26 June 2006

Fort Benton & The End of The Trail of Courage 1877

by Ken Robison

[This article was published in the Fort Benton River Press 5 July 2006]

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

On the 25th of June this year, Fort Benton will join the Nez Perce (Nee- Me-Poo) National Historic Trail as a contributing site. The Trail commemorates the 1,170-mile flight of the Nez Perce from their tribal homelands in eastern Oregon, Washington and Idaho in a bold quest for freedom in buffalo country along the Canadian border during the summer of 1877. The Trail might well be known as “The Trail of Courage” for the skill, bravery, and endurance of the 750 Nez Perce men, women, and children as their quest fell short just forty miles from the border.

Fort Benton’s role in the Nez Perce War is not well understood. After all, the Trail comes no closer than 130 miles from Fort Benton, at Cow Island where the Nez Perce forded the Missouri River as they moved northward from the Judith Basin. Yet, through a series of circumstances, Fort Benton, the head of navigation, played an important role in the end of The Trail of Courage.

On June 18, 1877, Captain Thaddeus S. Kirtland with 28 enlisted soldiers of Company B, 7th Infantry Regiment, departed Fort Shaw via Fort Benton for Dauphin’s Rapids on the Missouri River. Capt. Kirtland and the men of his Company B were well known in Fort Benton, where they were stationed from 1872-75. During the summer of 1877, they guarded engineers engaged in improving navigation on the Upper Missouri River. On August 18, Capt. Kirtland sent eight men from Company B down river to Cow Island to guard Government Stores landed there by steamboats still active on the Upper Missouri. Four more men from Company B soon joined this guard force together with four civilians from Fort Benton, two being discharged soldiers from Company B.

The summer of 1877 had seen a tremendous upswing in steamboat traffic at the head of navigation on the Missouri, and the resurgent activity brought a building boom to Fort Benton. Residents had followed closely the saga of the Nez Perce, and took keen personal interest when elements of the 7th Infantry including mounted infantry under First Lieutenant James H. Bradley departed Fort Shaw to engage the Nez Perce in western Montana. All residents of Fort Benton knew Lieut. Bradley, the deputy commander of Company B, for during his time in Benton he had chronicled much of the early history of the old fur trade post. News of Lieut. Bradley’s tragic death on August 9th at the bloody Big Hole battle brought the war home to the town.

After the Canyon Creek skirmish along the Yellowstone River on September 13, the Nez Perce moved steadily northward across the Musselshell toward the Missouri River. The movement of their camp outpaced exhausted cavalry and mounted infantry pursuers under General O. O. Howard and Colonel Samuel Sturgis. By September 18, Colonel Miles, with more cavalry and mounted infantry, departed the Tongue River moving northwest to intercept the Nez Perce.

The steamboat Peninah tied up at Cow island Landing on the morning of September 19 and unloaded 85 tons of freight. That afternoon a wagon train of Cooper & Farmer arrived at the landing and began loading freight into their fifteen wagons. By the morning of September 21, half the bull train was loaded and started the long haul over thirty-two crossings of Cow Creek along the trail leading to Fort Benton. That same day the steamer Fontenelle brought another 70 tons and eleven passengers to the landing.

Early in the morning on Friday September 21, interpreter Cyprien Matt rode into Fort Benton with news from James Wells of Fort Clagett that the Nez Perce were traveling up the Judith Basin headed for Canada. Wells asked for help to protect the fort, a trading post at the mouth of the Judith 65 miles above Cow Island. Major Guido Ilges, commander of the Fort Benton Military Post with a depleted Company F, 7th Infantry garrison, directed Lieutenant Edward E. Hardin with thirteen men, plus two volunteer boatmen, to load a 12-pound mountain howitzer onto a mackinaw boat and set off down river to Fort Clagett.

