22 September 2008

A Woman’s Life on the Frontier: The Fort Benton Years

A Woman’s Life on the Frontier: The Fort Benton Years of
Martha Edgerton Rolfe--Part 1

By Ken Robison

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

Rare indeed is the account written about Fort Benton during its transition from the lawless era of whiskey trading of the early 1870s to the “civilized” steamboat transportation hub by the end of the decade. Although “civilization” began to come to Fort Benton with the arrival of women and children after 1875, we find few accounts of life in the little city at that time, and fewer still written from a woman’s perspective. What a treat then to find both a memoir written by a woman and a series of articles recording the life of her family and the social scene in Fort Benton from 1879-1884.

This remarkable woman, Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann, was a true pioneer. Young Mattie, as she was known, first came to Bannack in what is now Montana, then Idaho territory, with her parents in a covered wagon in 1863. Her father, Sydney Edgerton, served as Montana’s first Territorial Governor. Just over one decade later in late 1876 Mattie returned to Montana as Mrs. Herbert P. Rolfe, when Herbert became the first Superintendent of Schools in bustling Helena.

From Helena, Martha and Herbert Rolfe moved on to frontier Fort Benton, arriving in December 1879 with two young children. The formative Fort Benton years found Herbert active in surveying, legal work, and politics, working hard to build a Republican party organization in a town dominated by Irish Democrats. Reflecting his northern birth, Herbert was a “Lincoln Republican,” called by their opponents “black Republicans” for their support for Abraham Lincoln, his emancipation of the slaves, and his attempt to integrate the former slaves into the politics and economy of the country. Martha shared the political beliefs of her husband, advocating suffrage for not only Black Americans but also for women of all races. Herbert’s hard work in Fort Benton not only improved the family’s financial situation, but attracted the attention of leaders in the community. Paris Gibson was impressed with the talent and drive displayed by Herbert and hired him in secrecy to serve as surveyor and lawyer as Gibson quietly moved forward with plans to found a town at the confluence of the Missouri and Sun rivers. The growing Rolfe family were among the first settlers in the new town moving there in the summer of 1884.

Both Herbert and Martha were remarkable achievers. Mattie had watched the course of events in Montana from the beginning of its territorial days, and, by virtue of natural ability and educational training and that happy faculty possessed by few of the pioneers of being able to record the history of Montana both accurately and entertainingly. Much of Mattie’s life was devoted to recording the history of the Treasure State. After the untimely death of Herbert in 1895, she became the first woman editor of a Montana daily newspaper, taking over the Great Falls Leader. Following the death of her second husband, Theodore Plassmann, in 1896, Mattie worked at many jobs to support herself and her seven young children. Mostly, though, she wrote historical accounts that were published in newspapers throughout Montana.

Fortunately, Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann wrote about her life in frontier Fort Benton from 1879 to 1884. The story that follows combines portions of her unpublished memoir, “Memories of a Long Life,” and newspaper articles, “Rough Travel in Early Days: Runaway Stage Ride from Helena to Fort Benton” and “Frontier Days: Pioneering in Old Fort Benton--Living Conditions in the Old Missouri River Town in the Late Seventies.”

Part I describes the arduous trip of the Rolfes from Helena to Fort Benton. In the words of Mattie: “In 1879, my husband, Herbert Rolfe, having finished three years as superintendent of the Helena schools, graduated its first class from the high school, and been admitted to the bar, decided to locate at Fort Benton. This town, being at the head of navigation on the Missouri, was then the most promising in the state, with the sole exception of Butte. It was an important distributing point, and during the summer months, when the boats were running, business was lively. No one could then predict, what eventually happened, that the railroads would kill traffic on our magnificient waterways.

We left Helena [on a bleak early December day], going by stage, and with us were our two children, one but a month old. The weather was intensely cold for that time of the year, necessitating wearing many wraps to keep from freezing. Our stage was the two seated kind, known as a “jerky,” and with us were two other passengers, both men. These considerately took the front seats leaving us the back seats. Bundled up as we were, the six of us found the conveyance uncomfortably crowded, and I had difficulty in keeping my baby from being smothered.

