17 November 2010

The Travelling River Press Correspondent in Territorial Montana

By Ken Robison

In this era of the internet and day round television news, it is hard to imagine the life and times of correspondents for newspapers 125 years ago. News in those days travelled by word of mouth and in the pages of the local newspaper such as the Fort Benton River Press. No better illustration of this contrast can be found than the activities of Ed C. Garrett, correspondent for The River Press, during an extended trip he made in 1889 to the western end of [then] Choteau County. Garrett’s mission was to sell subscriptions to the Daily and Weekly River Press and to report the latest news and developments in the western perimeter of Montana’s largest county stretching from the eastern front of the Rockies to the Little Rocky Mountains.

Leaving Fort Benton the 19th of October, 1889, in a carriage drawn by the River Press’ spirited horse Bucephalus, Ed Garrett embarked on his trip to the upper Teton and Piegan districts “in search of the golden fleece of subscriptions to the River Press and Stockman [newspaper, also published by The River Press]. Garrett relates his adventure:

“Following in the ancient route of Broadwater’s bull teams for about 8 miles, we (your correspondent and the cayuse), then switched to the right. We soon passed through several prairie dog towns, the inhabitants of which, being asked to subscribe, all disappeared into their holes. This struck us as rather an evil omen, and after ten miles more of nothing but bunch grass, we reached the state of mind of the young lady in the poem:
The melancholy days have come,
The saddest of the year,
When the young maiden’s fancy
Turns to thought of l—g—r b—r.

“At this juncture we overtook a magic lantern man on his way to Choteau and Dupuyer to give exhibitions to the people of those parts. After ascertaining that he had no slides in his box containing Montana election returns as they appeared on the Journal transparency in Helena the night after election we gladly made up with him. We soon learned that he was a genial soul (he will be down to have some posters printed in a few days) and knew the governors of both North and South Carolina. So we compared notes and discussed the government irrigation problem. We found that the cayuse made better time by following directly in the wake of the magic lantern wagon.

“Thus jogging along we soon reached Capt. Nelse’s place [pioneer Nelson Velleaux] on the lower Teton, but the captain with three or four of his neighbors had gone to Benton to make final proof on their lands. This was especially unfortunate as we had intended giving a brief sketch of the captain’s life to the readers of the River Press.

“The hay, potato and berry crops along the Teton are immense, but by reason of the dry season the oat crop is about 2/3 that of last year. Mr. McBriarty has put up 250 tons of hay near the crossing of the Teton, for the winter feeding of his 5,000 sheep. We saw Mrs. Grandchamps going home with a wagon box full of berries. The bushes were literally weighted down with them, and it would be a pleasant and profitable undertaking for those in Benton who like jelly to organize a berrying expedition, providing this Indian summer weather lasts.

“We stopped over night at Trannum’s. Mr. Trannum regaled us with reminiscences of the early days in California, he having gone there in ’50. He is now engaged in cattle raising and ranching and for current news reads the River Press.

“On the Teton between Tannum’s and Choteau, are located the sheep ranches of Wm. Zimmerman, Chas. Bannatyne, Gobbins & Hefferman, and A. B. McDonald, and the home ranches of the North Montana Cattle Co., and the Sands Land & Cattle Co. The stock along the Teton seemed to be in good condition, though we saw but few range cattle, as they are drifting further north.

“On the evening of the second day, in the soft mellow light of the setting sun, we arrived in sight of the town of Choteau and the beautiful valley of the Teton. The valley here expands to a width of three miles and is well settled with thrifty ranchmen and stockmen to the base of the mountains, a distance of twenty-five miles. Still there is room for more. The river is spanned by an iron bridge 110 feet long, built last summer. On reaching Choteau we found the principal topic of discussion to be whether a new steady clock like that on the Benton court house should be put on the belfry of the school house or whether it would be better to buy a real enterprising clock.

