24 February 2008

Gallant Lieutenant James H. Bradley: “If his books could only talk!”

By Ken Robison

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

[This article was published in the Fort Benton River Press 27 Jan 2007.]

If the books of young Lieutenant James H. Bradley could talk, what a story they could tell. Lieutenant Bradley, a brave soldier, was Montana’s finest early historian before his tragic death in 1877 at the Battle of the Big Hole during the Nez Perce War. This is the fascinating story of Lieutenant Bradley and two of the books from his library.

Lieutenant James H. Bradley, Fort Benton’s gallant soldier and first historian. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

In August 1870 the 7th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel John Gibbon, arrived at Fort Shaw in Montana Territory. Captain Thaddeus S. Kirtland commanded Company B with three officers and 90 soldiers. In March the following year, 26-year-old 1st Lieutenant James H. Bradley joined Company B as second in command. One year later, in April 1872 Company B took over the Military Post at Fort Benton, setting the stage for Lieut. Bradley’s monumental contributions to Montana history.

This was a critical stage in the evolution of Fort Benton as it emerged from the fur trade era into a wild and wooly frontier merchant town. At this time just a handful of white women lived in Fort Benton, among them Mrs. Mary Beach Bradley, or in Army terms, Mrs. Lieutenant James Bradley. The great fur traders of the Upper Missouri, Alexander Culbertson, James Kipp, and other traders from Pierre Chouteau & Company, who had married Blackfeet wives, still lived in or around Fort Benton. Pioneers merchants like T. C. Power and I. G. Baker and others found Lieut. Bradley an inquiring and thorough chronicler of their experiences. The many encounters between Native Americans and newly arriving miners and settlers of the past decade were still fresh in the memory of the town’s inhabitants.

Lieutenant Bradley was a man of many talents. Born in Ohio in 1844, he enlisted before his seventeenth birthday in the 14th Ohio Volunteers in April 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War. Serving throughout the War during which he had seen heavy fighting and been held as a prisoner of war, Bradley was mustered out as a sergeant in July 1865. Commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in February 1866, Bradley received unusually rapid promotion to 1st Lieutenant. At the Fort Benton Military Post, Lieut. Bradley handled his military duties in Company B with ease and often served as Post Commander. In the words of Edgar I. Stewart, Lieut. Bradley had “definite scientific and historical interests, a man of infinite curiosity, who was interested in almost every item that came under his observation. As he talked to the old timers in Fort Benton, he assembled their stories as a labor of love and with the skill of an experienced historian. In the span of just five years, Lieut. Bradley assembled a remarkable record of diaries, journals, and letters from his historical research.

Company B remained at Fort Benton until September 1, 1875, when they were relieved and returned to Fort Shaw. With Montana’s most violent Indian Wars breaking out, tension and separation filled life at Fort Shaw. On the 17th of March 1876, a Battalion of the 7th Infantry, known as the Montana Column, with Company B and Lieut. Bradley commanding a Mounted Detachment left Fort Shaw for Fort Ellis to join the Yellowstone Expedition against the Sioux Indians. In one of the ironies of this campaign, at the very time Custer’s men were being overwhelmed, the Montana Column could find very little action. Lieut. Bradley’s Mounted Troops were first to discover the dead of Custer’s command on the Little Big Horn in late June 1876. Bradley chronicled this campaign in a journal that proved his skill as an observer and writer. His journal was first published in 1896 in Volume 2 of the Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, and later in book form, The March of the Montana Column A Prelude to the Custer Disaster. The Montana Column returned to Fort Shaw October 6, 1876, and remained in garrison over the winter.

In late July 1877, Col. Gibbons and most of the 7th Infantry departed Fort Shaw to intercept the Nez Perce in western Montana. On August 9th at the Battle of the Big Hole, valiant Lieut. James H. Bradley was killed in action leading an assault by his Mounted Detachment of 7th Infantry on the Nez Perce camp.

With his death, his widow Mrs. Mary Bradley, who was expecting their second child, and small daughter, Mary, went by private coach to Fort Benton, boarded the steamboat Benton, and on August 17 departed down the Missouri River to return to her family home in Atlanta. Several months after arriving in Atlanta, Mary gave birth to Pauline, her second daughter. Two years later she remarried. Through the efforts of (later) General John Gibbon, Mrs. Bradley graciously presented her husband’s priceless manuscripts and historical research to the Montana Historical Society.

But what about Lieut. Bradley’s personal library? What was in it, and where did it go? We know two of the important books in this library: Oregon Missions of Father De Smet; and Volume One of the Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana. Here is what we know.

