30 November 2005

Charlie Russell and the Mysterious Photos

Charlie Russell and The Mysterious Photos

By Ken Robison

Published in The Fort Benton River Press of 23 Nov 2005

[This continues a series of frontier sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in the Schwinden Library & Archives in Fort Benton.]

Have you ever picked up an old photo and wished you knew the story behind it? Well, I did the other day when I received a phone call from historian and lecturer Joe Crosby of Oklahoma City. Joe had come across two real photo postcards, both marked “Photo by Dean Forsyth” and “At Fort Benton in 1904.” The first photo showed Charles M. Russell standing beside two Army officers, while the other depicted two six-mule wagon trains. So Joe’s question to me was, “What is the story behind these photos?”

[Mystery Photos—What are the stories behind these two 1904 photos? The top photo (from the Overholser Historical Research Center) shows Charles M. Russell with two Army officers, and the lower photo (from the Joe Crosby Collection) shows two six-mule wagon trains in Fort Benton. Researching the photos led Ken Robison to several interesting stories from the history of Fort Benton.]

I knew that Charlie Russell loved Fort Benton and visited his many friends here as often as he could. And, I knew that I had seen one of the photos, the one with Charlie and the two officers. In our Research Center photo archives, I found an original hand tinted enlarged [9x13 inch] print of this same image. But, we did not know the story behind either of the photos. Did the two photos relate? Who was Dean of Forsyth and why was he in Fort Benton? Why was Charlie standing with the two Army officers in Fort Benton in 1904? What was the occasion?

My first step was to find what I could about “Dean of Forsyth.” We knew nothing of a Mr. Dean working as a photographer in Fort Benton. The story began to fall in place when with a tip from Joe Crosby I found short biographic sketches for Walter B. Dean, Jr. of Forsyth in a Rosebud County history and in an article in Montana the Magazine of Western History. Walter Dean came to Fort Benton from Minnesota in 1904, worked a year as an apprentice in a jewelry store and then moved on to Forsyth in 1905. There he went into the jewelry business, soon became an agent for Eastman Kodak photographic supplies, and eventually became noted as a booster and photographer of Forsyth.

With this starting point, I turned to the Fort Benton River Press for 1904-05. The January 20, 1904 issue carried the first advertisement for newly arrived “Walter B. Dean, Jr. Graduate Optician. Scientific Fitting of Glasses a Specialty at Lockwood’s.” So, this confirmed that Walter Dean was in Fort Benton during 1904. Putting this together with Dean’s move the next year to Forsyth and his involvement with photography, it is reasonable to conclude that Walter Dean took the two photographs in Fort Benton in 1904 and later, after getting established in the photo supply business in Forsyth, printed them in several formats to be sold at his shore. These two prints are the very first photographs known to have been taken by Dean. It also begs the question whether any other photos were taken by budding photographer Dean during his year in Fort Benton. If you know, please let us know.

So, we now know about Dean of Forsyth, but what about Charlie and the Army officers. A close examination of the photograph shows that he and the two officers were standing on the sidewalk on Front Street in front of the Joseph Sullivan Saddlery. Interestingly, the D. G. Lockwood Drug Store was located next door. The uniforms of the Army officers indicate that they were cavalry officers, and we know that Fort Assiniboine was home to part of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment in 1904. But were they 3rd Cavalry, and why were they with Charlie in Fort Benton in 1904? This time the River Press helped, but did not provide the full answer. I found that in September 1904 six troops of the 3rd Cavalry together with four companies of the 24th Infantry Regiment (black American “buffalo soldiers”) were in Fort Benton September 22nd.

With this promising lead from the weekly River Press, I searched the Great Falls Daily Leader and found a treasure trove of information. In addition, the Montana Historical Society Archives held the official Army report for an annual practice march from Fort Assiniboine to Great Falls via Fort Benton in September 1904. This detailed report, submitted by the commanding officer of the 3rd Cavalry, Lieutenant Colonel William H. Beck, was filed in the Fort Assinniboine Miscellaneous Copy Book. I now had details on the plans and movements.

On 19 September the 3rd Cavalry Band along with Troops A, B, I, K, L, and M of the Third Cavalry and Companies E, F, G, and H of the 24th Infantry, a total of some 450 men, departed Fort Assiniboine enroute Great Falls to attend the Cascade County Fair. Then in The Leader I found the nugget that I needed to prove the Charlie Russell connection, “Accompanying the soldiers on their trip across the country were B. B. Kelly, Vincent Fortune and C. M. Russell, who went up to the fort [Assiniboine] from this city [Great Falls] for the purpose of taking this novel trip.” Charles’s two companions were Berners B. Kelly, a fuel dealer, and Vincent Fortune, a real estate dealer.

The military troops with Charlie Russell and his friends marched the first day to Box Elder covering 17 miles, camping with a fair supply of water but scarce wood and grass owing to the extremely dry summer. The second day, the command proceeded on to Old Soldiers’ Camp, a distance of 23 miles. At this camp water was limited, but water kegs had been brought from Box Elder. The column went 15 miles the third day to the Marias River camping with ample water, wood, and grazing. On the 22nd of September, the command marched the remaining 11 miles to Fort Benton arriving in the afternoon, going into camp at the old fort. Here the horses were watered in the Missouri River while the troops were furnished water from town hydrants.

