Updated: Jan 28
According to William J. McConnell, Idaho's third governor, historian, and vigilante captain, Jefferson J. Standifer was "brave as a lion". He was many other things; an adventurer, a fighter, and a prospector. He was called the "Daniel Boone of the mines", and the "Kit Carson of the Northwest", and a "builder of Idaho". Today we might call him controversial. He left behind many mysteries about his life, and a few about his death.
Governor William J. McConnel
This is the first of a series of blog posts about the life of Jeff Standifer, an important figure in the History of Idaho.
Jeff was a Texan. Although he was born in Tennessee, he spent his formative years in what would later be known as the Lone Star State. Jeff was born in 1832, but by 1840 the Standifer family was living on the frontier in Texas, in what is now Bastrop County. Jeff's father James became known for his bravery in protecting white settlement in the area from Comanche raids. James passed away in 1843, and his wife Nancy followed him in death just three years later. This left Jeff to be raised by his siblings: four brothers and three sisters. The oldest son of Nancy and James was Buford Preston, and he seemed to take charge of the family when his parents passed away.
Buford Preston Standifer
The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California in 1848 was enough to draw Buford to the new El Dorado in the west. He, along with brothers Rufus, Madison, and 14-year-old Jefferson traveled to California where they would learn how to prospect and mine for gold. The fifth Standifer brother, Monroe died the same year, but the remaining four were often found traveling the West together for the next three decades. In 1854, Jeff Standifer found himself living in an unexpected place. He had a home on the island of Kauai in the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii.
Two very different sources corroborate his presence in Hawaii. The first is the remembrance of an old prospector by the name of Herman Francis Reinhardt. The second is two journals written by missionaries from the Mormon church. The missionaries mention that he had a home there and was very hospitable. Reinhardt tells that Jeff got himself in trouble for killing a prominent citizen, possibly the first of many deaths Jeff would have a hand in, and his big brother Buford had to sell off many of his mining interests to get enough money to rescue him from the noose. That story is not told elsewhere, but it seems the Standifer brothers returned to California where Buford went back to work in his mines.
Reinhart's book of recollections mentions Jeff Standifer a few times
Jeff, however, became involved in a legendary lost mine story. The Peg Leg Mine was said to have been located between Yuma and Los Angeles and was "discovered" by a man named Thomas "Peg Leg" Smith. Smith claimed he found a mountain of rich gold ore when he wandered off the trail during a storm. When he got his bearings, he could not find the gold again but would put together several expeditions over the course of the next few decades to search for it. Jeff Standifer, along with several other men, followed Peg Leg Smith into the desert to look for the Peg Leg Mine in 1855. When Smith failed to lead them to the gold, the party threatened to hang him for what they figured out was an attempt to fraud them for whiskey.
The next gold rush to entice Jeff was in British Columbia. In 1858, gold was struck on the Fraser River, emptying California's gold camps of miners, and causing Vancouver to become the new San Francisco. To avoid purchasing a mining permit from British officials, Jeff and his partner, probably Buford, traveled up the Fraser River in a canoe to avoid the patrolling gunboats. Reinhardt, the old prospector, reported that Jeff later got himself in trouble for selling liquor to the natives, which was against the law at the time. The newspaper, however, reported that Jeff did well for himself mining at Texas Bar on the Fraser, pulling out 152 ounces of gold.
A portion of a map of the Fraser River showing Texas Bar below Fort Yale
Jeff may have then went Oregon and spent some time around The Dalles before winding up in Virginia City, Nevada where mining on the Comstock Lode was at a fever pitch. There, his second recorded murder occurred when he shot a "Mexican" in Light's Saloon, although another man took credit for firing the fatal shot. What else Jeff did in Nevada, and throughout most of his life, is open to speculation but his next move would cement his place in the History of Idaho.
For more on the incredible story of his life, check out Brave as a Lion: Jeff Standifer and the Knights of the Golden Circle.