13 April 2009

The Battle of Cow Island

[In this article the Irish story-teller Michael Foley relates his experiences at Cow Island in late September 1877, when the Nez Perces forded the Missouri River and skirmished with the small garrison stationed there to protect government and private freight stored from arriving steamboats. His interviewer Harry M. Miller, a reporter for the Belt Valley Times, fortuitously captured this story for just two weeks later in 1901 Mike Foley passed away. Despite some hyperbole and the language of the 19th century, Foley's story is generally accurate and in far greater detail than any other account of this small, but important fight. Except for the Cow Island fight, the subsequent Cow Creek Canyon fight, and the Nez Perces encampment between these two engagements, Howard and Miles would not have caught and captured Chief Joseph and most of his Nez Perces, sadly ending their long trek on the Trail of Courage. Ken Robison]

How Ten Men Defeated Three Hundred Nez Perce Warriors the Story of the Battle at Cow Island, When Chief Joseph’s Band Was Repulsed by the Determined Stand of a Little Body of Brave White Men.

Justice of the Peace Michael Foley is just about the busiest man we know of in these parts. The judge is a democrat and last fall was elected as a justice of the peace for the East Belt precinct.

Now the judge has never studied Blackstone, and he probably would not be considered a reliable authority on law in general, but it has been found that usually, his decisions stand the test of an appeal in the higher court. One thing is certain, and that is that no man has ever dared to question the judge’s honesty upon all occasions.

In addition to weighty problems of the law, the solution of which occupies a very large part of the judge’s time, he owns a ranch a few miles down the creek that requires some of his personal attention. That is not all, he has a contract to haul all the mine props up to the mine from the place they are unloaded from the railroad cars and while he makes no professions of being a particularly wicked man, he seems to be determined to have no rest, so he had himself appointed deputy license collector for the Belt district. With these manifold duties devolving upon him, it can readily be understood that the judge is not an idle man. In fact, the judge’s propensity for active labor is so marked that some of his friends have been heard to remark that they would be willing to bet their last white chip that when he went to his “eternal rest” he would kick over the traces and go to work. But the judge can’t help it. He comes of a long line of ancestors who for centuries have toiled among the shamrock and potato fields of Ireland. it is just as natural for him to love to work as it is natural for nurse girls to love policeman. he was born with the spirit of hustle upon him and he has been hustling ever since that momentous occasion. He hustled away from home and across the ocean when a mere boy hustled for grub among the “yellow kids” on the Bowery of New York, hustled his passage down the east coast of America, across the Isthmus of Panama and up the western coast, landing at the Golden Gate in 1861. He hustled among the early pioneers of Idaho, Washington and Montana and some day he will hustle himself into an honorable grave and 10 to 1 will register a kick with old St. Peter because he can’t come back and shovel dirt in on his own coffin.

Like many of the pioneers, he has enjoyed prosperity, suffered poverty and met adventure.

There have been times when he had several thousand dollars of his own in his inside pocket. He was among the early settlers in the Neihart-Barker mining districts and now owns mining claims there that, with silver at $103, would yield him a rich competence.

There have been times when he spent his last two-bit piece and went hungry for days at a stretch.

Adventure! Well, Justice Foley has had his full share of the hair raising variety. Probably no other man in the state of Montana has stood face to face with death, on land and sea, as often as has the Judge.

He was a deputy sheriff in the early days of the Barker mining camp, and in his time he has bumped up against some pretty tough characters.

Upon more than one occasion he has looked down the yawning depths of the barrel of a six-shooter when the nervous trembling of a finger would have sent his soul into eternity; yet no man ever saw Judge Foley display the pallid flag of fear.

Chief among his adventures in the early days of Montana was that historical occasion upon which he and nine companions fought and defeated Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians and his band of 300 fighting savages.

Robert Vaughn, in his book, “Then and Now,” makes brief mention of a fight that occurred between Chief Joseph’s Indians and some men that were camped on Cow island in the Missouri river, below Fort Benton. That fight was probably one of the most remarkable of the many bloody battles in which the Nez Perce Indians engaged during their retreat from Idaho, across Montana towards the Canadian Line. It seems almost incredible that 10 men could successfully withstand repeated attacks by such a howling horde of scalp hunters as composed Chief Joseph’s band at that time. After Joseph’s capture a few days later he told General Miles that the little band at Cow island were the hardest fighters he had ever been up against.