All went fairly well until, in crossing the Bird Tail divide, a spring broke. It could not be repaired, and there was no other coach at the station where we next stopped after the accident occurred. We were forced to go on in our disabled vehicle. No stage driver in those days drove slowly in consideration of his passengers; his duty was simply to get them to their destination on time. Our driver was no exception to the rule and so we bumped and clattered along over the rough road, trying vainly to keep warm, and save ourself from the frequent jolts, as the coach struck stones or other obstructions. By the time we reached Reinecke’s, we were completely exhausted from this dual effort, and my eldest child was crying because he feet were frosted. [Note, Mrs. Rolfe later identifies the stage river as Matthew Carroll, later of Diamond R prominence.]

At Reinecke’s, on Sun river, as at other stations along the route--notably Spitzley’s which was one of our first stopping places--we were well entertained. Mrs. Reinecke proved to be a former stage companion of mine, on the long journey from Franklin, Utah, in 1876, the terminal point of the Utah Northern railroad, to Helena. She, and her husband, treated us more as guests, than what we were; transient customers that brought them small financial return, and much work.

Stage stations were often far from other dwelling, and the main events in the lives of those who kept them were the arrival and departure of the stages. The time of their arrival was never certain, and their coming meant the hurried preparation and serving of meals for one or many people. This was especially hard on such women as did the cooking and had young children. At a station on this trip, I have a vivid recollection of one young woman who was hastening to get our supper, with a baby fastened in a high chair beside the stove, while another scarcely able to walk, clung to her skirt, and followed her every step from stove to table; from table to stove watching the strangers with curious gaze but never crying. I wondered how the woman could accomplish anything with such hindrances, and still never display impatience. At this station, the woman did the work, and her husband the entertaining. At Reinecke’s the division of labor was better arranged, husband and wife bearing an equal share.

Here, after we had rested awhile, and were once again warm, a hearty breakfast added to our comfort, and gave us courage to pursue our journey, which should end before the coming night. My baby was none the worst for the long hard miles we had already gone over, and could be expected to endure the few remaining. Her little sister, with her feet well protected from the cold by a pair of heavy woolen socks, kindly furnished by Mrs. Reinecke, no longer cried because of the cold. The day was sunny; we were warm and well fed and fortified to endure the coming hours of travel in the springless coach. Then the unexpected happened. When the coach drew up at the door we saw there was another passenger and one we recognized. An [Irish] old, old timer, who belonged to the fur trading days. He was the soul of gallantry, and never more so than when drinking, as he evidently had been on this occasion.

There was no room for him inside, had he cared for a seat there, for being an old timer, he chose to side with the driver, who gladly made room for him; securely buckled the boot about him, and away we sped.

As I have already said, the day was sunny, giving a clear shadow of the coach, and making it possible to see what was going on without, where the driver sat. First we noticed a flask being frequently passed from passenger to driver. This was not surprising, the biting air, notwithstanding the sun’s rays, called for extra stimulant. But after a while, I recognized that the stimulating was being overdone, and I became apprehensive as I saw the shadow passenger take the reins from the hands of the shadow driver, and seize the whip as well.

Then things began to grow exciting. The whiplash stretched out over the backs of the half wild horses that drew us, and the stage gave a lurch forward that, might have unseated us, had we not been wedged in so tightly. Over the level country we rushed, turning not a whit aside to avoid anything in the road, the wild Celt on the box industriously plying the whip, regardless of how the pace he set affected the shut-in passengers, infatuated as he was with the love of rapid motion. And the flask continued to be shared. With heads thrown back, one, and then the other would take a pull at the bottle, the shadowy rising and falling of an Adam’s apple, indicating accurately the number of swallows, of which they were fully enough to have verified the proverb, and made a summer--several summers in fact--and following every drink the whip was swung more vigorously.

The coach, to use a favorite but applicable expression, went forward by leaps and bounds; sometimes on four wheels, and sometimes not. I clung to my baby with one hand, and with the other held on to the side of the coach, expecting any moment might see us overturned. Then those two up aloft, totally unconcerned as to our fate, broke forth into song, accompanied by the crack of the whip; the galloping feet of the horses on the frozen ground; and the rattling wheels of the swaying and bounding coach beneath them.

Shut in the coach as we were, protests from us, against the terrific pace set by the drunken man who held the reins, would have been useless could they have been heard above the general racket. Figuratively speaking, we were on the knees of the gods; and if we could have been there in reality, it would undoubtedly have been a far more desirable position than what we then held.