It had to have been during the afternoon of the 22nd, that Charlie Russell and the two Army officers, likely visiting Charlie’s old friend Joe Sullivan, were photographed by young Walter Dean in front of the Joe Sullivan Saddlery. One officer was identified on the photograph as Capt. F. H. Lawton while the other officer remains unidentified. Captain Frank Hall Lawton, from Iowa, joined the Army in 1891 and was promoted to Captain in 1901. During 1904, he was assigned to the Army Quartermaster Corps, and apparently detailed to Fort Assiniboine.

The second photograph taken by Walter Dean, that of the wagon trains, also is related to the Army expedition. The Great Falls Leader of September 23rd reported that the troops from Fort Assiniboine “have with them a pack train and several fine six-mule teams for the baggage and camp paraphernalia.” Dean’s photo shows two of the Army six-mule wagon trains in Fort Benton.

A dance was given at Green’s Hall in Fort Benton the evening of the 22nd in honor of the officers from Fort Assiniboine. Dancing to music furnished by the Third Cavalry band, the large crowd reported “having a good time that will be long remembered.”

The next day, the 23rd of September, the military expedition departed Fort Benton and marched to Nelson’s ranch, a distance of 22 miles, where little wood and grass was found, and the water was not potable. From Nelson’s ranch, the march covered the final 21 miles to Great Falls, and the command went into camp the afternoon of September 24th. Prior elaborate planning had called for the expedition to make a grand entrance to Great Falls via the First Avenue North wagon bridge with the troops marching grandly eastward up Central Avenue. These plans were shelved when the command arrived late in the afternoon, and marched directly over the Fifteenth street bridge into camp on vacant land south of the Royal mills, at Eighth Avenue North and Twenty-fifth Street. In less than two hours the military camp was fully organized, and hundreds of visitors began arriving, a preview of the thousands of citizens that would flood the camp during their six day visit. This encampment site proved ideal since it was adjacent to the county fair grounds at Black Eagle Park and along the street car line. Daily, the two Great Falls newspapers were filled with news of the military camp from the previous day and detailed plans for their events that day including the military General Orders with times and events from reveille at 5:30 a. m. to taps at 11:00.

The morning of the 26th of September the Cascade County Fair opened with a parade of the soldiers from Fort Assiniboine. The six troops and the band of Third Cavalry rode grandly down Fourth Avenue North to Park Drive, then over to Central Avenue and up the avenue to the excitement of large crowds. The Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment did not share the limelight simply marching down Fourth Avenue to Park Drive, and then turning back to the camp. During the afternoon in addition to the events at the military camp, the Cavalry conducted riding events and races at the fair grounds where an enormous sawdust ring, 300 yards long by 35 yards wide, had been constructed within the circle made by the race track. In this ring, the drills, sham battles, and special drills of the cavalry and infantry were performed. These events included: Roman races with riders each standing on two horses riding wildly around the track; Cossack hurdle races with stirrups crossed on the saddle and riders standing in the stirrups; rescue races where one rider throws his horse, takes shelter behind it, shoots an imaginary enemy and in turn is wounded and a second rider races to the side of his wounded comrade, lifts him to the saddle of his horse and races off to safety; hurdle races over a series of hurdles; and the most popular rough riding with about 35 riders a day racing across a ring 100 years in length and 30 yards across in front of the grand stand.

The 1904 Cascade County Fair closed on September 29th “in a blaze of glory.” The newspapers declared it “the greatest fair ever held in Cascade County,” and the soldiers from Fort Assiniboine had stolen the show. On September 30, Major Elias Chandler with his 2nd Battalion of the 24th Infantry Regiment departed Great Falls to return overland to Fort Assiniboine. In response to a request from the management of the State Fair, Lt. Col. Beck ordered the Third Cavalry, under Major E. P. Andrus, to proceed to Helena. At the Montana State Fair, the Cavalry received a warm reception, though without the overwhelming response of the citizens and newspapers they received in Great Falls. With the end of the State Fair October 8, the Cavalry began the long march back to Fort Assiniboine, stopping for the night October 15th at Fort Benton.

Isn’t it ironic that over one hundred years later, we are still solving the riddle of the “Dean of Forsyth” photographs. We now know and can enjoy the story behind the image of Charlie Russell and the Army officers taken in Fort Benton in 1904.

[Sources: Montana, the Magazine of Western History, Autumn 1985, pp. 68-77; They Came & Stayed Rosebud County History, pp. 67-8; FBRPW 20 Jan 1904; GFLD 14 Sep 1904; GFTD 19 Sep 1904; GFLD 22 Sep 1904; GFLD 23 Sep 1904; GFTD 25 Sep 1904; GFLD 26 Sep 1904; FBRPW 28 Sep 1904; GFLD 30 Sep 1904; Montana Daily Record 5 Oct 1904; FBRPW 19 oct 1904; MHS MC 46 Vol 13 Fort Assinniboine Miscellaneous Copy Book]


(1) Charlie and Two Cavalry Officers in Fort Benton in 1904 [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(2) Six-Mule Wagon Trains in Fort Benton in 1904 [Joe Crosby Collection]

(3) Ad for Walter Dean Graduate Optician [Fort Benton River Press 20 Jan 1904]

21 September 2005

Eternal Shep: Fort Benton's Faithful Dog

By Ken Robison, Historian
Overholser Historical Research Center

[Published in The Fort Benton River Press 6 Jul 2005]

