The Life of Jeff Standifer: Part 6, Mexico and the Death of Jeff Standifer

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

This is part 6 of our series on Jeff Standifer, and if you thought the last one was wild, this one gets even better. If you haven't read the first five parts, start here.

After the war, Jeff Standifer turned his attention back to getting gold out of the ground. He became a shareholder in a gold mine in Sinaloa, Mexico. He and one of his brothers were in Mexico to get the operation of the mine started when war came. While the United States was fighting and reconstructing from its own Civil War, Mexico was also fighting one, bolstered by several European powers. In the fighting, the Standifer's mine was burned, twenty-three workers were killed, and the Standifer brothers had to flee back to the United States.

The next stop for the Standifers was Montana, where Buford pulled gold out of Shangai Gulch at the Elk Creek diggings by May of 1866. In September, Jeff put together an expedition to explore the Wind River Mountains for new mines, which would make him one of the first to explore certain areas which would become Yellowstone Park. 127 men were on this trip, with Jeff Standifer being elected captain. They passed through wild terrain, were chased by buffalo, and got into some fights with the Sioux.

When the party reached the Yellowstone River, it split in two. Half of them kept on toward Wind River, while the others, including Standifer, headed south. They passed through western Wyoming, Eastern Idaho, and into Utah where they camped outside of Salt Lake City. It was around this time when A.B. Henderson, whose journal provides an account of this trip mentions that the expedition started recruiting more men for Mexico, but nowhere in his journal does he say why they were going to Mexico.

Whatever happened in Mexico did not take long; the expedition arrived on the border in April of 1867, and by the following winter, Standifer was in Salt Lake City waiting for the snow to melt to lead a group of Mormons to the Sweetwater River of Wyoming. From there, Standifer bounced around Wyoming for a while, leading more prospecting trips, and then being named sheriff at South Pass City. At Green River City, Jeff ran into an old rival from his Boise Basin days, a man named Jimmy McGuire.

What started the quarrel is lost to history, but the two men tried to settle it using their revolvers. Standifer was hit by two balls, one piercing his right hand, the other passing through his left arm, and into his abdomen where it lodged near a kidney. McGuire was arrested, but there is no record of the disposition of the charges. Standifer was laid up for a few weeks to recover. By his side was his brother Buford, a bulldog, and a pet five-month-old Rocky Mountain Grizzly Bear. The dog was chained up, but the bear was free to move around Standifer's quarters as it pleased.

In November 1868 Standifer could be found in Bear River City, Wyoming. This was one of those "Hell on Wheels" towns that would pop up to support the building of the transcontinental railroad. Standifer had a saloon there called The Mountaineer, but the establishment was short-lived because the town burned to the ground soon after it was opened. A group of outlaws had been arrested and held in jail. Some men about town decided they would play vigilante and string the men up, but the friends of the outlaws caught word and came to town. A gunbattle started, and the outlaws took advantage of the confusion to set fire to the jail. What would become known as the "Bear River City Riot" left men, women, and children homeless at the beginning of a Wyoming winter.

In Cope, Nevada, Standifer almost became the victim of a short-range shotgun blast, fired by a man named T.B. Fitzhugh. Luckily for ol' Jeff, someone stepped in and pushed Fitzhugh's shotgun away just as the blast occurred, damaging the door frame under which Jeff stood. Nevada obviously did not suit him, since he was back in Montana shortly thereafter, once again searching for gold. He became involved in a third Lost Mine story, this time it was the Lost Lemmon Mine and again he failed to find it, although it is not certain that he actually took part in the expedition to find it. Standifer kept bouncing around Wyoming and Montana until 1874, when he found himself at Fort Fred Steele, Wyoming.

Entrance to Fort Fred Steele on the windswept banks of the Platte River

Fort Steele was built for one purpose; to protect the Union Pacific Railroad and the workers building it from the Sioux. The fort was located on the Platte River where a train trestle was built to cross it. In 1874, the natives became bold enough to enter the parade grounds of Fort Steele and Fort Fetterman and killed several soldiers. In response, the army put together the Big Horn Expedition, also known as the Mills Expedition, as a show of force. The plan was to take seven companies of calvary to the Powder River to search for the culprits. The chief guide of this expedition was a man named William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. Jeff Standifer was named chief packer.

Top: Parade Ground at Fort Steel

Bottom: The train bridge across the Platte River, this bridge replaced the original in 1910

Soon after the expedition set out, Standifer fell ill and was returned to Fort Steele. He had come down with Rocky Mountain Fever, caused by a bacteria found in ticks. Jeff knew by the time he arrived at the fort's hospital that he would not make it. He passed away on September 30, 1874 (although some sources say his death occurred on October 1st). The brave Jefferson J. Standifer, who had survived a dozen-some battle with natives and one with the U.S Army, as well as a couple of gunfights, had been shot twice and traveled thousands of miles on horseback and by ship, only to be felled by a bug bite. His death was reported and mourned all over the Western United States, and people were still talking about him decades later. At some point though, people stopped talking about Jeff Standifer. Although he was to men like Kit Carson and Daniel Boone during his life, he has not enjoyed the same notoriety in modern times.

The white building in the background was a one-room schoolhouse that serviced the town of Fort Steele after it was abandoned as a military post. The schoolhouse was built on top of the ruins of the fort's hospital, where Jeff Standifer actually passed away.

As interesting as the documented facts of his life are, there are many mysteries of his life and death that will be discussed on the next, and final post. Thank you for reading, and please leave a comment to let us know your thoughts.

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