21 June 2009

The Fort Benton Legend of General Thomas Francis Meagher

By Ken Robison

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

At midday July 1st, 1867, General Thomas Francis Meagher with a militia escort of at least six men rode hard along Montana’s Benton Road, down the opening from the bluffs overlooking wild and wooly Fort Benton, and entered the pages of history and the stuff of legends. About ten hours later, the former Acting Governor of Montana Territory, heroic Civil War leader of the famed Irish Brigade, and Irish revolutionary leader General Meagher was dead--his death shrouded in mystery and his body lost to the depths and swift current of the spring rise Missouri River.

After recovering from war wounds, General Meagher came to frontier Montana as Territorial Secretary and became Acting Governor upon the departure of Governor Sydney Edgerton in 1865. The brilliant, but brash and unpredictable, Secretary and Acting Governor, with his wife Elizabeth, were the center of the social and political scene of the new territory during these booming gold mining days. Revered in Fenian Irish and democratic circles, Governor Meagher fought political battles with the strong Lincoln republican element. Arrival of newly appointed Governor Green Clay Smith in the fall of 1866 relieved Meagher of many of his demanding duties. However, Smith left the territory in early 1867 to escort his family up the Missouri River to Fort Benton, and Meagher again took on the demands of Acting Governor. By the spring of 1867, Montana Territory faced an expanding settler population and a perceived threat from Indian tribes. Ever hard charging, General Meagher called for federal troops, only to be answered by a promise of a federal arms shipment to the new Army post Camp Cooke on the Missouri at the mouth of the Judith River. Meagher determined to go to Fort Benton either to receive the arms there or to embark a steamboat to go down to Camp Cooke.

General Meagher departed Virginia City about June 17th accompanied by an escort of from six to twelve militiamen. He arrived in Helena June 19th, spent several days, and left in ill health for Fort Benton about June 22nd. The next day on the Benton road, the General met returning Governor Green Clay Smith and his family, who had arrived at Fort Benton June 20th on the steamboat Octavia. With their brief meeting, General Meagher again relinquished the governorship.

By the evening of the 23rd of June, General Meagher and his escorts arrived at Johnny Healy’s little trading post at Sun River Crossing. On the road from Helena, Meagher suffered from severe dysentery. In the words of Meagher biographer Paul Wylie, “years of drinking and the rigors of his chaotic life had taken their toll.” For the next week, Meagher remained at Healy’s post recovering from his illness. A week with colorful Irishmen Healy and Meagher and others, no doubt drinking and swapping tales must have been something to behold. The evening of the 30th of June, a blacksmith working for Huntley’s Stage Line reported enjoying an evening dinner “laughing and joking” with General Meagher’s party at Healy’s little 12 x 12 feet log dugout.

Early the next morning, General Meagher and his escort departed Sun River Crossing for Benton arriving tired and dusty around noon on the 1st of July. The view they saw from the bluffs overlooking Fort Benton is today hard to imagine. The head of steamboat navigation on the Missouri River in the 1860s meant just that. During the year 1867, some 41 steamboats departed St. Louis and after the long 2,400-mile trip through snags and rocks and sand bars arrived at the Fort Benton levee between the 25th of May and the 8th of August. These massive boats, from 150 to 250 feet in length, carried an average of 200 tons of freight bringing a total of more than 8,000 tons to the Fort Benton levee.

At the Fort Benton levee July 1st were four steamboats, all sternwheelers, the Amaranth, G. A. Thomson, Gallatin, and Guidon. The Amaranth, commanded by Captain James Lockhart had arrived two days earlier bringing 225 tons and 12 passengers to Fort Benton. The G. A. Thomson, under Captain J. M. Woods, Clerk J. Stewart, and pilot John T. Doran, landed the previous day with 200 tons cargo and 68 passengers after a long, hard 67-day trip from St. Louis suffering damage from a collision en route. The steamer Gallatin, under Captain Sam Howe, arrived at the levee earlier the morning of July 1st with a load of government freight from Camp Cooke. The Guidon, commanded by Captain James L. Bissell, acting throughout the boating season as tender on the Upper Missouri, arrived June 20 with 225 tons and 57 passengers plus an additional 130 passengers from Camp Cooke that had been stranded by the earlier sinking of their steamboat Nora. The Guidon was moored astern the G. A. Thomson at the Fort Benton levee on July 1.