In the months since my article in the 29 Dec 2004 River Press exploring the identity of Shep’s owner, we have received dozens of letters, emails, phone calls, and visits. While the identity of the sheepherder remains illusive, we did learn much about Shep and his legend. Here is a sampling of what we learned.
We know now that a respected veterinarian examined the dog and concluded that Shep was an Australian Shepherd. Ed Shields, the Great Northern train conductor who first pieced the story together in September 1939 with the help of station agent A. V. “Tony” Schanche and section foreman Patrick McSweeney, wanted a vet to check over the newly famous dog. Shields tried, without success, to get Shep aboard the train to bring him to Great Falls. Failing that, Shields brought vet George Morrison, who operated Dr. Morrison’s Animal Hospital in Great Falls, by train to Fort Benton several times a year to examine Shep. A phone call from Jeff Morrison, of Hobson, the son of veterinarian George, brought this information to light.
From the United States Australian Shepherd Association internet website [www.australianshepherds.org], we find a description, which closely resembles the photos we have of Shep: “Black is one of the basic coat colors in Aussies. They may also have white markings on faces, chests, legs, and under parts. Copper points are also commonly seen on the face and legs. Aussie may be solid black, black and white (black bicolor), or black, copper and white (black tricolor or black tri). Black Aussies usually have brown colored eyes, although they may occasionally have one or both eyes that are blue.”

Movie film footage of Shep exists. With delight we received a phone call from Fred Arnst in Oregon telling us that his father, Dick Arnst, used a 16mm movie camera to film many people, events, and scenes around the Fort Benton area during the period 1940 to 1942. The movie film included Shep. Dick and Donna Arnst converted the 16mm movie to modern DVD and VHS formats. The two and one half minutes of Shep coverage show: the arrival of a Great Northern train; Shep meeting the train and walking up to check out the arriving passengers; Shep posing with station agent Tony Schanche; Shep doing tricks like rolling over and chasing his tail, each time rewarded with a treat by Schanche; and Shep strolling into the Fort Benton station. What a thrilling experience to see Shep “in action” 63 years after his death, The film sequence concludes with coverage of Shep’s funeral: the Boy Scouts from Troop 47 in formation with pall bearers John G. Lepley, Don Bradley, Don Colburn, and Charles Berens; taps sounded by senior Scout patrol leader Kenneth Vinion; mayors Ed Shields of Great Falls and Richard Miller of Fort Benton; Shep’s railway friends who had befriended him; and sadly, the little casket bearing Shep being lowered to his eternal resting place.
Shep continues to help Montana’s deaf and blind students. We knew, of course, about donations in Shep’s name over the years to the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind. In the 1940s Ed Shields began to sell a Shep booklet to the passengers on Great Northern trains. Sales were brisk, so Shields decided to donate the proceeds to the School for the Deaf and Blind. We did not realize that the “Shep Fund,” begun by Shields in Shep’s name, remains to this day a part of the Foundation for the School. From the beginning, funds sent to the school in Shep’s name were used to buy recreational necessities and extras for the students, which other funding simply could not cover. In an email, Morris Miller tells us that he received Shep Fund assistance while a student at the School in the 1950s. He remembers some Easter candy, for example, and states, “I have always felt kind of a personal closeness and connection with the Shep Story!” We do not know exactly how much money Shep has brought to the School, but we do know it totaled some $55,000 by 1969. We believe the total now must be well over $100,000. Remarkably, over the past decade almost $300 a year continues to come to the Foundation designated for the Shep Fund.
Shep’s legend spans our globe. At the Overholser Historical Research Center, we are constantly amazed at the global reach of Fort Benton’s famous dog. Our Center is the repository for a wealth of information about and photographs of Shep, and we receive about 50 Shep queries and requests each year. A sampling of recent Shep projects around the world includes the following:
--The Russian magazine Droug (Friend) will carry an article on Shep with our photos when it is issued later this summer. This project began with an email that read:
“Hello! You disturb from Russian magazine for fanciers of dogs Droug (Friend). I’ll would write article about dog Old Shep. At me to you the request. You could not send me historical photos Old Shep that it was possible to print them in magazine? In article I shall necessarily make a link to your site. Beforehand many thanks! Best regards, Elena Patrusheva”
After pondering the meaning, we recognized that this was a request for Shep photos. Our positive reply to Elena’s email urged that we continue the email exchange in English, since her English is better than our Russian.
--A children’s book on Montana A B Cs by Sneed Collard III, B is for Big Sky: a Montana alphabet came out in 2003. Author Collard was amazed at the positive response that the letter “S” received—the letter being illustrated with Shep and his story. Because of the reaction, the author is now working on a full-length children’s book on Shep. The text and illustrations will tell the Shep story when the book comes out in 2006. Sneed spent a day at our Center researching the Shep story and acquiring photos for his illustrator.
--A new edition is being prepared of Gayle Shirley’s popular Four-legged legends of Montana. The chapter on Shep is being updated with new information and photographs provided by our Center.
--A new work of fiction, Cold Train Coming, by Larry Barkdull features a fictionalized account of Shep and a dustcover with one of our best Shep photos.
--The English Shepherd Advocate published by Vivian Flynt in the U. S. will carry an article on Shep by an Australian author together with our photos. The article by Paul Springthorpe of South Australia, entitled “Shep—My Story” is from Springthorpe’s new book, It’s a Dog’s Life.
--A new book edited by Karen Pfeiffer, The Romance of the Collie, will carry the Shep story with our photos. Karen Pfeiffer is also the author of The Legacy of Lassie.
--The 2006 fund-raising daybook calendar for the Mikal Kellner Foundation for Animals in Helena will feature Shep.
--Stuart Beveridge of Draper, UT is working on a book about Shep, which will include photos provided by our Center.
New photos and new information. Our story in the River Press triggered a variety of other useful contacts. Richard (Dick) Stafford of East Helena, who in times past taught at Helena High School with his friend Ralph Henry (aka Eric Thane), provided us with the earliest photos we have seen of the original Shep memorial at his gravesite. Henry wrote about Montana history for students, and he was also an accomplished photographer. The package Dick sent contained eight excellent photos of the Shep memorial together with many other non-Shep photos to add to our archives.
Chuck Shinkay emailed to tell us that his father ran the dining car on the Great Northern train #235-236 between Great Falls and Havre until the service was discontinued in the mid 1950s. As a child, Chuck would ride the train with his father. He remembers the train crews pointing out the Shep monument on the hill overlooking the station and telling the story. Two years ago, Chuck took his oldest grandchild to Fort Benton to hear about the Shep story.
We heard from Sidney Kurth of Billings through his letter to the River Press about his time from April to November 1937 when he worked at the Fort Benton station. Sidney remembers that Shep would come out from under the wooden platform and meet the train. At that time Shep was aloof, not friendly, but very attentive to all the activity. After Shep had looked over the passengers and the train departed, Shep would go back to his “house” under the platform. Kurth’s observations tend to confirm that Shep early on was a loner, and only after several years began to warm up to Agent Schanche and the rail men. Certainly, by about 1940 when Arnst’s filming occurred, Shep and Schanche were good “buddies.”
Irene Schanche Bowker of California, the daughter of depot agent Tony Schanche, heard about our article through a friend in Lewistown. Years ago, Irene wrote a story from Shep’s viewpoint. She would read it to children when she taught in a grade school in Denver. She found that “The pupils loved it, and most of us had tears in our eyes at the end (including me, even though I had read it over and over.)”
Nicholas Scott Rose, formerly of Billings and now Great Falls, recently built the first known diorama of the Shep story. His three-dimensional model of the train station has people inside and outside the depot, a freight train just arrived at the station, and Shep sitting nearby on the platform looking off into the distance, waiting for a passenger train and the return of his master. Let us hope that Mr. Rose displays the Shep diorama at the Fort Benton museum complex for all of us to share.
Gar Wood of Loma, with the help of Kathleen “Alex” West and our Center, is assembling a DVD that will explore the Shep story and the origins of the legend.
We’ll leave this update on Shep without discussing the mystery of Shep’s owner. That is a complicated and continuing saga that we’ll cover in the near future. We’ll discuss also some dissident views from a handful of skeptics of the legend.
We have learned much during the past months, yet, there is always more to know. We can use more views and photos of Shep and of the people and places important in his life. If you have photos, please contact the Overholser Research Center by phone 622-5316, by mail at Box 262, Fort Benton 59442, or by email at riverplains@fortbenton.com. If you or your family can’t part permanently with the photos, we’ll be glad to scan them into our digital photo archives and return the originals to you. We welcome also personal stories relating to Shep—all of your stories and memories are important. Remember, the legend of Shep is not just a Fort Benton story but one of the world’s great animal stories.


