Idaho History May 6, 2018

Sylvester Scott “Three Finger” Smith

The Story of Sylvester S. “Three-Fingered” Smith

USDA Forest Service Payette National Forest, Heritage Program July 2002
Condensed from Wilderness Pioneer by Sheila D. Reddy

Near the historic mining district of Warren lies Smith Canyon. Named for a man who was caught up in the Idaho Gold Rush, it is a tribute to this rugged man who made the wilderness his home. Born in Virginia in 1829, Sylvester S. Smith was a miner and a mountain man who picked up the name “Three-Fingered” after an accident. While talking to a friend, with his hands clasped over the end of the barrel of his muzzle-loading shotgun, his foot slipped off a fence rail, and hit the hammers, causing both barrels of the shotgun to fire. The blast took off all but three fingers on each hand (Elsensohn 1965:90).

In 1861, Smith arrived in the newly established mining town of Florence (Idaho) in what was then the territory of Washington (Parker 1968: 11). Smith was one of the first merchants to set up a general store at the camp. He, John Creighton, and Ralph Bledsoe packed in some of the last freight that winter before snow closed the trails into Florence. At the isolated gold camp, prices for all kinds of provisions rose enormously when the supplies ran short of the demands. The History of Northern Idaho, written in 1903, notes, “The sufferings were enough to drive even good men to acts of desperation and it was stated that the storehouses of merchants were more than once in danger of mob violence…”Three-Fingered” Smith, who owned about the richest claim in the camp, kept three rockers at work all winter and each of the rockers averaged a thousand dollars a day.”

In 1862, gold was discovered in Warren and Smith’s partners in the mercantile at Florence, Judge J.W. Poe and John Haines, were among the first to file claims there. Poe told the following story: “the news reached me early…Among the first who went to Warren was my partner, Joseph Haines… The Party [Haines and a man named White] staked out claims for themselves and one each for Smith and myself and one discovery claim, thus inaugurating the real Warren camp (History of North Idaho: 1903:27-28).”

Smith, who was in Oregon at the time, had apparently found a wife there and started a family. They later moved to Warren. The United States Census for Washington precinct (Warren, Idaho) for 1870 records S.S. Smith’s wife, noted as only E. Smith, age 22 years, born in Oregon. The Smiths had two sons; Sam, age four, born in Oregon and Warren, age 2, born in Idaho Territory, and reported to be the first white child born in Warrens.

By 1872, the Smith family had moved from Warren to a ranch at the confluence of Elk Creek and the South Fork of the Salmon River. As settlers moved to isolated ranches away from the security of the gold camps, they invaded areas used for thousands of years by American Indians such as the Nez Perce and later the Shoshones. Conflict over the land and resources was inevitable. In 1874, the Idaho Statesman, in Boise, noted “Three-Fingered” Smith was one of the signers of a petition sent by citizens of Warrens to Territorial Governor T.W. Bennett asking, “for arms and ammunition with which to defend ourselves and our families against the tomahawk and scalping knife.” In July of 1877, at the onset of the Nez Perce War, S.S. Smith was among a group taking arms back to the citizens in the area. The Nez Perce were defeated in the fall of 1877, but Idaho’s Indian wars were not over.

In mid-August of 1878, “Three-Fingered” Smith, and three companions rode out of Indian Valley searching for missing horses. Tracking the horses, which had been taken by Indians, the men followed the trail east for forty miles to the falls on the Payette River, about 30 miles south of Payette Lake. The Indians ambushed them and three men were killed. Smith was shot through the thigh and then through the arm in the Indian attack but managed to escape. He rode away on his wounded mule, and when it failed, he crawled to the safety of the Calvin R. White mail station on the Little Salmon meadows [Meadows Valley, Idaho]. A doctor was sent for, and a party of men traveled to the site of the attack. They were unable to find those responsible. Legend has it that Smith recognized three of his attackers and hunted them down, killing two, but not finding the third man.