Two other recent steamboats had just departed the Fort Benton levee. The Ida Stockdale, commanded by young Captain Grant Marsh, arrived June 29, with 20 passengers from the James H. Trover, which was grounded on a bar 45 miles below the mouth of the Musselshell. Another noteworthy boat, the Octavia, under Captain Joseph LaBarge arrived June 20 with a cargo of 174 tons and 70 passengers including Governor Green Clay Smith and his family. The trip of Octavia had been marred by the murder of an English nobleman, Captain Wilfred D. Speer of the Queens’ Guards. Speer was shot point blank in the head by U. S. Army sentry Private William Barry, an Irishman and part of a contingent of 100 soldiers from the 13th Infantry Regiment en route Camp Cooke. The Octavia had departed Fort Benton down river June 25th although the murder of the Englishman was still the talk of the town and the incident added to the animosity and tension of the Irish/English conflict.

Some 800 tons of freight had arrived on the levee during the past week. Part of this massive cargo had been loaded and was already moving along the Benton Road, but several hundred tons remained on the levee. Many wagons and men, hundreds of oxen, mules, and horses were loading, unloading, and moving from the levee through the streets of Fort Benton and onto the trails leading in every direction from Fort Benton. From four to eight yoke of oxen drew each wagon, which could carry about two tons of freight. Each wagon train made a stunning show.

The sleepy little river town of today was booming and bustling day and night during the steamboating season in 1867. A traveler returning to Montana Territory several weeks earlier on the steamer Waverly, was surprised at the growth in Fort Benton, writing, “Arrived at Benton we found that place much improved. We may say in general terms, that every one has new buildings, and the place has arrived at the dignity of two hotels, saloons and gambling tables.”

“Improved” or not, frontier Fort Benton was earning a reputation with “the bloodied block in the West,” and in the summer of 1867 businesses like Mose Solomon’s Medicine Lodge and The Jungle were roaring with day and night life of all kinds. It was from the second story of The Jungle’s flimsy frame earlier in June that infamous Eleanor Dumont, better known as Madame Mustache, left her blackjack game, sprinted across the street to the levee, flourished two pistols and warned off the pilot of the Walter B. Dance, reported to have smallpox aboard. Just after his arrival, Governor Green Clay Smith had witnessed a brawl spill into the street from the Medicine Lodge, a discharged fireman from the steamer Guidon with a bowie knife and another man with a derringer. Sheriff William Hamilton arrested both men but the absence of a Justice of the Peace forced their release. The fireman regained his knife and immediately confronted Governor Smith, who proceeded personally to subdue the man with a club. Adding to this wild and wooly environment, tensions had risen with Native Americans during recent months, reports had come of the latest Fenian invasion of the British Possessions the previous year, and territorial political and social antagonisms had increased. As General Meagher rode into town weighing heavily on his mind no doubt was the fact that he was in debt, out of work, and the subject of immense controversy, beloved by some, hated by others.

Republican leader and political adversary, Wilbur Fisk Sanders was present in Fort Benton at the time awaiting the arrival of his family coming up the Missouri on the steamboat Abeona. Sanders greeted General Meagher and his escort and spend part of the early afternoon with him. Fort Benton merchant I. G. Baker met the general on the levee and invited him to dinner at Baker’s house across from the levee. During their conversation, Governor Meagher announced that he was going down river to receive the arms shipment.

