20 November 2009

Montana's Bridge to Nowhere

Do you know about this "bridge to nowhere"?
This steel truss bridge over Shonkin Creek in the Highwood Mountains in North Central Montana is located about 13 miles west of Geraldine and just off the county road. Historian Jon Axeline, Montana Department of Transportation, believes it is unique in the state of Montana. If you know when the bridge was built or have other details about it, please contact the Ken Robison or Hank Armstrong at the Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton at riverplains@mtintouch.net

09 November 2009

"Aliens Alive and Aliens Dead": The Celestial Kingdom on the Upper Missouri Part II

“Aliens Alive and Aliens Dead”: The Celestial Kingdom on the Upper Missouri: Part II

By Ken Robison

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

This continues the story of the Chinese in historic Choteau County and Fort Benton. Despite the derision of “Chinamen,” “Mongolians,” and “Heathen Chinese,” the Benton Chinese were tolerated, owned businesses, gave testimony in courts, and maintained their distinct cultural identify within the community—often to the delight, and sometimes to the disgust, of other Bentonites. In March 1881 Ah Sing operated the Benton Wash House at Main and St. John, where the Hagen block is today. Two years later, the Record reported on another laundry, “The house used by Mr. Culbertson as a dining hall during the time he was building his new hotel--and which is on St. John street on the opposite side of the street from the Pacific Hotel, has been rented by a Chinaman said to be Quong Lee, for a laundry, and he is making a sewer on the edge of the sidewalk from his laundry to the Missouri river, running along the sidewalk past Miller’s saloon, which he expects to have completed to-day or to-morrow.”

Chinese Laundryman on the Streets of Fort Benton

In August and September 1882 advertisements appeared in the Benton Record for the “Oriental Saloon Bakery and Restaurant with Choice Wines and Liquors Constantly on Hand Open Day and Night, Hop Lee, Proprietor.” In February 1883 Chung Kee opened another Saloon Bakery and Restaurant. The Benton Record noted in April 1883 “Chinamen seem to be the best, or at least the most successful vegetable gardeners in this vicinity. One of those industrious pig-tails is already hawking young onions and spinach, and had a good stock of celery as late as the first of February. They are not very modest in charging for their produce, however.”

In June 1883 five Chinese arrived in Benton by the Helena stagecoach intending to start a Chinese store in William Foster’s old Phoenix Exchange saloon building on Main Street—Foster, himself, was well remembered for skipping town and leaving lots of unpaid bills. The Benton Record reported their arrival and playfully added, “They are reported to be plentifully supplied with the condign, and will probably carry a good stock. This has long been a great want in Benton. No place can hope to flourish unless it contains a store where you can purchase fans painted with hump-backed Chinamen and impossible swans, or blue vases with green lizards crawling over them, and other things to suggest the horrible possibility that you’ve got ‘em again.”

The Chinese in Montana in the 1880s were a mobile population ranging out from the larger Chinese centers in Helena and Butte to outlying areas such as Fort Benton, Sun River, and Fort Assinaboine. In addition, the Montana Chinese traveled to and from San Francisco and even to and from China with surprising frequency. Perhaps the best insight into this mobility comes from a report in October 1882 in the Benton Record, headlined “A Celestial Returning to the Flowery Kingdom:
“Ah Too leaves to-morrow morning for China. He and Char Lee in partnership carry on the laundry opposite Murphy, Neel & Co. on Front Street [today’s site of the Grand Union]. Ah Too has been a resident of this country for a little over eighteen years, more than two years of which he has lived in Benton, and the remainder of the time in San Francisco.
“During the time he has sojourned in this country he has returned to China four times and he is now going back for the fifth, and is uncertain whether he will ever return again to this country or not, but will be governed by circumstances in that respect after he returns from China. He expects to go direct from Benton to San Francisco, and there take one of the ocean steamers to Hong Kong and from thence to Canton, and there he will embark on one of the boats peculiar to that country and go up the Canton river about 500 miles to his native place, Wam Boo, a town of about 3,000 inhabitants, immediately upon the river, and in the Province of Canton, and where he expects to arrive about the tenth of next November.”

Chinese Temple in Virginia City, Montana

The next week, October 12, 1882, Sim Sing, who had just arrived in Benton a few weeks previously to form a partnership with Hop Lee at the Oriental Saloon, presented the editor of the Benton Record with “a newspaper printed in the
celestial kingdom, at Canton, as a token of acknowledgment of the obligations which he is under to us for noticing the departure this morning for China of his friend Ah Too. He assured us that the paper contained news of the highest importance and interest, and everyone connected with the establishment examined it until they almost become cross-eyed, and attempts at deciphering it will have to be suspended until a more fitting opportunity.”

The Benton Chinese followed events closely in other communities in Montana. In March 1882 the Record reported from Fort Assinaboine that “Ah Wan, a Chinaman who has been working for one of the officers of this post was found this morning in a cellar of the house hanging dead from a beam, having committed suicide. The cause of the act was that John could not rest easy knowing that his father had killed another Chinaman. The Chinamen at the post say the Devil came after him . . . The body of Ah Wan, the Chinaman who committed suicide by hanging at Assinaboine the other day, has been sent to Helena for burial.”

The Benton Record, always fascinated by the Chinese, became more harshly racist in its later years, writing in 1883 “The Chinese must go. Ah Hay, or Gee Whiz, or some other euphoniously titled Celestial, left by the Helena stage this morning to make his home hereafter among his Mongolian brethren at the Capital.” In June 1883, the Record reported with horror and alarm on “The public sale to a Chinaman of a squaw in our very midst, for the trifling compensation of two sacks of flour. Does slavery exist amongst us in this year of universal enlightenment? Are human beings to be bought and sold upon our public streets, and at so small a price as that mentioned? Are Chinamen not only to pauperize our working classes, but enslave the original owners of this splendid continent. Why, where will they stop? If they would buy a squaw for two sacks of flour soon they will not hesitate to buy a white woman for four sacks, and so on until they will have us all in a condition of servitude.”

Most Chinese in Fort Benton were unmarried, and few Chinese women lived there. In April 1884 the more tolerant Fort Benton River Press reported on the marriage of Ah Son, of Benton, and his bride Ah Hou, of Bozeman in Helena at the Mount Helena House. The couple was married “melican fashion” by Judge Sterling. The Press continued, “Mr. Ah Son and wife, formerly the handsome and charming Miss Ah Hou, of Bozeman, who were recently married at Helena, arrived in the city on yesterday’s coach, and have now quietly settled down to the enjoyment of domestic affairs.”

A party of hungry travelers on Montana’s Benton Road arrived at the 28-Mile Springs stage stop late one evening in September 1884. Asking proprietor Colonel Andrew Jackson Vance if they could get anything to eat, he replied, “I don’t know; it depends on the Chinaman. If you can get him up, all right.” The travelers went to the Chinese man’s room, awakened him, and were informed they could get nothing at that time of night. The group reported back to Vance, but he kept deferring to the party to find a means to get the cook up. Finally, a traveler told Vance, “Well, you are the boss.” Vance replied, “You bet I am,” and proceeded to the room, roused the sleeping Chinaman, and raised him by the hair. “Throw him out of the window,” shouted the travelers. So “John” was thrown out into the night. The unhappy Chinese cook went into the kitchen, and the guests had a good supper. But, “the Chinaman got even by giving them in the morning the most execrable breakfast they ever sat down to.”

At 28-Mile Springs Proprietor Vance raised his “Chinaman” by his hair. Sketch in 1901 Anaconda Standard.

In February 1885 the River Press reported that an unusual event occurred at McDevitt & William’s saloon when a prize fight was arranged in the morning and the fight occurred in the afternoon between “Nosey, the Kid” and “Chung Lung, a Chinaman, under the rules of the London prize ring.” Later that month the Chinese residents of Fort Benton “commenced celebrating their New Year to-day in good style with the firing of immense fire crackers and other harmless but noisy amusements. The crackers made as much noise as a mountain howitzer, and caused many of our citizens to think the reservation bill had passed.” The next week on a typically wild evening in Benton “a shooting scrape took place in the Chinese saloon on Main street, during which John Lloyd, who is well known here, was shot through the hand and in the leg, shattering that member above the knee, by a Chinaman, known as Arthur.” Meanwhile, in January 1886 Lee Gee opened the Enterprise House in the new Cummings Building.

By the mid 1880s attitudes toward Chinese in some communities in Montana were hardening. From its founding in 1884, workingmen in Great Falls, with support of town leaders, had established a “don’t let the sun set on you in our town” Chinese exclusion policy. That harsh policy prevailed in Great Falls prohibiting settlement of any Chinese in the city until the mid-1930s.