1879 brought Idaho’s last Indian war right to Smith’s doorstep in the South Fork of the Salmon River. Smith’s neighbors, Hugh Johnson and Peter Dorsey had hired some Indians to work for them. The Indians were treated badly and the two men refused to pay them. The Indians became angry and killed Johnson and Dorsey. This happened shortly after some Chinese miners were found murdered on Loon Creek. The Indians were blamed for those murders as well and the Sheepeater Campaign began. Federal troops were ordered to subdue the Shoshones living in the wilderness. The Indians surrendered as the winter snow began to fall.

Through the years, Smith located a new ranch on the Payette River, and also a claim in Pioneer Gulch near Florence. The family apparently decided to stay on their original ranch. He occasionally did guide work and in an April 15, 1887 article the Idaho Country Free Press reported, “Three-Fingered” Smith has bought out Sam Willey’s interest in the South Fork bridge (at the mouth of Elk Creek on the Alton Trail) and is now located there with one of his four sons.” By July 8th of that year, the bridge had washed out and travelers were being conveyed by boat. Then in 1889, Smith was one of the discoverers of a new placer find thirty miles beyond the Alton District in Upper Big Creek drainage. Though times were good for the family, tragedy struck in 1890 when they lost a son. In February, Robert “Bobby” Smith, fourteen years old, decided he would deliver the mail from Warren into the Alton district, when the regular mail carrier couldn’t. He was trapped by a blizzard and his body was not found until spring.

The last mention of “Three-Fingered” Smith comes from the Idaho County Free Press, October 30, 1891:…”From Warrens I saw the last of settlements and civilization until my return, with the exception of “Three-Fingered” Smith’s ranch and placer claims, fifteen miles distant. I found Smith a whole-souled, typical old miner, who divides his time between mining and raising watermelons, and here I saw sunflowers seventeen and one-half inches in diameter. I have a lively and pleasant remembrance of his home.”

“Three-Fingered” Smith died April 28, 1892. Smith knowing he was about to die had ordered his coffin to be made of sluice boxes and was buried in a buffalo robe. Known for his pioneer spirit and generosity, Smith is remembered in his obituary as having, “made more money from the placer mines in Idaho County than any other man, yet… returned to the South Fork of the Salmon River where he died very poor, not due alone to bad management, but almost wholly to generosity, which he did not practice alone when he made lots of money, but to the last days of his life.” His funeral was attended by all of the miners on the river. “Three-Fingered” Smith’s grave, surrounded by the graves of his family and friends, is in a cemetery located 1.4 miles south of the bridge at South Fork of the Salmon and Elk Creek, on Forest Service Road #340.

source: Payette National Forest
(also posted at Secesh History)

see also full paper hosted on FB
link: h/t Penny Bennett Casey
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Three-Finger Smith in Valley County

Excerpted from: “Valley County Idaho Prehistory to 1920”, Valley County History Project

from page 211 “Homesteads and Ranches” by C. Eugene Brock

Perhaps some of the earliest settlements in Valley County were on the South Fork of the Salmon River. In 1862, James H. Warren discovered gold and the area became known as “Warren’s Diggins.” Miners were eager to follow the latest strike so the discovery brought other miners into the area. Typical of most finds, not all who came to mine became rich. The elevation of Warrens in a mountainous terrain produced hard, cold winters, with large amounts of snow. The South Fork of the Salmon is only about 12 miles from Warren, in an easterly direction. The South Fork Guard Station, on the Payette National Forest, is located in the northern portion of Valley County. … The South Fork Guard Station is located … approximately one and one half miles south of the county line.

The Four-mile stretch of the river from the mouth of Pony Creek to the mouth of Elk Creek had at least seven ranches established there from the late 1860s through the 1880s.

… Sylvester Scott Smith, or “Three Finger” Smith, established a ranch in the vicinity of the mouth of Elk Creek. He also is the same Smith who escaped the Indian attack on the Payette River, north of Cascade, where three ranchers from Indian Valley were killed. Smith lived on his ranch at elk Creek for at least 20 years. His youngest son died in 1890 when he froze to death while trying to carry mail to Big Creek. Sylvester Smith died two years later. He, his wife Juanita [daughter-in-law?], and youngest son Bob, are buried on the Elk creek ranch. After Smith’s death, the ranch was acquired by James Taylor in 1906, and patented in 1917. One year later, Brad Carrey purchased the property. In 1920, there were three different Carrey families living on the South Fork.
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Pioneer Sketches – Three-finger Smith

Lewiston Teller. (Lewiston, Idaho), February 18, 1897

Research courtesy of Sarah Liggitt, thanks for sharing.

