25 October 2008

Tribal Warfare in the Medicine River Valley

By Ken Robison

[Fort Benton River Press 12 Nov 2008]

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

Oswald C. Mortson came to Montana Territory with the Seventh Infantry in 1870. When he died 32 years later, the editor of the Great Falls Tribune wrote: Professor O. C. Mortson “is gone from among us, but he has made the world a better and pleasanter place.” He became expert in geology, minerals, and fossils. Not least of Professor Mortson’s gifts to posterity were his little known historical writings. His Christmas gift in 1897 was a fascinating collection of anecdotes on the Sun River valley, or as the Native Indians called it, the “Medicine River.” In his account, Mortson presented details from an oral history by Blackfeet Chief Little Plume about a major battle between the Blackfeet and the Crows that decimated both Indian nations. Professor Mortson wrote as follows, and my comments and minor corrections appear in brackets:

The Sun or Medicine River, the second confluent of the Missouri River in Northern Montana, and draining an area of nearly 2,100 square miles, is one of the most interesting localities in the state, not only for its vast pastoral and agricultural resources, but also for its historical associations.

The printed record we have of Sun River is found in the travels of Lewis and Clark, who on June 14, 1805, first viewed the lower part of that fair valley from the bluffs above the Black Eagle Falls. On his return from the Pacific slope Capt. Lewis followed down Sun River valley for a long distance to reach his cache at White Bear Island. The captain praises the Medicine River valley (as Sun River valley was then termed by the Indians) for its streams of pure water, rich pasturage and abundance of game.

After these two visits of this exploring party, this section of Montana was over run by hunters and trappers belonging to various trading companies, especially the American Fur company, who built Fort Lewis near Pablo’s island in 1844 [1845], which was replaced by Fort Benton in 1846 [1847].

In 1859 an agency for the Blackfeet Indians was built on what is commonly known in the past as Sparks’ place. [Note: William R. Sparks settled in Sun River in January 1869 and proved up 115 acres, now part of the Toman Ranch.] About this period, Sun River valley was a common hunting ground for Blackfeet, Crow and Pend d’Oreille Indians, in search of game, horses, and scalps. Tradition among the Indians says about 1854 occurred the great flood in which year Sun River covered the valley from bluff to bluff.

It was, (as far as can be learned by the writer) somewhat later in the fifties, that there occurred that terrible three days fight between the Blackfeet and Crows, which decimated the two tribes. [Note: The time of this important battle is not entirely clear. Father Pierre-Jean De Smet sketches a similar Blackfeet-Crow battle that occurred in 1843 while Canadian historian Hugh Dempsey uses 1833, and Sun River pioneer Robert Vaughn has it in the early 1850s.] The following account was given by Little Plume a chief of the Piegans in an interview in 1884 with the editor of the Sun River Sun [Chief Little Plume was born about 1851 and died in November 1909. According to Robert Vaughn, Little Plume gave his account to frontiersmen James Gibson, Judge Burcher, and S. M. Carson, who was on the staff of the Sun River Sun under editor Will Hanks.]:

“When I was a boy and had not yet gained a name for myself in the annals of war, I was witness to one of the hardest fought battles ever waged in Sun River valley. The chief of the Piegans [identified by Hugh Dempsey as Bear Chief] and a small party of his followers were encamped on the river near the mountains, when one morning a deputation of Crows came in praying that a council be made, saying they were tired of war and wished to make a treaty that would insure peace between them for all time to come. To the council, the chief readily consented and stated that on the morrow everything would be in readiness to receive the Crow chief [Hugh Dempsey identifies two Crow chiefs Painted Wing and Spotted Lip], as their head men were not so far away but that they could be summoned by that time.

When the morrow came, the Crows and Piegans feasted together for the first and last time. The council had proceeded without even so much as a sign of hostility in the past, and as to the course to be pursed in the future, it was to be one that would make the Crows and Blackfeet as one nation. Everything had progressed to the satisfaction of all. The council had adjourned to give place to feasting and dancing during the night, and to gain time so that Skoon-a-tapse-quan, a medicine man, who had not yet arrived might be present at the final agreement [Hugh Dempsey and James Willard Schultz identify this man as Big Snake Person.] The feasting had been one unbroken round of pleasure from the first, and much good will was shown by both parties. Still the feast went on and yet the “Strong Man” had not arrived.

A few more stragglers from the main Crow camp further down the river now and then dropped in. Among a bundle of moccasins the prying eyes of the Piegan women found a fresh scalp which on closer inspection proved to be that of a Piegan. Fearing to cry out lest they should but give the signal for a general massacre, they quietly informed their chief [identified by Hugh Dempsey as Big Lake] of what they had found, and the chief as wisely said nothing, but after a little he quietly went out from the lodge, and, to his astonishment, he saw dangling from the neck of a Crow the identical burning glass with which the “Strong Man” was wont to light his pipe. He knew then that Shoon-a-tapse-quan would never give his consent to a treaty of peace with the Crows. Going back to the council he told the Crows that it would be impossible for him or his people to sign the treaty of peace until the “Strong Man” had given his consent, and further, that until such consent was given, they would be considered enemies. Having thus delivered himself he walked out, being followed by several of the leading men of both tribes, who enquired of his reason for thus breaking up the council. His only answer was to the Crows, whom he told to go to their camp and prepare for war.

The council having been thus suddenly broken up by the Piegan chief, it was deemed by the Crows, necessary to put as great a distance between the two camps as possible. They, therefore, hastily moved their camp down to the breaks, some 15 miles above where the village of Sun River now stands. Here they threw up fortification and prepared to meet the Piegans if pursued. The Piegans, on the other hand, sent runners to all the different camps, informing them of the murder of their medicine man, and the turn affairs had taken. By the time night came on the peaceful camp was broken by the hurrying tramps of over a thousand war horses, each carrying upon his back the sworn enemy of the Crows.

The particulars of the murder of Shoon-a-tapse-quan had been learned by several of the outside camps about the same time the chief discovered it. It seemed that the “Strong Man” had received the summons and had immediately set forth accompanied by his assistant, and when within a few miles of their destination, they were suddenly attacked from behind whilst in the act of lighting their pipes. The “Strong Man” received his death wound from the first blow, but his companion was only stunned, from which he recovered in time to see the murderous Crows hastily making off with the scalp of his leader dangling from the saddle bow of a young brave. Knowing that to stir or show any signs of life would bring certain death, he stay quiet for a long time, not even daring to raise his hand to his aching head, from which the scalp had just been torn. After lying in this position for a considerable time, he raised himself to a sitting posture from which he cautiously took in the situation, and seeing no signs of the Crows, he immediately made off as fast as his legs could carry him. Having arrived at the camp from which he and his companion had so hopefully started in the morning, he told of the tragedy in as few words as possible, and then fell exhausted on the floor of the lodge. Runners were immediately sent to all the outlying camps, informing them of what had happened and ordering them to at once repair to the camp of their chief. So rapidly does news travel in an Indian country that before darkness came on several hundred warriors were with their chief.

On the morrow the Piegan forces were largely augmented by these new arrivals and the chief deemed it best to immediately move against the Crows, who were reported by the scouts as being entrenched at what were then called the “Breaks,” every preparation having been made, the whole force moved forward in one vast column. When about where Alex Pambrin now lives they fell in with the Crows and drove their out-outposts into the trenches, and then commenced one of the most bloody battles ever fought between two nations having a red skin.

The Piegans, after fighting all that day and night, finally succeeded in dislodging the enemy, who, early in the morning, began to move on down the valley. After resting until evening, they again started in pursuit, and overtook the Crows at what the white men call the “Middle Bridge,” which is about two miles below the town of Sun River. Here, if you remember, a high point of bluff put in close to the river, affording great defensive advantages. This is where the Crows made their second stand. Bright and early on the morning of the third day the Piegans moved forward, and, against the most fearful odds, succeeded just as night was coming on, in driving the Crows out of their intrenchments; but, owing to the peculiar formation of the bluffs at this point, it was of no great advantage, as the ground immediately beyond was as well adapted for defense as that just lost.

The Crows had again intrenched themselves, and when morning came, yells of defiance answered the taunts of the Blackfeet. Both parties had received such reinforcements that the combatants numbered over 5,000 on either side, each bent on the extermination of the other; and so near did they accomplish this end that when the fight was won, over 500 Piegan warriors marked the spot where the final charge was made. For two days the fight continued, the Crows yielding but a little at a time. They seemed to still have some hope of victory, but fate was against them.

Just across the river from Robert Vaughn’s place [in present day Vaughn] they made their last stand. Here the hardest fighting was done, and when the last charge was made by the Blackfeet, the ground was literally piled with killed and wounded of both tribes. The Piegans were so crippled by the continuous battle that when the Crows broke from their cover and retreated down the river and across the Missouri, they were satisfied and made no effort at further pursuit. [The Blackfeet named this site “The Place of the Painted Wing and Spotted Lip Massacre."]

Although” said Little Plume, “it took the Blackfeet nation over 20 years to recover their strength, Skoon-a-tapse-e-quan was only partially avenged. As long as there remains a Crow and a Piegan, so long will there be war. When the last Crow shall have been killed, then, and not till then will the “Strong Man” be avenged.”

This is only one of the many battles fought in this valley by Piegans; or Blackfeet. Several years later a great battle was fought at Flowerree’s ranch, but not with the Crows. Old Man Monroe and Charles Chouquette and several other old timers took part in this.

In 1862 or 1863, Malcolm Clarke, killed by Blackfeet in 1869, near Mitchell, in Prickly Pear canon, established a trading post at the mouth of Simms’ creek, which was abandoned a few years later.

In 1865 occurred the memorable Sun River stampede, in which so many men lost their lives and others were crippled. By braving the icy blasts of 40 degrees below zero in their search for the gold fields which never existed.

In 1866 the Blackfeet burned their agency, killing its occupants.

In 1867 the Thirteenth Infantry headquarters and four companies of the same regiment arrived from Camp Cooke and made cantonment at the old mission near the ranch of Dave Churchill, and in August of the same year Fort Shaw was established, Lieutenant Colonel G. L. Andrews in command.

The same year John Largent bought a cabin of Goff, a trapper, which stood near the site of his present residence at Sun River.

In 1867 also John J. Healy built a cabin where H. B. Strong afterward lived [now Toman], therefore, Messrs. Healy and Largent were the first real settlers of Sun River.

In 1867-8, the bridge at the town of Sun River (since replaced by a steel truss bridge) was built by John Largent and Healy Bros.; and another one at the leavings by some German boys, in 1870. Henry Miller and a Frenchman built another bridge at the Churchill ranch known as the lower bridge. These three bridges, the upper, middle and lower, were built to secure the traffic, then of great magnitude, between Helena and Fort Benton, resulting from most of the freight for Montana territory being brought by steamboat to the latter place. Of course, Sun River was an important point on the route, and the upper bridge at the town of Sun River being the best as to location, as also to proximity to the fort, led to the two lower bridges falling into a state of innocuous desuetude and few marks are now found to denote their former existence.

In 1869 Robert Vaughn located what is now the Couch ranch, and he was the first settler to prove up on land in northern Montana.

From the first settlement of Sun River crossing, a state of desultory warfare existed between the whites and the Blackfeet Indians, and the town of Sun River was the scene of several skirmishes. The former residence of John Healy still bears marks of one of these conflicts, in which several Indians were killed, one being shot while climbing in at one of the rear windows, his body falling into the well. Another time a white man was killed down at the middle bridge, and one of the Indians who committed the deed was hung to a tree which then stood just back of John Traxler’s house [later Bill Leach Farm], while the other accomplice was taken to Sun River town and locked up in a cabin, being shortly after shot while trying to escape. At last these predatory incursions of the Blackfeet became unbearable and the military authorities decided to inflict a signal punishment on the tribe. In the early winter of 1869-70, Col. Baker, U. S. A., with detachments of the Second cavalry and Thirteenth Infantry, left Fort Shaw, and on the Marias river, below Conrad, wiped out a camp of Blackfeet, in which fight 173 Indians joined their ancestors. This [Baker Massacre] salutory lesson had a permanent pacific effect.

In 1870 the Seventh infantry, Col. John Gibbon commanding, relieved the Thirteenth infantry at Fort Shaw.

In the early ’70’s the South Fork country was not a desirable location for a quiet family. Owing to the isolated situation of this section it furnished all the requisites necessary for a safe harbor of refuge for pursued criminals, who, it is unnecessary to say, took advantage of it. Several highly sensational stories have consequently originated here, one of which is quite romantic and worthy of repetition, owing to the probable truth of it. During the early part of the ’70’s a portion of the famous Plummer gang, who operated throughout the territory, were hotly pursued by the vigilantes, made their escape into it, where they cached themselves until safe for them to return to their rendezvous. A short time after this, one of the gang who was chased into this section was captured in the lower country by the vigilantes, and just before he was swung into eternity he wrote a letter to his wife in St. Louis, telling her of a cache the gang had made of some $30,000 in coin in a cabin on a on a tributary of Sun river, in sight of the Haystack butte. A short time after receiving the letter the wife, accompanied by her son, came to this section and made a search for the missing treasure, but without success. She came back the second time and made that section her residence and continued the search, with what success is not known, as she suddenly disappeared, leaving no trace. Since that time repeated attempts have been made by various parties, and many is the lone shack whose floor has been torn up in the vain attempt to discover the cache.

In the summer of 1872, 200 soldiers from Fort Shaw participated in the Yellowstone expedition under Col. Baker, and in 1874 military roads were constructed from Fort Shaw to the British boundary and Camp Lewis (Lewistown), in the Judith Basin. The latter road crossed the Missouri river at Great Falls, on the present site of the railway bridge. About this time the last murder on lower Sun River by Indians occurred in a cabin near the site of lower Sun River bridge, when one man was killed.

In 1876 the Largent hotel was built at the town of Sun River, being the first brick building erected in the valley. In 1879 the Seventh infantry was relieved by the Third infantry, Lieutenant Colonel Brooks, commanding. In 1888 the Third infantry was relieved by the Twenty-fifth infantry, Lieutenant Colonel J. J. Van Horn commanding, and a short time after Fort Shaw was abandoned for military purposes, after being headquarters of the military district of Montana for 21 years.

With the withdrawal of the troops from Shaw, a new era, as regards the civilization of the northern Indians commenced in Sun River valley. Schools in place of bullets were to exercise their influence. In the early part of 1892, G. B. Grinnell advocated that Fort Shaw with its reservation be turned over to the Interior Department for the establishment of an Indian school. On Dec. 27, 1892, under the supervision of Dr. W. H. Winslow, the school was formally opened under the name of the Fort Shaw Indian Industrial School. The school is at present under the same superintendent, and under his able management it’s standing is second to none of the Indian schools in the United States. It is also somewhat remarkable that the children from the Blackfeet nation are in the majority, learning the arts of civilization and the ways of making themselves self-supporting, on the banks of the same river where their forefathers proved such a constant menace to settlers in earlier times.

Historically, not much more need be said regarding Sun River valley. The description of its towns and settlements practically pertains to a future article on its mineral, pastoral and agricultural resources. The foregoing brief sketches however may probably prove interesting to the citizens of Great Falls, within the corporate limits of which Sun River empties into the mighty Missouri. Twelve miles of railroad already extended from Great Falls up that magnificent valley, and when that line is extended to the upper settlements of the great South Fork country and direct mail routes established, then Sun River valley will proved no inconsiderable factor in the prosperity of Great Falls. [Signed] O. C. M.

[Sources: Great Falls Tribune Daily 24 Dec 1897, pp. 3-4; Sun River Sun 25 December 1884; “Indians Battled on Sun River in 1833” by James Willard Schultz in Great Falls Tribune 5 Sep 1937, pp. 14-15 and 12 Sep 1937, p. 15; A Pictorial History of the Sun River Valley, pp. 10-11; The Blackfoot Papers, by Adolph Hungry-Wolf, Vol. Four, pp. 1050-56; Father De Smet’s Life and Travels Among the North American Indians by Chittenden and Richardson, Vol III, pp. 1037-43; “Massacre at Sun River” in The Vengeful Wife and Other Blackfoot Stories by Hugh A. Dempsey, pp. 29-35; “Bloody Battle and Tragedies in the Sun River Valley” in Then and Now by Robert Vaughn, pp. 132-39]


(1) Professor O. C. Mortson [OHRC]
(2) Blackfeet Chief Little Plume [OHRC]
(3) Map of the Sun River Battle Sites [OHRC]