Some years later Worden P. Wren, the agent for Murphy-Maclay & Company in the village of Great Falls, recalled the incident with the first Chinese in Great Falls:
“Chinese were good laundrymen, but did collars and cuffs so poorly that Mr. Wren sent his to Troy, New York to be laundered while he was in Fort Benton and even after he came into the Falls. In 1884 and 1885 other laundry was sent from the Falls to Fort Benton or Sun River, but early in 1885 an intrepid young Chinaman came from Sun River to start a laundry. Soon after he hung his shingle, several boys with a strong antipathy for the yellow race tried to persuade him to leave town. Pat Hughes led the crowd. He refused to comply with their request. They told him they were going to hang him with a long rope they had with them. He was led to the river, placed in a skiff with two men at the oars, and started for the opposite shore. The crowd on the bank yelled ‘Hang him’ ‘Hang him!’ It was getting dark; the Chinaman was so frightened he jumped overboard in the middle of the stream. The men at the oars and on the bank feared he had been drowned and the next morning they were not to be found. The streets were deserted. The Chinaman however, reached shore, went to the Townsite office, knocked on the door, and was admitted by Jim Matkin who gave him dry clothes to wear until his had dried sufficiently to put on again. The next day he left secretly for Sun River. The news was well circulated around the country, and Great Falls was visited by no more Chinese. Whenever one came to town, he carefully avoided the hotel, and spent the night locked in Murphy-Maclay’s store until Mr.Wren let him out the next morning. This was the first labor trouble in Great Falls.”

In January 1886 the River Press brought news to the Benton Chinese that “the Chinamen at Maiden received notice to quit the camp and not having complied with the same were last week escorted out of town by a band of masked men and instructed to keep right on going. They went.”

Anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the United States was building with the first Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. In February 1886 the River Press reported that Howell Harris had returned from Oregon with news that “there is great excitement over the Chinese question and the recent troubles in Seattle. There is a general feeling against the Chinese, who are controlled by the companies in San Francisco, although Mr. Harris is of the opinion that the habits of the Celestials in that section has probably more to do with the determination to rid the country of them than anything else. The citizens have tried every peaceable means to rid themselves of Chinese, but without avail, and it has been the general belief that agitation or legislation would bring no relief, and the people took summary measures to compel them to go, feeling sure that this would be the only means of calling public attention to the evil. That something must be done, and that speedily, is evident.”

One year later, in 1887, a Chinese man was held up and robbed in Benton. Zack Larsen and Rube Houser were arrested on the strength of damaging circumstantial evidence. The two were examined before Judge Crane and bound over to await action by the grand jury. More White-Chinese violence, almost unheard of in earlier years in Montana, occurred later that year when the River Press reported, “Chinaman Hong, who assaulted a man the other day with deadly weapons, two beer bottles and a tack hammer, was bound over by Judge Luke in the sum of $500 to appear before the grand jury. Hong is congratulating himself over the fact that in his excitement he did not make the fatal mistake of hitting his man with two bottles of Benton China whiskey. If this had occurred he is satisfied he would have gone to jail without benefit of bail, on a charge of murder in the first degree. As it is Hong furnished bail and is holding just as good hands as ever in the great American game of poker.”

In 1905 The Great Falls Leader carried a humorous story about the “Resignation of Chinese Cook” in 1887. The Leader wrote, “As one of the souvenirs of the old army post at Fort Shaw, which was abandoned by the war department for such purposes a number of years ago, Mr. F. Geo. Heldt, who during the days of that post was situated there as a member of the J. H. McKnight company and was in charge of its business at that place, retains a letter which was written by a Chinese cook employed by the company in its restaurant at the post. The latter complains of the methods by which the man in charge of the restaurant, Mr. Ferg, conducted the place. The cook was able to read and write in English, but the letter which he addressed to Mr. McKnight was so peculiarly constructed that it is evident the writer made use of a dictionary and employed words far beyond his grasp to express himself. The letter [which may drive you batty] follows:
‘November 10th, 1887, Fort Shaw, Montana.
Messrs. McKnight.
Dear Sir
I am very gratefully to you and every gentlemen and ladies, so kindness, and so nice place to work for. I am very glad to have it, but Mr. Ferg so grudge and manifest at frequently make me very hard to stay, the only trouble he is, but I tend to the place never had any not well of it and did to try how I possible, to do all boarders satisfy and rejoice. just work at every things take what they want whole day I never say a word and continually the meals in time and the morning he get up at 7 o’clock or half past 7 and take his breakfast then he way out and I wait on the table, some day in afternoon he went out to supper time nor come back and I wait on also, never speak a word to him. I suppose probably was a dutition, and some times may be I feel not well, he will say I get made and since in last Sunday morning make some cocoa for breakfast to boil over sat on the stove keep warm, then he take a cup put some cool milk on it and put little cocoa to it mix up and he say what is so cold, and I say the cool milk make so if put some ice on it more cold too and he just so fierce and he say G___ d____ wish to hold a log wood to lick me, so bottom and speak so many nonsence. I could not stay with and so for I refuse my place in 15th this month. If he was a good man I will stay a long time and when I go will send a good man to take my place before I way, but he was such circumstances I prefer not to stay. I am very sorry to say. I use to explication what do I be, and he was so highton and so lazy. on to do any work then. So and so I let to know
Yours respectfully servant

At the bottom of the letter was the notation of Mr. McKnght, made before sending the letter back to Mr. Heldt at Fort Shaw, which read as follows: “What is the matter with the Chinaman?—if Ferg is not attending to his business better stir him up.”

Worden P. Wren recalled another incident involving Chinese burial bones in early Great Falls, and his story was written in Great Falls Yesterday.
“Murphy-Maclay and Co. were agents for the stage line to Lewistown and had a quantity of bedding and other things in the basement awaiting shipment elsewhere. Some of it got wet, so Mr. Wren had the store porter take a coal oil lamp to the cellar, sort out the packages, and throw in the river any that were badly damaged. The porter asked what should be done with one box he found. Mr. Wren told him to open it up and see if it was of any value. In the box were Chinese papers, incense, Chinese candies, paper covered with Chinese writing, and at the bottom, a skull. The articles were returned to the box, and Joe McKnight of Fort Shaw brought a Chinaman to the store to interpret the writing. A Chinese had been murdered at Lewistown--knocked in the head with an axe--and the remains were to go to China via San Francisco, for burial. Mr. Wren wrote Chinese headquarters in San Francisco telling them a box was held here awaiting money for express from Lewistown to China, but no reply was ever received to the letter so the box was taken to the warehouse and put on the crossbeams where it stayed for five years. Some boys found it, took it down, and no one knows what eventually became of the poor Chinaman’s remains.”

Chinese Section of Fort Benton in 1888 with two Chinese restaurants on Front Street and a Chinese Laundry near today's Hagen Building. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map 1888.

The absence of the 1890 U. S. Census [long ago destroyed by fire] precludes detailed analysis of the Chinese in Choteau County at that time. Some insight into the Chinese community in Fort Benton in the late 1880s comes from licenses paid and issued by the Choteau County treasurer during 1889. Wun Ling held both gaming and saloon licenses, while Hop Ling and Chin Hin held gaming licenses. King Faun held licenses to operate both saloon and gaming. Wah Soo operated a laundry, and Wah Sing held both saloon and gaming licenses. Sing Lee owned both a laundry and a restaurant. Wong Quot bought the Enterprise Restaurant from Sing Lee, while Sam Lun ran the White Elephant on Front Street.

The River Press made clear the sentiment of much of the Benton community in April 1891, editorializing “We understand that a Chinese resurrection will take place here next Saturday. The remains of a Chinaman, who died here several years ago, will be exhumed, his bones carefully secured and polished up--even to the smallest bone in the body--when they will be carefully packed, in the smallest square box that will hold them, and sent back to China. These people--the Chinese-- will not allow even their bones to rest in American soil. They are aliens alive and aliens dead, and have nothing in common with our people. It would be better for them and better for our people if every one of them could be sent back within the next twelve months to their own land.”

21 October 2009

The Celestial Kingdom on the Upper Missouri: The Chinese of Historic Chouteau County -- Part I

The Celestial Kingdom on the Upper Missouri: The Chinese of Chouteau County—Part I
By Ken Robison

[Fort Benton River Press 28 October 2009 in honor of Kimonos to Cowboys, the 10th Anniversary Re-Opening Celebration at the Grand Union 1 November 2009]

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

Among the most remarkable stories of early Fort Benton is the growth of a multi-cultural society in the town. By the 1850s many unions had been formed by early American Fur Company and opposition traders with Native American women. By the late 1860s many of these mixed race families remained in Fort Benton while others had moved on to join Blackfoot or other Indian nations. Adding to this melting pot were Black Americans and Chinese who found conditions right in Fort Benton during the booming years of steamboating and overland freighting to open small businesses and find jobs in service industries.

Fort Benton of the 1860s was a rough frontier town with “the bloodiest block in the West.” The Vigilante hanging of Bill Hynson from a temporary tripod gallows at Fort Benton on August 24, 1868 had a Chinese connection. Hynson, a tall, handsome Missourian, age about 28 years old, allegedly had strangled a Chinese woman to death in Helena for her poke of $1,000 worth of gold dust. Frontier justice caught up to him in Fort Benton.

The first Chinese resident of Fort Benton is not known, but the early Chinese in the town included 32 year-old Sam Loy who operated a laundry in 1870 with Chang Haw, age 40, and Lee Wang, age 28, working as washermen. During the 1870s some of the younger Chinese worked as houseboys and cooks in local homes. The earliest Chinese clustered on Main Street, the site of a laundry for many years. In April 1877 the Benton Record reported that Arthur Sling Bang, a Chinese laundryman planted “a fine bed of asparagus seeds, and proposes to furnish the Benton market with this delicious esculent during the coming season.” Chinese gardening activities centered on a block or so above the Grand Union, long known as the Chinaman’s gardens for the vegetable gardens they kept there [later the site of the Missouri River Lumber Company].