General Meagher spent much of the afternoon next door in a back room at Baker’s store where he read, greeted visitors, and wrote correspondence. It was there that Meagher wrote his last letter, imploring secretarial auditor Ming to pay back wages to ease his serious financial woes.

After spending the afternoon at the I. G. Baker store and eating supper at Baker’s house, Meagher boarded the steamboat G. A. Thomson to spend the night. He was never seen again, and his body was never found. Did he die from Vigilante justice? Trip and fall from a weakened railing? Jump in frustration over failed finances? That is the great mystery of General Meagher’s death in Fort Benton and the birth of a legend.
Paul R. Wylie’s The Irish General Thomas Francis Meagher carefully sorts through the conflicting accounts of the general’s last day. Wylie explores the accounts of Wilbur Fisk Sanders, I. G. Baker, pilot Johnny Doran, and others, and examines possible suspects ranging from the Vigilantes, anti-Irish hotheads, enemies such as Indian agents Augustus Chapman and Major George B. Wright. These accounts, conflicting often in detail and tone, make fascinating reading. Wylie also weighs the evidence for an act of suicide or a tragic accident to explain the death. The Coroner’s Inquest into the Death of General Thomas Francis Meagher, to be held at the Ag Center Friday evening June 26th, will hear testimony from all these accounts. The Inquest to be held just five days short of 142 years after Meagher’s death will be entertaining for all, and all will no doubt go away with a favorite theory.

So, here is mine. During the afternoon on July 1st, General Meagher was sober but still suffering from severe dysentery. During the afternoon I. G. Baker offered Meagher several glasses of blackberry wine, commonly used then to cure diarrhea. Accounts vary about where Meagher dined that evening, either with Pilot Johnny Doran on board the G. A. Thomson or at Baker’s home. Most likely, the general had supper at Baker’s home leaving by 7 p. m. Toward dusk, Meagher sat with a group of men in front of Baker’s store. The party got loud, and Meagher began exhibiting possible symptoms of delusion and paranoia, expressing concern that his enemies were about to do him harm. Apparently, Doran got Meagher to the steamboat G. A. Thomson. There, Meagher, Doran, James M. Woods, captain of the boat, and others began drinking in the boat’s salon, and Meagher became inebriated. Meagher and Doran then may have once more gone ashore for a short while. Doran got Meagher back to the G. A. Thomson and into the cabin of Captain Woods, the outside door of which faced the water, some time after dark. Meagher got ready for bed, and Doran left him thinking his friend was asleep and proceeded to the lower deck.

About 10 p. m. Doran heard a splash in the waters and heard the cry of “man overboard,” probably uttered by the boat’s black barber who was on watch and had caught a glimpse of a man in the water. Most likely General Meagher, dressed in his underclothes, suffering from exhaustion, too much to drink, and his severe bout of diarrhea, opened the cabin door to go onto the upper deck to relieve himself. There he stumbled and fell overboard from a portion of the deck that had been damaged by an earlier collision with part of the deck railing broken off.

At least four witnesses saw Meagher fall from the boat. One credible witness, Ferdinand Roosevelt, then Wells Fargo agent at Fort Benton, saw Meagher fall overboard and testified that there was no attacker and that General Meagher had been drinking heavily. A correspondent from the Montana Post was on board the steamer Guidon at the time and heard the plunge, briefly saw a head in the water, and then all was still. Pilot Doran described the waters as "...instant death – water twelve feet deep and rushing at the rate of ten miles an hour.” Floating lifebuoys were put out, lights were lit, and a boat was launched and every exertion was made first to recover and later to locate the body of the general. The search continued for several days before it was called off. It would not be the first or the last body never to be found after drowning in “the big Muddy.” General Meagher body was lost to the ages but his spirit lived on.