(1) Australian Shepherd with black color coat [U. S. Australian Shepherd Association]

(2) Australian Shepherd [U. S. Australian Shepherd Association]

(3) Shep [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(4) Original Shep Monument erected April 1942 by Ed Shields and Great Northern workmen. [Photo taken by Ralph Henry, Overholser Historical Research Center]

18 September 2005

Along the Whoop-Up Trail: Fort Benton and Western Canada's Shared Past

By Ken Robison, Historian
Overholser Historical Research Center

[Published in the Fort Benton River Press 31 Aug 2005]

While problems with Canada over cattle and war on terrorism policies may cloud our view of our neighbors to the North, we have strong historic bonds that should not be forgotten. Fort Benton’s River and Plains Society has recently had two useful reminders of just how close our shared regional history really is.

On Thursday, August 18, our Overholser Historical Research Center (OHRC) hosted three different Canadian researchers working on historical projects that connect Fort Benton and western Canada. Dr. Sarah Carter, professor at the University of Calgary, spent the day digging into our homesteading files. She is using our records, diaries, archives, and photography as part of a two-year project to study women homesteaders in the northern plains. Dr. Carter is fascinated by the large number of female homesteaders in early Chouteau County and the wealth of information we have on their experiences.

That same Thursday, Walter Hildebrandt, also from Calgary, spend the morning at the OHRC reviewing the photographs that we have relating to the Cypress Hills Massacre. He is in the process of expanding the photography in a new edition of his book The Cypress Hills The Land and Its People. Mr. Hildebrandt selected seven of our photos and expects to use at least two of them in the new edition.

The third Canadian researcher team to visit that day, were Doug and Jo Anne Goyette from Olds, Alberta, who were researching a grandfather, Ed Goyette, who lived in Fort Benton from 1900 to 1910 and operated the Board of Trade Saloon.