“Dr. J. E. Walmsley, acting coroner, with a jury composed of A. E. Paisley, James Brown, Chas. Depage, Wm. Hagan, Chas. Drift and James Hanay returned to Choteau Tuesday evening from Pen d’Oreille coulee where they held an inquest on the body of a dead man found by the round-up last week. The place is about 55 miles from Choteau and on the road leading from the main Fort Conrad and Benton road to John Zimmerman’s place. The jury’s verdict was “Death from unknown causes.” There were no marks of violence. The man’s name is supposed to be Fred Bergman, as a check on the First National Bank of Fort Benton for $157.60 dated August 13, payable to Fred Bergman or bearer, signed by A. B. McDonald, was found in his pocket. It is thought he got lost in the smoky weather several weeks ago and perished from exhaustion. A cloth overcoat fur lined, a pair of blankets and some tobacco were found a half a mile from the body. The man had on dark grey trousers, a sack coat and vest of dark blue cloth, considerably worn. The body was buried where found. The man is not known at Choteau. [Signed] Pilgrim.”

From Choteau, Ed Garrett moved on to Piegan and the Blackfoot Agency with stops enroute at Bynum, Dupuyer, and Robarre. As he has done throughout his trip, Garrett reports on the people, economy, range conditions, and events with an emphasis on what is new on the ranches and in the towns. Garrett’s narrative continues:

“The first stopping place on the road from Choteau to Piegan is Bynum, 14 miles out, on Muddy creek, a stream which sets a good example to some people we know by occasionally drying up. Geo. A. Fry keeps a general store here and carries a good stock. A. L. Collins is landlord of the hotel. Grant Graves is presiding genius of the “Shepherd’s Joy,” a resort for the children of Pan from twenty miles around. Here they meet to discuss social and philosophical problems. The herders generally believe in a future state of sheep ranching where herding, dipping and shearing will be unnecessary.

“The sheep ranches of O. G. Cooper & Martin, S. F. Ralston, Jr., Bynum Bros., C. W. Cooper, A. J. Cowell and Clark Bros. are located in this vicinity. The Clark ranch is doubtless the model sheep ranch of Montana. Beginning in July, 1884, with 2,600 ewes and 700 lambs and buying 1,000 ewes the next year, after selling 3,600 wethers and killing mutton for ranch use, the firm has now 20,000 sheep, of which 10,000 are breeding ewes. Their wool clip this year was 97,000 pounds and the increase 6,751 lambs. In five different bunches the percentage of increase—marked—and all strong, healthy lambs was as follows: 95, 97, 101, 103, 106. The 05 per cent was in the band of yearling ewes. This is considered unprecedented in western sheep farming, and the result was only obtained by the closest care and attention. During the lambing season canvas tents are distributed over the range for the protection of the lambs, and at night a herder is always on duty. The latter has been found a most profitable expense. The firm has just had shipped 100 thoroughbred Shropshire, Leicester and Oxford Down bucks which will be bred with the finest Merino ewes to increase length of staple and size of sheep. All ewe bunches have been graded and bucks are put in accordingly to produce a uniform clip. The sheep are divided into eight bands and are all carefully and systematically attended to; are treated to salt once a week in winter and in summer to salt and sulphur. All improvements are of the most substantial character and all the ranch work is done with the utmost system. Eight sheds 60x170 feet, well ventilated with a capacity of 4,000 sheep each—although not over 3,000 are usually driven in—are located on the different streams. At the home ranch, besides dwelling house and sheds, are carpenter and blacksmith shops, machinery hall, bunk houses, store houses, granary and stables. The firm raise their own grain and have 1,500 tons of hay in stack on the ranch. There is nine miles of ditching and fifteen miles of fencing. A pile driver contrivance—the invention of Mr. B. Percy Clark—is used to drive fence posts. It is fixed to the hind end of a wagon and, besides the team to pull the wagon, requires three men and a horse to work it. It will set 200 post firmly in ordinary ground in a day.

“A telephone line twenty-one miles long, with seven stations connects the home ranch with outlying ranches. This will prove a great convenience, and during winter storm and blizzards the owners will be saved many anxious moments and hard rides.

“C. W. Cooper has built a new shed on his ranch and will run two bands of sheep this winter.

“Twenty miles north of Bynum is the town of Dupuyer, the center of a large extent of pastoral country. In this neighborhood on Dry Fork, Dupuyer, Sheep and Birch creeks over 50,000 sheep grazed during the summer.

“J. F. Burd has a cash store here and is building up a good trade.

“B. R. Fowler is the village blacksmith, A. Grillenberger furnishes three meals a day, nice and hot, and Geo. McGill dispenses Kentucky elixir to a thirsty public. Dr. H. A. Gillette heals the sick.