The writer dropped into the Judge’s office the other day to get the story of this battle and right here might be mentioned a little coincidence that will probably strike some of our readers as being a little bit odd. When I opened the door and stepped into the little office where justice and peace settle neighborhood quarrels and fine petty offenders I found the Judge intently studying a piece of not paper that was yellow and ragged with age and upon which there appeared some writing.

The judge’s face was wrinkled and screwed into a frown that suggested dun bills. “Good morning, Judge; what have you there, a due bill?” “Yes, sir,” and the judge slapped the paper down on the desk under his hand. “Yes, sir, I have a due bill and every time I get it out and look at it I very nearly lose my patriotism. Read it.” He passed the paper over the desk. It contained the following memorandum:

“Cow Island, on Missouri River, Montana, September 26, 1877.--The following is a true and correct statement of losses by the Nez Perce Indians while in charge of the government freight at Cow Island on the 22nd of September, 1877, at which time said Indians burnt and destroyed 250 tons of government and individual freight:
“Cash................................. $475
“Trunk..................................... 5
“Two robes.............................24
“Two blankets.........................24
“One suit clothes.....................40
“One suit clothes.....................30
“Michael Foley.”

“Now, if you had fought an army of red devils for 30 hours, trying to defend government property, and had had a sort of an idea all that time that your scalp was going to be dangling from an Indian war belt, and had lost every measly red cent you had on earth, you would rather expect the government to make your loss good, wouldn’t you? Yes, well, so did I, and while my claim was duly presented, not one cent of it was ever allowed. That’s why I don’t always feel as patriotic as a good citizen should.”

“Judge, do you know that I came in here to ask you about that very light, and it was a bid odd that I should find you with this paper in your hand, don’t you think so?"

“It was funny, wasn’t it. So you want me to tell you about the Cow island fight?” The Judge removed his glasses and laid them upon a copy of the Montana code. “Yes, certainly I will tell you about it. By the way did you ever hear why this island was called Cow island? Away back in the early part of the nineteenth century some traders found a lonely, solitary cow on the island. She was hundreds of miles away from any others of her kind and was probably the pioneer cow of Montana. Without doubt she had been stolen from some white settlement away down east and driven into the wilderness by the Indians. The traders named it Cow island. The island contained several hundred acres of land and was covered with as pretty a growth of cottonwood timber as ever I saw. I have heard that some of the Indians made their headquarters there in the early times and I guess there have been enough pow-wows and dances and Indian romances on the island to make two or three of Fenimore Cooper’s novels if they were all known and written up. Some one was telling me just the other day, that the island is gone; has been eaten up by the hungry current of the Missouri river and that the place don’t look like it did when we had our little scrap there.

“I reckon that fight of our was about the warmest thing Cow island ever saw.” The Judge was smoking a pipe filled with fragrant tobacco. For a long time he sat tilted back in his chair, gazing at the floating blue clouds of smoke that circled above his head. Even the writer began to see tomahawks, scalping knives and war bonnets in the smoke.

“Yes, I’ll tell you about it.” He ran his hand back over his shining crown. “You see I haven’t a hair on the top of my head,” and there was just the glimmer of a twinkle in his eye. “What? Oh, no, the Indians didn’t take it, but they came pretty derned near it, and don’t you forget it.

“About the first of September, 1877, Col. George Clendenin appointed me as clerk to ship freight from Cow island to points in Montana, principally Deer Lodge, Fort Shaw, Helena and Missoula. At that time the water in the Missouri was very low and boats were unable to reach Fort Benton. The Josephine line of steamboats unloaded at Cow island and it was this freight that I was looking after. The government had an engineering outfit working at Dalphin rapids, a few miles further up the river. About the 20th of September they moved their commissary stores down to Cow island. A sergeant, a corporal, and seven soldiers were in charge of the supplies. They piled the stuff up at a point about 100 yards above were the government supplies were piled and covered it with tarpaulins and pitched their tent immediately alongside.

“We were not camped on the island, but along the east bank of the river. To keep the water from running into their tent and supplies in case of a storm, they dug a ditch about 2 1/2 feet deep all the way round. The dirt from the ditch they threw up on the outside. To that little ditch and wall of dirt we 10 men, later on, owed our lives. For 30 hours we lay behind that little earthen breastwork and, with our Winchesters kept death and a howling horde of savages at bay.

“We had heard that the Nez Perce Indians were heading for Canada, closely pursued by General Howard, but we had figured out that they would cross the Missouri river at Claggett and we did not anticipate for a moment that we would see any of them.

