25 July 2006

Facing Down Danger: Fort Benton Men In the Nez Perce War—Part 2

By Ken Robison

[This article was published in the Fort Benton River Press 2 August 2006]

This continues the series of frontier sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton. This article continues our study of the Fort Benton participants in the Nez Perce War.

On September 25, 1877, Major Guido Ilges, Private Thomas Bundy, and the Fort Benton volunteers of Donnelly’s Company saw combat along Cow Island trail at Cow Creek Canyon as they tried to rescue Diamond R freight trains under attack by the Nez Perce about ten miles north of Cow Island.

The men of Donnelly’s Company were tough men, experienced in the hard and dangerous life of frontier Montana. During the 1860s and early 1870s, Fort Benton was a wild and wooly steamboat river port and overland freighting town, featuring the “toughest block in the West.” At least four, and likely more, of Donnelly’s men had extensive Civil War service, and three had recent service in the Seventh Infantry. At least three were Army scouts. Five of them had service as Sheriffs, Deputies, U.S. Marshals, or North West Mounted Police. Eight lived the dangerous lives of freighter, wood hawk, or wolfer. Six were ranchers or farmers. At least six were of Irish descent, while two and possibly three were black Americans. At least four men were married to native Indian wives, and two Indian fathers joined their sons-in-law.

The following roster of the 50 Donnelly’s volunteers is compiled from two sources: the Benton Record Weekly of 30 November 1877 listed 37 men (indicated with a + mark below); and, Colonel John Gibbons’ Court of Claims at Helena in 1881 certified 44 men of Donnelly’s Company for compensation for service September 20-27, 1877 (indicated with an * below). Each volunteer was paid from $6 to $10, for an aggregating total $431. The Court of Claims list does not include men who had left the territory between 1877 and 1881 or one of the men who had died before 1881.

3. Donnelly’s Company Fort Benton Mounted Volunteers: (One killed)

+*Donnelly, John J. served as Captain and later Lieutenant-Colonel in the 14th Michigan Regiment throughout the Civil War. Born in 1838 in Rhode Island of Irish parents, Donnelly was active in the anti-English Fenian movement and commanded troops in two Fenian invasions of Canada. Moving West to Fort Benton in 1872, Donnelly was a lawyer, community leader, and later a probate judge and Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives.

+*Baker, Hiram farmed on the Marias River in 1877. He was born in Missouri in 1834. In 1880 Baker remained on Marias River with his native Indian wife.

+*Bradley, Edmund, a young black American, was a skilled carpenter and house builder. In 1877 he lived in Fort Benton with his Gros Ventre wife and young daughter. Bradley was killed in the Cow Creek Canyon fight on September 25. [Aka E. B. Richardson]

+*Bucknam, Charles B. served as a scout for the Army in territorial Montana. During the Nez Perce War, he carried dispatches and scouted for Major Ilges and other Army commanders. Born in Indiana in 1854, Bucknam was unmarried and lived in Fort Benton in 1880, still working as a U. S. Scout. [Also Bucknum/Buckram/Buckman]

+Cavanaugh, John, born in Ireland in 1853, was a laborer in Fort Benton. In 1880 he was a farm laborer on the Teton River. [Also *Kavanaugh]

*Clarke, Isaac N. served three years in the Civil War. In 1877 he worked as a wood hawk along the Missouri River. In October 1877, the City of Fort Benton hired Clarke to act as a mounted patrol guarding the town at night. Born in 1844 in Ohio with Irish parents, in 1880 Clarke was married and worked as a laborer in Fort Benton.

+Clark, Jake served with the 7th Infantry Regiment at Fort Shaw in1870. Born in Ohio in 1846, Clark remained in Montana after his discharge from the Army.

+*Cobell, Louis was born in the Fort Benton area in 1856, the son of fur trader Joe Cobell. Louis worked as a guide for the North West Mounted Police and later farmed on Shonkin Creek with his native Indian wife.

