Thomas Josiah Dimsdale

author of

Vigilantes of Montana

ISBN 0806113790



Thomas J. Dimsdale, R. W. Grand Orator

January 29, A.D 1866, A.L. 5866

Thomas J. Dimsdale was a member of Virginia City Lodge No. 43, which operated in Virginia City under a charter granted by the Grand Jurisdiction of Kansas. In January, 1866, this lodge, one of three forming lodges, became Virginia City No. 1, chartered by the Grand Lodge of Montana.

During the formation of Montana's Grand Lodge in January, 1866, Brother Dimsdale was appointed and served as the first Right Worshipful Grand Orator of the Grand Lodge of Montana.

Brother Dimsdale was a school teacher and a reporter on a local news paper. He also served as the first Territorial Superintendent of Public Instruction when Montana became a territory in 1864; and he was the author of the well-known book about thugs and road agents who terrorized the populace and merchants of our mining communities during the period December, 1863 and March of 1864. This book - THE VIGILANTES OF MONTANA - may be found in most public libraries.

Brother Dimsdale was not in good health. He was afflicted with a fatal illness and died, at age 35. prior to the opening of the first Annual Communication of Grand Lodge on October 1, 1866.

As Grand Orator, Brother Dimsdale addressed the Grand Lodge assembled on the last day of the organizational meeting.

His address, printed on pages 39 and 40 of the 1866 Proceedings of the first Annual Meeting of Grand Lodge, follows.

"It is with the greatest pleasure that I address you on this most auspicious occasion, at the conclusion of your labors, as members of the first Grand Lodge that ever sat in this territory. The rapid progress of Masonry in Montana has been a matter of astonishment to all brothers visiting us from the States; nay, more, it has astonished ourselves. Scarcely more than three years ago the wild beast and the still wilder Indian of the mountains were the sole denizens of the hills that now look down on the metropolis of these regions. When I gaze around me at this large and commodious hall, with it elegant furniture and suggestive emblems, its seats filled with intelligent and energetic men, whose objects in assembling here are the propagation and extension of the principles of universal charity and, brotherly love, which are alike the foundation and glory of Masonry. I feel thankful, as I know you do, in being permitted to take a part in the edifying ceremonials; in assisting thus to place the capital on the column of Masonry in these mountains, and to add the last link to the golden chain of Masonic Brotherhood which now encircles the Earth. In the early days of Montana crime was rampant in the land, and the very foundations of society were shaken to their basis; fortunately, a large number of Masons had come with the throng of pioneers, and mindful of the tradition of the founder of their order, they united and organized their beloved institution in these western wilds. Virginia City Lodge was the first Masonic Temple; then followed Montana, Helena, and Nevada Lodges, and may others would shortly be gathered within the circle of Masonry. How stands the record of Masons as citizens in this land? I am proud, Most Worshipful Grand Master, to say that it is unstained and brilliant. They remembered the old adage, ‘When bad men combine, good men must unite, and to their unity of action in those troubled and stormy times the inhabitants of this Territory are indebted for the tranquility and civilization that we now enjoy in this favored city, in Helena, and, in greater or less degree, in every mining hamlet in this land of gold. The delegates from Helena are here; long miles of weary travel in storms and snow of unprecedented depth have testified their devotion to Masonry and the active life that animates the Craft in their mountain home. Most Worshipful Grand Master, I thankfully and joyfully hail your elevation to your important office, and with pleasure I congratulate my Right Worshipful Brethren and myself that we have been favored so highly by the Great Architect as to be permitted to lay the foundation of a permanent Temple of Masonry in the Territory of Montana. Let us live and act as a bright example of Masonic virtue to all, that we may in after days say with pride, ‘I was a member of the first Grand Lodge of this mighty State."


Montana Post Virginia City Sept. 22, 1866 p2

At Virginia City, on the morning of the 22d inst., Prof. THOMAS J. DIMSDALE, who has had charge of the editorial department of the MONTANA POST during the last two years. The funeral will take place at his residence on Sunday, the 23d inst., at 3 o'clock, p.m.