A second recent reminder of the great impact Fort Benton had on the development of western Canada is illustrated by a trip the River & Plains Society from Fort Benton took to the Lethbridge area August 25-26 to participate in the official opening of historic North West Mounted Police (NWMP) Barracks at Fort Macleod and in a visit and tour of Fort Whoop-Up at Lethbridge.

When the Hudson’s Bay Company turned control of the Canadian North-West over to the new Canadian government in 1869, “free traders” from Fort Benton moved into the void to dominate the trade in buffalo robes and furs with the Blackfoot. With steamboats bringing supplies and trade goods to the Upper Missouri, Fort Benton served as the supply point, and trading posts were set up throughout the area of what is now southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. While both the Hudson Bay and the American Fur Company traded whiskey for robes in the past, the absence of law and order along the border brought a significant increase in the “whiskey trade.”

The most infamous of the trading posts was built in 1869 along the Belly River (now Oldman River at modern Lethbridge). It became known as Fort Whoop-Up, Fort Benton traders, John J. Healy and A. B. Hamilton, ran the post in the 1870s. Today, the whiskey post at Fort Whoop-Up has been reconstructed in the vicinity. The fifteen members of the visiting Fort Benton group were hosted at a breakfast and given a special tour by Fort Whoop-Up director Doran Degenstein and historian Gord Tolton.

Photo Caption: “The trail leading from Fort Benton to the Fort Whoop-Up in the lawless period of the early 1870’s became known as the Whoop-Up Trail. (Courtesy of Fort Whoop-Up)”

Photo Caption: “John G. Lepley and Bob Doerk of the River & Plains Society stand by an original 1832 cannon taken by Johnny Healy from Fort Benton to Fort Whoop-Up in 1869. (Photo by Ken Robison)”

In 1873 Canadian authorities acted to curb the lawlessness by creating the North West Mounted Police (known today as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). The following year the first contingent of North West Mounted Police (NWMP) moved westward to establish law and order and to shut down Fort Whoop-Up and the other whiskey posts north of the border. For the next decade, until the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1884, the NWMP used Missouri River steamboats to Fort Benton and then overland bull trains to move men and supplies up the Whoop-Up Trail into western Canada.

In 1884 a large barracks complex was built at Fort Macleod, used until the 1930s, and then dismantled. Two years ago, a preservation group, the Riders of the Plains, began to reconstruct the huge complex that will eventually have some 50 buildings. On August 25, 2005, the official opening of the NWMP Barracks (reconstructed) was held at Fort Macleod with dignitaries from Ottawa and Calgary. Sharalee Smith of Fort Benton, representing the Old Forts Trail Association, announced the addition of Forts Whoop-Up and Macleod to the Old Forts Trail. The Fort Benton delegation were guests at the dedication ceremonies and a dinner followed by a performance of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride led by Commissioner Guiliano Zaccardelli. The performance of the Musical Ride was magnificent.

Photo Caption: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride performing at Fort Macleod August 25, 2005. [Photo by Ken Robison]

In the 136 years since Fort Whoop-Up and the other trading posts triggered the formation of the North West Mounted Police, Fort Benton and western Canada have shared a strong historic bond. That bond is today alive and well for both sides of the border to enjoy.

06 August 2005

Mrs. Thomas Francis Meagher's Sad Departure From Fort Benton in Sept 1867

Mrs. Thomas Francis Meagher’s Sad Departure from Fort Benton In 1867: What a Way to Treat a Lady!

By Ken Robison

[Published in Fort Benton River Press 3 Aug 2005]

This continues a series of frontier sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in the Schwinden Library & Archives in Fort Benton.

If you haven’t heard of Thomas Francis Meagher, you are missing a colorful part of Montana history. An Irish revolutionary hero and exile, a Civil War hero and General, Montana Territorial Secretary and Acting Governor, eloquent lecturer, and all around brilliant rabble-rouser, Meagher lived life on the edge. General Meagher continues to attract international interest, with writers and readers drawn by his colorful life and his tragic and controversial death in Fort Benton, Montana Territory, the night of the 1st of July 1867.

Yet despite the General’s enduring fame, little has been written about his wife Elizabeth, and the few words that have been written about her time in Montana Territory are rife with inaccuracies. Mrs. Elizabeth “Libby” Meagher came up the Missouri River to join her husband in the territory of Montana in 1866. A year later in June 1867, Libby is supposed to have gone to Helena on her husband’s fateful trip to Fort Benton, but did she remain in Virginia City. Upon his death on the evening of July 1st, she is supposed to have rushed to Fort Benton and spent months patrolling the banks of the Missouri, directing the search for her husband’s body, but did she really? Elizabeth is supposed to have left Montana the end of September by steamboat to return to New York, but how and when did she really leave, and what was her trip by steamer down the Missouri River like?

Mrs. Libby Meagher first arrived in Fort Benton June 5th, 1866, onboard the sternwheeler Ontario in the company of her husband who had gone downriver from Benton to meet her. Among the 38 passengers arriving at Fort Benton after the slow 57-day trip from St. Louis were ten women and eight children, famed priest Father DeSmet, Territorial Chief Justice H. L. Hosmer and family, Judge J. P. Williston and family, Townsend Poore, superintendent of a mining company and his wife, Professor D. S. Henkel, a German metallurgist, D. W. Tilton of the territory’s first newspaper, the Montana Post and his family, and overland freighting merchant Mathew Carroll.