I recently purchased a well-worn first edition of the 1847 Oregon Missions and Travels Over the Rocky Mountains in 1845-46 by Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, S. J., a rare book in its own right. I found inscribed on the first page, “James H. Bradley U. S. Army. Fort Benton, M. T. July 1875.” Beneath Lieut. Bradley’s signature is that of “J. H. McKnight Fort Shaw Nov 1877.” J. H. McKnight served as post trader at Fort Shaw during the 1870s. From these clues, we can conclude that Lieut. Bradley got Father De Smet’s book either from an old timer in Fort Benton while he was at the Military Post or had it sent up the Missouri River on a steamboat. After Bradley’s death in August 1877, Mrs. Bradley either sold or gave the book to Post Trader McKnight before departing Fort Shaw for “the States.” My wife and I believe Lieut. Bradley’s historic treasure belongs permanently in Fort Benton, and are presenting it to the River and Plains Society for the Overholser Historical Research Center.

Inscriptions by Lieutenant Bradley and Post Trader J. H. McKnight in Father De Smet’s Oregon Missions. [OHRC]

The second book from Lieut. Bradley’s library has an amazing story to tell. This book, a battered copy of the 1876 Volume One of the Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, bears the inscription, “To J. H. Bradley U S A Compliments W. F. Sanders Apr 19, 1877.” So, here we have Montana’s legendary Vigilante prosecutor and future Senator, Wilbur Fisk Sanders, presenting to Lieut. Bradley the inaugural volume of the Montana Historical Society series that would later carry much of Bradley’s valuable historic research.

Inscription by W. F. Sanders to Lieutenant Bradley [Montana Historical Society. [MHS]

The book has a further inscription reading, “On Aug 2, 1902, I found this book in a second hand store in Butte, but could not learn its history since the death of Lieut. Bradley, who was killed in the battle of Big Hole, Aug 9, 1877. It looks as though the book itself had been in an engagement judging from the bullet hole in the cover. Granville Stuart.” So, Bradley’s book had been “rescued” by Granville Stuart, one of Montana’s earliest and most famous pioneers. Stuart then presented the book to the Montana Historical Society where it resides today.

Inscription by Granville Stuart when he “rescued” Lieut. Bradley’s book in 1902. [MHS]

Pasted to the inside of the back cover of this book is an undated newspaper article:
“Bullet Punctured Volume. Recovered Copy of First Edition of the State Historical Society’s Work Turns Up in Butte.
Found in Second Hand Store by Mr. Stuart. The Book Had Been Presented to Lieutenant Bradley by Colonel Wilbur F. Sanders Four Months Before the Battle of Big Hole.
If books could speak, aside from the message they carry to readers through the medium of the types, then there is among the recent arrivals at the state historical library a volume that could relate a tale of absorbing interest.
The book in question is a copy of the first volume of Montana’s historical society, which was issued in 1876. For several years the edition has been out of print, and the society found it extremely difficult to locate one of the volumes. Last Saturday, while Granville Stuart, one of the trustees of the society, was delving among the articles in a second hand shop in Butte his gaze wandered to a copy of the edition. It required only a moment for him to close a trade with the dealer for the volume, and his next step was to send it to Mrs. Laura E. Howey, the librarian of the state library.
But interest does not attach to the book so much on account of the fact that it is one of the original edition as because of the history of the volume. The complete history of the book may never be known, but there is enough evidence to show that could it talk there would be an exciting chapter added to the state’s early day history.
The volume was presented to Lieutenant J. H. Bradley, of the United States army, by Colonel Wilbur F. Sanders, April 19, 1877, as is shown by an inscription in the book . . .
There is in the upper left hand corner of the volume a jagged bullet hole, but the shot was a glancing one as is shown by the fact that the leaves of the work are not mutilated. It is not regarded as likely that the book was carried on the field of battle by Lieutenant Bradley, but it is not impossible that it might have been among the officer’s effects near the scene of the engagement, where it was struck by some stray shot fired during the battle in which its owner lost his life. The date of the presentation and the date of the battle show that the book was in the lieutenant’s possession less than four months. The story of the volume from the day of the owner’s death to the time when Mr. Stuart found it in Butte is one that the historical society would be very glad to secure, and they may yet be done.

Bullet hole in cover of Lieut. Bradley’s book. [MHS]

The book is fairly preserved, with the exception of the binding and the many pencil marks that have been made by some thoughtless scribbler.”

We now know of two books from the library of Lieutenant James H. Bradley, Fort Benton’s first and finest historian. How many more are on the shelves of libraries around the country? Oh, to know their stories!

