15 January 2007

“Like a wall of fire through a cane break”: The 1903 Fort Shaw Indian School Girls’ Basketball Team Sweeps Through Northern Montana

By Ken Robison

[Published in the Fort Benton River Press 17 January 2007]

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

By the spring of 1903, the relatively new sport of basketball was sweeping through the state of Montana, and the girls’ basketball team from the Fort Shaw Indian School was emerging as an invincible force. During March of 1903, the Fort Shaw girls played the Agricultural College in Bozeman. In the words of the Great Falls Leader, Fort Shaw played their “most brilliant game,” defeating the older college girls 18-0 and scoring the first shut-out in Montana basketball history. The Leader sports editor gushed on to say that the Fort Shaw team “is walking through the state like a wall of fire through a cane break.” The Fort Shaw girls barnstormed this tour with convincing wins over Butte Parochial (modern day Butte Central), Bozeman, Boulder, and the university girls in Missoula.

Most spectators in Montana never before had watched a basketball game. A Great Falls Leader sports writer described the action in Luther’s Hall in the first basketball game ever played in the Electric City:

“Talk about excitement! Two wrestling matches, a football slaughter, three ping-pong tournaments, a ladies’ whist contest, a pink tea, and one Schubert musical recital combined, would fall short in comparison with one game of basket-ball as it is played. It was the first game ever seen in Great Falls, but there will be others. Five hundred and forty people paid cash at the box office for admission last night, besides those who had purchased tickets previously, so that in all there were over seven hundred people present, and the hall was packed like a sardine box, over 300 people standing about the end and sides of the wall. It was a success from a box office standpoint, and the shouting and enthusiasm would indicate that it also was a success from the audience point of view.

“Basket-ball is a game where you can be comfortable, carry the colors of your team, yell as loud and as long as you desire, wear your best bib and tucker, and witness a howling football match with the slaughter house elements cut out, while at the same time keeping your clothes and conscience as clean as the driven snow. The game is easy. To see it is to understand all about it, and this makes it a game above all others for the ladies. At each end of the hall there are hung about ten feet above the floor, what are termed baskets, but which are really dip nets, with an iron ring eighteen inches in diameter forming the top. The idea of each team is to get the round fat ten-inch football into their dip net, and when they do so it counts two--sometimes it counts one--but the referee obliging stops and tell what is, so there is no darkness upon this point.

“Between the baskets, or dip nets, there are a number of pretty figures traced upon the floor with chalk which forms the court, the outer boundaries being the first row of very excited spectators. The players are not supposed to play outside of the boundaries. Five girls on each side constitute a team, and two twenty-minute halves constitute the game. Last night there were three twelve-minute thirds, but that was entirely unaccording to Hoyle. The referee throws the ball up and then there is a mix, which makes the audience howl. A little bloomer girl shoots out of the pile and another little bloomer girl with short skirt over the bloomer part, hops on the first little girl, and the referee blows the whistle and separates the bunch. Then it all begins over again and half a dozen little girls slide head-first into the crowd after the fat ball and upset a few spectators in the slide. The referee blows his whistle and a very red-faced little bloomer lady with very much rumpled hair and both arms clasped tightly over the fat ball, emerges in triumph from the midst of chaos, and the crowd yells in ecstasy.

“More sliding, running, tumbling and mix-up; a little girl fires the fat ball for her fishnet and as it misses dropping in, the crowd groans ‘A-a-a-ah!’ in a tone which would indicate that the fishnet has been guilty of a personal affront. There are more mix-ups and half a dozen little girls manage to smash a chair, upset a fat man, break an electric light globe, and in the midst of it all a very excited little lady throws the fat ball toward the ceiling and it returns to fall safe in her fishnet, while the crowd yells like rooters, at Yale-Harvard finish. There is a rest between times and at the end the umpire announces the result and the audience comes out of a trance and declares the game to be the best ever.

“It might also be mentioned that the umpire is not killed in Basket-ball as in other ball games, and is a very pleasant faced young man armed with a time whistle and a package of chewing gum.

“For real fun and a chance to howl naturally, without appearing a rude, untamed person from Greater New York, basket-ball is the unadulterated essence of the proper thing and its initial appearance in Great Falls created a furor.”

Over a two-year period during 1902-03, Fort Shaw Superintendent F. C. Campbell built a traveling entertainment program far beyond simply the game of basketball. Drawing crowds of up to a thousand spectators, the Fort Shaw “show” typically consisted of music by a mandolin orchestra, demonstrations of Indian club swinging, literary recitations by scholars, followed by the main attraction, the basketball game. After the game, the host school often hosted a banquet or reception and dance for the Fort Shaw girls, completing the evening’s entertainment.