My fear was not for myself, but for my children. In the event of an overturn, they would surely be crippled, if not killed. Fortunately they were ignorant of the danger, and managed to sleep notwithstanding the severe jolts to which we were subjected. We elders suffered the misery attendant on riding rapidly in a springless vehicle--almost unendurable backache and sideache.

At length we came to the summit of a hill, down which we tore at unprecedented speed until, reaching level ground, we bowled along through the main street of a village, and suddenly stopped with a jerk before a low wooden building with a front mainly in glass. We had arrived. this was Fort Benton’s hotel; and the end of our journey reached two hours and a half ahead of schedule time.

Bruised, stiff, and half frozen, we crawled out of the coach, and entered the sitting room of the hotel. Here I attempted to seat myself on a tete-a-tete placed invitingly near the redhot stove, but came near finding myself on the floor instead, this piece of furniture having but three legs.

Our bedroom that night adjoined the sitting room, and also had a door into the hall. The barroom must have been somewhere in the neighborhood, for all night long there was tramping up and down the corridor and once our door was tried. Tired as we were, it was impossible to sleep well with so much commotion without. The next morning at breakfast, we asked the puffy-eyed waiter who it was made such disturbance during the night. He mentioned the name of a paymaster of the army, and the president’s brother, who had just returned from Fort Assiniboine, and was stopping at the hotel.

“He done it, ma’am,” said our informant, “and wasn’t it a shame; and him an officer ‘nd a gintleman?”

With this adventuresome trip the Rolfes arrived December 8, 1879 to make their lives and fortune in Fort Benton. Part II will continue Martha Edgerton Rolfe’s account of life in frontier Fort Benton.

[Sources: Undated article by Martha Edgerton Plassmann in Missoula Public Library Vertical File MEP File; Memories of a Long Life by Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassman; Benton Record]


Martha Edgerton Rolfe [OHRC]
“Jerky” stage to Fort Benton [OHRC]
Overland Hotel, the Rolfe’s first residence in Benton City [OHRC]

20 September 2008

The Celestial Kingdom in the Sun River Valley

By Ken Robison
[Pending publication in Sun River History]

During the late 19th Century, the Chinese found conditions right in the Sun River valley to serve as servants for senior military officers at Fort Shaw and cooks for the most successful ranchers. Some of the earliest Chinese in the valley owned small laundries and restaurants in the town of Sun River. By 1880 there were at least ten “Chinamen” living in the valley. The Sun River Chinese were an extension of the Chinese long accepted, however reluctantly, and working in both Fort Benton and Helena. Newspapers, such as the Benton Record, often reported on events and personalities among the resident members of the “Celestial Kingdom.”

The 1880 U. S. Census recorded five Chinese in Sun River, three employed as cooks and two unemployed:

Ah Quay 28 born China Single Cook [6 months unemployed]

Ah Hang 30 born China Single Unemployed [5 months]

Ah Quang 48 born China Married Unemployed

Tong Ting 29 born China Single Cook

Ah Toy 25 born China Single Cook

The same census recorded five other Chinese working for officers of the U. S. Army Third Infantry Regiment at Fort Shaw:

Ah Lee 35 born China Single Servant in household of Regimental Commander Colonel John R. Brooke,

Charles Chinaman 35 born China Servant in household of
Army Surgeon Charles R. Greenleaf

Ah Wing 40 born China Single Servant in household of
Lieut. John W. Hennay

Ah Lee 23 born China Single Servant in household of
Lieut. F. B. Jones

China Jim 24 born China Single Servant in household of
Lieut. Joseph Hale

In May 1884 Wing Lee, or Jim Chinaman, opened a Laundry “Washee” in Sun River, advertising in the Sun River Sun “Washing and Ironing done on short notice.” Three months later, The Sun notified that Wing Lee had sold his business and was going back to China, yet Wing Lee and his laundry continued in business. In August 1885, L. D. Browning opened the Sun River Laundry in competition with Wing Lee’s business. In less than a month Browning realized his mistake, closed his laundry, and moved on to Helena, realizing that “he could not hope to compete with the Chinaman’s low prices.” By mid 1886, Wing Lee sold his laundry to Yuen Lee, and two years later Sun River had another yet another new Laundry, conducted by Lem Chong.

