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November 07, 2019

“Bedrock Jim”: The Peculiar Life of James Burchem

“Bedrock Jim”: The Peculiar Life of James Burchem

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

While the holidays are usually thought of as a time of family togetherness, this is the story of a man who left his family and disappeared for 37 years. Much of his life is wrapped in mystery, but what is known is very unique.

James Burchem was born in Indiana around 1829 and grew up in Hamilton County. He married Judith Dorrow (possibly Darrah) in 1848 and in 1849, his daughter Esther was born. In 1852, he moved his family to Illinois. Despite his family responsibilities, he decided to leave for California in 1856 with his brother Columbus Burchem to hunt for gold. He left his pregnant wife and young daughter behind and never returned.

His wife returned to relatives in Noblesville – Phillip and Caroline Wheeler. In September, a son was born and named James H. Burchem. Wheeler received a few letters from Burchem the year he left, some of which contained money, but these ended and nothing more was heard. Curiously, two years later, another daughter was born and named Hannah. There is no evidence of who the father was and the child may not have lived long. Judith died sometime after 1860 and the Wheelers adopted Esther and James. The children grew up in Noblesville and had fairly ordinary lives.

What happened to Burchem?

The nickname of “Bedrock Jim” first appears in a newspaper for Fort Benton, Montana, in 1875. Later sources make it clear that the nickname referred to Burchem. His name appeared occasionally in the same area in the 1880’s. This was in the early settlement period of Montana and Burchem had some interesting neighbors. Among them was Millie Ringgold, Charles M. Russell, and the man known as “Liver-Eating” Johnson.

The story emerged in 1890 when a Noblesville man named Frank Bolton went to Montana to seek his fortune in the mines. He was related to the Wheeler family and had grown up with the son James H. Burchem. While Bolton was prospecting for sites, he came to a mining camp called Yogo in present-day Judith Basin County. There, he noticed a man with a very strong resemblance to the younger James Burchem. Bolton, who probably knew the family history, asked the man if he was, in fact, Burchem. The old man was terribly surprised. When Bolton began telling family stories, Burchem broke into tears, and admitted who he was.

Burchem said that after sending the letters home to Wheeler, he supposedly had succeeded in finding gold in California. However, his brother was killed by bandits and the money was stolen. Depressed and discouraged, he moved to Montana in 1860. He claimed to have sent letters to his daughter that were unanswered. This could have happened after his daughter had married in 1874 and changed her name. Burchem then said that he had heard that the family had emigrated to Australia, and so gave up trying to contact them. Bolton was the first contact in 37 years.

Burchem then gave Bolton a bottle of gold dust – enough to make gold rings for Frank, James, and Esther. The two of them discussed the possibility of returning to Indiana, however, nothing ever came of it. Bolton later paid a short visit back to the family in Indiana, then returned west where he spent the rest of his life.

Nothing more can be found about Burchem after this. Perhaps he died. By 1896, another area man had been given the nickname of “Bedrock Jim”. However, the man from Hamilton County was immortalized in one way. While known primarily as an artist, Charles M. Russell was also an author who wrote tales of life and adventure in the American west. In several of his short fiction stories, he used a character named “Bedrock Jim”.