Major Ilges, with Private Thomas Bundy of Company F, and 24 citizen volunteers, known as Donnelly’s Company for their fiery Irish Fenian leader John J. Donnelly, departed Fort Benton at 7 p. m. Friday evening on horseback. The Ilges force traveled 24 miles to the springs beyond the Marias River, where they encamped at 1 o’clock Saturday morning. The Benton Record newspaper reported the movements and warned that “It is hardly possible that a handful of men sent to protect Fort Clagett and Cow Island can give them [the Nez Perce] a very serious check.”

Major Ilges and Donnelly’s Company broke camp at daylight Saturday September 22, rode all day, and arrived at Clagett at 5:30 p. m. after covering 56 miles. Lieut. Hardin with his detachment arrived at Fort Clagett via mackinaw in the forenoon about six hours earlier. Two scouts were sent out toward the Moccasin Mountains to find the direction that the Nez Perce were taking.

At Cow Island on Saturday, Cooper & Farmer’s remaining ox-train departed for Fort Benton. There were eight bullwhackers with this train, and a light wagon with four ladies, accompanied by Dr. Brown, Surgeon, U.S. Army, Captain Frechette, North West Mounted Police, and an escort of five soldiers (the Fontenelle passengers).

On Sunday September 23, both the Ilges and Hardin forces remained at Clagett, awaiting the return of their scouts. Toward evening the command was strengthened by the arrival of six more volunteers from Fort Benton.

At noon Sunday, Sergeant William Molchert with three soldiers from Capt. Kirtland’s Company B, arrived at Cow Island by a borrowed woodhawk’s boat from Dauphin’s Rapids. The Nez Perce killed a fourth soldier, Pvt. Byron Martin, who was sent overland from Dauphin’s Rapids with Capt. Kirtland’s horse. The 12-man detachment from Company B and four citizens constituted the Cow Island guard force.

After a remarkable 36-hour movement covering 78 miles, early Sunday afternoon the Nez Perce camp approached Cow Island to use the shallow-water crossing. Although tired and hungry, led by twenty warriors the Nez Perce camp of almost 700 men, women, and children crossed the ford at Cow Island. The main column continued up Cow Creek about three miles where they camped for the night. Sgt. Molchert’s small guard force watched the movements from defensive rifle pits.

About twenty warriors approached the guard force under flag of truce to ask for food, offering to pay. Determined to try to protect the freight, Sgt. Molchert refused but finally provided a token amount of supplies. The Nez Perce went away to consider their options. During the afternoon a rifle shot was heard, indicating the death of Pvt. Martin as he approached with Capt. Kirtland’s horse. In the late afternoon, the Nez Perce began shooting from the bluffs above Cow Creek, pinning the guard force in their defensive rifle pits. Other Nez Perce came up around the corner of the bank of the creek and took supplies including whiskey from the freight depot and set fire to the rest. Some 30 tons of government freight and 20 tons of private freight were either taken or destroyed.

The skirmish continued for more than ten hours through Sunday night and into Monday morning with some seven Nez Perce charges of the rifle pits, each time repulsed. Two of the civilian defenders were wounded in the first skirmish: George Troutman, wounded in the right shoulder, and E. W. Buckwalter, wounded in the hand and side. After a long night under fire, the guard force found by 10 o’clock Monday morning the Nez Perce had departed up Cow Creek less than 100 miles from the Canadian border.

Among the folklore from the Cow Island fight, is a dispatch sent by freight agent and defender, Michael Foley, to his boss Colonel George Clendenin, who was down river trying to locate steamboats. The dispatch read:

“Rifle Pit at Cow Island,
September 23, 1877, 10 A.M. [probably 10 P.M.]
Col:--Chief Joseph is here, and says he will surrender for two hundred bags of sugar. I told him to surrender without the sugar. He took the sugar and will not surrender. What shall I do.
Michael Foley.”

Back at Fort Clagett, at 2 a.m. Monday morning the scouts finally returned to report to Major Ilges that the Nez Perce were heading toward Cow Island. Ilges’ command left at daylight, traveled all day down river, reaching the banks of the Missouri opposite Cow Island by evening. Soon after going into camp Lieut. Hardin’s force arrived by mackinaw, bringing the mountain howitzer and Sgt. Molchert’s guard force that had left the depot after the fight.