Upon hearing the news, Governor Smith issued a proclamation ordering tributes of respect and offering a reward for recovery of his body. Flags of Governor Meagher’s native land and adopted country were flown at half-mast as a mark of respect to his memory. A large “citizens’ meeting” was held in Helena to mourn the General’s death proclaiming “our country has lost a true patriot, a friend of universal liberty, a sympathizer with the afflicted of all nations, a foe to tyranny, a fearless and intrepid general, a man of genius and of eloquence, who, at all times was ready to sacrifice personal interest for the public good.”

Ironically, Fort Benton returned quickly to normalcy with steamboats coming and going with regularity. The G. A. Thomson left for St. Louis at noon on the 2d [of July] “with some twenty passengers, the majority of whom were returning pilgrims, disgusted with the country.” Fort Benton “had a gay time on the 4th” [of July]. At noon, all available ordnance of the town “belched forth the joyous proclamation of the only American national holiday.” At 2 o’clock on board the steamer Antelope, a large audience assembled to listen to the “finest, most terse and appropriate” fourth of July oration by Col. W. F. Sanders, preceded by the reading of the Declaration of Independence by Major Wright. In the evening the celebration was closed by “a squaw dance in a large hall on the levee, well attended by all shades of female aborigines, most of whom, although well versed in the arts of the mazy dance, resisted all attempts at conversation, astonishing St. Louis gentlemen, who honored the floor with their fashionable selves.” Innumerable fights occurred and “the inhabitants enjoyed themselves as well as could be expected under the circumstances.” By then the search for General Meagher’s body had been suspended.

In a letter from Fort Benton dated July 6, “Fleet-Wing” reported that the Gallatin arrived that evening and landed a battery of six twelve pound mountain howitzers, 2,500 stand of muskets, and an immense amount of ammunition for the use of the Montana militia. General Meagher’s arms had arrived, but he was not there to meet them.

As you visit today’s Fort Benton, you see a small, quiet river town with a big history. Look over Fort Benton from the bluffs and imagine the town in 1867 going full blast night and day. Imagine the long levee filled with up to eight steamboats at a time, hundreds of tons of freight piled on the levee, and hundreds of freight wagons and muleskinners filling the streets. When you walk the streets and tour the still standing I. G. Baker house, imagine the Irish General sitting there, eating his last midday meal with I. G. Baker. As you read the interpretive sign on the levee, imagine General Meagher sitting at a table in the back room of the Baker store spending his last afternoon. As you visit the Museum of the Upper Missouri look at parts of two surviving crates addressed to “His Excellency the Governor of Montana Territory” and used to ship the arms from the federal arsenal at Frankfurt. As you walk the levee, imagine General Meagher greeting Sanders and many well-wishers. See the 200-foot steamboat G. A. Thomson moored alongside and General Meagher restless in his stateroom just before he stepped out the cabin door and off the deck into the cold, swirling current to his watery grave. Pause at the new Thomas Francis Meagher Monument on the levee to pay homage to the exceptional Irish revolutionary hero, the brave Civil War leader of the Irish Brigade, and the larger than life early Montana territorial saint and sinner. You are in Fort Benton, Montana--Meagher country!

[Sources: Paul Wylie’s The Irish General; Joel Overholser’s Fort Benton World’s Innermost Port; John G. Lepley’s Birthplace of Montana A History of Fort Benton; Montana Post 29 Jun, 6, 13, 20 Jul 1867; Helena Herald Weekly 3, 10 Jul 1867; Rocky Mountain Gazette 6 Jul 1867]


(1) General Thomas Francis Meagher, Civil War Leader of the Irish Brigade.
(2) General Meagher and His Militia Escort Riding Down the Benton Road July 1, 1867.
(3) Federal Arms Shipping Cases Addressed to “His Excellency The Governor Montana Terr.” on Display at the Museum of the Upper Missouri.
(4) General Meagher Falling into the Missouri River.
(5) Or did General Meagher Jump?
(6) Governor’s Proclamation $2,000 Reward for Recovery of the Body of General Meagher.
(7) Rocky Mountain Gazette Death Newspaper Mourning the Loss of General Meagher.