Sources: [Benton Weekly Record 29 Jun 1877, 17 Aug 1877; The March of the Montana Column A Prelude to the Custer Disaster by Lieutenant James H. Bradley; Volumes 1, 2, 3, 8 & 9, Contributions to the historical Society of Montana]


(1) Lieutenant James H. Bradley, Fort Benton’s gallant soldier and first historian. [Overholser Historical Research Center]
(2) Inscriptions by Lieutenant Bradley and Post Trader J. H. McKnight in Father De Smet’s Oregon Missions. [OHRC]
(3) Inscription by W. F. Sanders to Lieutenant Bradley [Montana Historical Society. [MHS]
(4) Inscription by Granville Stuart when he “rescued” Lieut. Bradley’s book in 1902. [MHS]
(5) Bullet hole in cover of Lieut. Bradley’s book. [MHS]

Requiem for Fireside Books

By Ken Robison

On rare occasions something happening in Fort Benton's little "colony," Great Falls, will warrant an appearance in this blog. The sad closure of the great Fireside Books not only lowered the cultural level of the Electric City, but the closing passed without mention in the local press!

On October 1st 2006, the lights went out for the last time at 614 Central Avenue, Great Falls. On that day, Fireside Books closed its doors for business, and Montana lost one of its finest antiquarian bookstores.

Fireside Books and its proprietor, Niel Hebertson, represented the best in antiquarian bookstores. Opened in 1994, the store and its hard working owner, quickly established a reputation around Montana as a friendly place to find the rare book for the discerning collector or the common, used book to enjoy a good read.

But, Fireside was much more than a bookstore. Fireside was an antiquarian bookstore in the finest tradition of that dying breed. Niel Hebertson was always the gracious host, offering a cup of coffee and a pleasant environment for casual or serious conversation. His time was your time. He knew and cared about rare books, but he also knew and cared about people.

Fireside Books Closed for Business [Photo by Ken Robison]

A visit to Fireside had many dimensions. People came to buy a special present for a friend, looking through the fine offering of Montana history and western Americana. They came to browse through a truly great selection of children’s books, admiring the old style illustrations and covers that made yesterday’s books for children such a joy. They came to search through the comprehensive military selection that hinted at Niel’s earlier career an officer in the U. S. Air Force. Book dealers from around Montana and beyond stopped by Fireside to buy for their own stores selections that Niel often had priced lower than their own. Writers and historians came from north and south of Montana to buy from Niel’s fine selection and to enjoy conversation with a knowledgeable book dealer and western history buff.

And then there were the regulars who came again and again to share a special friendship with both Niel and his bookshop. Always, Niel paused from his work at his computer, poured two cups of coffee, and the fun began. For Bob, the conversation might range from early Fort Benton to the latest find related to Charlie Russell or Lewis and Clark. For Mark, the topics would span a wide range of military history and memorabilia. For Dwayne, the discussion might range from past military careers to collections of Montana political campaign ephemera. For Clint, the conversation compared hunting and fishing experiences. For Jack, the reminiscences might center on nightlife in Great Falls in the 1940s and 50s when he was young. With Ken, the topic de jour might relate to the latest historical nugget about early Great Falls found in dusty old newspapers at the Public Library or the latest treasure on eBay. But always, the conversation would include the latest on families, wives and children.

Where else in Great Falls could you walk into a store, sit down at a big table with a cup of coffee, and join a discussion with Hugh Dempsey, the great Canadian historian, or Brian Dippie, the fine Charlie Russell historian. Where else would you find Phil Aaberg, Montana’s musical treasure, and this author jointly interviewing Jack Mahood about the early days of jazz music in Great Falls including the unique Ozark Club, where as a young musician Jack played with some of America’s finest Black American jazzmen.

Owner Niel Hebertson on the left and Author Brian Dippie at Fireside Books admiring a Charles M. Russell rarity. [Photo by Bob Doerk]

Yet, today the lights are out at Fireside Books. The coffee and conversations are but a delightful memory of the past. And we ask why? The closure of Fireside came for several reasons. Great Falls is not a great bookman’s town. For many, a used paperback at the Jungle or a new sale book at Hastings or Barnes and Noble will do. The walk-in traffic diminished over the years with many book collectors turning to the convenience of the internet, finding their own selections on Abebooks or eBay or Amazon. And then there was the personal dimension. Several years ago, Niel suddenly became a single parent for his four small children. For four years, he balanced the raising of his children with the demands of operating Fireside Books. In the end, it was simply too much. Whether we knew it or not, we all lost when the lights went out at Fireside Books.

p. s. Is it not telling that the closure of this great antiquarian bookstore has not found a single word in print in the Great Falls Tribune!

Photos: (1) Fireside Books Closed for Business [Photo by Ken Robison]

(2) Owner Niel Hebertson on the left and Author Brian Dippie at Fireside Books admiring a Charles M. Russell rarity. [Photo by Bob Doerk]