Tuesday daylight, the Ilges command crossed the Missouri by mackinaw to the north side. At the landing they found the burned depot with supplies strewn over the surrounding hills. The rifles pits showed signs of a fierce struggle with Sgt. Molchert providing the details. Major Ilges dispatched a courier to Col. Miles and started on the trail leading up Cow Creek. His objective was not to intercept the overwhelming Nez Perce main force, but to locate and protect the slow moving ox-trains and the light wagon with the passengers of the Fontenelle.

While Ilges’ command had been enroute Cow Island, the Nez Perce broke camp and moved up Cow Creek by noon Monday overtaking the Farmer & Cooper wagon train, slowed by a muddy trail, numerous crossings, and a herd of cattle. The Nez Perce went into camp near the train ten miles up Cow Creek.

Early Tuesday morning, Major Ilges moved with Donnelly’s Company up Cow Creek, leaving Lieut. Hardin, 25 men, and the howitzer at Cow Island. Scout Murray Nicholson spotted the Nez Perce camp, and apparently as the Ilges command approached the Nez Perce took action to a perceived threat to their camp. Warriors shot and killed teamster Fred Barker, and the seven other teamsters fled into willows. The warriors ransacked the train and set fire to the wagons. Major Ilges halted his command as he observed the Nez Perce camp readying to depart. By noon the Cow Creek Canyon fight was underway. As the Nez Perce main camp moved away, warriors began firing on the Ilges command from the bluffs above. Ilges deployed his force into defensive positions. For over two hours, firing continued. Edmund Bradley, a black American volunteer, was killed by a Nez Perce sharpshooter. John Tattan, another volunteer, was almost killed when he was knocked down by a bullet strike to his abdomen, stopped by his belt plate.

As soon as Major Ilges decided to stand and fight, he sent Pvt. Bundy back, with orders for Lieut. Hardin to bring up his men and the howitzer. Bundy safely covered the dangerous ten miles in less than two hours. After firing ceased about 2 p.m. and the Nez Perce warriors moved north, Major Ilges withdrew down Cow Creek, meeting Lieut. Hardin’s detachment. The small combined force continued back to the Cow Island rifle pits to defend if further Nez Perce attacks came, to guard newly arriving steamboat freight, and to await arrival of Col. Miles.

Wednesday, September 26, most of the volunteers returned to the Cow Creek Canyon battlefield to bury Ed. Bradley and Fred Barker. The remainder worked to strengthen and enlarge the rifle pits at Cow Island. In the evening the steamer Benton arrived and commenced unloading about 60 tons of freight.

During the night Cooper & Farmer with the surviving portion of their oxen arrived, and were fired upon by vigilant sentinel, volunteer Joe Hanna. Thursday morning five more train men came into camp. The steamer Benton hauled logs for a blockhouse from the south bank, and after unloading got ready to leave. At noon the Benton got underway, and Major Ilges with Donnelly’s Company departed Cow Island to return to Fort Benton. They passed the burned train, and found the wagons and their contents entirely destroyed. The Ilges command made a night march reaching Bear Paw springs about 11 p. m. After the volunteers left the canyons, the Nez Perce rear guard attacked H. A. Nottingham’s train enroute Cow Island from Fort Benton. He managed to escape and turned the train back to Benton.

On Friday September 28, the Ilges command marched until midnight, reaching 24 Mile springs. They found the remains of Charles Steele and buried him between Birch and Eagle creeks. Steele and his trading partner James Downey had been murdered the previous night while trying to escape to Benton from the Bear’s Paw Mountains.

