08 January 2007

The Cowboy Artist and the Preacher: Charlie Russell Celebrates Brother Van’s Birthday in Fort Benton in 1918

By Ken Robison

[Published in the Fort Benton River Press 3 January 2007]

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

Fort Benton has had many friends over the years, but none finer than the famed cowboy artist, Charles M. Russell, and the beloved Methodist preacher Brother Van, Reverend William Wesley Van Orsdel.

Young Will Van Orsdel arrived at Fort Benton Sunday 30 June 1872 on the Coulson line steamboat Far West. That first day in Fort Benton Will preached the first sermon by a Protestant minister, and he acquired the name “Brother Van.”

Forty-six years later, on the evening of 22 March 1918, a large number of the friends of Bro. Van gathered at the Methodist Church in Fort Benton to celebrate the birthday anniversary of northern Montana’s famed pioneer preacher. The happy event was celebrated not only by the Fort Benton community but also by friends throughout Montana. In addition to expressions of respect and friendship delivered that night in person, telegrams and letters came in from around the state.

The evening’s program was informal, consisting of congratulations from fellow ministers and other friends, some of Bro. Van’s inimitable songs, a piano duet, and a general good social time. A large number of photographs taken of Bro. Van over the years were shown, leading the River Press to observe that he held the record of Montana for the number of times that he had been photographed.

Among the ministers present who made addresses were: Jesse Bunch, Fort Benton; C. E. Haynes, Fort Benton; P. W. Haynes, Great Falls; E. L. White, Great Falls; J. A. Martin, Great Falls; John Chirgwin, Helena. Each of them related incidents in their acquaintance and fellowship with Bro. Van, some of them of a humorous turn, but all expressing their great appreciation of the kindly aid and comradeship of the honored guest.

An amusing story that enlivened the festivities was shared by Rev. J. A. Martin, who related that many years earlier Bro. Van was among a party of Yellowstone Park tourists who were held up by a lone highwayman. The victims were compelled to stand in line and raise their hands while the bandit searched them for valuables, but when it came to Bro. Van’s turn to produce his pocketbook he remarked to the outlaw:
‘You wouldn’t rob a poor Methodist preacher, would you?
“Are you a Methodist preacher?” inquired the bandit.
“I certainly am,” replied Bro. Van.
The highwayman appeared to be lost in thought for a few seconds, and then announced:
“You can lower your hands; I am a Methodist preacher myself.”

In reply to a special invitation to attend Bro. Van’s birthday party, his friend since the early 1880s Charles M. Russell sent a letter of regret embellished with a beautifully executed watercolor painting as a heading. The scene represents a herd of bison crossing the Missouri river--the animals so numerous that a steamboat is stalled by the procession that blocks the channel.

Charlie’s letter related fascinating reminiscences of their old time associations. He wrote that on account of being on jury duty in Great Falls, he regretted that he was unable to be in Fort Benton for the party. About his first meeting with Bro. Van, Charlie wrote: ‘I think it was about this time of the year thirty-seven years ago, that we first met at Babcock’s ranch in Pigeye basin on the upper Judith. I was living at that time with a hunter and trapper, Jake Hoover, whom you will remember. He and I had come down from the South Fork with three pack horses loaded with deer and elk meat, which he sold to the ranchers, and we had stopped for the night with old Bab, a man as rough as the mountains which he loved, but who was all heart from the belt up, and friends or strangers were welcome to shove their feet under his table. This all-welcome way of his made the camp a hang-out for many homeless mountain and prairie men, and his log walls and dirt roof seemed like a palace to those who lived mostly under the sky. The evening you came there was a mixture of bull whackers, hunters and prospectors, who welcomed you with hand shakes and rough but friendly greetings. I was the only stranger to you. So after Bab introduced Kid Russell, he took me to one side and whispered, ‘Boy’ says he, ‘I don’t savvy many psalm singers, but Bro. Van deals square,’ and when we all sat down to our elk meat, beans, coffee and dried apples, under the rays of a bacon grease light these men who knew little of law, and one of them I know wore notches in his gun, men who had not prayed since they knelt at their mother’s knees, bowed their heads while you, Bro. Van, gave thanks, and when you finished some one said ‘Amen.’ I am not sure, but I think it was a man who I heard later was or had been a road agent. I was sixteen years old then, Bro. Van, but have never forgotten your stay at old Bab’s with men whose talk was generally emphasized with fancy profanity; but, while you were with us, altho they had to talk slow and careful, there was never a slip. The outlaw at Bab’s was a sinner, and none of us were saints, but our hearts were clean at least while you gave thanks, and the hold-up man said Amen.”

A number of other letters were read expressing regret at not being able to attend, and these, too, related interesting reminiscences of the first meeting with Bro. Van, and expressed in warm terms the great influence for good these meetings had had on their lives. Letters were read from Governor Stewart, Bishop Nicholson of Chicago, Bishop Coke of Helena, Rev. C. L. Board of Helena, Rev. J. A. Alford of Valier, Senator Paris Gibson of Great Falls, Robert Vaughn of Great Falls, A. H. Gray of Great Falls, Rev. George Logan of Helena, Mrs. James G. Thain of Highwood, and others.

In deference to the suggestions of the World War I wartime food conservation administration, the serving of refreshments was cut out from the usual program, but Miss Anna Taylor, an old time friend of Bro. Van’s, had baked a birthday cake, which the guest cut and shared with all. With characteristic modesty, Bro. Van refrained from enlightening any one as to his age. One old lady, 94 years of age, thought she ought to know, and asked Bro. Van straight out, how old he was. As the lady was quite deaf, everyone was pleased, thinking now they would be enlightened. This is what Bro. Van shouted into the ear trumpet. “I am going to tell you some time, but I don’t want to tell it to all these young people.” Brother Van was, in fact, 70 years of age that special evening in Fort Benton, and the beloved preacher passed on the following year.

[Sources: FBRPW 27 Mar 1918, p. 3, 5; GFTD 24 Mar 1918, p. 4; Brian Dippie, Charles M. Russell, Word Painter 1887-1926, 1993: Amon Carter Museum, pp. 251-52]


(1) Cowboy Artist Charles M. Russell & Reverend William Wesley Van Orsdel, “Brother Van” [Overholser Historical Research Center photo]

(2) The old Methodist Church in Fort Benton, built in 1898-99, as it appeared at the time of Brother Van’s party. [Overholser Historical Research Center photo]
(3) The old Methodist Church as it appears today, abandoned, endangered and in need of restoration before it is lost to our heritage. [Tim Burmeister photo]
(4) Charlie Russell’s watercolor tribute to Brother Van. A copy of the original painting appears in Word Painter, p. 251.

(5) Charlie Russell’s letter to Brother Van. Word Painter, pp. 251-52.