“In the vicinity are the sheep ranches of S. C. Burd, Wm. Smiley, E. E. Leech, C. R. Scoffin, L. T. Hagere, Davis & Jones, McCuaig & Gearing, Gensman & Jones and John Zimmerman. All these parties have good sheds and other improvements and plenty of hay.

“The best improvement, however, that was noticed was the large number of young sheep men who have changed their lonely state of two or three years ago by taking a wife. Does not the cabin look brighter, boys, and the grub taste better? We don’t see how those old fogies up the creek can get along any more. If they can’t catch on why don’t they try the River Press commission agency?

“ The magic lantern man gave an exhibition at Dupuyer. The boys had filled his coal oil lamp half full of water, but the practical joke was not a howling success. Several northern whiskey smugglers were among the audience and when “Washington praying at Valley Forge” appeared one of them asked: ‘Is that a British subject?’ the next subject happened to be the execution of Andre and some one called out ‘there’s your British subject.’ As there were a number of pole haulers present the manager did not think it safe to show ‘Kiel killing Capt. Scott at Fort Gray.’

“We met Mr. S. L. Potter, deputy sheep inspector, here. Sam knows an acarus scabiei when he sees it.

“The mines of Dupuyer and Birch creek coal companies, eighteen miles from here, produce a very good quality of coal, a considerable quantity of which is sold at Fort Benton and Choteau.

“Robarre is the jumping off place at the crossing of Birch creek, eight miles north of Dupuyer. Kipp & Co. have a store and hotel conducted by Geo. Edwards. Thomas & Magee are the proprietors of the saloon. Birch creek is the dividing line between civilization and the Indian reservation and he who crosses here leaves Hostetter’s bitters behind. On the reservation side near here are the ranches of John Wren and James Fisher, formerly of Choteau. They have an excellent location for either sheep or cattle.

“Charley Chouquette, an old timer well known in Fort Benton, also resides on the reservation. At the time the Dearborn county scheme the new county should be named ‘Choquette’ or ‘Dearborn,’ but as the bill didn’t pass Mr. Choquette doesn’t worry.

“On this side of the creek Frank D. Cooper has lately purchased several ranches and is making extensive improvements in the way of sheds, corrals and fencing. In connection with Robert C. Cramer he will run a large band of sheep here this winter. By the way it is also rumored that Bob also has aspirations for a better life and will soon lead to the altar an accomplished young lady of Bynum.

“T. E. Williamson, of Choteau, and Walter Adams, also have sheep ranches on Birch creek.

“We met here Baron Max Grutthus, of Russia, on his way to St. Mary’s lake with Guide Schultz, for a five weeks hunt. The baron is an exile for five years on account of a few hasty words spoken at a students’ meeting. Who wouldn’t be an exile to Montana. Under the lamb-like climatic influences he would soon forget like the lotus eaters, that there is any other county in existence.

“Near the mountains between Teton and Birch creeks on the numerous streams are located many settlers with small herds of cattle and horses; and it is a pleasant surprise after a lone ride of 25 or 30 miles over the prairie to come to one of the cabin homes, rough looking, perhaps, on the exterior, but within full of grace, comfort and hospitality. The refining influence of woman has come up the coulees and is going over into the utter mountains. Spruce up, boys, and look pleasant.

“On upper Sheep creek we found Chas D. Labreche and family, who had just arrived from the Dearborn. They are living in tents for the present, but as Mr. Labreche has ten children he will soon, with their assistance, have a good big log house knocked up. He has a herd of 300 head of cattle grazing here and has good feed and shelter. He has also started a store.

“The settlers along the mountains are very desirous of getting a weekly mail service from Choteau by Clark’s ranch as they have to go from ten to twenty miles for their mail at present. A school is also needed.

“We met here Daniel Boone, a descendant of the original Daniel Boone, and like him, a thorough hunter, trapper and frontiersman. Mr. Boone has lived in the mountains of Montana for twenty years. He is expert in making buckskin gloves, tanning the skins himself.

“On the upper Dry Fork of the Marias we were hospitably entertained by Mr. and Mrs. Buskirk.

“During our twelve years sojourn in Montana we have eaten no bread as good as that baked from Montana flour by Mrs. J. L. Collins of the upper Muddy.