The prospectors will ever be heroes of our history. Three-finger Smith is selected as an example of this class. He was in employ of the American Fur Company from early manhood; and had a thorough schooling in the hardships of the plains. He was one of the earliest to develop the Idaho placer gold mines and was one of the original discoverers of the great wealth of Florence. He was the autocrat of Babboon Gulch in those glorious days of gold. His claims yielded in one year four hundred pounds of dust. With this ample fortune he departed from the field of his success. He went forth to enjoy the blessings of the world, but he reaped the whirlwind. Within a year his gold was all gone.

Like so many of his class his name was suggested by a physical distinguishing mark, a wounded hand. He mentally and physically equipped for the life of a prospector. He gave to the work an excess of energy. There are invincibles in every field of labor and the subject of this sketch was an invincible prospector. If the thought entered his mind that gold existed in any region, however remote, no obstacle would restrain him front a personal investigation. He did not wait for a grub stake nor blankets nor pack horse: but he started with his gun and pouch filled with salt. His engagements were not measured by time but by results. If he started on a prospecting tour he might be gone a week, a month or half a year; and during these excursions he slept under the trees or in the shelter of a rock and ate the meat of wild beasts. In this manner he visited every mining camp in the northwest and explored more mountain fastnesses than any other prospector of old or modern times. He made many important discoveries, perhaps passing them by because they would not yield a hundred dollars a day. He crossed and recrossed the divide be tween Montana and Idaho more than twenty times through the trackless forest with no companions but his shovel and gun.

On one occasion he disappeared into the mountains and was gone for many months. He returned bearing the scars of battle with hardships and with the evidence of success in his hands. He was loaded down with nuggets and to his friends he related the story of the discovery of a rich placer mine. None doubted his story and he undertook to guide a party to a second Florence; but he could not And the new camp. This is the old story of a lost mine. This man was not selfish enough to seek laudation by a false report: but he died without finding the lost mine.

After Three-finger Smith packed out his gold, good cargoes for two horses, he visited the Willamette valley. He returned, after squandering his wealth, to Warrens and with him came a friend by the name of Dawson accompanied by bis family; and in the company was a daughter who became Mrs. Smith. After marriage the inveterate rambler became more reconciled to domestic habits and for several years was a permanent householder in the mining camps and on a farm on Salmon river. The man with so many traits of nobility was unfortunately adicted [sic] to the use of strong drink. His family relations became unpleasant too soon; and after three children had been born into the unhappy family, a separation occurred. Mrs. Smith deserted her husband and the children and went to Colorado where she afterwards married a man by the no me of Grim. The parent was attached to his children and tried hard to rally from his intemperance and be faithful to the trust of father. We find him in after years on a farm, having given up the mountains and the mines and also the habit of drink. The loss of his and the devotion to his children transformed him for a time and he built up a snug little fortune by agricultural pursuits. In him, however, was a longing for the old haunts and perhaps the old habits of debauchery. In the meantime a company of convivial tourists engaged the old time “Mountaineer to guide them to some g mi of the interior; and he went and again returned to the use of alcohol. This relapse carried him to the most excess and the downward never again interrupted, His life thereafter was a prolonged spree. He died a poor man after giving to the world more gold than any man, by individual effort. His children inherited none of his greatness but they suffered all his misfortunes and all met violent deaths.

source: Chronicling America, Libary of Congress

transcribed: Valley County, IDGenWeb Project
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Sylvester Scott “Three-Finger” Smith

Birth: 5 Jun 1828
Death: 27 Apr 1892 (aged 63) Valley County, Idaho
Burial: Elk Creek Cemetery Valley County, Idaho

“Sylvester S. Smith

Died: On South fork Salmon river, this county, April 28, 1892, Sylvester S. Smith, aged 63 years 10 months and 23 days, of dropsy. “Three-Fingers” Smith was one of the pioneers of Idaho county, among the first in the camp of Florence, where he made a great deal of money form the richest claim in camp. He afterward went to Warren and had very rich diggings. He probably made more money from the placer mines of Idaho county than any other one man, yet in spite of all the money made, returned to the south fork of Salmon river, where he died very poor, not due alone to bad management, but almost wholly to generosity, which he did not practice alone when he made lots of money, tut to the last days of his life. Half of all his house and larder contained was always welcome to the needy and prospector.