The June 16th newspaper Helena Radiator announced, “The Acting Governor, General Thomas Francis Meagher arrived from Benton, with his better half, on yesterday. We welcome her to her new Mountain home, and may she find in it, all that her heart desires.” After several weeks in Helena including participation in 4th of July celebrations, Elizabeth Meagher and her husband moved on to their residence in Virginia City, the territorial capital. They settled into the social life of the bustling capital of Montana Territory.

Elizabeth M. J. Townsend Meagher was 36 years of age when she arrived on the Montana frontier. She had married the brilliant, but unpredictable, Irish exile in New York and attended him for the rest of his life, often serving as secretary and later as nurse. She was with him at the first battle of Bull Run early in the Civil War, and she nursed him back to health after he was wounded in the battle. It would take more than the remote Montana frontier to separate them. General Meagher and his lady lived in Virginia City, and their small log home was a social center there.

Thomas Francis Meagher was an active lecturer, Irish hero, and territorial official as secretary and part-time acting governor, with many social and political demands. By the spring of 1867, Acting Governor Meagher faced an expanding settler population and a perceived threat from Indian tribes, especially in southern Montana. His calls for federal troops were answered by a modest shipment of arms destined for Camp Cooke on the Missouri at the mouth of the Judith River. Meagher determined to go to Fort Benton either to receive the arms there or to embark a steamboat to go down to Camp Cooke.

General Meagher departed Virginia City about June 17th accompanied by an escort of six or more militia. The acting governor spent several days in Helena, leaving for Fort Benton about June 22nd. The next day on the road to Benton, the General met Governor Green Clay Smith and his family who had arrived at Fort Benton June 20th on the steamboat Octavia.

Mrs. Libby Meagher’s activities during this period are subject to conflicting reports.
Did she remain in Virginia City or go on to Helena to await her husband’s return from Benton? Most authors speculate that at the time of General Meagher’s departure from Virginia City, Libby proceeded separately to Helena. Yet, no mention is made in either Helena or Virginia City newspapers of this trip. The few territorial papers at that time tended to report every move and activity by either of the famous Meaghers. The absence of any mention in the newspapers indicates that Libby remained in Virginia City. This later becomes important in determining where and when Libby received the news of her husband’s death.

By the evening of the 23rd of June, General Meagher and his escorts arrived at Johnny Healy’s store at Sun River Crossing. On the road from Helena, Meagher became very ill, apparently from severe dysentery. For the next week, Meagher remained at Healy’s store recovering from his illness. The evening of the 30th of June, a blacksmith working for Huntley’s Stage Line reported enjoying an evening dinner “laughing and joking” with a group that included General Meagher at Healy’s little 12 x 12 feet log dugout.

Early the next morning, General Meagher and his escort departed for Benton. About ten hours after their arrival at Fort Benton around noon on the 1st of July, General Thomas Francis Meagher went over the side of the steamboat G. A. Thomson alongside the Benton levee, and a legend of controversy and mystery was born.

So, what about grief-stricken Mrs. Libby Meagher? Prominent historian Robert Athearn writes: “For nearly two months after the death of her husband, the grief-stricken daughter of wealthy old Peter Townsend pathetically patrolled the tawny banks of the Missouri, searching for her husband’s body . . . When fall came to Montana that year, she reluctantly abandoned the search and returned to New York.” [Athearn, pp. 166-67]

Recently, author Gary Forney concludes: “Elizabeth immediately came to Fort Benton where she reportedly walked the banks of the Missouri River, and employed others as well, in an extended search for the body of her husband. By the end of September, Elizabeth abandoned the search for her husband’s remains and returned to New York City to live again in her father’s home.” [Forney, pp. 218-19]

So did Libby Meagher rush to Benton and did she patrol the banks of the Missouri for months searching for her husband? What a great story, but is it true? Again the absence of any mention whatsoever in either the Helena or Virginia City newspapers about Mrs. Thomas Francis Meagher quickly departing for Benton, argues against the story. There is simply no real evidence that Libby Meagher came to Fort Benton before her final sad departure from Montana Territory by steamboat September 2nd.

If, as appears most likely, Libby remained in Virginia City at the time of her husband’s death, then she would have learned the tragic news about July 5th. If she had immediately departed for Benton, she would probably have arrived there about the 9th of July. If Libby were in Helena she could have been in Fort Benton by the 5th of July. There is evidence in the Montana Post that Mrs. Meagher was in Virginia City on July 26th to receive a petition from the Fenian Brotherhood. There is simply no known evidence that Libby did rush to Benton. Not one word was mentioned of her arrival in the Benton activity reports carried in the territorial papers. Not one word appears in either the Helena Herald or the Montana Post about her departure. Libby Meagher did not rush to Benton, and she did not patrol the banks of the Missouri for months.

Regardless of Elizabeth Meagher’s location at the time of her husband’s death, we know that she did make her final departure from Virginia City on the 12th of August. The Montana Post announced: “Mrs. General Meagher left yesterday [12 Aug] per private conveyance for Benton, thence by river for the East. It was with sincere regret our citizens bid good-bye to this most estimable lady, and her friends in Montana will ever cherish her memory fondly. Quite a number of the citizens turned out in Nevada and formed an escort of honor, while overhead the twin flags of Erin and Columbia floated out on the breeze.”

On her way to Benton, Libby Meagher arrived in Helena on August 14th and spent the next two weeks bidding a sad farewell to friends in that city. Since the steamboat Gallatin, the last boat to leave Benton for the States this season, was scheduled to leave on the 31st, Mrs. Meagher left Helena on Tuesday morning, the 27th, for Fort Benton.