Chinese Gardener in Early Fort Benton

By 1880 eighteen Chinese were present in Choteau County and their number continued to grow throughout the 1880s. The census of June 1880 showed Ah Wan cooking at Fort Belknap, and George W. “Taylor” cooking for farmer Isaac Taylor on the Upper Teton River. Seven of Fort Benton’s sixteen Chinese worked as cooks while eight operated or worked in laundries. Of the cooks Kung Chung and Ma Kay worked for Robert S. Culbertson at his Pacific Hotel. No occupation was listed for Charles Chow although he was head of household with three other Chinese living with him so he apparently maintained a small boarding house. Three of the eighteen Chinese in the county were married, although no wives were listed. At this time all were born in China.

In the words of historian Joel F. Overholser, “Bentonites in general regarded [the Chinese] with more curiosity than wrath, an 1881 funeral for Quong Chong drew a lengthy account in the Benton Record.” This fascinating article in the Benton Record provides insight into Chinese culture:
“Although there was an evident disposition on the part of the Chinese, friends of the deceased Quong Chong, to conceal from our people the hour for the funeral services, a large and curious crowd was drawn to the grave yard last Saturday afternoon. However common Chinese burials are to other communities this one was the first that ever occurred to Benton, and hardly any of the spectators had ever had an opportunity to see the curious ceremonies of such an occasion.
It would be interesting to know the significance of the various rites and we have made several efforts to obtain the information; but the Chinese are very reticent and are not all willing to communicate what we were anxious to find out. It must suffice, then, to say that the body— completely dressed in a white costume, such as Chinamen wear indoors, wearing shoes and hat—was placed in the coffin. Four packs of cards, with four silver half-dollars, were also placed inside. The coffin was then put in the hearse together with the bedding, clothes, and other personal property of the dead man. One Chinaman who acted as chief mourner rode beside the driver; at intervals of a few yards along the route of the procession this man threw out small scraps of paper.
On arriving at the cemetery the body was summarily placed in the ground and covered up. As soon as this had been done, a bonfire was made of all the dead man’s effects which formed as odd a collection as can be imagined. After the fire was well under way the chief mourner, after having first poured out a libation of whisky, burned, with great care to have every fragment of it consumed, a brown paper book supposed to contain the accounts of the deceased. This done, there was arranged about the foot of the grave a bowl of cooked rice with two chop-sticks stuck therein, a bar of soap, two whisky bottles, three cups and some burning tapers and papers and decorated candles. In turn each Chinaman approached, and after having bowed three times, knelt and poured whisky into the middle one of the three cups from which some of the liquor was distributed to the other two and some poured on the ground. Then he bowed low again three times and made way for the next man. A board was placed at the foot of the grave instead of at the head; it was covered with hieroglyphics and one half of it was buried. The rice, whisky, candles, &e., were allowed to remain at the grave. One Chinaman carefully gathered up a handful of earth from the mound and wrapped it in paper and the obsequies were concluded. The body will be in the ground for two years and will then be disinterred and sent back to China.”

Chinese Burial Site at Unidentified Location in Montana

One Chinese custom drew disapproval from residents and the Benton press—opium dens. In 1881 a Benton Record reporter visited an opium den and wrote a detailed report about the “Raid on an Opium Den Winding Up of an Infamous Business”:
“The Sheriff, Thursday night, made a descent on an opium dive, on Front st., nearly opposite Murphy, Neel & Co.’s store, and captured four Chinamen, one in the act of smoking, two lying in a drunken stupor, and the fourth, the owner of the house, raided.
The fact is a notorious one that all the Chinese laundries about town do a little business on the side, in letting out opium pipes to smokers at fifty cents a smoke. Before the enactment of the opium law, last winter, the dealers in the drug were able to carry on their frightful trade without any possibility of molestation by the authorities, all attacks upon the business through the nuisance act, since there was no specific law to govern the case, having met with failure. No one, who has not looked into the matter, can have any idea of the magnitude of the traffic here. The patrons of the various houses have been, it is true, for the most part Chinese, but many of the white trash about town are frequenters of the little rooms at the rear of the laundries, where curled up on the bunks they, can, under the influence of a few whiffs of smoke escape for a time from their beastly selves. Besides, this kind of a drunk has to them the merit of cheapness.
The traffic has been more secretly conducted since the opium law went into effect last winter, and consequently it has been more difficult to take offenders red-handed, so to speak. One den in particular has been under surveillance for the last three nights, and our reporter accompanied the sheriff last evening as he went to station himself where, through an uncurtained window, he could watch the movements of the occupants of the room. After a few moments of waiting, one Chinaman was seen to take up a pipe and lie down on one of the bunks. This was the chance sought; the door was quickly opened and the sheriff and our reporter entered the room. On the bed, a pipe between them, lay two Chinamen, their staring eyes and the set expression on their faces telling the story of their indulgence. They were declared under arrest.
In another bed was found a Chinaman so sound asleep that it was with great difficulty that he was aroused. After the drunken men became aware of the situation a string of extremely lucid and plausible pigeon-English explanations followed—none of them smoked, one had too sore a finger, another had sworn off and had smashed his pipe, the fragments of which he produced; the third said ‘he smoke alle time; he know law, he don’t gib dam; he Slan Flanciso man; hell!’
The owner of the house, Ah Gee, was put under arrest. What seemed to concern him most was the Sheriff’s taking away his pipes, lamps and a stock of opium on hand. A few small bottles were scattered about on the table and these and a single pipe were declared to be everything connected with the business about the place. He is an accomplished liar. A movement to break some locked drawers showed him the jig was up, and he took a key from his pocket and, unlocking the drawers, gave up two large tin boxes of the drug, each weighing about a pound, a glass jar containing about as much more, and several small bottles, all full. Under the bed and concealed in various places were found in all about a dozen pipe bowls, all thoroughly saturated with the stuff, three stems, lamps, weigh scales, and other tools of the trade, besides a cigar box full of cinders which are apparently saved for the purpose of extracting the unconsumed opium therein. The latter is the best evidence of the amount of the drug consumed in this single den.
The Chinamen were all broke up over the closing of the house. They could not do justice to the subject in their broken English, but poured forth their indignation in pure Chinese all the way to the jail, and as the doors closed they were driving the prisoners inside mad with their pitiful story. We predict that these arrests will end the nefarious business for a long time in Benton.
The sequel to the capture resulted, this afternoon, in the Chinamen being brought into Court before Judge Tattan, who fined “Charley” $5.00 and costs; Ah Sing $5.00 and costs; Quong Lee $5.00 and costs; Ah Lee $50.00 and costs, or to stand committed to jail for two months. Most of the fines were promptly paid.”

Despite occasional raids, opium dens continued operations for many years.

The Chinese in Benton were at all times objects of curiosity and amusement, and the press took full advantage of every opportunity to capture the humor of their cultural activities. In February 1880 the Benton Record correspondent reported that the Chinese celebrated their New Year and warned “Extreme vigilance is in order at present. Marshal Frank is exhausting himself in the discharge of his duties and can be found on hand at any time, ready to use up a cane on the chinaman who should possess the temerity of exploding a firecrackers. To-day being the [Chinese] New Years the ladies were visible who visited the China quarter to satisfy curiosity. How many opium dens those ladies graced with their presence, I am unable to say, but presume that their curiosity was satisfied to the fullest extent.”

Early 1900s Humor in the Anaconda Standard Depicting "A Chinaman"

Chinese New Year brought special fascination by the Benton community. In February 1882 the Record reported “Persons sweetly slumbering this morning in the vicinity of Chinese wash-houses must have thought ‘Gehenna broke loose’ when at six o’clock the Chinamen ushered in their New Year with fire-crackers, and the noise all Celestials so dearly love. The holiday season will last for three days, and during that time we may expect our clothing to be badly mixed, or else not come home from the wash at all. The Chinamen were running around to-day exchanging calls, ‘all same Melican man.’ Their cards were of red paper folded several times. In all the laundries an entertainment, consisting of cake, wine or whiskey, cigars and Chinese dried fruit, or confectionery, was provided and the white callers were treated with marked consideration. It is with them the year 8, but what that means is ‘something no fellah can find out.’”

The Benton Record often made fun of the Chinese use of the English language. In February 1880, the Record reported, “One of the Chinese laundresses of Benton says, ‘Bilness no muchee good. Melican man ‘wellie shultee too long, wellie shultee so long make chinaman sickee to washee.’

Life in Benton’s “Bloodiest block in the West” often featured humorous reporting on the latest incident in the Chinese quarters located there. In March 1880, the Record reported, “A shooting scrape took place among the disciples of Confucius in the Chinese quarters last Monday. No Asiatic soul was sent to the Flowery Kingdom; but the heathen who attempted to convert a live Celestial into a corpse was curtailed by Judge [John J.] Donnelly to the extent of $100 fine and costs of court. It was a heavy toll on all.”