“About 3 o’clock on the 22nd of September we saw some Indians coming down the bluffs on the west side of the river and it was not long until Joseph’s entire band had crossed over to the east side where we were camped.

“We got inside the little bank of dirt and waited for developments. Joseph, Looking Glass and several others soon came down near to us and made signs for us to come out. I had seen them both in Washington, and knew them as soon as they got up where I could get a look at them. I went out unarmed to meet them. Joseph had an interpreter with him who spoke very good English. He asked me who was in charge of the big pile of freight. I told him I was and then he wanted to know who owned it and asked if we had any whisky or ammunition. I told him that we had no whisky and that all the ammunition we had was a little for our own guns, which was the truth.

“Joseph said something to the interpreter and the interpreter turning to me, asked: ‘You know who Indians are? pointing to Joseph and Looking Glass.'

“Yes,” I replied. “You are Chief Joseph and Looking Glass. I was among your people in Washington before I came here; my heart has always been good toward your people. I know you very well.”

“Joseph seemed rather pleased at my little speech and then told me he wanted me to give them something to eat. I told them to go to the big pile of freight and take what they wanted. I went with them down to the freight pile and the squaws took several sacks of sugar, some hams, hard tack and a lot of other truck. They carried it about a half a mile up the river to a little bench land where the whole lousy outfit had a feast and pow-wow.

“While the squaws were carrying awy the provisions Joseph told me his men would not fight us. He said: ‘We are across the water from the old woman’--meaning General Howard--’and I want to get in a good country where my young men and our horses can get plenty to eat.’

“I told him that around the Little Rockies and the Bear Paw mountains the country was covered with buffalo, deer, antelope and elk and that grass was as high as his ponies’ backs--and that was the truth, too.

“Well, after they had filled up on government bacon and hard tack the whole outfit pulled and moved over the bench into a little basin out of sight of our camp.

“I did not like the move and stole up into a little ravine from where I could see what they were up to. After they had all gone over there the bucks sat down in a circle and began to pass the pipe. I noticed that about one-fourth of them passed the pipe along and would not smoke. I felt pretty sure that that meant trouble for us, and I went back and told my comrades that we were in for it; that the Indians were going to fight us.

“The Dutch corporal laughed at me and said, ‘they won’t fight us. Joseph has given us his word.’

“All right,’ I replied, ‘you wait until about sundown and see if I don’t know something about Indians myself.’

“Sure enough, just about sundown, while we were all standing around drinking coffee and eating hard tack, there was the w-h-i-z, w-h-i-z of bullets in the air, followed by the crack of a dozen rifles. One of our men was hit in the palm of the hand while in the act of taking out a piece of hard tack.

“‘In the ditch with your guns!': I yelled, and down we went into the little breastwork, every man with his Winchester.

“I don’t know how it happened, but I took command of that little party and while I dare say we did not fight according to army tactics, I rather think, as the preacher says, that we ‘made our influence felt.’

“Well, sir, there was about 200 Indians lined up on the hill east of and above us and the way they dropped lead into our little circle of breastworks was simply a terror.

“We hugged down in the ditch on the side next to the Indians and their shots all went over our heads or landed in the dirt bank. Well, after a few minutes of that sort of thing we began to get hot about it. I had a made-to-order Winchester rife that was the best gun I ever handled. When I took a look along the sights of that gun and got the pumping machinery into motion something usually dropped and I want to tell you that several things dropped on that occasion. I noticed that the rest of the boys seemed to understand their guns pretty well and I reckon it was not more than a few minutes before we had all those Indians driven out of sight.”

“Did you hit any of them?”

The Judge paused for a full half-minute. “Oh, no, of course we didn’t hit any of them; they were a nice lot of Indians and just fell dead to be accommodating.”

“One would suppose,” he continued, “that that night would have seemed endless to us 10 men, lying behind out breastworks with a horde of savages circling around the outside determined to get our scalps. On the contrary, however, the hours were so full of excitement that morning came before we scarcely realized that night had set in. All night long the Indians kept firing into us. One of the soldiers, a fellow named Buck Walters was shot in the shoulder.

“There was a coulee just north of the pile of freight, that led back from the river, and through this coulee the Indians were able to get at the pile of freight without us being able to see them. Working on the side of the freight pile furtherest away from us, they carried everything away they wanted and set fire to the remainder. I believe they intended to carry everything away they wanted and then rush in and kill us, but the fire they started lit things up so well that we could see in every direction and we soon convinced them that it was decidedly unhealthy for an Indian to get out in the light.