*Croft, George A. was Sheriff of Choteau County in 1867 at age 24. By 1870 Croft, born in Missouri in 1846, worked as a laborer in Fort Benton with his native Indian wife. In 1877 he operated a wood yard at Eagle Creek. In October 1877 Croft carried dispatches with Johnny Healy from Fort Benton to Col. Miles. By 1880 he was farming on the Missouri River with his family. [Also Croff]

*Davis, C. S. was possibly Charles Davis at Fort Benton in 1880. He was a black American born in Tennessee in 1853, unmarried and working as a river man.

*Davis, George R. "Crow."

+Davis, T. C. No information.

*Dear, James was born in 1847 in New York of Irish parents. In 1880 he worked as a laborer on the Missouri River and was unmarried. [Also Dare/ Deer]

Duvall, Charles E. arrived at Fort Benton before 1870. Born in Georgia in 1843, he worked as a laborer and lived with his native Indian wife in Fort Benton through the 1870s. [Also *Deanville, +Duvale, Deauville, Danville]

+*Egan, John served with the 7th Infantry Regiment at Fort Shaw in 1870. He remained in the area, living in Fort Benton through the 1870s. He married Kate Connolly at Fort Benton December 31, 1877. Born in Ireland about 1851, Egan work as a laborer and lived in Fort Benton with his wife in 1880.

*Estes, P. H. was probably Hank Estes, who worked as a miner and lived near Boulder, Jefferson County, in 1880. He was born in Maine in 1843 and was unmarried. Colonel Thomas H. Ruger, 18th Infantry, awarded Estes $125 for loss of horse or arms. [Also +Esthes, James]

+*Evans, John H., born in Ohio in 1846, served in the Civil War as Scout for General Sully in Minnesota and with the 2nd Iowa Cavalry. He came to Fort Benton in the 1871 and became a community leader. He worked as a wolfer, whiskey trader, and leader in the Cypress Hills massacre. In 1875 Evans successfully fought extradition to Canada for the massacre, and on his return to Fort Benton, defiantly named his saloon, The Extradition. In 1877, Evans owned the saloon with Jeff Devereaux and the Benton Brewery. In October 1877, Evans was elected Captain of the Fort Benton Home Guards. Three years later he was a rancher living in Fort Benton with his family.

*Evans, Winfield S., a brother of John H. Evans, arrived with his mother and other family members at Fort Benton by steamboat in May 1877. By 1880 Winfield was living with his family and farming in the Missouri River valley near Fort Benton.

*Farmer, George H., born in New York in 1831, operated the Jungle saloon in Fort Benton in 1877. By 1880 he had moved on to the Callatta Mining District in Meagher County where he worked as a laborer.

*Foster, William, a black American, arrived in Fort Benton in 1876. He owned and operated the fancy Palace Barber Shop. He married in 1878 and moved on from Fort Benton in 1883. One year later, Foster was murdered in western Canada at the end of track of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

Fullwood, James H., a bullwhacker and muleskinner operating out of Fort Benton from 1876 to 1883, worked for T. C. Power & Bro. Earlier Fullwood had served with the North West Mounted Police at Fort Walsh. He left Montana Territory after 1883 and later lived in England. [Also +Fallwood, James.)

Ganty, Joseph was a trader and freighter operating between Fort Clagett and Fort Benton. [Also *Gauty, +Gaulee)

*Hale, Trevanian served as Choteau County Sheriff in 1875. Born in Iowa in 1839, Hale worked as a wolfer and rancher. In October 1877 he was elected 1st Lieutenant in the Benton Home Guards. By 1880 Hale was farming on Shonkin Creek with his family. Later he served as an officer in Yellowstone National Park. Colonel Thomas H. Ruger, 18th Infantry, awarded Hale $275 for loss of horse and arms in the Nez Perce War.

+*Hammond, George was a freighter based at Fort Benton in 1877. In 1870 he worked as a wood hawk on the Missouri River below Fort Benton. Born in Maine in 1841 of Canadian parents, Hammond remained a freighter in Fort Benton with his family in 1880.