Libby arrived in Fort Benton on the 29th of August, expecting the Gallatin to depart on the 31st. No record has been found of how she spent the days in Benton waiting for the Gallatin to depart, but she no doubt had an outpouring of support from the small community especially among the strong Irish contingent.

The Virginia City Montana Post on August 31st gave Libby Meagher a fine sendoff tribute: “Homeward Bound. --Mrs. Meagher takes passage on the steamer Gallatin, advertised to leave this day for St. Louis. The following from the pen of Miles O’Reilly is a deserved tribute to her who leaves our Territory to-day, and, perhaps, forever: ‘How noble a wife she has been--with what fidelity of warm devotion she has clung to the varying fortunes of her brilliant but erratic lord--only those could tell whose lips must remain silent under the seal of social relationship. Reared in luxury, and as much flattered and followed for her beauty as Meagher has been in early days for his genius and gift of eloquence, she never faltered in her allegiance to the exile who reached his highest fortune where he won her heart. Whither he went she followed him; his people became indeed her people, and his God she made her God. We dare not write more upon this branch of the subject, though we write from an overflowing heart, and have many thoughts surging upward and clamoring for expression.’”

Finally on Monday, September 2nd, Mrs. Thomas Francis Meagher began her sad journey home to New York, a trip that would prove long and difficult. The steamboat Gallatin departed Fort Benton for Omaha, with Elizabeth Meagher and 149 other passengers and upwards of a quarter of a million dollars in gold dust onboard. After trouble from late season low water, the boat reached a point thirteen miles below Camp Cooke on the morning of the 5th. Here the Gallatin ran hard on the rocks at Holmes Rapids, and for six days the crew and passengers worked with block, tackle, and spars, struggling to get her afloat. On Sunday, Sept. 8th, the steamer Only Chance came along and about 25 of the Gallatin’s passengers, gave up and took passage down on that boat, an action they would later regret.

By Wednesday September 11th, the Gallatin’s crew and passengers had strained and racked the boat so badly that it was considered unsafe to remain onboard any longer. All the passengers and freight were put ashore, and the boat dismantled, even to the deck planking. Her splendid machinery was left in place, in hopes she might eventually get through, and the steamer was tied to the bank. Later passenger accounts spoke highly of the conduct of Capt. Howe, who worked day and night, in the cold weather and water to save his boat and secure comfort for the passengers.

The eleven lady passengers, including Elizabeth Meagher, with six children, provisions, baggage, and a few male passengers were put on two mackinaw boats. The balance of the passengers started overland on foot to reach the steamer Huntsville at Cow Island, fifty miles below. Eight miles down river, the mackinaws met Captain Jacobs of the Huntsville, coming up with a yawl to their relief. He agreed to carry passengers on the Huntsville to Omaha for $75 currency, while Capt Howe of the Gallatin generously gave all the provisions he had and all the money left from the trip. Having no cooking utensils, the mackinaw party, including Elizabeth Meagher, laid down to sleep about eleven o’clock that night, rather hungrier than was pleasant. To add to their discomfort the rain coldly and continuously poured down on them through the night, with wolves howling in the distance. An early start and the mackinaws reached the Huntsville by 10 a. m., while the foot passengers, hungered and weary, wet, foot-sore and demoralized, came struggling in by squads until night, thankful for their deliverance from a shipwreck on the Upper Missouri.

The money and provisions from Captain Howe left $21.50 due from each cabin passenger and $6 from deck passengers, which was paid. The Huntsville then waited for the arrival of the ship’s Clerk and additional travelers from Fort Benton.

Boating conditions in that late season were horrible. The steamboat Imperial was hard aground twelve miles below Cow Island on September 14th, with poor prospects of getting off. Another boat, the Zephyr, was above Cow Island, and it was believed would have to remain all winter in the mountains. The Only Chance had a terribly rough trip down to Cow Island, pounding over rocks all the way. She left Cow Island September 12th and made her way down to Omaha, the passengers, including the 25 from the Gallatin, suffering all the way from poor quality food leading to much sickness and two deaths from dysentery. One passenger recorded that “a gladder set of boys never walked a steamboat plank” upon their arrival at Omaha October 4th. Onboard were over 200 passengers and about $3 million in treasure.

The steamboat Huntsville with Elizabeth Meagher aboard departed Cow Island September 19th. The boat passed Fort Peck on the 28th and worked her way down the Missouri slowed by the late season low water, the almost constant need to spar across sand bars, and frequent high winds. At long last, the sad journey ended for Mrs. Thomas Francis Meagher at Omaha on the 17th of October. The legend of General Thomas Francis Meagher was just beginning.

Sources: Montana Post 27 Jul 1867; 17 Aug 1867; 28 Sep 1867; 9 Oct 1867; Montana Post Tri-Weekly 31 Aug 1867; The Montana Radiator 16 Jun 1866; Helena Herald Weekly 21 Aug 1867, 5 Sep 1867; Thomas Francis Meagher: An Irish Revolutionary in America by Robert G. Athearn. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 1949; Thomas Francis Meagher Irish Rebel, American Yankee, Montana Pioneer by Gary R. Forney. 2003.