Montana Post Virginia City Sept. 29, 1866


The community read with emotions of sorrow in the last issue of the Post, the announcement that Professor Dimsdale died in this city on the morning of September 22d,1866. He had suffered for many weeks from a complication of disorders which finally triumphed over his strong constitution. The funeral services took place upon the ensuing Sabbath, and his remains were buried in the new cemetery. A large delegation of his fellow-citizens and the lodge of Masons attended the corpse to the grave, where it was interred with the impressive ceremonies of the Masonic Order. Professor Dimsdale became a resident of Montana in 1864, and engaged in the noble work of educating American youth. He was a contributor to the columns of the Post from its beginning, and assumed the editorial charge of it soon afterwards. Gov. Edgerton appointed him to fill the office of Superintendent of Public instruction of the Territory, a position he subsequently resigned. No man was more devoted to the principles and precepts of the Masonic body, of which he was a conspicuous member. At the time of his dearth, he was Orator of the Grand Lodge of Montana. This brief outline of his public and private tasks would be incomplete, if we did not add the testimony of all parties, that they were performed with untiring industry and commanding abilities. His labors upon the Post and exertions to develop the resources of the Territory will be cherished by its inhabitants and perpetuated by the historian. His interest in the press never ceased, and in the intervals when his sufferings relaxed, he composed upon his couch articles for our columns. The number of the Post that was issued on the last Saturday in August, contained the final letter from his pen. about two weeks previous to his decease he wrote the preface to his history of the Vigilantes, which will be published with in a short period. He brought to the editorial chair a wonderful versatility of talent and ample stores 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 1 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 the resolutions of the Masonic Order, which will receive the hearty concurrences of all.
At a Communication of Montana Lodge No 2, of the Free and Accepted Masons, assembled at Masonic Hall, in the City of Virginia, on Sunday, the 23d for the purpose of solemnizing the burial of Brother Thomas J. Dimsdale, on motion of Brother Duncan, Brothers Hosmer, Pfouts and Alden were appointed a Committee to draft Resolutions expressive of the sense of the Lodge, on the occasion of the death of Brother Dimsdale, which Committee reported the following which were unanimously adopted:
Whereas, it has pleased Almighty God to take from us by death our esteemed friend and brother, Professor Thomas J. Dimsdale, therefore be it
Resolved, That by this dispensation, Masonry has lost a devoted advocate, one, who illustrated her most ennobling virtues, by both precept and example, who was active in the discharge of all her obligations, instant to obey her calls upon his charity, and jealous of the slightest imputation upon her honor.
Resolved, That as Masons we morn the death of Professor Dimsdale, because he was in the fullest sense our brother, and our brother beloved. His generous nature, kind heart, and highly cultivated mind, while they enabled him to appreciate the offices of Masonry in this new Territory, rendered him one of her brightest ornaments, and eminently qualified him to discharge her various obligations, with dignity to himself, and with profit to his brethren. Favored alike by nature and culture, with a well discipline mind and a ripe scholarship, he was a wise counselor, an intelligent lecturer, and a most affable and genial companion. In friendship he was 1, and his benevolence was unbounded. As a Mason, in which character alone it is our privilege to contemplate him, his loss will not be easily repaired, nor his memory soon forgotten.
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, the these resolutions be entered of record in the Lodge, that a copy therefore be sent by the Secretary under seal of the Lodge, to the widow of our departed brother, and that these proceedings be published is each of the papers of the city.


