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]