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]

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