Chinese Section of Fort Benton in the early 1880s centered on the alley between Main and Front Streets and on the north side of St. Johns across the alley from the Pacific Hotel

In Fort Benton’s multicultural society, Chinese interaction with the many Black Americans sometimes led to moments of tension. In August 1881 the Record reported “There was a bit of excitement up town night before last. It appears from the tale told us by [a] Mongolian, that a number of colored men were playing cards in the Eagle Bird Saloon and, if the Chinaman is correct, a job was put up among several of the dusky gamblers to rob him of his oriental ducats. Tumbling to the racket, however, before the advantage was taken of him, John Chinaman grabbed his money and prepared to make a lively exit when, with his usual free and easy manner of handling deadly weapons, the proprietor [Black American William Foster] leveled a pistol at him and ordered him to stay. But John knew they cared more for his money than his company, so he forthwith dropped his checks like hot cakes and took French leave of the assemblage. If this story be true, and we have no reason to doubt it, the parties to the affair should be arrested and punished.”

Benton’s Chinese interacted also with resident and visiting Native Americans. More than one Chinese bartender was arrested for serving “fire-water” to Indians. In June 1883 the Benton Record reported with disgust, “The public sale to a Chinaman of a squaw in our very midst, for the trifling compensation of two sacks of four, will horrify and alarms our readers. Does slavery exist amongst us in this year of universal enlightenment? Are human beings to be bought and sold upon our public streets, and at so small a price as that mentioned? Are Chinamen not only to pauperize our working classes, but enslave the original owners of this splendid continent. Why, where will they stop? If they will buy a squaw for four sacks, and so on until they will have us all in a condition of servitude. Some of our citizens should inform that squaw how her aboriginal honor has been degraded, and advise her to take her glittering scalping-knife in the solemn watches of the night and remove the
capillaries of the daring oriental.”

(1) Chinese gardener in Fort Benton
(2) Chinese burial site at unidentified location in Montana
(3) Early 1900s humor in the Anaconda Standard depicting “a Chinaman”
(4) Chinese section of Fort Benton in the early 1880s centered on the alley between Main and Front Streets and on the north side of St. Johns across the alley from the Pacific Hotel

19 October 2009

Life in Frontier Fort Benton by Martha Edgerton Rolfe

A Woman’s Perspective of Life on the Frontier: The Fort Benton Years of Martha Edgerton Rolfe--Part II
By Ken Robison

[Published in the Fort Benton River Press 14 October 2009]

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

Mrs. Martha Edgerton Rolfe, daughter of Montana’s first territorial Governor Sidney Edgerton and wife of adventurous Herbert Percy or H. P. Rolfe, left a remarkable account about life Fort Benton in its transition years from lawless frontier town of the early 1870s to more peaceful transportation hub by the end of that decade. In Part I, published in the October 1, 2008 River Press, Martha Rolfe or “Mattie,” as her family called her, wrote about the hazardous trip by stage from Helena to Fort Benton.

Young Mattie Edgerton, age 16

Territorial Governor Sidney Edgerton

Arriving late December 8, 1879 at the Overland Hotel, the Rolfe’s Fort Benton adventure began. The Benton Record Weekly announced the arrival of Professor Rolfe, his wife, and children [Pauline age two and Harriet just six weeks old] on Tuesday’s coach, adding “The Professor has come to Benton with the intention of establishing a law office, and may now be considered a citizen of Choteau [County]. Welcome.”

Mattie now continues her account of life in frontier Fort Benton as she and her young family overcame the harsh conditions and became part of the intercultural society of the town.

This [Overland] hotel was a board structure fronted with large windows, admitting plenty of light and cold. The stove, when we entered the waiting room, glowed a fiery red, but heated only the small section of the room in its vicinity. The baby, stowed away in its carriage, needed to be tucked in with blankets as if on the street, and the rest of us could warm ourselves only on one side at a time. The furniture, we discovered, was not trustworthy; the sole couch collapsing when sat upon. It lacked a leg.

The Rolfe's first Home in Fort Benton, the Overland Hotel

Our bedroom adjoined the waiting room, its door leading into a narrow passage, and nearly opposite was the bar room. That first night of our stay, a visiting army officer decided to go on a spree in which there were several participants. A good deal of noise resulted, and our door was tried on several occasions. In consequence we slept little. The next morning the bleary-eyed waiter apologized for the disturbance by explaining who had been the chief offender, concluding with “wasn’t it a shame; and him an officer ‘nd a gintleman?” This man was none other than the Colonel [Eugene] Baker, who it is commonly believed was the worse for liquor when the massacre took place on the Marias that bears his name for all time.

When I went from Helena to Fort Benton . . . the town was in its transition period, with unlimited expectations for the future, and with the best of reasons. Situated as it was at the head of navigation on the Missouri, with no rival to dispute its claim of being one of the chief distributing depots in Montana, its dream of domination had not yet been disturbed by the defiant shriek of the approaching locomotive.

Not long before the date of my arrival, it was the headquarters of the Piegan Indian Agency, and it still bore traces of the two stages of development through which it had passed; that of a fur trading post and an Indian agency. Many of the inhabitants [and most of the women] of the town were mixed or full bloods, a survival from the fur trade days. These were most in evidence when the whistle of an approaching steamboat was heard down the river. Then they trooped to the Levee to witness the boat’s arrival. Tepees frequently added a picturesque feature to the landscape; and, through [Fort Benton] annually, the whole Piegan tribe passed on its way to the Judith country to gather berries for their pemmican. This procession of natives was right well worth seeing, as it followed the trail of the river and forded it.

On these pilgrimages either going or coming, the Indians generally lingered for a time to make needed purchases, and the display of dry goods in the store windows were indicative of the trade for which it was largely intended. I always wondered where such a heterogeneous collection could have been picked up. Its gay colors would not today attract the attention they did then.

I saw the Piegans pass through the town for the last time on its way from its annual berry-picking in the Judith country to their reservation. I sat in the door of my house and watched them. It was a colorful scene and one not easily forgotten. Old and young were there and all in tribal dress. Some rode and some walked. Horses drawing traveaux loaded with robes and cooking utensils, also carried children who rode there in state, laughing and chattering. Women with gay colored blankets girdled by belts studded with brass, ran wildly back and forth, calling loudly, perhaps to collect their children. There were squaws on horseback and afoot, and dogs with miniature traveaux bore such of the tribe’s belongings as could not be carried elsewhere.

Piegan Blackfeet crossed the ford and paraded through town

It is said that on these marches each person had his or her allotted place in the procession. There were horsemen in front and rear, ready in former days to ward off attacks by an enemy should they occur.

There were three large business houses [in Fort Benton]; those of I. G. Baker, T. C. Power and Murphy-Maclay. The buildings in which these were installed made other houses along Front street look squalid by comparison. Most of the latter were ramshackle affairs, like those in early mining towns, and were either of logs, or flimsy structures of frame, with aspiring fronts and no rear to the upper portion. There was nothing imposing about Front street.

There were several fine residences on the rising ground back of town, the property of the Conrad family, which was well represented. For the rest, those which clustered on the flat, they were, like the smaller business houses, of the frontier type of architecture, and either of logs, or frame of a kind. I lived in one of the latter. It was built of boards, something like a framework for moulding concrete, and little better, the intervening space of this framework, being filled with broken bits of adobe, between which the bitter winter winds [of 1879-80] readily found a way. My next dwelling and first owned home, had two rooms of logs, with a shack addition to serve as kitchen. It was an unpretentious abode, but “It was mine own,” and I prized it accordingly.

A few years afterwards we built a frame house near the Helena road, as it was called, the stage daily passing over that route from the upland onto the flat. This house was later moved to Great Falls, and now stands not far from Ninth street.

While we were in the log house, which was almost in the direct line west of the ferry, and on low land, occurred two notable events in the history of the town—a fuel famine and an ice gorge. The intensely cold winter of 1880-81 saw a fuel famine in Fort Benton. All the coal and wood in town was exhausted, except what belonged to the Government, stored for the use of the soldiers, and not on sale to civilians. To keep themselves from freezing to death, and to conserve what little fuel remained, two or three families [including Dr. Caldwell and wife] sheltered themselves under one roof. Our small house took in two men and their wives. Our kitchen was nothing but a shack attached to the log part and here the cooking had to be done for six adults and two children.

Because of the cold, the men took turns getting breakfast, one cooking until he could stand it no longer, then going into the log part of the house to thaw out, while another took his place at the cake griddle. We had a fence when the fuel famine started. At its close, little of it remained. We were fortunate in having the fence, as some like Colonel James Sanford lacking a fence, were forced to break up their kitchen furniture in order to keep warm. The famine ended when a telegram from the War Department authorized Colonel Moale to sell the Government wood to residents.

Then came spring, and with it another danger. I was living at the upper end of town not far from the river on low land. A little above, the channel of the river narrowed between two bluffs. The weather had modified; a chinook wind was blowing; and we thought our troubles were ended when it was announced that an ice gorge had formed between the bluffs and unless it broke soon, the town would be flooded. In that event we would be among the first victims.

Great excitement prevailed throughout the town, and a number left their homes for higher ground, preferring to spend the night shelterless than run the risk of being swept down the river. Three families still united, we did not care to leave the house unless it became absolutely necessary to do so. Instead we dispatched the men to watch the gorge and report to us at intervals. This they did, and at length returned with the joyful news that we were no longer threatened, the gorge was broken.