(1) General Thomas Francis Meagher cut a dashing figure in his Zouave uniform of the 69th New York Regiment early in the Civil War. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(2) Mrs. Elizabeth Townsend Meagher in Virginia City 1866-67. [Montana Historical Society]

(3) Meagher residence in Virginia City [Montana Historical Society Contributions, Vol. VI]

(4) The ill-fated steamboat Gallatin [Overholser Historical Research Center]

31 July 2005

On Being a Black American in Territorial Fort Benton—Part 2

By Ken Robison

Black pioneers came West for many of the same reasons as whites, seeking, adventure and social and economic opportunities. By 1860, at least four black men worked for the American Fur Company at its Upper Missouri Outfit post at Fort Benton. As the town of Fort Benton began to develop at the head of navigation on the Missouri river and the hub for overland freighting into Montana and southern Canada, blacks came on steamboats often as crewmen, sometimes as passengers. By 1870 Fort Benton’s black community had at least 25 residents, and the growth of both the town and its black community were accelerating. By the next census in 1880, some 76 blacks resided in Fort Benton, and both Choteau County and Fort Benton showed the highest percentage of blacks of any county or city in Montana.

While Montana’s black population was never large, a close look at Fort Benton during the decade of its earliest period of “civilization” from 1875 to 1885, reveals a robust black community with surprises and fascinating stories. The story is much more than a statistical game. During the early 1880s, Fort Benton showed positive signs of opportunity and acceptance for its black residents despite an ever-present element of intolerance and racism. At least six blacks owned their own businesses, and in two cases blacks and whites co-owned businesses. Among the black businesses, some were located in prime real estate on Front Street. Black residences were spread around the town, not confined to one area, and some blacks built their own homes. Black families were being formed, and after a sharp struggle in 1882, black students were admitted to Fort Benton schools. Blacks were acquiring property with several black male and female entrepreneurs on the county property tax lists with substantial accumulations of property.

So why were black Americans “accepted” in early Fort Benton? There are no doubt many reasons, but perhaps two are primary. Fort Benton in the late 1870s and early 1880s was booming. New businesses were essential to serve the steamboating and overland freighting industries. New hotels, restaurants, barbershops, and other services were in demand. Blacks were moving up the Missouri River, ready to take the service industry jobs. In Fort Benton, they had opportunity. Perhaps equally important, the fur trade post of Fort Benton had a long tradition of mixed race and nationality work forces including acceptance of fur trader intermarriage with Native American women. Early Fort Benton featured a racial mixture, and, perhaps without oversimplification, early Fort Benton society seemed to have a hierarchy with whites at the top followed roughly in order of acceptance by mixed race white-blacks, black Americans, white-Indian children, Chinese, and at the bottom native Indians. Many families in Fort Benton in the 1870s and 1880s involved interracial marriages of native Indians and whites and at least four black and white marriages.

So, what do we have to learn from black history in early Fort Benton, Montana? Black Americans shared with whites the challenges of living in a frontier environment. Young James Berry was killed in the Ophir massacre of 1865. Edmund Bradley fought and died in action at Cow Island in 1877 during the Nez Perce War. He was given a hero’s funeral and burial at Fort Benton. Other blacks shared the opportunities. Through hard work, Mattie Bell Bost acquired her own laundry, married adventurous John K. Castner, and the two “founded” the coal town of Belt. Young Alex Martin parleyed his culinary talent into a position as head chef on the opening of the Grand Union. Martin along with eight other blacks held nine of the eleven jobs on the staff of the Grand Union. At least two black women, sisters Maria and Mary Adams, had a surprising impact on our understanding of General Custer’s actions during the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Several blacks gained special respect among all races in their community. “Old Aunt Leah” was eulogized as Fort Benton’s “angel of mercy” on her death. Many of Fort Benton’s blacks moved on to other communities in Montana, and some became pillars in their new communities, including Edward Simms in Great Falls and Duke Dutriueille in Helena. The story of black Americans in early Fort Benton is the story of many lives and events.

On Being a Black American in Territorial Fort Benton—Part 1

By Ken Robison

This continues a series of frontier sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center at the Schwinden Library & Archives in Fort Benton.

York came first. The first recorded black American to travel to the upper Missouri. He came as a slave, the “property” of Captain William Clark, yet he became an active participant as the Corp of Discovery blazed the trail to the west. York became the model for the future—when white Americans came west, so too traveled black Americans.

In successive waves, adventurers, fur traders, gold seekers, boatmen, freighters, laborers, whiskey traders, merchants, tradesmen, soldiers, service personnel, domestics, soiled doves, ranchers, and farmers came to the upper Missouri. Most were white men and women, but always there were blacks. Our histories of the upper Missouri, Chouteau County, and Fort Benton focus on the pathbreaking activities of white pioneers on the frontier. The lives and activities of black residents in this historic area have been little researched and largely ignored. Symptomatic of the neglect of black history is the fact that Fort Benton’s premier journalistic historian, Joel F. Oversholser published almost nothing on early black history despite the emphasis of the River Press on history during his four decades as editor.

By the mid 1870s, the darkness of repression was descending in America on the southern and Border States as the post-Civil War reconstruction “revolution” was replaced by a southern counter-revolution. The birth of the Ku Klux Klan and the wavering of Northern resolve to enforce equal rights in the South in the face of massive Southern resistance left blacks with a disheartening balance of modest economic acceptance with increasingly restricted political and social rights. Some blacks accepted their fate in the South, but many migrated northward or westward.