From The Rocky Mountain Magazine, March, 1901 

It was not until the summer of 1864 that the first leading character of Montana journalism appeared on the stage in that roll. On August 27th of that year John Buchanan published the first number of the first newspaper printed in the territory. It was called the Montana Post. Mr. Buchanan's connection with the Post was very brief. It may be said to have ended with the first issue, for the second number bore the imprint of D. W. Tilton & Co., publishers and proprietors, though the services of its founder were retained in the editorial department for a few weeks thereafter. The management of its columns were entrusted to Professor Thomas Josiah Dimsdale, whom the reading people of the state doubtless know more familiarly as the author of the "Vigilantes of Montana".
Professor Dimsdale was an English gentleman of fine scholarly attainments, having received his preliminary education in the preparatory school of Rugby, made famous by Hugh's well known novel, "Tom Brown of Rugby". He was born near Thirlsby (Thirlby) in north England, and came of a family noted as being among the leading iron masters, engineers and contractors of public works in that part of the country. Thomas J. was not of robust physique, and as he himself expressed it, was the runt of the family, so his parents designed him for the church, and he was sent to Oxford to complete his education for the ministry. But financial disaster came to the family because of the failure of a scheme to utilize the sewage of the city of London in the reclamation of barren lands, and he was compelled to give up university work in his sophomore year. He then immigrated to Canada, locating at Millbrook, Ontario , where he experienced many vicissitudes of fortune. On the discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountains, he joined the throng of adventurers traveling hitherward. In the winter of 1863-1864, being unable to work in the mines, he sought to make a livelihood in Virginia City by teaching, and as there were no schools yet established and people were willing to pay liberally, enormously it would be called in those days, $2.00 per week, for tuition, he succeeded fairly well in his vocation.
When the territory of Montana was created in the spring of 1864, the professor attracted the attention of Governor Sidney Edgerton, and that official tendered him the office of territorial superintendent of public instruction, which he accepted. While filling this position, the Montana Post was established and Messrs. Tilton and Dittes, recognizing the ability of the professor, installed him as editor-and-chief, and he filled both these positions with satisfaction to all concerned until a short time before his death which occurred two years later.
Professor Dimsdale was not an editor to the manner born. Indeed it is doubtful whether, if the place had not been tendered him under the conditions then existing, he would ever have entered the sanctum. He was not of a strong physique, and was different to a degree, pouting like a child when subjected to blame, and blushing like a school girl when receiving praise. Many who were present when friends presented him with an ivory-handled, silver-mounted pistol as a testimonial of appreciation of his work in the publishing of the "Vigilantes of Montana" (then running in the Post as a serial), will remember the bashful hesitancy with which he accepted the gift. And more yet will remember the almost boyish glee in which he started in to learn how to "shoot it off". And still more remember the trepidation with which they watched him sallying forth to practice with the unwanted weapon; and how they trembled the while for the safety of the children and the family cow. And how elated he was when he got proficient enough in handling the gun to be able to hit an oyster can at ten steps once in ten times.
But this is digressing. Professor Dimsdale could not have made an all-round editor in times of hot political controversy. He was not "built that way". The domain of politics was terra incognito to him. But he was a man of acute perceptivity, a thorough master of the English language, and ready and quick observer, and a fluent descriptive writer. So he edited the Post quite acceptably. The void in the political education was filled by able assistants, some of whom have risen to prominence in the Republican party. Luckily, for more than a year the Post held the newspaper field without a rival, and the absence of political discussions from its column elicited no tokens of disapproval. If the editorial utterances savored more of literary talent than a genius for political polemics, it was so much the better, for the country was full of hotbeds from Union and secession ranks, and the paper's magnanimous abstinence from unpleasant remarks about them brought ducats to the treasury and good will from all sides to the profit of the proprietors, and the enhancement of Dimsdale's reputation as an unbiased and impartial political writer.
As soon as the paper was fairly established, Professor Dimsdale set about the publication of the "Vigilantes" in its columns. It was an immense drawing card for the subscription department, and the circulation ran up a rapid rate. The work was a recital of the doings of the famous organization which stamped out the carnival of crime that had been running riot in the embryo Territory for a year previous to the capture and execution of George Ives, December 21, 1863. It was graphic description of the robberies and murders committed by the road agents whose crimes made life a dreary burden to the inhabitants of the region, the measures of their arrest and extinction, and the tragic fate which befell the thugs and assassins at the hands of the self-constructed ministers of justice. Its publication at once stamped its author as a writer of promise, and the professor began to indulge in day dreams of wealth from its reputation in more substantial form, dreams, alas, which were doomed never to be fulfilled.
While Professor Dimsdale was revising and preparing his "Vigilantes" for press in 1865, he was assisted in his editorial duties by H. N. Maguire. When the last installment of the work appeared in the Post, the author resumed his editorial chair. By this time, a democratic newspaper had been started in Virginia City, and an exciting political controversy was inaugurated.
Professor Dimsdale began to feel that the burden of shaping the course of the paper was becoming more arduous and onerous. His retiring disposition rebelled at the exchange of philippics and expletives with rival editors which was focused upon him by the change in the situation, and he was often on the verge of surrendering his position to someone less thin-skinned and sensitive. But a degree of pride and a dread of humiliation, coupled with some injection of spinal stamina by his intimate friends, together with a deep sense of family responsibility, for he had taken to himself a wife, sustained him in his work, and he continued to edit the paper. His work was intermittent, however, for the disease from which he suffered had taken fatal hold, and the following summer saw him confined to his room by nervous prostration, aggravated by pulmonary troubles of old standing. He succumbed to his ailments September 22, 1866, and passed from life to death, leaving his wife, the only relation in this country, to mourn his loss.
In his sickness, his long-tried and staunch friend Col. W. F. Sanders, was an almost constant attendant at the bed side, and it may be said that the departing journalist literally died in the arms of his friend, at the age of 35.
Professor Dimsdale was a public spirited citizen of the highest type. He was an ardent worked in the cause of education, often over taxing his strength in his labors. He filled the office of superintendent of public instruction for two years with signal ability and credit to himself. He was, also a churchman of the Protestant Episcopal faith, and conducted the first service of that denomination in Virginia City. The initial meeting was held in the office of Judge William Y. Lovell, on Christmas Day, 1865, Professor Dimsdale acting as lay reader. He was a member of the Montana Lodge No. 2 A. F. & A. M., and was buried with imposing ceremonies by that Order September 24, 1866, a large concourse of members of the fraternity, and other friends, attending the funeral.