It was foolhardy for us to have awaited the flood. Had it come, we could not have escaped it. However, aside from our anxiety, we passed the night comfortably, while those who fled to the hills suffered from the cold as the weather was by no means summerlike.

These ice gorges are all too common in the Missouri and often cut new channels. Warm weather, the result of the chinook wind, comes earlier on the upper river than it does further down. The ice there breaks up and floats down in large cakes to be suddenly checked by the solid ice below. Here it piles up, forming a dam that holds back the water until it freezes itself, either over the ice barricade or its banks. Such gorges form rapidly, often too rapidly to permit the escape of those who live in the bottom lands. A pioneer told me of one occurring above Fort Union, that was 30 miles long. He was caught in the flood and obliged to wade in the water breast high.

There was a small [Army] garrison at Fort Benton when we first went there. It was established to protect that part of the Territory in case of an Indian outbreak. After the building of Fort Assinniboine, no further need remained for the maintaining of soldiers at Fort Benton, and those there were withdrawn [in 1881].

The Fort Benton [military] post, in 1880 was in command of Colonel [Edward] Moale, a brother-in-law of General [John] Gibbon. During the retention of the garrison, it must have been regarded as a social and business acquisition. Of the social life of the place, I knew little, as I had neither the time nor the means to enter into its gayeties, which where at their height during the summer, when a dance was given now and then on the [steam]boats. I did not attend them, but reports reached me that the ladies at these parties “wore gloves and dressed just as well as they did in Calliope.”

All were strangers about me at first, but my singing at church and concerts made me known and brought me friends. The best of these were from the South, Fort Benton being settled mainly by Southerners, St. Louis furnishing its quota, as it was the home of the American Fur Company that built the original fort there.

I never shall forget my amusement when one of these friends apologized for having used the word ‘Yankee’ in my presence. My mind reverted to Tallmadge, when yearly its historian, after a roll call of New England names, stressed the point that Yankees were the salt of the earth, and we could never be too thankful for our descent from them. I chuckled inwardly, not at all offended, for the years and changed environment had taught me tolerance. My political education did not end with the Civil War.

An effort was made by one well-intentioned woman to ascertain my social status, by discovering if any officers’ wives had called upon me. They had not and I admitted it, although the admission made me at once sink to the level where she felt I belonged, all of which goes to show that the military, during their stay, were persons of distinction, and social arbiters of the town whose favor it was advisable to cultivate.

At the time there was no public library in Fort Benton; books were scarce, likewise magazines, and to one shut in as I was, there was little intellectual stimulus. I tried to find it by taking up studies with my husband, and I took up geology with my husband, teaching him German in exchange, although he had taken this language in college. I took a course in botany with the Home Correspondence School of Boston, Massachusetts, the first correspondence school in the country. It was organized and conducted by a few of the leading women of Boston and Cambridge. My teacher was Miss Jane Newell, whose botany has been used in Montana schools. A few years later I visited Miss Newell at her pleasant home on Brattle street, Cambridge, next door to the historic Longfellow house, which was once [General George] Washington’s headquarters.

This correspondence course helped to relieve the monotony of my life, but I received the greatest aid from my music. In those days I sang in churches and at the infrequent concerts. Through the courtesy of Mr. William Conrad a carriage was sent for me every Sunday, to take me to the Episcopal church, where I often served in the double capacity of soloist and accompanist. This was during the rectorship of both the Reverends [S. C.] Blackiston and Cleews. On one or two occasions I was nearly the whole congregation. They were men of character and ability, well deserving a more appreciative parish.

There was no organ in the church, a melodeon serving instead. As this only covered four octaves, there was no opportunity for fine instrumentation. On the contrary, the accompaniments of my songs had to be curtailed to meet the possibilities of the melodeon. Mrs. [Frank] Lepper was the regular organist.

Occasionally the choir was improved by the addition of a new member. One of these was Mr. [William A.] Griffith, a civil engineer, who possessed a fine tenor voice, and formerly sang in a Brooklyn, N. Y. church. He also aided in giving one or two concerts while in Fort Benton.

Madam Luisa Cappiani, the former operatic star, then a famous vocal teacher, visited Fort Benton, and gave a concert there, when I played her accompaniments. On her return from a concert tour of the State she again sang in Fort Benton. I finally agreed to play for her, although I was in no condition to do so, having run a sewing-machine needle through my finger. However, she insisted, and agreed to give me her first three lessons in payment. I would not have played for money, but the lessons broke down my resistance. I took the lessons, practiced them diligently, and later spent a couple of months in New York City under her tuition.

[Sources: Undated article for Montana Newspaper Association by Martha Edgerton (Rolfe) Plassmann; Benton Record Weekly 12 Dec 1879; Memories of a Long Life by Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassman]

19 September 2009

“Old Waxy”: J. D. Weatherwax From the Belly to the Judith

By Ken Robison

Presented by Bob Doerk at the International Fur Trade Symposium at Fort Whoop-Up 12 September 2009.

Fort Benton has been home to many colorful characters over its long history, but few can top J. D. Weatherwax, known fondly by his many friends as “Old Waxy.” Standing over six feet tall and bearing a commanding presence, he made and lost fortunes, acquired and abandoned families, and made his mark at every stop along the frontier from the Belly River to the Judith. Yet in many ways, Weatherwax lived a life shrouded in mystery. Even his given name remains blurred through his own use of Joseph, Josiah, and John, but most often simply J. D.

For our purposes today, Joseph David Weatherwax, as we’ll call him, is important for two reasons: first, because he unwillingly played a key role in ending the whiskey trade and made a bit of Mounted Police history in the process; and second, because he left many descendants on the Blackfeet reservation.

During this past year we have begun to understand J. D. Weatherwax through research conducted at our Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton and from excellent research and insight shared by Weatherwax family members in the south and east such as C. Raymond Burklin of Dallas, Texas, a grandson of J. D.’s eldest son Charles Lindell Weatherwax, and Wayne Weatherwax of Westfield, Massachusetts, who although not a direct descendant is writing a Weatherwax Family History.

Joseph David Weatherwax, was born in New York in 1830, son of Thomas and Jane Weatherwax, though Wayne Weatherwax believes the father was Peter Weatherwax, also of New York. The family moved West to Illinois by 1849, and J. D. and a brother started a carriage factory in Quincy, Illinois. On February 21st, 1854, Joseph D. Weatherwax married Martha Virginia Sanks, and by 1859 two sons, Charles Lindell and Edward Thorne, had been born.

No photo has been found of J. D. Weatherwax, but this is his eldest son Charles Lindell Weatherwax (Courtesy of Charles Raymond Burklin)

From here the trail dims. Martha and the boys remained in Illinois, while J. D. apparently did not serve in the Union Army, but rather spent much of the Civil War in the cotton trade in New Orleans. During this time he made and lost a fortune and spent little time with his first family. Like many from both North and South at the close of the Civil War J. D. Weatherwax headed West to seek a new life and opportunities. J. D. made the long trip up the Missouri River on the steamboat Agnes departing St. Louis bound “for the mountains,” April 27, 1867, and 70 days later arrived at Fort Benton on July 5th. The following winter, his wife Martha obtained a divorce in Illinois.

Settling into life in the toughest town on the Upper Missouri, by 1870 J. D. Weatherwax had been elected Sheriff of the massive Choteau County then extending from the Rockies eastward past the Bear’s Paw Mountains and from the Judith Basin to the northern border. He was popular, respected, and known to fear no man. Living with him at this time was his Deputy H. A. “Fred” Kanouse, who personified to Hugh Dempsey an “unsavory character.”

During the trading season of 1871, Winfield Scott Wetzel of Fort Benton hired Weatherwax to build a robe trading post across the Medicine Line on the northern end of the Whoop-Up Trail. Suddenly, like many others from Fort Benton, Weatherwax was knee-deep in the robe and whiskey trade, establishing a post on the Lower St. Mary River near Fort Whoop-Up. The next year J. D. had 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 & Brother and I. G. Baker firms.

Old Waxy’s duties apparently included acting as agent for T. C. Power & Brother, and keeping a watchful eye on Healy & Hamilton’s operations. He freighted trade goods including whiskey up the Whoop-Up Trail, selling them to other traders. He acted as buyer at trading posts around both the Standoff and Whoop-Up areas. In the words of Hugh Dempsey, [Quote] “Over the winter of 1871-72, the traders did a booming business, and it seemed as though just about everyone from Fort Benton was in the area.” [Unquote] [Hugh Dempsey’s Firewater The Impact of the Whisky Trade of the Blackfoot Nation, p. 86]

In October 1873, Canadian Reverend John McDougall visited the Belly River area, and wrote, [Quote] “Presently we looked upon the junction of the St. Mary’s and the Belly rivers, two deep valleys . . . The scene was rather picturesque, but the crowd we might meet down there was causing somewhat of a tremor in our minds . . . Further down [from Fort Whoop-Up] was another post. Whoopup itself belonged to Healy & Hamilton, and the other post to a Mr. Weatherwax, or, as the boys called him, ‘Old Waxy,’ and when we came in contact with him we thought he was well named—cool, calculating, polished, using the finest of English, crafty. [He told us] ‘Yes, gentlemen, we are glad to see you travelling through our country. We wish you most heartily a bon voyage.’” [Unquote] [On Western Trails in the Early Seventies Frontier Pioneer Life in The Canadian North-West by John McDougall. Toronto: William Briggs, 1911, pp. 66-7]

For three years, Old Waxy operated north of the line during the trading season, and Wetzel & Weatherwax prospered. During the fall of 1874 Old Waxy built Fort Weatherwax on the Oldman River downriver from the new site of Fort Macleod. While he hauled whiskey with other trade goods up the Whoop-Up Trail and sold it to traders at Fort Whoop-Up, Dick Berry’s Post, and others, Fort Weatherwax did not have the reputation of a whiskey post. Old Waxy appears to have let others do the “dirty work.”

