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]