Despite the daunting travel schedules assembled by Superintendent Campbell, the girls met every challenge. Their opponents expected that the Fort Shaw team would arrive tired out from the travel and late hours, but the girls kept themselves in perfect condition. According to Campbell, “It might have been expected that they would be worn out, but they were too wise, and every game was played by the original members of the team, without substitution. Every afternoon, before a game, the girls took a bath and rub-down and then went to bed for a few hours and slept well. They would wake shortly before dinner, eat a light meal, have another rub-down and feel perfectly fresh when they went into a game.”

The Fort Shaw traveling road show drew huge crowds and rave notices in the press wherever they went. Campbell scheduled three types of contests for the girls. Against organized high school teams, Fort Shaw played a serious, conventional game of basketball. If the opponent had just organized a team, the Fort Shaw girls would provide a handicap, playing four of their girls against five or six opponents. If the host town had no team, the Fort Shaw girls would split their squad into two teams, giving an entertaining exhibition game of basketball.

In the absence of a girls’ basketball team at the high school in Great Falls, the Fort Shaw girls became “The Great Falls team,” receiving detailed press coverage by both the Tribune and the Leader.” To kick off a tour of northern Montana, Monday night, June 8th, the Fort Shaw team scheduled a game against the “first” Great Falls basketball team, the Grays, basically a club team since the Great Falls schools refused to organize a team. To even the match somewhat, the game was played under a handicap with the Great Falls team playing six girls, while the Fort Shaw team played only four girls.

The Great Falls Leader headlined the predictable result: “Was Absolutely Nothing To It. Four Little Indians Play Rings Around Six Home Girls. Just Like Shooting Fish. Nettie Wirth Makes Most Sensational Play Ever Recorded in Hall.” The Leader continued,

“There was a basketball game last evening at Luther’s hall between four little Indian girls of the Fort Shaw school and six little girls of the Great Falls teams. It was to have been a contest, but there was absolutely nothing to it and the four little Indian girls made rings about the home team at the final footing of 45 to 1, the worst score ever put up in the city.

“The game was intended to have been three little Indians against seven white girls, but Manager Hamill, of the home team felt that he would be taking too much advantage of the little Indians by allowing it to go that way and he made it six to four. It should have been seven to two. There were about 200 people present, and the little ladies all played with vim and dash, the only trouble with the home team being that they cannot play the game, while the Indians play like clockwork. It was one, two, three and a basket until the audience got tired of counting them and the Indians got tired of making them.

“The only count secured by the home team was on a free throw by Miss Pontet, saving a shut out. The sensational play of the evening, and the greatest ever seen in the halls was made by Nettie Wirth on a throw up of the ball, she reaching up and striking it square into the basket from the umpire’s hands, while her opponent gasped in astonishment.”

The Tribune added, “That the Great Falls Grays need coaching, and a great amount of it, is evident from the game which the girls of that team played with the Fort Shaw Indian maidens last night in this city . . . . Basketball is a splendid game, and one which brings rosy cheeks to the players, but to play the game as it should be played requires team work; and that is something which the local Grays lack to an alarming extent.”

The team lineups included the following girls:
Fort Shaw--Nettie Wirth, center; Genie Butch, right guard; Belle Johnson, left guard, and Emma Sansavere, forward. Left out was usual starting right guard, Josephine Langley.
Great Falls Grays--Edna Payne, center; Nellie Short, right forward; Flossie Solomon, left forward; Mamie Beckman, right guard; Mamie Longway, left guard, and Frances Pontet, substitute.

After a night at the Grand Hotel, the next morning, Tuesday the 9th of June, the Fort Shaw traveling road show consisting of orchestra, club swingers, scholars, basketball players, and chaperons, Superintendent Campbell, W. J. Peters and Miss Sadie F. Malley, boarded the Great Northern train to barnstorm through six towns in Northern Montana in six days. Two Fort Shaw basketball teams, called the “blues” and the “browns,” were scheduled to play a demanding series of exhibition games as follows:
June 9, Fort Benton.
June 10, Havre.
June 11, Chinook.
June 12, Harlem.
June 13 Glasgow.
June 14, Fort Peck, located at Poplar agency.

Tuesday evening Green’s Opera House in Fort Benton was the scene for the first exhibition game. The Fort Benton River Press reported, “The entertainment given last night at Green’s hall, which consisted of club swinging and basket ball by the Indian girls of the Fort Shaw Indian Industrial school, was a grand success, socially and financially. While both teams, the ‘blues’ and ‘browns’ acquitted themselves admirably in the games played by them, it was noticeable that the Misses Emma Sansavere, formerly a resident of Fort Benton, and Belle Johnson, a former resident of Highwood, were the favorites of the audience.”

