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]