George M. Pinney, First U.S. Marshal, District of Montana Territory (ref: 944-362)

Photograph Courtesy: Montana Historical Society Photographic Archives


 George Miller Pinney, Sr., First U.S. Marshal of the District of Montana Territory

George Miller Pinney, Sr. was born January 15th, 1832 at Rockdale Township, Crawford County (Woodcock), Pennsylvania. In 1846 Pinney’s family moved by wagon to Ripon, Wisconsin. At the age of 17, Pinney struck out for the gold fields of the California 49’ers to seek his fortune. Reportedly, mining did not pan out for him and he traveled to the Pacific South Seas and then was back in Wisconsin before he was 19.

In 1853, Pinney moved to New York to marry and obtain an education. He studied for the ministry at the University of Rochester. He briefly served as a Baptist minister before “reading the law” and becoming an attorney, practicing at Windsor, Wisconsin. Pinney also ventured out in private business in 1856 along with several others, where they claimed and platted out the town of Fremont, Dodge County Nebraska. Pinney and associates used the business name of Pinney, Barnard & Co. and the Platte Valley Claim Club.

During the presidential campaign of 1860, Pinney was an active Republican, supporting Abraham Lincoln. In 1861, Pinney and his family moved to Bon Homme County, Dakota Territory, and served on the local election board. He became the Seventh District Representative to the legislature, eventually was elected the first speaker of the Dakota Territorial House of Representatives. During his legislative tenure, Pinney became embroiled in the heated politics of the day, resigning on April 9th, 1862 after learning that some rivals planned to physically throw him out of a window. Pinney’s rivals were angry after Pinney got Governor William Jayne to station soldiers around the assembly to keep the peace. On March 2, 1864, President Lincoln appointed Pinney Provost Marshal & Captain of the Calvary of Dakota Territory. On July 15, 1862, the U.S. Senate confirmed and Pinney was appointed him U.S. Marshal for the District of Dakota Territory, and he served in that office until February 23, 1865.

Pinney secured the marshal’s appointment in the District of Montana Territory on February 20th, 1865. While Pinney moved westward to Montana, he re-located his family to Rockford, Floyd County, Iowa. In Iowa, his wife-- Harriet Maria Whitney-- died of complications from child birth on September 25, 1865.

Marshal Pinney was actively engaged in the affairs of setting up government for the territory, and he is credited with delivering the first (1865) Fourth of July address in Helena at Owyhee Park. He also secured buildings and furnishings for court rooms and jails at Silverbow (present day Butte), Virginia City and Helena. Pinney went to Washington to lobby in favor of his lead deputy, Neil Howie; he resigned as marshal on March 17, 1867. Later; Pinney was commissioned and served as Aide-de-Camp & Captain in the 1st Montana Cavalry, “Meagher’s Militia”, on July 3rd, 1867, during the indian scare of that year. Pinney also re-married in 1867, to Flora Matilda Crawford, an Australian, at Council Bluffs, Iowa and moved his family to Helena.

An active self-promoter, Pinney served as a Montana Territorial delegate to the 1868 Republican Convention and fueled his ambitions through the newspaper he bought, The Montana Post. Always the lightening rod, Pinney was challenged to a duel by a fellow lawyer, W.A. Ryan, because Pinney called Ryan “A damned liar.” He was also arrested and tried for the shooting and killing of the ex-Governor of Wisconsin, Colonel S.W. Beall. Governor Beall had come to the office of the Montana Post, demanding a retraction of slanderous attacks upon him by Pinney in the paper. Insults of “Poltroon” and “Rapscallion” were exchanged by both men. Beall pulled out a derringer on Pinney, which was met with the same. Pinney fired twice, hitting Beall in the arm and underneath the right eye, and Beall died in a pool of blood. The Marshal’s office being in the same building as the Post, Marshal Howie and his deputy, F. George Heldt, were immediately on scene, arresting Pinney for the death. Within the week, Pinney was tried and cleared of the charges before U.S. Commissioner Cornelius Hedges with the finding of self defense.

Pinney and his family moved on to Oakland, Alameda County, California in 1870. There he bought a seat on the San Francisco Stock Board and is a purchasing agent for the U.S. Naval Paymaster. He delivered the 1873 Fourth of July oration at the Placerville celebration. Later, Pinney became involved in a very bitter, public divorce with Flora, where he was accused as a “wife-beater” and philanderer in the local papers. At the same time, Pinney was indicted for charges of embezzlement, fraud; forgery and issuing false certificates in connect with his employment with the Navy. After a three year court battle, Pinney was acquitted of all charges.

In the 1880’s, Pinney moved to London, England for six years. There he traded mining interests on the London exchange and lived at the Athenaeum Club for men. He eventually returned to the United States, living in New York City. He worked as a mining trader/broker, and frequently traveling the U.S. and Europe. Pinney died on May 13, 1906 at the home of his son, George M. Pinney, Jr., on Staten Island and was buried at Charles City, Iowa, next to his first wife.

1) Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.
2) Montana Historical Society Archives, Small Collection 302.
3) ibid, Small Collection 643
4) Letters to the Attorney General of the United States, Records Group 70, NARA.
5) Helena City Directory 1868.
6) History of Montana, Leeson, 1885
7) Steven Beckler/ Judith Osbourne, Pinney Family geological websites.
8) The Wild Man of the Wild, Wild West, Pinney Portrait, Neil McGahen.
9) Helena Weekly Herald: 9/25/1868, 10/01/1868, 10/14/1875, 10/28/1875, 04/20/1876, 05/14/1877, 08/27/1877, 09/23/1878 and 09/08/1892.
10) Montana Post : /23/1867, 09/25/1867, 09/28/1868
11) New York Times: 08/25/1875, 05/06/1877, 05/08/1877, 05/10/1877, 05/25/1877, 05/30/1877, 10/01/1877, 11/03/1877, 11/23/1877, and 02/14/1878.
12) Legislator Historical Listing, South Dakota Legislature website.
13) Fourth of July Orations, UC Berkeley - Bancroft Library, call number pff F855.5.P52