimsdale Foster. This account claims that the then Annette Hotchkiss came to Virginia City, June 11, 1864, and that "shortly after her arrival she was married to Professor Thomas Dimsdale."

The Weekly Montanian, Virginia City, in its obituary of Mrs. Nettie Dimsdale Foster, printed August 20, 1874, stated that this Mrs. Foster came to Virginia City June 11, 1863. Perhaps this was a slip of the typesetter.

The three obituaries on Annette Hotchkiss Dimsdale Foster, are reprinted here exactly as we found them in the Library of the Historical Society of Montana:

 

(Deer Lodge) The New North-West, August 29, 1874.

DIED

FOSTER-In Virginia City, Aug. 17, 1874, Nettie H. wife of A. H. Foster, aged thirty-eight years.

Deceased was the pioneer of her sex in Alder Gulch. She was the first white woman who settled in Virginia City, where she has resided since June 11, 1864. Mrs. Foster was also one of the pioneers of Colorado Territory, from whence she came to Montana. Shortly after arrival she was married to Prof. Thomas Dimsdale, then editor of the Montana Post, a gentleman of much educational brilliancy and worth. Living at Virginia during the reign of the Vigilantes, she was an eye witness to many of the wild scenes daily occurring, and had, perhaps, more experience in the hardships and excitements of pioneer life than any other woman in Montana. Brave and generous, she had many warm and true friends who will be pained to hear of her death. After the death of Prof. Dimsdale, in 1866. she married Mr. Foster. Rest in peace.

(Virginia City) The Weekly Montanian, August 20, 1874.

DIED

In this city on the 17th inst., Nettie H., Wife of A. H. Foster, aged thirty-eight years. Brookville, Penn., papers please copy.

The deceased was the pioneer of her sex in Alder Gulch. She was the first white woman that settled in Virginia City, where she has always resided since June 11, 1863.

The Helena Daily Herald, August 22, 1874, page 3, column 4

DIED.

In Virginia City, August 17th, 1874, Nettie H., wife of A. H. Foster, aged thirty-eight years./Brookville, Pa., papers please copy.

As to the death of Professor Dimsdale, in the September 29, 1866, issue of the Montana Post, Virginia City, was a column long editorial on Mr. Dimsdale. This tribute to the editor historian also printed a beautiful resolution passed by the Masonic Lodge of Virginia City, of which Professor Dimsdale, at the time of his death, was Grand Orator. Two paragraphs from the editorial follow:

About two weeks previous to his decease he wrote the preface to his history of the Vigilantes which will be published within a short period. He brought to the editorial chair . . . a wonderful versatility of talent and ample store of knowledge, which had been derived from the perusal of a large number of books. The Montana Democrat and the exchanges that are printed in the States and Territories, which are bounded by the Rocky Mountains or the Pacific Ocean, have noticed in appropriate terms his death, and eulogized his memory.

Professor Dimsdale was born in England, and retained many of the characteristics of the subjects of the Queen. Although he was true in his love of the country of his adoption and earnestly upheld the principles of a republican government, he never forgot the land of his birth and the familiar scenes of his childhood. He was married a few months since and leaves a widow to mourn his loss. We publish the proceedings and resolutions of the Masonic Order, which will receive the hearty concurrence

At the very end of the resolution passed by the Masonic Lodge appear these two paragraphs:

RESOLVED. That we tender to his afflicted widow, the sympathies of the Masonic Fraternity of Virginia City, and commend her for consolation to the widow's God who "doeth all things well."

RESOLVED. That the Lodge be draped in mourning for the period of thirty days, that these resolutions be entered of record in the Lodge, that a copy thereof be sent by the Secretary under seal of the Lodge, to the widow of our departed brother, and that these proceedings be published in each of the papers of the City.

Both the editorial and the Masonic resolution give further proof that Professor Dimsdale was married at the time of his death although neither the editorial nor the resolution mention Mrs. Dimsdale by name, merely referring to her as "the widow."

In the brief death notice, also printed in the Montana Post, Virginia City on September 22nd, 1866, there is no mention made of any survivors of Professor Dimsdale.

The fact that the Montana Post did not list Professor Dimsdale's wife in its obituary notice on September 22nd but did mention her in the long write-up in the Montana Post of September 29th makes one think that perhaps few in Alder Gulch knew of Professor Dimsdale's marriage to Annette Hotchkiss prior to his death.

Some of the old-timers contend that Professor Dimsdale was married in England before he came to Canada and Montana. But biographer after biographer allude to him as a bachelor.

We feel most definitely that this eulogistic column on Dimsdale in the Montana Post and on file in the Library of the Historical Society of Montana is additional proof of Dimsdale's marital status at the time of his death.

In Golden Gulch-The Story of Montana's Alder Gulch, a colorful book written by Dick Pace of Virginia City and published by Mr. Pace in 1962, there is a mention of Annette Hotchkiss Dimsdale Foster, but only by the name of Mrs. Foster. Mr. Pace wrote: "The first white woman arrived sooner than was usual for a new camp. Young Nettie H. Foster came with her husband June 11, to settle in the Gulch where she lived until her death August 17, 1874. Granville Stuart's wife is recorded to have had one of the first children, a daughter born October 6, 1863."

The June 11 referred to by Mr. Pace is accepted as June 1863, as he had been speaking of that date previously.

Using our imagination to pad out the meager obituaries and marriage notice of Annette Hotchkiss Dimsdale Foster, we venture that she looked at life through the same philosophical spectacles as her husband. She might have been the big adventure in the life of Professor Thomas J. Dimsdale, an adventure that he shared with no one but his Nettie, the queen of his own very personal, carefully guarded private life. She may not have understood all the poetry he read to her, but it transported her to an exciting, spine-tingling world. She glowed when she realized that she had the power to make this little man, her man, tall. Her adventure, indeed, must have been far beyond her most tinseled day dreams.

Epilogue:

Again the Good Women

It was the good women of Virginia City, the very same ones who nine months earlier had gotten the murderers Stinson and Lyons freed, who signed the death warrant for "Cap" Joseph A. Slade and thus helped to bring abruptly to a close the most active work of the Montana Vigilantes. Frankly, this was a case where it would have been wiser for the women to attend to the housework and let their men-folks take care of the hangings.

Today throughout the west you can get an argument on the Slade hanging, any time, any place. You'll hear many an otherwise cool-headed, ardent booster of the old time Montana Vigilantes label the Slade hanging as "the one blunder of the Vigilantes." Banishment, yes, they all agree that Slade should have been turned out of the territory, but not "murdered." That his playmates in deviltry were not even arrested, let alone punished, makes these square-shooting westerners place another black mark against the fifty righteous hangmen.

 


For further information contact Jerry at dimsdale@shaw.ca

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Last revised: October 03, 2011.