“Ah, sir, but that little scene in the drama of Joseph’s retreat before General Howard, and just before his capture by General Miles, had the stage setting that was awe-inspiring, brilliant and tragic. There were 250 sacks of bacon in the freight pile ad when they began to blaze the flames leaped higher than the surrounding hills.

“West of us rolled the turbulent Missouri, looking, in the light of the fire, like a river of blood and flame. East of us rose the bluffs, across the face of which flitted strange and grotesque shadows, called into shape by the leaping and jumping flames. Ever and anon we could see dashes of fire, like the blaze of a fire fly leap out from some shadowy place and then would come the song of a bullet over our heads or near us, followed by the report of a rifle.

“Four or five times during the night the Indians tried to rush in on us, but we always met them with such a volley of lead that they would retreat out of sight. We fired 600 rounds of ammunition that night. I believe the fire was what saved us, though.

“When daylight came there was not an Indian in sight. we kept pretty quite for awhile fearing they were laying for us to show ourselves, but after cautiously getting up for a few seconds at a time without anything happening we finally decided they were gone. We began to stir around and stretch ourselves then. Pretty soon, after sun-up, however, two bucks appeared on the top of the eastern bluffs. They appeared to be making signs to others to come up and help kill the lying white men. I dropped down on one knee, took deliberate aim with my trusty old gun, and fired first at one and then at the other. They jumped up in the air and tumbled over like a deer that had been shot through the heart.”

"Do you mean that you killed them?”

There was another pause during which the judge eyed his interrogator.

“No, of course I did not kill them; they just died of heart disease,”--and then he went on with the story--”We did not see any more of the Indians for an hour. After about that long a bullet came--z-i-p-p--into the sand right among us and several seconds later the report of what we though must be a small cannon came reverberating up the river.

“On the point of a bluff about 800 yards down the river from where we were, we could see a puff of smoke floating slowly away on the breeze. While we were watching this smoke we saw another puff belch forth from near the top of the bluff and about two seconds later another big bullet whizzed through the air and we all ducked our heads like a lot of geese.

“Well, sir, that thing kept up for an hour. We did not know what to make of it and rather enjoyed it. We could see the little puff of smoke spring up and then have plenty of time to dodge down into the ditch before the ball would come, and then we would jump up and shout defiance at the red devils before the report would reach us. We really like the sport. I heard afterwards that the gun was one that had been built to shoot elephants with, and that Joseph’s crew had taken it from some Englishman they had captured in the National park. They ‘got next’ to how to use it all right for at a distance of 800 yards they could put a bullet into our little circus ring every time. After about an hour of that sort of target practice with their new gun, the Indians withdrew and we saw nothing more of them.

“Early in the morning of September 22, I had loaded out some bull teams for O. G. Cooper, now of Choteau, and one for Frank Farmer, who died recently. The Indians went up Cow creek and overtook these freight teams. They killed a man named Bradley, who was with Cooper, and burnt and destroyed the wagons and goods. Cooper and Farmer escaped and came back to Cow Island being very much surprised to find us alive. They went to Fort Benton and on the day they left, Colonel Clendenin came down the creek along. When we told him what happened he said, “Well, Mike, it is too bad I was not here to help you whip the scoundrels.’

“Colonel Clendenin told me that one of the North-West steamboats, while trying to get over the shallows at Grand Island, 20 miles below, got stuck on a sandbar. He thought that there was a doctor on the boat and that it would be better to take the two wounded men down there, where they could be taken care of. We had some flatboats and skiffs tied up along the river bank, but the Indians had turned them all loose except one small skiff that we had dragged up into the brush and they had failed to find. After the dusk of evening began to fail--that was the second day after the fight--we put the two wounded men in the skiff, and leaving the other men in the camp, Col. Clendenin and I started down and pretty soon we were hailed by a party from the bank. They turned out to be the Fort Benton volunteers, with Major Ilges, Col. Donnelly and Judge Tattan in the lead.