Writing from Virginia City, under date of Sept. 21, Tom Baker, the veteran newspaper writer, sends the following story to the Standard and incidentally greets his old friends and companions of 'Montana's early days:

To the Editor of the Standard:

The appearance of that full page cartoon in yesterday's Standard vividly returned to recollection a flood of interesting many thrilling incidents and happenings of those days when the prototype of its central figure was the hero. Among others is the fact that almost coincident with the assemblage of the pioneers of Montana in the city of Anaconda in this Year of our Lord 1906 occurs the fortieth anniversary of the laying away to his final rest of Montana's first teacher, editor and historian, the much quoted, but, alas! it is sadly feared, little remembered Thomas Josiah Dimsdale, editor of the first newspaper printed in Montana, the Montana Post, and author of the world-famous "Vigilantes of Montana."

Are There Many

It is very doubtful if many can be found among the crowd of' old trail-blazers who will meet in annual jollification at the Copper city this week who can discourse about Dimsdale and his doings. Not many are to be found in Alder gulch who can do so, and upon its banks and tributaries still live, and have nearly continuously lived, some three dozen or so of septuagenarian (or over) contemporaries or the deceased journalist men who were his intimates during his brief career here; but who, if his skull were turned up in hillside cemetery to-day would be unable to paraphrase the crazy prince and say:
"Alas, poor Dimsdale. I knew him well, Horatio;
A fellow of Infinite Jest," 
Yet Dimsdale was a man of parts and a central figure in his time. The three years of activity which were all of his allotment in Montana were busy ones, and, although he was of anything but robust physique, he crowded a lot of work into that space of time. It was his wont to allude to himself as "the runt of the family'' when speaking of his physical infirmities. Mr. Dimsdale was of north of England origin, coming from a family well-known in the iron trade for many generations back. He was intended for the church, and his education at Rugby and Oxford University was continued with that purpose in view. Disastrous failures in his father's business, however, compelled his withdrawal from the university before completing his course, so he gathered his effects and funds and migrated to Canada, where he engaged in school teaching until the fame of the far western gold fields reached his ears, and he followed the trials until they brought him to Virginia City in July, 1863.

School Teacher.

In the Alder gulch metropolis he engaged in such light occupations as his health would permit, and in the succeeding winter, several families having been among the arrivals, he opened a private school on Idaho street. The venture was a fairly good one, parents and guardians gladly paying the tuition fee of $2 per week which he charged for his services, and pupils were quite as numerous as he expected or wanted them to be, for it was during this winter that he was also busy collecting the material for his "Vigilantes Of Montana." So he was prospering nicely when, in August, 1864, Daniel W. Tilton and Benjamin R. Dittes bought John Buchanan's pioneer journalistic bantling, the Montana Post, immediately after the first issue; installed an up-to-date plant and presses for a metropolitan printing house, and tendered Professor Dimsdale the editorial management of the newspaper. He accepted, and filled the position with a signal ability until the summer of 1866, when the insidious ravages of the dreaded disease (consumption) which had been with him from childhood, together with the arduous labors of the last two years bore heavily upon his ever frail constitution, and he resigned his chair to younger and more robust hands. He had previous given over his editorial work to Horatio N. Maguire, but this was while he was engaged in the preparation of the "Vigilantes" for publication as a serial in the Post. On this occasion he was succeeded in the sanctum by Capt. Henry N. Blake, a young and vigorous writer from Boston, whose political litany has in closer accord with the creed of the paper than that of Maguire had been.

In Public Office

When the territory of Montana was created, upon the arrival of Gov. Sydney Edgerton, that official bestowed upon Professor Dimsdale the appointment of territorial superintendent of public instruction. It was confirmed when the first legislature assembled at Bannack, and reconfirmed at the second session in Virginia City, and Dimsdale retained the office and its emoluments until the time of his death; although, as the position was regarded as very much of a sinecure, there were not a few growlings of "graft," or its equivalent, "soft snap," at the carrying away of the plum by so outspoken an antagonist as he was of the party who, had the power to confirm or reject the appointment.