During the winter of 1875, a long, rambling letter appeared in the Helena Herald from a member of the newly arrived North West Mounted Police at Fort Macleod. The writer declared (Quote)“Our duties are to suppress the whisky trade or die in the attempt . . . The renegade Yankees have monopolized the entire Indian trade. They are coarse, unpolished and uneducated, they are insulting in their conversation and disgusting to our sight.
. . . They tell us we can’t try and convict a man and confiscate his property until he is arrested. How absurd, when our civil record shows that we have done it repeatedly, and by this process we expect to regenerate the N. W. Territory, or drive the outlaws into exile.
. . . We must make arrests and seizures, or we will lose our shoulder-straps, and the Police force will be disbanded. Such a thing must not happen.” (Unquote) [Letter dated 30 Jan in HHD 15 Mar 1875, p. 3]

Within days of that letter, the North West Mounted Police made their arrest, but it didn’t turn out the way it was planned. The action was described in a letter dated February 18, 1875, from the Mounted Policeman at Fort Macleod. The letter opened with (Quote) “Hurrah for our side! In the language of a celebrated English General, ‘We have met the enemy, and they are ours.’

“Complaint was made last fall against Wetzel, Weatherwax and Berry for selling liquor to Indians. We have had our Yankee detectives shadowing them ever since, Wetzel at Benton, Weatherwax on Old Man’s river, and Berry on Bow river. On February 1st two loads of robes were driven into Weatherwax’s Fort. We seized them at once as property of Dick Berry. Old J. D. was foolish enough to protest, on the ground that he had purchased them from Berry.” (Unquote)

Eight days later a second load of robes was seized, and on February 15th a hearing was held at Fort Macleod with J. D. Weatherwax present. The meager testimony presented as evidence was that Berry had traded whiskey contrary to law, that he bought his goods from Wetzel & Weatherwax, and had in turn sold them his robes. This was enough. The intended culprit, Berry had not been caught, but actually had passed within rifle shot of Macleod on his way south just a few days after a detachment had been sent north to arrest him. It was enough that Weatherwax had the robes and money. He was found guilty of selling whiskey to Dick Berry, and sentenced to six months imprisonment [and fined $500]. In the words of the Mounted Police correspondent to the Helena Herald (Quote) “Old J. D., the chief of all the smugglers and desperadoes of the great Northwest, was locked up in jail, while the Union Jack floats triumphantly from the butt end of a broken lodge pole over his place of solitary confinement. At Fort Benton we laid the programme, and at Fort Macleod we consummated it.” (Unquote) [HHW 18 Mar 1875, p. 2]

Many in both Fort Benton and Helena were outraged. A correspondent for the Helena Herald from Fort Macleod laid out the “facts in the case”: noting that 711 buffalo robes had been seized. It was not charged that Wetzel & Weatherwax had indulged in illicit traffic, nor was any proof to that effect obtained or offered. No proof was introduced that W. & W. had sold or had in their possession any liquor in the country since the arrival of the Mounted Police. The prosecutors disregarded proof that Berry was not a partner of W. & W.; that they were innocent sellers and purchasers; that they should not be legally held liable for a crime committed by a third party; that they were in no way responsible for the acts of Berry. During the trial Weatherwax was not allowed to cross-examine the prosecuting witness. The detectives and those who expect half the proceeds and the prosecutors sat as judges in the case. [HHW 20 Mar 1875, p. 3]

Irish Fenians operated the fledgling newspaper in Fort Benton, The Benton Record, and the town was filled with Irishmen such as Colonel John J. Donnelly, a leader in the 1870 Fenian invasion of Canada. The Record’s headline of March 1st screamed: (Quote) “Arrest of Mr. Weatherwax. We did not expect that the conduct of the Queen’s Regulators would be according to law; in fact, we knew from experience, that wherever the English flag floats, might is right, but we had no idea that the persons and property of American citizens would be trifled with in the manner that American merchants have been of late in the British Possessions.” (Unquote) The Record concluded (Quote) “We demand an investigation of this matter, and we demand the immediate release of Mr. Weatherwax from the bastile.” (Unquote) [BRW 1 Mar 1875, p. 3]

All pleas and demanded were to no avail, and Old Waxy remained in jail at Fort Macleod. After serving his six-month sentence, he returned to a hero’s welcome at Fort Benton Sunday evening August 15th. Many townsmen met him on the trail and escorted him into town for a big celebration.

Hero or not, Old Waxy had learned his lesson, and we find no evidence that he ever traded above the border again. The tough enforcement measures by the Mounted Police in early 1875 proved effective in shutting down the whiskey trade.

About the time of his return to Fort Benton or possibly the previous year, J. D. Weatherwax married Bird Tail Woman or Su wats ak a, a Pikuni woman, also known as Tail Feathers and in the U. S. Census as Mary Weatherwax. Bird Tail Woman was the daughter of Crow Red Bird Tail and Medicine Calf. The Children of J. D. and Bird Tail Woman were Anna (or Nannie) born in December 1876 and baptized at St. Peter’s Mission; Josephine (or Jane) born about 1878 and who married a Mr. Murphy; Mary H. born about 1880 and wife of Joseph Ollinger; and Joseph, born in 1884 at the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning and married first to Margaret or Maggie Little Dog and later to Agnes Butterfly.

For the winter of 1875-76, Wetzel & Weatherwax turned their focus to the historic trading area at Willow Rounds. T. C. Power built a trading post in December 1875 at Willow Rounds, near the winter camp of the Blackfeet on the south side of the Marias north of the present town of Valier. Trading posts had operated at that site since 1848 when Augustin Armell established a winter post there. Now Old Waxy took charge of Willow Rounds in a joint operation for T. C. Power and Wetzel & Weatherwax. The following year W & W took over the post, and Old Waxy continued to manage the Willow Rounds post for W. & W. until the spring of 1877. At that time J. D. ended his partnership with Scott Wetzel, although he rejoined the firm in 1878.

In January 1879 Weatherwax left Fort Benton by stage for his first trip to “the States” since 1867. During this trip he probably visited his sons Charles and Edward, then living in St. Louis—both sons later visited their father in Montana Territory. Old Waxy returned to the Upper Missouri on the steamboat Dacotah in June 1879. In the spring of 1880, Old Waxy started a horse ranch on the Teton River about 20 miles above Fort Benton. That same year, Old Waxy was elected to serve as one of three commissioners of Choteau County.

Many other great stories surround the restless ways of Old Waxy as he ran ranches, freighting operations, retail stores, and gold mines. By 1881 fewer buffalo roamed the fertile Judith Basin, and Old Waxy became one of the first ranchers there. He built a log building in the fledgling town of Utica and opened the first merchandise store, serving miners from the Yogo mines and cowboys from the Judith Basin. An old ledger from his store shows one unpaid account for saloon and clothing charges by cowboy Charlie Russell for $36.43. By 1885 Old Waxy, a victim of his generous nature, had extended too much credit to friends so he lost the store. By then he had opened a gold mine at Yogo, a few miles above Utica in the Belt Mountains. Two years later, in October 1887, while working his promising mine, J. D. Weatherwax slipped and fell striking his head and breaking his neck.

Ironically, Old Waxy is buried in an unmarked grave in the Utica Cemetery, where even the cemetery records fail to reflect his presence. He died alone and largely forgotten by his white and Blackfeet families, but not by his friends. Old Waxy made an indelible mark in the dying stages of the robe trade.

Perhaps it is fitting to end with the words of James Willard Schultz, [Quote] “I make no excuse for the whiskey trade. It was wrong, all wrong and none realized it better than we when we were dispensing the stuff. It caused untold suffering, many deaths, great demoralization among those people of the plains. There was but one redeeming feature about it: The trade was at a time when it did not deprive them of the necessities of life; there was always more meat, more fur to be had for the killing of it. In comparison with various Government officials and rings, who robbed and starved the Indians to death on their reservations after the buffalo disappeared, we were saints.” [Unquote] [My Life as An Indian, p. 95]

29 July 2009

Curley Ereaux & Medicine Pipe

Young Curley Ereaux [from In the Land of Chinook]

By Ken Robison

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

Many of our stories begin with a query seeking information on an ancestor who came to the Upper Missouri, and this was the case when Rita Carpenter of Kent, Washington asked what we have on Lazeure Ereaux. The first thing I found is that this Canadian-born Frenchman had a name with many variants: first name Lazeure or Lazare or Legre or Leger, but commonly known as Curley; last name Ereaux or Eveaux or Heroux or Hiron. The rest of what I found is an interesting life of a very early pioneer who cut a wide swath across territorial Montana.