There were about twenty-three miners and prospectors on the river when he died, and all attended the funeral. A more typical and natural scene could not have been arranged. The old man seemed to understand the situation and expressed himself ready to die and the day before h expired he ordered some sluice boxes brought down to be used for his coffin, which was done. He was wrapped in a buffalo robe, placed in the coffin, and the grave closed over the remains of the most noble, true-hearted pioneer of the Idaho county, who will be mourned over by all who ever knew him.

He participated in several Indian wars that have occurred in Idaho and was shot in several places.”

source: Warren Times, 1892

(click image for larger size)
Photo added by Anita Savage

source: Find a Grave
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Wife Evaline Dawson

b. abt. 1847 Yam Hill Oregon

“Mrs. Smith deserted her husband and the children and went to Colorado where she afterwards married a man by the no me of Grim.”

source: Lewiston Teller, February 18, 1897
(credit: Sarah Liggett for research)

Dawson, Eveline (c 1847- ): d/o John and Rachel (Dodson) Dawson

source: Oregon Pioneers
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Robert “Bobby” Smith

Birth: 1876 Idaho
Death: Feb 1890 (aged 13–14) Valley County, Idaho
Burial: Elk Creek Cemetery Valley County, Idaho

February 1890, Warren Times

“Bobb Smith, the 14 year old son of S. S. Smith has perished in the snow while attempting to go to Alton with the mail. His body has not been found, a search party has been out several days.”

May 23, 1890, Warren Times

“Young Bobby Smith, who perished in the snow last winter, was lately found. He had succumbed to the cold and laid down on the trail and had not been disturbed by animals. He was buried on the ranch at Elk Creek. He was the youngest son of ‘Three-Finger Smith. ”

source: Find a Grave
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Samuel L. Smith

Birth: 22 Jan 1866 Oregon
Death: 24 Apr 1925 (aged 59) Boise, Ada County, Idaho
Burial: Garden Valley Pioneer Cemetery Boise County, Idaho
Juanita Jeannot Smith 1892 – d. about 1901 (m. 1900)
Anna A. Jeannot Phelps 1896–1976

Samuel Smith was injured at the Garden Valley, Boise Co., Idaho. He was injured in an accident on the Garden Valley Alder Creek Bridge while moving his family with a horse drawn wagon. His death occurred at Boise, Ada County, Idaho and he was buried in the Garden Valley Pioneer Cemetery, Garden Valley, Boise County, Idaho. Samuel’s grave is unmarked.

Samuel was called Figure Four because of an older injury to his leg which was broken and did not heal properly.

source: Find a Grave
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Juanita Jeannot Smith

Birth: Jul 1892 Colorado
Death: unknown
Burial: Elk Creek Cemetery Valley County, Idaho
Spouse of Samuel L. Smith (m. 1900)
Juanita Jeannot Smith died about 1901.

source: Find a Grave
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Warren D Smith

Birth: May 1867 Idaho
Death: 1932 (aged 64–65) Valley County, Idaho
Burial: Elk Creek Cemetery Valley County, Idaho

December 29, 1932, Warren Times

“Warren Smith died during 1932, date unknown, at the Hackett ranch. He is buried beside his father and brother above Elk Creek ranch.”

source: Find a Grave
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Elk Creek Cemetery

Elk Creek Summit Road, near where it crosses the South Fork – originally in Idaho Co.

photo courtesy of Christine Schoenhut Diehl
(click photo for larger image)

Mr. Dier, d. 1880’s
Peter Dorsey, d. 1879
Hugh Johnson, d. April 1879
Sylvester S. “Three Finger” Smith, d. April 28, 1892, at age of 63…
Juanita Smith, wife of Samuel
Bob Smith, son of Sylvester
Warren Smith, son of Sylvester

source: Valley County, Idaho GenWeb

page updated Feb 28, 2020