Emma Sansavere, part Cree and the smallest member of the team, was born near Fort Assiniboine. Her mother, Mary Sansavere, was murdered about 1898 near Havre. Despite a concerted investigation by Chouteau County Attorney Charles N. Pray, no one was ever convicted for Mary’s murder. Belle Johnson, a part Piegan Blackfeet, was the daughter of early day miner, Charles Johnson, who came to Fort Benton by steamboat. Belle was born and raised near Belt and attended the Holy Family mission school on the Blackfeet reservation. Both Emma and Belle were exceptional athletes and basketball players.

The next day, the traveling show moved on to Havre. In the words of the Havre Plaindealer, “In every way a creditable entertainment was that given by the Fort Shaw Indian girls basket ball team at Swanton’s hall, Wednesday night. A match game between two teams was played before a large audience, many of whom had never seen a basket ball game, and but few had ever seen the Indian girls exemplify the sport. The Fort Shaw team enjoys the distinction of being the state champions, having defeated all the teams of the state. Briefly stated, the girls play a clever, fast and snappy game. The entertainment was fully enjoyed and was concluded by a dance following the game. Superintendent F. C. Campbell spoke briefly of the benefits of Indian education and of the progress made with the Indians who have come under Uncle Sam’s educational wing in this section of the state.”

Moving on to Chinook on Thursday evening, the Fort Shaw girls “gave an excellent exhibition of the game at the town hall . . . a very good and appreciative audience filled the hall.” After the exhibition was over the hosts held a social dance that continued until the early hours of Friday.”

Another day, another stop along the hi-line, this time at Harlem, where the Harlem Hearsay reporter in the Chinook Opinion reported, “The people of Harlem and vicinity were given a very pleasant and enjoyable time on Friday evening of last week, when the Fort Shaw Indian girls gave an entertainment consisting of a basket ball game and an exhibition of Indian club swinging. The game was a very good exhibition of team work and heady individual playing. In the first half the team work was somewhat broken on account of a substitute having to take the place of one of the regular players on the first team. The score at the end of the first half was 8 to 6 in favor of the first team. In the second half the substitute was taken off the first team and the remaining four regular players played the five on the second team. This was a big handicap, as it left one member of the second team free to play without any guard for interference, but the four played so much better team work, that the score at the end of the game was 25 to 10 in favor of the first team . . . . After the game several stayed to enjoy a social dance.”

On Saturday at Glasgow, the game proved so popular that the teams were asked to play again, so the girls played a second game on their return trip. At Poplar, the agency for the Fort Peck reservation, two games were played with admission charged at the first, while the second performance was free of charge to Indian children and the elderly.

Upon the return of the teams and chaperons to Great Falls on June 18th, Superintendent Campbell reported “The greatest interest in the game was shown at every place where we played, and I am satisfied that a team will be organized by the girls of each of the towns. We had a very pleasant trip, being able to travel in the daytime all the way, and the girls greatly enjoyed their visit, but are eager to get back to the school.” Campbell added, “The only unpleasant feature at any of those towns was the small size of the halls, it being impossible to accommodate all who desired to witness the games.”

The girls of Fort Shaw continued to play an exceptional brand of basketball. These remarkable young ladies were ambassadors for Indian education and trailblazers for their broad and popular acceptance as social and athletic equals. The next year, in the summer of 1904, “Montana’s team” barnstormed their way from Montana to St. Louis, Missouri. There at the St. Louis World’s Fair, the Fort Shaw Indian School Girls’ Basketball team gained immortality when they were crowned “1904 World Champions.”

[Sources: GFLD 16 Jan 1903, p. 4; GFTD 30 Jan 1903, p. 8; GFLD 2 Apr 1903, p. 6; GFTD 3 Jun 1903, p. 4; GFLD 9 Jun 1903, p. 7; GFTD 9 Jun 1903, p. 4; GFTD 11 Jun 1903, p. 3; GFTD 14 Jun 1903, p. 10; FBRPW 17 Jun 1903, p. 6; GFTD 19 Jun 1903, p. 3; FBRPW 17 Jun 1903, p. 6; Havre Plaindealer Weekly 13 Jun 1903, p. 1, 4; HPD 20 Jun 1903, p. 5; Chinook Opinion 18 Jun 1903, p. 5, 8]


(1) The Fort Shaw Indian School Girls’ Basketball Team in 1903 [Great Falls Leader Photo 5 Feb 1904]

(2) How Basketball Is Played [Great Falls Leader Photo]
(3) Luther’s Hall in Great Falls, the “Home Court” for the Fort Shaw Indian School Girls’ Basketball Team. [Great Falls Leader Photo 19 Oct 1902]
(4) Green’s Opera House was located on the second floor of the Masonic Temple built in Fort Benton in 1880. Today, this historic building is the home of The Benton Pharmacy [Overholser Historical Research Center photo]
(5) Going To St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair [Great Falls Leader Photo 4 May 1904]