22 July 2006

Facing Down Danger: Fort Benton Men In the Nez Perce War—Part 1

by Ken Robison

[This article was published in the Fort Benton River Press 26 July 2006]

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

The Nez Perce War in 1877 involved both military and civilians with close ties to Fort Benton. As the Nez Perce rapidly moved northward from the Judith Basin toward the Canadian border, they encountered elements from Companies B and F of the 7th Infantry Regiment, a mounted civilian volunteer company led by the Fort Benton Military Post Commander, Major Guido Ilges, and freighters and traders on the Cow Island trail. These Fort Benton men constituted small, dispersed defensive forces, and historians have largely ignored or disparaged their actions. Yet, the encounters at Cow Island and Cow Creek Canyon on the Cow Island trail, coupled with a decision by the Nez Perce to slow their pace of advance, enabled pursuing U. S. Army cavalry and mounted infantry to catch and capture most of the Nez Perce at the Bear’s Paw Mountains. Without these delays, the Nez Perce likely would have found sanctuary across the Canadian border.

My previous article, “Fort Benton and The End of The Trail of Courage,” looked at the actions of the Fort Benton men and the reactions of the Nez Perce to them. Now, let’s look at the men themselves, the 145 soldiers and civilians involved in the Cow Island and the Cow Creek Canyon fights and incidents along the Cow Island trail. Who were these men and what can we find out about their lives in frontier Fort Benton?

Captain Thaddeus S. Kirtland and 1st Lieutenant James H. Bradley were garrisoned at the Fort Benton Military Post from 1872-75 with Company B of the 7th Infantry Regiment. During his years in Fort Benton, Capt. Kirtland, a Civil War veteran, served as both Company Commander and Post Commander. His wife was one of the few white women living in the rough and tumble frontier town where life revolved around arriving steamboats and departing freight wagons. In Fort Benton in 1874, Mrs. Kirtland gave birth to a son, Roy Carrington Kirtland, who went on to an illustrious career in early Army Aviation and today is the namesake for Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

During his years in Fort Benton, young, dynamic Lieutenant Bradley listened to the stories of fur trade era from traders still living in the town. He wrote their stories and the history of the founding of Fort Benton and left a valuable record that otherwise would have been lost. His intention to publish his writings was never realized. Tragically, while leading a charge of his Mounted Infantry, Lieutenant Bradley was killed August 9th at the Battle of the Big Hole in western Montana. His widow sadly took passage on the steamer Benton on August 17 from Fort Benton down the Missouri River for her home in Atlanta, Ga.

Company F, 7th Infantry relieved Company B and manned the garrison at Fort Benton at the time of the Nez Perce War in 1877. Captain Constant Williams commanded Company F, and 2nd Lieutenant Edward E. Hardin was his deputy. Captain Williams served in the Civil War with Pennsylvania regiments. In July 1877, Captain Williams and Lieutenant Hardin departed Fort Benton with about 34 men of Company F to join the rest of the 7th Infantry at Fort Shaw to reinforce military forces in western Montana. Company F suffered heavy casualties at the bloody Battle of the Big Hole August 9-10, with three enlisted men killed and Captain Williams and five men wounded.

Remaining at the Fort Benton Military Post were Post Commander Major Guido Ilges and a reduced Company F with about fourteen men. Major Ilges was an experienced combat veteran from service in the Civil War and against the Apaches in the southwest. Born in Prussia in 1835, he immigrated to the U.S. at age 20. He served throughout the Civil War and was brevetted to lieutenant colonel for gallantry with the Army of the Potomac.

On September 18, Captain Williams, scarred and limping from his wounds, and Lieutenant Hardin returned to Fort Benton with 29 enlisted men of Company F including the wounded. In the early morning of September 21, Scout Cyprien Matt rode into Fort Benton carrying news from James Wells at Fort Clagett that the Nez Perce were heading north from the Judith Basin to the Missouri River. Major Ilges dispatched Lieutenant Hardin with thirteen men and two volunteer boatmen to set off down the river by mackinaw to Fort Clagett at the Judith. We do not know the names of either the soldiers or the boatmen with Lieutenant Hardin.

By early evening of September 21, Major Ilges departed with one soldier, Private Thomas Bundy, an experienced teamster of Company F, a supply wagon, and a hastily assembled civilian volunteer force that would eventually reach a total of 50 men. These men constituted the Fort Benton Mounted Volunteers, known as Donnelly’s Company for its fiery Irish leader John J. Donnelly. Major Ilges and Donnelly’s Company would see combat along the Cow Island trail at Cow Creek Canyon on September 25.

The first fighting occurred at Cow Island Landing on September 23-24 when the small Guard Force came under attack by the Nez Perce as they forded the Missouri River. Sixteen defenders withstood sniping from the bluffs and seven charges of their rifle pits in the Cow Island fight. According to The Benton Record, the Nez Perce acknowledged two warriors were killed in the Cow Island fight, termed by The Record “the bravest little fight.” The following soldiers and civilians participated in this engagement.

1. Soldiers Company B, 7th Infantry at Cow Island: (1 killed)

Molchert, First Sergeant Michael commanded the Guard Force. Sgt. Molchert served in the Civil War and later lived in Ohio.

Briggs, Sergeant.

Cookley, Corporal.

Clark, Denver, Ford, Keefer, Malvihill, Reap, Rice, Watson, and Williams, Privates

Martin, Private Byron was killed by the Nez Perce on September 23 one mile above Cow Island Landing while bringing Capt.
Kirtland’s horse from Dauphin’s Rapids to Cow Island.

2. Civilians in the Guard Force at Cow Island: (2 wounded) (2 of the 4 were discharged soldiers from Company B)

Troutman, George, possibly one of the discharged soldiers, was wounded in the right shoulder September 23.

Buckwalter, Ed. W. was wounded in the hand and side September 23. In 1880 Ed Buckwalter was a printer working for John
Lamott and living on Shonkin Creek. He was born in 1830 in Pennsylvania and was unmarried in 1880.

Foley, Michael served as Coulson Line agent in charge of Coulson freight at Cow Island in 1877. In 1880 Michael Foley was
a teamster at Fort Benton. He was born in 1850 in Ireland and was unmarried. Foley served as Army scout at various times.

Higgins, Hugh is likely one of the discharged soldiers.

[To be continued.]

Photos: [Credit all to Overholser Historical Research Center]

(1) Lieutenant James H. Bradley, Fort Benton’s first great historian.

(2) The Cow Island Landing fight site. Unidentified photographer.