Early Saturday afternoon about 1 p.m., Major Ilges and Donnelly’s Mounted Company reached Fort Benton “tired, worn, but cheerful, and ready to start again if their services are needed.” In the words of The Benton Record, the “Bold Volunteers . . . fully deserve the gratitude of this community and the General Government. They have not annihilated Joseph and his band, but they have accomplished a great deal of good. They relieved Fort Clagett, they relieved and strengthened the party at Cow Island. They have by their action saved two steamboats and 100 tons of government freight. They have fought the Indians on their own ground and harassed them in their movements. They have developed the enemy’s position and strength, they have saved the lives of the trainmen by their prompt advance, they have buried the dead, they have demonstrated to the Indians the fact of our strength should mischief be intended in this direction, and by their return they have gladdened the hearts of our people beyond expression.”

The major contribution of the small 7th Infantry Regiment force and Donnelly’s Mounted Company at Cow Island and Cow Creek Canyon is the critical delay they caused the movement of the Nez Perce camp. The twenty hours delay at the Cow Island fight and the four hours delay at the Cow Creek fight cost the Nez Perce dearly. These delays, coupled with the slowed pace of movement of the Nez Perce camp, enabled Col. Miles to close ground and move into position for the decisive Battle of the Bear’s Paw and the surrender of the Nez Perce on October 5, less than forty miles from sanctuary in Canada.

Fort Benton has two significant artifacts from the Nez Perce War: a mountain howitzer and a Winchester carbine. The mountain howitzer is the one taken by Lieut. Hardin by mackinaw to Fort Clagett on September 21. This 12-pound brass mountain howitzer was built in 1863 for use in the Civil War and came to Fort Benton from Camp Cooke in 1869. It will be on display later this summer at the new Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument Interpretive Center.

Most significantly, also at the Interpretive Center will be displayed the symbol of the end of the Trail of Courage--the Winchester Model 66 lever-action carbine surrendered dramatically by Chief Joseph to Col. Nelson A. Miles on October 5, 1877. Col. Miles presented the rifle to Gen. O. O. Howard. Later, Gen. Howard gave the rifle to John W. Tattan, Mounted Volunteer of Fort Benton, saying that the rifle should never leave Montana, and it has not. Upon the death of Judge Tattan, the rifle went to his grandson, William T. Morrison who presented Chief Joseph’s surrender rifle to the Museum of the Upper Missouri upon its opening in 1958.


(1) Major Guido Ilges, commanding the Fort Benton Military Post

(2) Map of Cow Island and Cow Creek area

(3) Photo of Cow Island taken in 1880 by F. Jay Haynes

09 June 2006

Shooting Fort Benton: The Early Photographers

Shooting Fort Benton: The Early Photographers
By Ken Robison

This article was published in the Fort Benton River Press 31 May 2006

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

The magical setting of Fort Benton begs to be photographed—the grandeur of the mighty Missouri River, the broad river bottom, the rising bluffs. Yet we’ve never seen the first photograph taken of Fort Benton.

Almost certainly, that first photo was a daguerreotype taken by John Mix Stanley in 1853. Stanley brought a camera when he accompanied the Isaac Stevens Railway Survey Expedition to Fort Benton in 1853, and he took the first photographs of the Rocky Mountains. Stanley left photographs, lithographic illustrations, and paintings from that pathbreaking trip. Regrettably, Stanley’s photographs no longer exist, probably burned in the same Smithsonian fire that destroyed many of his oil paintings. John Mix Stanley’s lithograph is the first visual image we have of Fort Benton. That illustration of old Fort Benton and Stanley’s grand oil painting of Fort Benton founder, Alexander Culbertson, are now on display in the Hornaday Room at the Museum of the Northern Plains in Fort Benton.

Other early traveling artists came to the Upper Missouri bringing along cameras. Talented artist Karl Wimar brought a camera on his trips in 1858-59, although none of his photos are known to exist. In 1860, J. D. Hutton accompanied Captain William F. Raynolds on a topographic exploration of the Upper Missouri. Hutton’s amazing photograph of Fort Benton from across the river in July 1860 is the earliest known surviving photograph of the old American Fur Company post. This important photograph is on display this summer at the entrance to the Museum of the Northern Plains as part of a new photographic display from the archives of the Overholser Historical Research Center. This exhibition focuses mostly on early professional photographers who resided in Fort Benton rather than the travelers.