He's a Churchman

Dimsdale's early education for the church also stood him in stead in Virginia City, where he gathered a good many members of the Episcopalian church together, finally succeeding in organizing a congregation of worshipers of that denomination, with himself as lay reader. The first meeting of the congregation was held in the office of Judge William L. Lovell, in the upper story of Content corner, on Christmas day, 1865, and were continued till Bishop D. S. Tuttle and Rev. E. N. Goddard in 1867 regularly established the church in Virginia City, Dimsdale was the lay reader until the time of his death.
When Professor Dimsdale delivered the editorial charge of the Montana Post, he was bidding good-bye to work. He had been overwrought in the harness; he was suffering from a disease which had long been calling for him and refused longer to be denied; he had, or imagined he had, other sources of worry, and after a couple of months rest he wasted rapidly away. The most strenuous efforts of devoted friends were futile, the unremitting attentions of his "brethren of the mystic tie" were powerless to stay the stroke, and on Sept. 22, 1866, just as the late Col. W. F. Sanders was assisting the sufferer to an easier position on the bead, the subject of this sketch breathed his last, literally dying in the arms of his friend.

At Rest

On the 6th day of September, 1866, the remains of the pioneer journalist were taken in charge by Montana lodge No. 2, A. F. and A. M., and were buried with the grand honors of the Masonic fraternity, of which he was a honored and conspicuous member. It cannot be truthfully stated, as in modern funeral parlance, that "the casket was buried in flowers," for it is doubtful if at that time a wreath of natural flowers could have been found between Salt Lake and the British Boundary that was large enough to cover a mouse trap. But what the cortege lacked in style was compensated for in numbers, and few processions of such length have since been seen wending their way up Cemetery hill as that which followed the remains of Thomas Josiah Dimsdale to their lasting resting place in Hillside cemetery. Even that which followed "Bill" Fairweather to the same city of the dead, nine years later, although it was augmented by visitors from all parts of Montana, did not much eclipse in numbers, whatever it may have done in the elegance of its appointments, that which escorted to the grave the corpse of the author of the "Vigilantes of Montana." His wife (nee Nettie Lyons) was his only surviving relative in the United Sates. She, too, after a period of widowhood and a second matrimonial venture, has joined the silent majority.

Not a Politician

Fortunately for Professor Dimsdale's editorial reputation, he was not called upon to enter the political arena. During the only campaign that of 1865 that was fought while he sat in the editorial chair, the Post was without a newspaper rival. Hence, very little matter of a political sort went into the columns of the paper. There was nothing in it. With newspapers selling at 25 cents a copy, and the price of printing 100 calling cards $5 in gold, or $10 in "Chase's currency," there was money to be made in the print shop, and Tilton & Dittes were past masters in the art of looking after the main chance. So, to the professors great relief, political controversy was generally, if not generously, eschewed by the Post under his regime. When, in November, 1865, Maj. John P. Bruce appealed in the field with the Montana Democrat, things were different. But the election was over then, and Mr. Dimsdale did not live to see another one.

Some Survivors

Of the original managers of The Post few remain. Tilton still sits in his store on West Park street, Butte, selling copies of the "Vigilantes" and other books; Dittes to quote his favorite expression, has "crossed the burning sands of the great illimitable;" Editor J. N. Maquire has found rest in the spiritualistic haven; Editor H. N. Blake is enjoying ripe old age and large, corporeal rotundity; Capt. James H. Mills, the "noblest Roman of them all," lies in an honored grave in his lovely valley of Deer Lodge; Hugh McQuaid passed in his final string almost within view of the Independent, of which he was "one of the sponsors at the borning" in Deer Lodge away back in 1867: Harry J. Norton, of whom Captain Mills once wrote that he "could write more locals from the top of Mt. Powell than half the reporters in New York city," ended his career in Leadville several years ago, while 'Billy" Coyne, foreman of the mechanical department, after forsaking the craft and making comfortable by mining operations, peacefully passed away in Helena and now rests from his labors in the beautiful cemetery of Forestvale. Soon all the old timers will strike the trail that is not to be avoided. It is to be hoped that they will carry with them as gladsome recollections of their friends of pioneer days as the writer has of Dimsdale and his companions among the crowd that blazed the trail through the desert and brought forth our peerless Montana.

Anaconda Standard 28 September, 1906



One room school where Thomas held classes 

app. 10ft x 12ft



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Last revised: October 31, 2016.