Cemetery Stories – James Chesnut

George Eliot wrote “Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” The Extreme History Project hopes to remember some of our dearly departed in Bozeman and surrounding region by sharing with you the stories of people buried in our local cemeteries. Watch this space to learn just who those people are in the cemetery. They all have lifetimes of stories to tell.

Colonel James Chesnut – A Life Well-Lived

When doing research on people buried in Sunset Hills Cemetery, we are struck by the extraordinary lives many of these people lived and Mr. Chesnut is no exception.

James D. Chesnut was born in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1834. He attended school until he was sixteen, when he transferred to Wabash College at Crawfordsville, Indiana. He remained there until 1848 when he graduated.

He was bitten by the gold fever bug in 1852 and promptly left for the gold fields of California. He decided to take the overland route via the Missouri River, but had the misfortune of boarding the paddle steamer Saluda. Saluda ExplosionThis steamer’s boiler exploded near Lexington, Missouri killing over 100 passengers and two men on shore who were hit with debris from the explosion.[i] Only 40 to 50 people survived, James being one of them. He was lucky to walk away with only a slight scalding.[ii]

He made it to California and did well in merchandising over the next year but decided to give up his store, cashing out to join a man by the name of William Walker and his freelance military expedition to conquer parts of Baja California, Sonora, and Nicaragua to create new slave states for the U.S. This idea was known as filibustering.[iii]  Chesnut joined Walker as he invaded Western Mexico. They were headed for Sonora to “liberate” the mineral-rich area but due to desertions and lack of food, they never reached their destination. Chesnut declined Walker’s invitation to join him on the next adventure, an invasion of Nicaragua. Instead, Chesnut traded-in his valuables for $7,000 in gold and boarded a steamer for New York but his bad luck with steamships continued to plague him. As he was taking the launch from the beach to the steamship, it was overloaded and sank. 38 people drowned, but again Chesnut was fortunate to survive. His $7,000 in gold had sunk along with the boat to the bottom of Virgin Bay so the next day he hired a diver and recovered his gold, then successfully boarded the steamer to New York.

As the nation came to blows over the question of slavery, Chesnut participated as a recruiter for the Union army. He was the Captain of Company A of the 12th Regiment of the Kansas Infantry.[iv] and later Brevet Colonel of  an African American regiment from Kansas. He joined in 1862 and was discharged from service on June 30, 1865.[v]

After the Civil War, Chesnut came west landing in Bozeman by 1867. He purchased two buildings including the oldest log house on Main Street and an adjacent frame building on the southwest corner of Main and Bozeman Street,[vi] right in the heart of town. This became known as “Chesnut Corner” and held that name for many years. The heart of this corner was located in the back room of the old log house. The front of the house was the saloon but the back room became known as the “club room” and was the intellectual meeting place of the town, where new ideas were formed and discussed.

The early 1870s were a critical time for Bozeman, the mining booms throughout the territory were beginning to slow and miners were moving on to new diggings. The railroad, which was going to be Bozeman’s financial saving grace, was in financial trouble. The merchants, farmers and ranchers in Bozeman were growing concerned that without a method to transpor their goods and products to a larger market beyond the territorial lines of Montana, they would be doomed. Chesnut’s “club room” provided a place for the local businessmen to gather and discuss these pressing issues. They were at a make or break time in Bozeman history and these men were rightfully concerned about how to make their little town a success.

Chesnut had an idea that would provide Bozeman and Montana Territory with a source of income; coal. He, along with two other men, discovered a vein of coal about eight miles from Bozeman in Rocky Canyon. He saw the possibility of coal as the next big fuel Bozeman_Avant_Courier_Thu__Oct_31__1872_source so he worked to develop this coal mine. Many did not share his vision and teased him mercilessly for his enthusiasm over coal. But he was the one laughing in the end as coal did come to replace wood fuel.  His mine is credited as the first commercial coal mine in the state of Montana.[vii]

Chesnut never married, there were rumors of love interests but nothing ever materialized. He was always sickly and on January 21, 1886 he succumbed, dying at the early age of 52. He is buried in Sunset Hills Cemetery under a white marble headstone that reads, “James D. Chesnut born at Chillienthe Ohio, Mar. 1834, Died at Bozeman, Montana, Jan. 21 1886. He sleeps in peace.”

Chesnut was remembered as being a patriotic man, having put his life on the line for the country he loved. A few days after his death the Avant Courier newspaper noted that “As a somewhat remarkable coincidence we may mention the fact that during the night immediately succeeding the interment of Col. Chesnut’s remains, the flag that was left floating at half-mast over his two-story building, on Main Street, was torn into shreds and the greater portion scattered to the winds. The flag was one that had been loaned to the Colonel for years by his particular friend Mr. J.V. Bogert, and had been used on all suitable occasions, as the emblem of both joy and sorrow.” Does this indicate a remaining prejudice against the victors of the Civil War or maybe a business deal gone bad. Regardless, Chesnut was generally loved by all and was kind-hearted and invested in Bozeman. In his obituary it was noted that “to the deserving poor he was remarkably generous.”

So when in Sunset Hills Cemetery, take a few moments to look at the headstones and think about those laying underneath, many lived extraordinary lives that we have nearly forgotten.

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saluda_(steamship). Accessed 11/12/17.

[ii] James D. Chesnut and the Development of the Bozeman Coal Fields by Merrill G. Burlingame and Rita McDonald. Located in Chesnut File at Gallatin History Museum.

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Walker_(filibuster). Accessed 11/12/17.

[iv] “United States Civil War Soldiers Index, 1861-1865,” database, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FS5Q-WTY : 4 December 2014), James D. Chesnut, Captain, Company A, 12th Regiment, Kansas Infantry, Union; citing NARA microfilm publication M542 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 2; FHL microfilm 881,838.

[v] http://www.ksgenweb.org/archives/statewide/military/civilwar/adjutant/12/a.html. Accessed 11/13/17.

[vi] James D. Chesnut and the Development of the Bozeman Coal Fields by Merrill G. Burlingame and Rita McDonald. Located in Chesnut File at Gallatin History Museum.

[vii] http://deq.mt.gov/Energy/montanasenergy/MTEnergyHistory/HistCoalinMT. Accessed 11/11/17.

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