Charles Bucknum, an army man with a camera, spent the summer of 1868 at Fort Benton, apparently with a detachment of the 13th Infantry Regiment. A Bucknum photograph of the old Fort is on display this summer. Charles R. Savage, the famed Mormon photographer based at Salt Lake City, came north to Montana Territory in the summer of 1868. In early August 1868, Savage visited Fort Benton and two of his exceptional carte-de-viste are on display. His photograph of the steamboat Success is the first close-up photo of a steamboat at the Fort Benton levee. An earlier photo from July 1867 taken by an unknown photographer from across the Missouri River shows the steamboats Luella and Tom Stevens at the Fort Benton levee.

The earliest known “resident” photographer in Fort Benton was Washington W. Parker who spent the summer of 1877 in Fort Benton. Through his photographic advertisement in the Benton Record, we know of his presence, although we have no photos taken by him. In August 1877, Parker moved north to Fort Macleod. He returned to Fort Benton briefly in August 1880, but by October had moved on. Traveling photographers came up the Missouri by steamboat to Fort Benton in the 1870s including Stanley J. Morrow in 1873 and W. E. Hook in 1878 and 1879.

Two photographers arrived at Fort Benton in the spring of 1880 and spent the summer here. William Culver, who later gained fame as the premier photographer of Lewistown, came to Fort Benton. While his photographic equipment was being shipped up the Missouri River, Culver became partners with George Anderton in a photographic tent studio in Fort Benton. By the fall of 1880, Culver moved on to the new army post at Fort Assiniboine. We know of no Culver photos of Fort Benton during 1880, although he took an early scene of great falls of the Missouri.

George Anderton, formerly of the North West Mounted Police and the founding father of photography in western Canada, came to Fort Benton in May 1880 from Fort Macleod. He took important photographs of the buildings and people in Fort Benton during the boom period of steamboat navigation. One exceptional Anderton photo in our collection shows the Front Street levee in 1880. The backstamp on this image reads: “Geo. Anderton, Photographer, Fort MacLeod, N. W. Ter. Canada.”

The late summer of 1880 also brought Fargo photographer F. Jay Haynes to Fort Benton. Haynes had come up the Missouri from Bismarck on the crowded steamboat Helena with reporter M. H. Jewell of the Bismarck Tribune and 261 civilian contract workers enroute to Fort Assiniboine. At Coal Banks, Haynes, the reporter, and the workers, left the Helena to go overland to Fort Assiniboine. Over the next several weeks, Haynes took photography of the construction of the fort and the falls of the Missouri before arriving in Fort Benton. Inexplicably, Haynes took only four known photos at Fort Benton, before departing by mackinaw to return to Dakota. On the way down the Missouri, he took dozens of photos of the white cliff features, the river, and cloud formations.

Justus Fey, a German immigrant, came to Fort Benton in October 1881 from Deadwood City, Dakota Territory. Opening the City Gallery on Main Street, Fey immediately began recording the building boon that was underway. Don and Kathy Lutke used Fey’s photograph of the Pacific Hotel, taken in late 1882, as a guide in their restoration of the famed hotel. Among many other important photos, Justus Fey took an exceptional photograph of the steamboat Josephine on its arrival at the Fort Benton levee on 3 May 1882. Fey was a wandering man, and by 1883, he had equipped a wagon to use as a traveling photographic gallery. Over the next five years, until his death in Helena in 1888, Fey roamed moved through the Sun River valley, Great Falls, Butte, Marysville and Helena taking photographs of people and places.

In July 1882, Sol Duffin and his wife arrived in Fort Benton from Winnipeg. By December, Duffin had opened a photographic gallery on Main Street opposite the I. G. Baker store. He gave half of his building to the city for a library. The Duffins remained in Fort Benton just one year, departing in the fall of 1883 for the States and eventual return to Winnipeg. Only a handful of Duffin photos are in our collection, and all of them are portraits.