Lazare Ereaux was born 8 July 1841, son of Michael and Mary (La Verne) Ereaux. When he was eleven years old, Lazare came across the Medicine Line with his parents and located near Little Falls, MN. Later, upon the death of wife, father Micheal returned to Canada, re-married, and lived to be over ninety years old.

Young Lazare farmed for several years when in 1863 he joined an expedition taking emigrants to Fort Benton, Montana, then Idaho Territory. The Captain James L. Fisk Train Roster for the 1863 Expedition lists Leger Hiron among the 60 men on the expedition, and this is Lazare Ereaux under yet another variant name. During the spring of 1863, “Ho! For Idaho!” became the rallying cry for gold seekers bound from Minnesota to the new gold fields on Grasshopper Creek at East Bannock [now Bannack].

Fisk Expedition in 1866 forming at St. Cloud before departing for the Northern Overland Road

The Fisk Expedition left Fort Ripley on June 25 on the northern overland wagon road. Over the next ten weeks the Fisk Expedition slowly made its way westward. Along the way on the evening of August 25 thirteen Gros Ventres came into camp and spent the night with the expedition. Dressed in “gaily embroidered robes, scarlet leggings and plumes” this was Lazare’s first impression of the Gros Ventres, the Indian tribe he would later marry into.

Dr. W. D. Dibb kept a diary along the way, recording: “September 7. Rode over to Ft Benton & were well received by Mr. Steele [early Fort Benton merchant George Steell] who forwarded what goods &c. we wanted as fast as possible. We met here many freighters from Virginia [City] & Bannack—they had to go down to [the steamboat] Shreveport [stranded downriver at nearly inaccessible Snake Point] for their goods as the boats could not get up to Benton on account of the low water. In the afternoon the Capt. [Fisk] sold by auction the heavy wagons, tents, & stores. Capt. Bid farewell to the Emigrants & received a letter, signed by all, of thanks for his care & approval of his conduct along the route.”

Lazare proceeded on with nineteen other men of the emigrant group over the new Mullan Military Wagon Road and reached Bannock September 28. There the party dissolved, and Lazare tried gold mining, with little success. These “pilgrims” had come to Idaho believing that gold was lying around only waiting for them to pick it up. Bitter was their disappointment that they actually had to both work and be lucky to strike it rich. The winter was unusually severe and few jobs were available.

It was in Bannock Lazare was given the name "Curley" by the woman with whom he secured board, and it stuck with him the rest of his life. When he arrived at Bannock, Lazare had but $5, and that did not last long as a friend of his, who thought he was adept at faro induced Lazare to loan the money for another “try” at the game, with the result that both were “broke” in about thirty minutes. This did not set back a young man who had been self-supporting from age eleven, and Lazare immediately found employment with a logger and was sent into the timber. The intense cold nearly froze Lazare and his companions to death, and they received no money for a month’s work. Board was then $3 a day, and yet young Lazare was able to secure accommodations and get his employer to stand behind him for the debt he was forced to incur.

By spring, work was abundant and Curley Ereaux had plenty of it at $6 a day. In 1864, Curley located on a hay ranch in the valley of the Big Hole River. The next year as soon as he had accumulated a little money he and two others went to work building a bridge over the Big Hole River on the main road between Deer Lodge and Virginia City. Facing many obstacles, disagreements arose among the partners, and Curley sold his interest in the project for $1,000.

With the money from the bridge and the sale of his ranch, in 1866 Curley bought a freighting outfit and engaged in freighting on Montana’s Benton Road between Fort Benton, Helena, and Virginia City, hauling good and passengers at “fabulous” prices, the rate for the latter at times being $200 each. Later in 1866 in Fort Benton, Curley married Medicine Pipe, a Gros Ventre woman with the Christian name of Mary. The following year they settled in the Sun River area, in 1868 Curley built a bridge across the Sun River.

[From Thunderstorms and Tumbleweeds]

Curley continued freighting operation for three years, spending the winter of 1869 in Fort Benton. In 1870, he became the first white settler on the Salt Fork of the Sun River. Later, he took a homestead, pre-emption and timber claims in Lewis & Clark County. During these years Curley Ereaux had many adventures. Colonel Shirley C. Ashby recalled one of these in his memories. In the winter of1870 Ashby wanted to return to Fort Benton from People’s Creek. He joined Curley, Medicine Pipe, and their young son in their light wagon pulled by two small Indian ponies. Ashby recalled it was fearfully cold, forty degrees below zero. They left Beaver Creek at night and struck across Lonesome Prairie. The clouds came over the moon, and they were lost since they could not see the road. Medicine Pipe and the child were lightly clothed and suffering from the cold. “Curley hardly knew what to do. There we were, out on a bleak prairie, lost at midnight, with the thermometer showing a disposition to try and break itself.”

Ashby continued, “I told Curley that the only thing that could be done under the circumstances was to camp right where we were, and build a fire from the few dry willow twigs and wood which we had in the wagon. So, scraping the snow away, we soon had a little fire with which we made some hot tea and a meal of pemmican and hard tack. We stopped on that prairie from one o’clock until daybreak, and day doesn’t break very early in those northlands in the winter.

“As soon as the sun came up, we hunted and found a trail and pushed on to the Marias River, which we found in a few miles where there was plenty of dry wood and water. I was never happier in all my life.”

For fifteen years Curley engaged in farming, raising grain, irrigating, and selling his produce at the government military post at Fort Shaw. As his family grew he accumulated a growing herd of cattle and in 1885 took them and his family to eastern Choteau County [now Blaine County] to run cattle from the Bear Paw Mountains to Dodson.

A dishonest Indian agent on the Fort Belknap Reservation charged Curley $400 to graze his cattle on the reservation so he took up ranching on the Bear Paw, and eventually moved to People's Creek, where Pipe Woman had an allotment and her family was settled. This proved to be Curley’s final ranch home, adding more land, and he raised high grade cattle and horses on an extensive scale. He was the first white man to locate on that creek and was a pioneer in building an irrigation project in the area.

Curley Ereaux and his first wife, Mary Pipe Woman had seven children, three sons of whom died in infancy or childhood including Frank, age 18 in 1887, and Louis age 7 in 1886. The surviving children were: another Frank married Mary Adams and lived on the Peoples Creek Ranch; Rosalie married Ben Stevens and ranched on Peoples Creek; Julia married Al Schultz, and they lived near Cleveland, MT before moving to a ranch near Peoples Creek on Julia’s allotment; and Cecelia married Louden “Daddy” Minugh.

Mary Pipe Woman Ereaux died in 1915 and is buried in the Dodson Cemetery. On 1 Sep 1917, in North Dakota, Curley married Mrs. Mary (Johnson) Maxwell, born 11 Apr 1857, Cleveland, OH, daughter of Benjamin and Rachel (Shannon) Johnson. Mary was raised in Harrison County, OH. From her first marriage Mrs. Mary Johnson Maxwell Ereaux had the three children. From 1917-1919, the Curley and Mary Ereaux lived in Zelzah, CA, having gone there for the winter. They returned to Dodson, MT, in March 1920, and Curley Ereaux passed away April 29, 1922. The many achievements of Lazere Ereaux as a Montana pioneer are celebrated in Progressive Men of Montana and other state and regional histories.

Sources: Montana, Its Story and Biography by Tom Stout, Vol. 3, pp. 936-37; Progressive Men of Montana p. 1473; The Yesteryears by Phillips County Historical Society, p. 52-54; Ho! For The Gold Fields Edited by Helen McCann White; In the Land of Chinook or The Story of Blaine County by Al. J. Noyes; We Seized Our Rifles by Lee Silliman, p. 94; Manuscript “Story as Told by Col. S. C. Ashby” [MHS SC 283]; Thunderstorms and Tumbleweeds 1887-1987 East Blaine County, p. 338.

24 July 2009

New book shares many pictures from Fort Benton's history

From the 22 July 2009 Fort Benton River Press:

You can take a journey through the history of Fort Benton in the pages of the new book by local historian Ken Robison. The book, entitled Fort Benton, is part of a Postcard History Series, and is full of postcard images of Fort Benton and the surrounding area. The book takes you back to the early days of Fort Benton, as you see Indians and buffalo, the fort, the Upper Missouri River, steamboats, wagon trains, Fort Benton buildings, the town’s colorful characters, the old bridge, floods, farming and ranching, and Shep. It is an interesting and entertaining way to browse through local history. The book is available at the River Press.

Ken Robison explains that postcards were the “emails” of 100 years ago. In the early 1900s, postcards became popular, because they allowed the traveller or sender to send a few words and an image to friends and family - in place of the long letters previously used. Real photo postcards were inexpensive and easy to produce. The innovation of a short greeting on a postal image became wildly popular, and grew even more popular with the introduction of the automobile. The traveling public simply loved postcards. Robison’s book celebrates the era of the postcard.

