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]