“They wanted us to go back and show them the ford across the river and join them in the chase after the Indians. We explained to them that we were taking wounded men down to the steamboat and also advised them not to cross the river. They were only 75 of them all told, and we told them we could not hope to do anything with the 300 fighting bucks with Joseph and if they went after them they would only get killed. I told Colonel Clendenin that if he wanted to go all right, but that I had had quite enough for one round. The colonel stayed with me and went down to the steamboat. The volunteers went up to our camp, crossed the river and followed the Indians. The only thing in God-a-Mighty’s world that saved their lives was the fact that Joseph thought they were the advance guard of General Howard’s command. As it was, one man was killed and the volunteers came back to Cow island pell mell and went home.

“We got the wounded men to the steamboat about 11 o’clock that night leaving them in the care of the doctor whom we found on the boat. They both recovered. I was so dead tired and exhausted, not having had any rest for three days and nights, that I told the colonel to go on back to our camp while I would lie down and sleep a few hours and would be back to our camp by 10 o’clock. We had to walk back, not being able to pull the boat against the current of the river. The colonel started at once while I stretched out on the floor of the boat to get some sleep. The purser called me about 4 o’clock in the morning, and I started back.

“When about half way and trudging along at a pretty stiff gait a bullet suddenly kicked up the dust just to one side of me and almost instantly another whistled through the air so close to my face that I could taste it. I saw the two red varmints before the crack of their guns reached me. They were off to my right about half way up the buffs and 300 yards away. Well, you can just bet I wasn’t long in getting action on my old Winchester.”

The Judge paused as if expecting something.

“What became of the Indians?”

There was just the glimmer of a blaze in the judge’s eye as he again took his feet down off the table and leaned over the desk.

“It strikes me, young man, that you ask some mighty foolish questions. How do I know what became of the Indians? I reckon they just got tired and laid down there to dream of the happy hunting grounds. Say, did you ever see a scalped Indian? No? Well, I have, and don’t you forget it either.

“Down at my ranch I have a handkerchief such as Indians sometimes wear around their heads. There is a bullet hole in it and even yet some dried splotches of blood. I picked it up on the spot where the Indians first fired upon us. I have also a fine hair brush that I picked up in the same place and they had evidently dropped when we fired into them.

“A few days after our fight, General Howard and staff arrived at Cow island, camped all night, and the next afternoon started down the river to join General Miles. A few days later occurred the historic capture of Chiefs Joseph and Looking Glass.” -- Harry M. Miller of Great Falls, in the Belt Times.

[Source: Belt Valley Times/Great Falls Tribune 13 Jul 1901, p. 5]

Charlie Russell Is The Bloomin' Hero

New Play By A Former Great Falls Man, The Scene of Which Is Laid in Montana and Charley Russell Is the hero--It Will Shortly Be Produced.

[Note: Has anyone ever heard of this play about Charlie Russell? This story appeared in the 16 August 1906 Great Falls Daily Leader]

At last Charles M. Russell, cowboy artist, horse wrangler, sculptor, story teller and all-around good fellow, has been handed a bunch of real fame. A play has been put together by a couple of enterprising young men of St. Paul, which threatens to be produced on a real stage with Russell as the hero.

Russell is the only artist living who can reproduce the real west of the past, on canvas, and once upon a time he consented that a cigar be named after him; that was supposed to be the limit, and “C. M. Russell, the Cowboy Artist,” decided then and there to go out of the fame business. But the cigars were as smoke compared to the latest, a four-act play of the wild and woolly kind, with Indians, cowboys and different varieties of jiggeroos, written by a former Great Falls man on an inspiration furnished by Russell. At least that is the way it is advertised in the St. Pul Dispatch’s dramatic news. Mr. Thode, author of the new play, was formerly a resident of this city, and his mother and brother make their home here at the present time, the latter being engaged in the express business. The Dispatch says:

“A play written by two St. Paul men and submitted recently to George Fawcett has evoked a very favorable opinion from that experienced actor and director. The new work, a four-act comedy drama, was written by Alfred J. Thode and Stanley E. Hills. They have entitled it fetchingly, in this day of wild west drama, “The Cowboy Artist.”

“Unlike Clyde Fitch and many other native dramatists who have put the west behind the footlights, Messrs. Thode and Hills know the people and the life that they describe. They lived long among the miners and the ;cow punchers.’ It was the sight of C. M. Russell, the ‘cowboy artist,’ in a Montana saloon, surrounded by Indians that suggested the theme of the new play. The authors have placed the action in and around Helena, Mont. They have chosen a recent but picturesque period--the outbreak of the war with Spain.

“Mr. Fawcett, who was pleased especially with the correctness of the western life and characters, believes that the play would require merely a few technical changes for transformation into a possible Broadway success.”