In November 1883, Civil War veteran and wandering miner Dan Dutro bought Duffin’s gallery. Dutro had served as a drummer boy in the 150th Illinois Volunteers in the war. His health suffered from the war years, and in June 1868 he came up the Missouri River on the steamboat Andrew Ackley to the Montana frontier. Over the next decade he worked as a miner and stonecutter, until his health forced him to seek less demanding work. By the early 1880s, Dan Dutro and his family settled in Fort Benton. Over the next two decades, Dutro remained in Fort Benton, compiling an exceptional photographic record. He photographed a wide span of Fort Benton history, the river, the people, the buildings, the scenes, the Native Americans, the ranches, and mines in the area. Among our collection of Dutro photos are two “hanging” photos taken of convicted murderers before their execution. The hangings were public events, and the photos posed the doomed man with various law enforcement and legal community officials.

Toward the end of Dutro’s photographic career, young Roland Reed came to Fort Benton. He apprenticed at the Dutro studios in Fort Benton and Havre during 1896-97. In 1897, Reed went north to photograph the Alaska Gold Rush. He then went to national prominence during a long career photographing Native Americans, especially the Blackfoot Indians. Many of his photographs were published in association with the Great Northern Railroad.

John G. Showell, another wandering man, spent time in Deer Lodge and Great Falls before opening a photographic studio in Fort Benton in 1899. We first learned of his presence in Fort Benton from an ad in the 1900 Montana Brand Book. Within two years, Showell was on the move again to Hamilton, Missoula and Stevensville. We have but a single portrait photograph from Showell’s time in Fort Benton.

A final photographer among the early residents of Fort Benton was young Walter Dean. In July 1903, Dean arrived in Fort Benton to work in D. G. Lockwood’s jewelry store as an apprentice optician. Over the next year, Dean displayed exceptional talent as a photographer. His most famous photograph was taken in September 1904 when Charles M. Russell came to Fort Benton in company with the Third Cavalry on an overland march from Fort Assiniboine to Great Falls. Walter Dean and his camera were waiting as Charlie and two Cavalry officers posed outside Joe Sullivan’s Saddlery. Our photo of Charlie and the Cavalry is hand tinted, reportedly by Dean’s friend L. A. Huffman. Thanks to the generosity of Dean’s grandson, Gordon Dean, our Research Center has a strong collection of Walter Dean’s photographs from his year in Fort Benton including many views of the Third Cavalry in encampment on the grounds of the old fort. By 1905, Dean moved on to the new eastern Montana town of Forsyth where he became a prominent booster and photographer.

Samples of the amazing work of Fort Benton’s early photographers will be on display throughout this summer at the entrance to the Museum of the Northern Plains. The exhibition is built from the broad collection of imagery and memorabilia held at the Overholser Historical Research Center. This community collection of photography belongs to the people of Fort Benton, and it will continue to grow through your generosity. If you have photographs of the town, ranches, farms, river, and people stop by the Center. If you can part with them, we will add them to the collection. If you can’t part with them, but are willing to share them with the community, we’ll scan them into our new digital photographic archives. Meanwhile enjoy the exhibition this summer when you visit the museums.


(1) First known photograph of Fort Benton taken in 1860 by H. D. Hutton. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(2) Charles R. Savage photographed the steamboat Success at the Fort Benton levee in August 1868. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(3) Army Scout Charles Bucknum photographed the old fur fort in 1868. [From Overholser Historical Research Center]

(4) Talented Canadian photographer, George Anderton, spent the summer of 1880 in Fort Benton. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(5) Justus Fey photographed the steamboat Josephine at the levee in 1882. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(6) Dan Dutro’s “hanging” photo of murderer John Osness in 1894. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(7) Young Walter Dean’s photo of Third Cavalry Encampment at Fort Benton in 1904. [Overholser Historical Research Center]