*Hanna, Joseph W., age 27 and born in Indiana, lived in Fort Benton in 1877. By 1880 Hanna, known as “Toe String Joe,” was gold mining in Meagher County. In 1884 he shot and killed George Nelson and was tried and convicted of murder. Hanna escaped jail in White Sulphur Springs and was never executed for the murder. [Also Hannah]

+*Lilly, John C., born in Prussia in 1844, saw extensive service under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest for the Confederacy in Civil War. In 1870 he was a laborer in the Sun River Valley. In 1877 Lilly operated Brinkman & Lilly’s Billiard Saloon in Fort Benton. Three years later he remained in Fort Benton owner of the saloon.

*Maloney, Richard. No information. [Also +Henry Maloney]

+Matt, Cyprien kept a road house in the Teton valley in 1877 and
worked as a Scout and Government interpreter for the Gros Ventre. He was a veteran stampeder as new mining areas opened up. In 1880 Matt lived in Fort Benton working as a miner. Matt was born in Canada in 1832.

*Moran, Martin. No information. [Also +Moran, Patrick]

+*Morrison, Joseph possibly was the Joseph Morrison living in White Sulphur Springs in 1880 where he tended a stable. Morrison was born in 1844 in Maine.

+*Murphy, William M. was a carpenter living in Fort Benton in 1877. In 1870 he worked as a wood hawk in Benton. Murphy was born in Maine in 1847 and in 1880 worked as a carpenter at Fort Benton.

*Neel, Samuel probably is the prominent Helena merchant who spent time in Fort Benton where his business, Murphy & Neel had a large trading operation. Neel, born in Virginia in 1846, lived in Helena in 1870 and remained there in 1880 with his family. [Also +Neile, Neall, Neile]

+*Nicholson, Murray was a rancher on the Teton in 1877. He also served as Scout for the Army. Nicholson, born in Ohio in 1837, was an Indian trader living with his Gros Ventre wife in Fort Benton in 1870. Nicholson and his wife lived at Fort Assiniboine in 1880 where he worked for the Army as a Scout.

*O’Hanlon, Thomas was a trader among the Assiniboine Indians. In1880 he was an Indian trader and ran the trading post at Fort Belknap, 32 years of age and born in Ireland. From 1879 to 1898, O’Hanlon was connected with T. C. Power. [Also +O’Hanlin]

+Palmer, George arrived Fort Benton by mackinaw in 1871.

*Powder Bull was probably a native Indian father-in-law to one of the four men married to Indian wives.

+*Preston, William, born in Ohio in 1838, was wolfer, who in 1877 owned the Overland “Billiard Parlor” with Sam Sowers. By 1880 Preston was a saloonkeeper in Fort Benton. Colonel Thomas H. Ruger, 18th Infantry, awarded Preston $75 for loss of horse or arms
+Reynolds, Henry may be the laborer in the Judith Basin of Meagher County in the 1880 Census, born in Iowa in 1848 and a widower.

+*Rowe, William, born in England in 1842, came to Fort Benton in 1867 and had many occupations: stage driver; saloon owner; whiskey trader; proprietor of the Overland Hotel 1869-76; Choteau County Sheriff 1876-77; farmer in 1877; appointed U. S. Deputy Marshall in July 1877; livery stable operator. In 1880, Rowe was a mail contractor and lived in Fort Benton with his family.

*Samples, John probably was a younger brother of Kentucky-born Asa and Daniel Sample living in early Choteau County. Asa was the first elected Sheriff in 1867 and moonlighted in the whiskey trade. Both Asa and Daniel Sample later became ranchmen. In 1880 a John Sample, born in Kentucky in 1852, lived in Miles City. [Also Sample]

*Smith, Edward L. operated a ferry on the Missouri River at FortBenton in 1877. Born in Pennsylvania in 1852, he was an experienced freighter. In 1880 he lived with his wife in Fort Benton and operated a large ferry.

*Smith, William B. was a rancher in 1877. In 1880 he was a teamster living in Fort Benton, born in 1820 in Pennsylvania and a widower.

