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.


Jon Trott said...

As a former Fort Benton native I congratulate you on posting some of the info I normally only get in the venerable River Press. The articles on African Americans in Montana were esp. notable, and I apprecaite very much having them available to me on line. Fascinating stuff about a fascinating town. Blessings.

Fort Benton Historian said...

Thank you Jon. I'm determined to dig into aspects of Fort Benton history that have been received little attention in the past. Glad you are enjoying the rich heritage of our town.