In October 1884, Ah Joe opened the King Bee Restaurant in Sun River, advertising in The Sun: “Tables Furnished with the Best in the Market. Travellers and day boarders will find this a good place to stop.”

Despite their small numbers, the Sun River Chinese celebrated their traditional New Year with a round of festivities ending in fireworks. The Sun River Rising Sun reported their celebrations: “Our local Chinese commenced the celebration of their New Year last Monday, and will close the round of festivities by a grand pyrotechnic display to-night. The Emperor of China has changed the calendar so that New Years comes one week later this year than formerly, but it is alee same John, and the festal is observed as though nothing had happened.”

When Fred C. Campbell became Superintendent of the Fort Shaw Indian Industrial School in 1898, he brought along Joe Ling to cook in his household. Although the Campbells departed in 1908, Joe Ling stayed on with the new Superintendent John B. Brown. In 1910 F. C. Campbell sent a remarkable letter to his long-time Chinese cook, “Dear Joe,” urging him to come cook for Campbell at the Fort Peck Agency, and concluding “A great many of your friends down this way have been inquiring if you are coming. I feel sure you will like the work and the people.”

By the turn of the 19th century, valley ranchers sought the services of Chinese cooks as a status symbol in the community, much as those in the Fort Benton area did. Successful rancher J. C. Adams employed Hong Ching as cook on his ranch. Hong Ching was born September 1867 in China, immigrated to the U. S. in 1882, and had been married for five years at time of the 1900 census.

Through an oral history by his daughter, Ida Johnson, Alvin Sauke observed the phenomenon of Chinese ranch cooks.
Emigrating from Minnesota to Montana in August 1908, Sauke arrived at the Great Northern station in Great Falls where he observed a big “Welcome” sign on the depot and another sign that read “Chinaman don’t let the sun shine on you here.” Great Falls "prided" itself that the town did not allow Chinese residents for many decades. Alvin caught the train to Vaughn the next day, and walked to Sunnyside. There, T. C. Power owned the Sunnyside Store, handling lumber, coal, and groceries. Sunnyside had a huge garden and was managed by J. Clarence and his wife Fay Adams Morgan. The Morgans employed both a Chinese cook and a gardener. Sauke remembers Morgan yelling to one of the Chinese to bring watermelon from the garden. Sauke remembered also that at the Floweree Ranch, manager Hamilton employed a Chinese cook and possibly a gardener, J. C. Adams had a Chinese cook, and possibly other ranchers in the valley employed Chinese cooks.

Sources: U. S. Census; Sun River Sun; Sun River Rising Sun;
F. C. Campbell Letter, from F. C. Campbell Papers in possession of Fred De Rosier; Oral History Alvin Sauke by Ida Johnson.

(1) A Chinese gardener in Fort Benton [Overholser Historical Research Center Photo]
(2) Chinese cook at the Joseph A. Baker Ranch [Overholser Historical Research Center Photo]

07 September 2008

Preserving Historic Landmarks

[Written in 1916] Some months ago Frank D. Brown, the first historian of the Montana Historical society, first suggested the idea of permanently marking the route of the historic “Mullan Road” by appropriate monuments to be erected by the different towns and cities, through which ran the old military road from Fort Benton to Walla Walla.

The building of the road was a distinct achievement in the early history of the northwest. It was the first real connecting link between “the states” and the scattering fringe of white settlers along the northwestern coast line.

Trade and settlement in the inter-mountain country was prohibited by the absence of any means of transportation, beyond the head of navigation on the Missouri at Fort Benton. The building of the Mullan Road was the forerunner of construction work on the Northern Pacific railroad.

It is eminently appropriate that the people who now live in the territory that was opened up to white civilization through the efforts of these pioneer builders should pay this small tribute to their great work.

Poor indeed is the man or nation that takes no pride in the achievements of his or her progenitors. The State Historical society has done invaluable service to future generations in preserving the early history of the state.

All of us have heard much of the “Mullan Road.” How many of us can give any accurate account of the history of its construction or tell with any exactness its definite route or location beyond the general statement that it ran from Fort Benton to Walla Walla.

[Source: Missoulian in Fort Benton River Press 12 Jan 1916, p. 5]

Ken Robison Note: This proposal for marking the Mullan Road led within a decade to monuments to Captain John Mullan being placed at Fort Benton, Great Falls, Hellgate near Missoula, and several other places near the historic Mullan Military Wagon Road.