+*Smythe, George C. worked in MacKnight’s sutler’s store at Fort Shaw before moving to Fort Benton. In 1877 he was a shipping clerk living in Fort Benton. His wife, Maggie, died two weeks after Smythe returned to Fort Benton with Donnelly’s Company. Smythe died before 1881.

+*Tattan, John W. was shot in the abdomen and knocked down during the Cow Creek Canyon fight, but the bullet was spent on his oval U.S. Army belt buckle. Colorful John Tattan was born in Ireland in 1847 and served as a Sergeant in the 7th Infantry Regiment. Discharged, he remained in Montana territory, married, and became a lawyer and later a District Court Judge. In 1877 Tattan and John J. Healy were proprietors of the Overland Hotel.

*Tingle, Edward was a wolfer who by 1880 was farming on the Marias River. He was born in Iowa in 1846 and unmarried.

+Tolbert, Jefferson served as Deputy Sheriff under John J. Healy. In 1877 Tolbert owned the Jungle Bar. In 1880 Tolbert was a saloonkeeper in Fort Benton. He was born in Ohio in 1850 and was unmarried.

+Welsh, Nicholas was proprietor of the Occident Saloon in 1877 after working as a stage driver. By 1882 he remained in Fort Benton but was forced by ailing health to lease the Occident. [Also *Walsh]

*Wolf’s Head was probably a native Indian father-in-law to one of the four men married to Indian wives.

+*Woolsey, Ephram, known as “Bishop,” was freighting and living on Eagle Creek in 1877. In 1880 Evan T. Woolsey, age 28 and born in Illinois, was farming in Choteau County.

+Yantes, Joe. is probably Arthur Yontis in the 1880 census, born in Pennsylvania in 1852 and working as a wood hawk on the Missouri River below Fort Benton. [Also Sol A. *Jantis, Arthur Yontis/Yanrig]

The day Donnelly’s Company returned to Fort Benton, Major Ilges paid tribute to the efforts of these civilian volunteers. His commendation read:
“Thanks to The Volunteers. Headquarters, Fort Benton, M. T. September 29, 1877. Messrs. J. J. Donnelly, John H. Evans,
Eph. Woolsey, and others of the Benton Volunteers.
Gentlemen:--Allow me, on behalf of the Government of the United States, to thank each and every one of you for the
important services you have rendered the same during the operations against the Nez Perces, commencing on the 21th
inst. When the call for help from the imperiled points below reached me, helpless to assist with United States Soldiers, you
promptly came to my aid, willingly faced hardship and danger and did you duty cheerfully and effectually. With your brave
help I have been able to relieve those in distress, to bury the murdered victims, and to strike a parting though ineffectual
blow at the retreating foe.
Your operations have developed the line of march, the strength and condition of the enemy, and your close presence
upon his trail and along the line of travel between Cow Island and the settlements has no doubt saved the lives of many of
our citizens.
I am, Gentlemen, very respectfully, your obedient servant, Guido Ilges, Major 7th Infantry, Commanding Post.”

Major Ilges proved a capable leader on the military field. In addition, The Benton Record credited Major Ilges in great measure with convincing the Gros Ventre and Assinaboins later to attack Nez Perce stragglers.

Fort Benton’s participation in the Nez Perce War extended well beyond the military and civilian volunteers discussed in parts 1 and 2. The war involved many additional freighters, traders, and Scouts based at Fort Benton, and a third and final part will cover these men.

[Key Sources: Leeson’s History of Montana, pp. 149-50; various U.S. Census; BRW 12 Oct 1877, p. 3; BRW 26 Oct 1877, p. 3 BRW 30 Nov 1877]

Photos: [Credit all to Overholser Historical Research Center]

(1) The Fort Benton volunteers of Donnelly’s Company named in the Benton Record Weekly of November 30, 1877.

(2) John J. Donnelly, fiery Irishman and commander of Donnelly’s Company at the Cow Creek Canyon fight.

(3) John C. Lilly, Prussian-born, Confederate veteran and member of Donnelly’s Company.

(4) John W. Tattan survived a Nez Perce bullet in the abdomen and later received the Chief Joseph surrender rifle from Colonel Miles.