Arcadia Publishing, the publisher of the Robison’s Fort Benton book, allows a format that blends words with images. Enough words can be included with one or two images on the page to tell short stories about Fort Benton’s legends, people, and events. Robison used this combination of words and images to tell the history of Fort Benton on the Upper Missouri. The book’s title could have been Fort Benton on the Upper Missouri, since Robison incorporated images and words that flow through the history of the area.

Robison is donating all profits from the Fort Benton book to the Overholser Historical Research Center to be used for acquiring new collections for the center.

Most of the 220 images in the book are from Robison’s personal collection, and are being donated to the Overholser Historical Research Center (OHRC) during 2009. About 30 images are from Montana’s premier postcard collector Tom Mulvaney, including scenes people at the OHRC have never seen before, like the interior lobby and dining room at the Choteau House. Some images are from the OHRC Imagery Archives. Karen Bryant kindly allowed Robison to use several of her excellent images on postcards she sold in her store, such as the restored Grand Union.

Robison included some images that are not yet out on postcards, such as the five wonderful grand murals by Bob Morgan that enrich the Agricultural Center’s community events hall, and a photo of the River and Plains Society’s treasured Chief Joseph Surrender Rifle.

The book concludes with a page about the River and Plains Society, Fort Benton’s broad-based nonprofit group that operates the museums complex, the community events center, and the Overholser Historical Research Center. This is the first book to provide the public with information about River and Plains Society.

The following is taken from Robison’s introduction to his Fort Benton postcards book:

Fort Benton is a small town with a big history! Fort Benton, the book, uniquely presents Fort Benton’s history and flows through each of the eras:

Fort Benton has been blessed from its beginning with talented historians, artists, and photographers. We owe a great debt to first historian Lieut. James G. Bradley, longest resident photographer Daniel Dutro, longest editor of the River Press newspaper Joel F. Overholser, teacher and historian John G. Lepley, artists Karl Bodmer, John Mix Stanley, Gustavus Sohon, Charles M. Russell, James Trott, Brian Morger, and David Parchen, for recording, photographing, and drawing the history of the Upper Missouri. I’ve also used art by Fort Benton friends Bob Morgan and Charles M. Russell.

Fort Benton’s story begins with the Missouri River and its spectacular natural features along the White Cliffs. The story extends to the American Indian and the buffalo that occupied the land long before the arrival of American explorers and fur traders. Blackfoot Indians long used the natural ford at Fort Benton to cross the Missouri River into Judith and Musselshell hunting grounds. Lewis and Clark made their fateful decision on the course of the Missouri at Decision Point and proceeded on past the Fort Benton river bottom on their journey to the Pacific.

The story spans the fur trade era 1830-1860s when Blackfoot, Gros Ventres, Assiniboin, and Cre traded with St. Louis-based adventurers who moved up the Missouri to establish trading posts. In 1846-47 Alexander Culbertson built Fort Benton as a post for the Upper Missouri Outfit of Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and Company. This story highlights both the Native Americans and the fur traders.

In 1859 steamboats arrived a few miles below Fort Benton delivering trade goods and Indian annuities and taking furs and buffalo robes downriver to eastern markets. As the head of navigation on the Missouri River, Fort Benton became the hub for the St. Louis to Fort Benton steamboat trade 1859-1889, bringing thousands of tons of freight to the frontier. Bringing large (200-260 feet length) steamboats up the long, muddy Missouri River was a daunting task.

The year 1860 proved an exciting time at the Fort Benton trading post. Three military groups arrived during July-August that year. First came Major George Blake and a military regiment by steamboats Chippewa and Key West. Captain William F. Raynolds arrived July 14 after coming down the Missouri River from its origin at Three Forks and exploring the Yellowstone Basin. On August 1 Lieutenant John Mullan arrived at Fort Benton after blasting the Mullan Military Wagon Road from Fort Benton to Walla Walla. In 2010, the national Mullan Road Conference will be celebrated in Fort Benton to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Mullan Road.

With the strikes at Gold Creek and Bannack in 1862, Fort Benton became a major frontier transportation hub. Fort Benton merchant princes formed trading and freighting empires extending from Fort Benton in every direction, to the mines and camps throughout Montana and northward up the Whoop-Up and Fort Walsh trails to Canada. Fort Benton supplied military posts at Fort Shaw and Fort Assiniboine. These were wild and wooly days, and the streets of Fort Benton were roamed by the rich and famous, scoundrels and killers, merchants and gamblers, Indians and soldiers, Irish Fenians and exiled Metis, and eventually by women and children. This book samples these colorful characters and the historic trails radiating from the head of navigation on the Missouri.

During the height of the steamboat era, Fort Benton underwent a building boom with many brick buildings replacing original adobe, log, or wood frame buildings. The trading firms powered a vast business empire that in the words of historian Paul Sharp made Fort Benton the “Chicago of the Plains.” This was a time of made and lost fortunes and colorful characters.
Railroads brought immense change as Fort Benton shifted to ranching, with tens of thousands of cattle and sheep on the open range and large shipments to markets in Chicago. In the early 1900s, the fertile lands of north central Montana opened to dryland farming, with the homesteaders arriving by railroad from the East. Fort Benton became the trading center for ranchers and farmers in the heart of what is now “Montana’s Golden Triangle” agricultural region. This book celebrates both the open range ranching era and the following homesteading era.

This history highlights the legends, stories and people making their mark on each era of the area’s history. Sampled are the early Chinese and Black Americans who made their mark and then moved on; adventurers like whiskey trader Johnny Healy and fearless lawman X. Beidler; cowboy artist Charlie Russell and his Fort Benton friends; military leaders and soldiers; and legendary loyal dog Shep. Historic buildings are featured, like the original block house at Old Fort Benton (Montana’s oldest original structure); the Grand Union Hotel, built at the height of the steamboat era in 1882, now restored to its elegant grandeur; the grand Chouteau County Court House built in 1884 and still used today; and the Fort Benton iron bridge, that began with a steamboat swing span and continues today as a scenic walking bridge.

Fort Benton became a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and then an Historic District with eight individual buildings on the National Register of Historic places. Fort Benton is a Preserve America city, on the National Lewis and Clark Historic Trail, and the river entry post for the Upper Missouri , now part of the 149-mile National Wild and Scenic River System and the Upper Missouri Breaks National Historic Landmark. In 2004 Fort Benton became a contributing site on the National Historic Nez Perce Trail in recognition of Fort Benton military and civilian forces at the battles of Cow Island and Cow Creek Canyon.

Today, the City of Fort Benton retains much of its “steamboat days” character. The steamboat levee is now a park running the length of the community with many interpretive signs. As you follow the levee trail from the Interpretive Center downriver to Old Fort Benton you walk hallowed ground through the pages of history.

18 July 2009

Montana's Real Birthplace

The Real “Birthplace of Montana”
By Ken Robison

Ben Myer, a teacher from Ronan, recently asked the Overholser Historical Research Center an interesting question: "What is Montana's Birthplace?"

I responded as follows:

"Dear Ben, Sound like you have a good class, asking good questions.

First, let me say that we should celebrate all early settlements in this Upper Missouri River land--St. Mary's Mission, Fort Benton, and Fort Connah each have claim to some "fame" in our history.

Fort Benton's claim to "Birthplace of Montana" is formed on the fact that Fort Benton is the oldest continuous settlement in Montana, and it has the oldest permanent structure (Old Fort Benton’s Block House).

Both Fort Connah and Fort Benton date to 1846, although the log buildings at Fort Benton were completed in 1847. The Block House had its original logs encased first in adobe, framed around 1900 by wood wainscot framing, and a few years later covered by concrete. Its logs have continuity back to 1846-47, perhaps even older since the logs from Fort Lewis were floated down the Missouri to construct Fort Benton. My understanding of the one building at Connah is that almost all logs, perhaps all, are replacement logs so it hardly constitutes an "original structure." In addition, Fort Connah has long been vacated and has been moved from the original site.

Stevensville is more complicated, but here is my understanding. St. Mary's mission was founded in 1841, but vacated in 1846 when the Catholic Fathers withdrew in the face of the Blackfoot threat. That ended continuous settlement. John Owen arrived in 1850, bought the church facilities, and formed Fort Owen. When the Jesuits didn't return, at their request Owen burned the chapel. When Father Giorda reestablished St. Mary's in 1866, he built a new mission about a mile south of Fort Owen, building a new chapel. I understand a portion of that chapel is in the current structure. In 1864 the name was changed to Stevensville.

Thus, St. Mary's mission was not continuously occupied, and none of the structures date earlier than 1866. So, how, as Wikipedia claims, can Stevensville claim to be "the first permanent settlement" in the state of Montana? Even the combination of Stevensville, Fort Owen, and St. Mary's Mission cannot be recognized as a "permanent settlement" except perhaps from 1850 to the present day. By 1850, Fort Benton was four years old!

I know its complicated, but I believe Fort Benton "wins the horns" (to use an old steamboating term) as the oldest continuous settlement with the oldest structure, and therefore is the real "birthplace of Montana." Meanwhile, let’s enjoy them all since all were important in the development of Montana.

Sources: I'll let you and your students add to this, but the picture becomes clear from:
Joel F. Overholser's Fort Benton World's Innermost Port
Jeanne O'Neill & Riga Winthrop's Fort Connah
Jeanne O'Neil's Men of the Mission

In addition, see the following websites: