14 November 2008

Meet "Old Waxey": Joseph D. Weatherwax

By Ken Robison

Fort Benton has been home to many colorful characters over its long history, but few can top J. D. Weatherwax, or as his many friends would say “Old Waxey.” Over six feet tall and bearing a commanding presence, he made and lost fortunes, married and left families in “The States” and Fort Benton, and made his mark at every stop along the frontier from the Belly River to the Judith.

Born in New York in 1840, J. D. married Martha Sanks in Illinois, and by the outbreak of the Civil War they had two sons. During the war J. D. made a fortune in cotton and lost it. In 1867 he boarded the steamboat Agnes in St. Louis bound “for the mountains.” Arriving in Fort Benton, he worked his way into partnership with Scott Wetzel, and throughout the 1870s the firm Wetzel & Weatherwax became famous as an aggressive merchant house competing with the powerful T. C. Power and I. G. Baker firms. By 1871 Weatherwax was knee-deep in the “whiskey trade,” establishing Fort Weatherwax on the Belly River near Fort Whoop-Up.

In February 1875, the North West Mounted Police arrested Old Waxey for selling whiskey to Indians, and although the charge was never proven his outfit was seized, he was fined and held for six months at Fort Macleod. Old Waxey returned to Fort Benton, a hero among the local Irish Fenians. He “married” a young Piegan woman, Mary Bird Tail Woman, and they had at least seven children over the next decade. Many descendents live today on the Blackfeet Reservation. Old Waxey continued his Indian trade at Willow Rounds, but he stayed well south of the Medicine Line. Toward the end of the 1870s, Old Waxey withdrew from the firm and began ranching and serving as Choteau County commissioner.

By 1881 fewer buffalo roamed the fertile Judith Basin, and Old Waxey became one of the first ranchers. He built a log building in the fledgling town of Utica and opened the first store. An old ledger shows one unpaid account for saloon and clothing charges by cowboy Charlie Russell for $36.43, and by 1885 Old Waxey had extended too much credit to friends so he lost the store. A few miles above Utica in the Belt Mountains, J. D. opened a mine at Yogo. In October 1887, while working his promising mine, he slipped and fell striking his head and breaking his neck. Old Waxey is buried in an unmarked grave in the Utica Cemetery.