Obituary: General Thomas Francis Meagher

[Thomas Francis Meagher drowned in the Missouri River at Fort Benton July 1, 1867, 142 years ago. Just as Fort Benton will finally have a coroner’s inquest into his mysterious death this Friday evening at 7 p. m. in the Ag Center, the River Press now carries his obituary.]

Thomas Francis Meagher was born on the 3d of August 1825, at Waterford, one of the oldest and most renowned cities of Ireland. At the age of eleven he was sent to the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College, County Kildare, Ireland. He remained there for five years, and was then sent to Stonyhurst College, the celebrated seminary of the English Jesuits in Lancashire, England. Here he devoted himself to his studies, and became a favorite with his fellow students. At the close of his collegiate course at Stonyhurst he carried off the silver medal for rhetoric, and was acknowledged as one of the foremost orators of that school of rhetoric and eloquence.

On leaving Stonyhurst, it was his intention to become an officer in the British army; but O’Connell at that time had raised what was recognized by some as the flag of Irish nationality, and Thomas Francis Meagher three aside his prospects as an officer in the British service, and boldly threw himself into the national cause, as it was magnificently presented to him by that greatest of Irish patriots. In the abortive attempt of ’48, he therefore exposed himself to the power of the British Government; and, after the feeble and futile efforts among the mountains of Tipperary, he was arrested and transported for life, (never again to see his native land) which sentence still held good at the time of his death.

Renouncing his parole, he made his escape from Van Deiman’s Land [Tasmania Island] and arrived in New York on the 27th of June 1852. Immediately on his arrival, the citizens of all parties enthusiastically welcomed him. The Common Council of New York presented him with a complimentary address, and invited him to a public procession and the hospitalities of the city. This he declined in a very eloquent letter, alleging as his principal reason for so doing, that those who had shared the danger and misfortunes of the attempt to free his native land were still in captivity, and that it would be unworthy of him to accept any ovation while they were in exile. For the first three years of his residence in the United States he devoted himself to lecturing before the Literary societies of the great cities North and South and became acquainted with the leading men of both sections.

Early in 1856, he started the “Irish News,” but wishing to have a more active field for the exercise of his talents, he sold out in 1858, and went to Central America. The results of his explorations in that country appeared in a series of charmingly written articles in “Harper’s Magazine.”

On his return from Central America the war of rebellion broke out, and although attached to the South from personal associations of the most cordial character, he still felt and saw that it was his duty to sustain the authority of the United States, and he determined to support it by his presence in the field. Of his brilliant career in the field we are all-cognizant; suffice that the famous Irish Brigade under his command won imperishable laurels all through the Peninsular campaign, and participated in all of the important battles.

For his gallant and devoted services in defense of the National cause, president Johnson placed him on the list of brevets, on the termination of the war. He was appointed Secretary of Montana in 1865, and arrived here in October of that year. Since his arrival in Montana he has prominently identified himself with the material interests of the Territory, ever aiding them with that earnest, impulsive generosity of spirit, which was a marked characteristic of his nature.

Gifted with talents of a high order, and endowed with a liberal education, his efforts on the rostrum or in the study, were among the most brilliant of the day. Rich in the lore of ancient days, a ripe scholar, an observing traveler; uniting with the quick wit of his native land a fervid fancy and identity toned by the pathos of an exile’s life, his forensic appeals were models of beauty and eloquence.

In social life he was courteous, amiable and hospitable, and a welcome guest in every circle. The intelligence of his untimely death spread a shadow of gloom over every heart, and the public tributes of respect are but the exponents of the sincerest sorrow by the people.

[The Montana Post July 6, 1867 carried this original obituary.]

General Meagher second wife, Elizabeth Townsend and a son Thomas Francis Meagher III, by his first marriage, survive him. A statue commemorates General Meagher’s heroic life on the front lawn of the Montana State Capitol in Helena.

[Photo: TFMeagher in Civil War Uniform]