“The settlers of three townships along the mountains are very anxious to have their lands surveyed and the plats placed on record in the land office so they can make their filings. Some of them have lived on their squatter pre-emption claims over five years, and by reason of the land not being surveyed they could not prove up and take homestead claims which they had in view. Two of these townships were surveyed in 1886, but through some error the survey was not approved. It would be a great relief to the settlers and of great benefit to the government if the surveyor general could survey these lands immediately, as many entries would be perfected at once. If, however, they are left unsurveyed for a year or two longer contests and litigation are sure to arise among the settlers.

“There is only one thing your correspondent regrets so far on his journey. We took on a travelling companion at Dupuyer who wagered that he would get a cash subscription for the River Press if we would represent ourselves at the next house as the new chaplain en route to the Blackfoot agency. This was an opportunity not to be lost, so we made the bet. On arriving we were duly introduced to the lady of the house, who certainly demonstrated that she had had some religious training, for after a few moments conversation she went into the yard and wrung the necks of several chickens. We heard her say in the kitchen, ‘Mary hurry up dinner ther’s a preacher here!’ At dinner came the ordeal of saying grace. We especially prayed for the sheepmen, and managed fairly well. After dinner the conversation ran to Indian and foreign missions, hardshell and softshell Baptists foreordination, etc. It was torture, and as soon as we decently could we folded our tents and stole away. The hear-earned subscription is enclosed. [Signed] Pilgrim.”

Arriving at the Blackfoot Agency, Garrett continued his travelogue, emphasizing: “The Indians Becoming Civilized—School Facilities—The Indian Police—A Mild Winter Predicted—Rich quartz Discoveries, Etc. [Editor’s Note: Remember the terms in this report, written in the 19th century, may not be politically correct in 2010]

“Piegan, or Blackfoot agency, lies in the northwestern part of Choteau county, 125 miles from Benton on the right bank of Badger creek. The present agent is Major J. B. Catlin of Missoula, under whose management affairs are in a flourishing condition. W. J. Livingston is chief clerk, and J. P. Wagner is issue clerk.

“The reservation contains 1,760,000 acres. It is one of the best portions of Montana. The Indians, Blackfeet, Bloods and Piegans, belonging to the agency number about 2,000. Many of them live in comfortable log houses while others prefer the aboriginal tepee. A few farm on a small scale, but no general agricultural fever will ever break out among them. They have put up about 200 tons of hay for the winter use of their stock. P. Catlin, Henry Kennerly and Chas. Aubrey instruct the Indians in farming.

“For a period of ten years from 1888 the annual appropriation for the benefit of these Indians is $150,000. This money is to be used in the purchase of supplies, wagons, farming implements, horses and cattle and in building and maintaining schools and other institutions for their education and civilization.

“Two hundred brood mares and ten stallions were brought here last summer, also a large number of wagons and farming implements. Thirty Indians with as many wagons are now engaged in freighting supplies from Benton, for which they receive $1.25 per cwt. in cash. For other labor done for the government they receive $1 to $1.50 per day in tickets exchangeable for supplies from the government stores. Chief White Calf and other big and little Indians bask in contentment on a weekly ration of four pounds of beef and five pounds of flour, which is paid every Saturday. The sick and infirm receive an extra issue every Wednesday. About twenty good Montana beef steers are killed weekly to provide the sinews of peace. One thing, however, White Calf does not like; that is the presence at the agency of the colored troops, where a few occasionally come as escort to some officer or other military duty. The old chief thus draws the color line; “I don’t want them here. Let them go back to the place where they grew and turned black. My people are dark enough for me and I want to see them turn whiter.” He is afraid the color is catching.

“The agency boarding school is in charge of A. B. Coe principal, with the following assistants: Miss Cora M. Ross, teacher; Miss Isabella Clark, matron; Mrs. Belle Coe cook; Miss Kitty Kennedy, laundress; Miss Mary E. Pelky, seamstress. The attendance now is 21 boys and 12 girls, besides 15 day scholars. The children are bright and learn readily. Besides their studies the boys milk 15 cows and cultivate a garden the proceeds of which, beyond the consumption of the school, are devoted to buying extras from the government supplies. The girls are taught to work and sew. The accommodations for the pupils are rather limited, but the government will soon let a contract for the building of a large two story brick school house.

“The Catholics have also in course of construction a large frame building on Two Medicine creek, four miles from the agency, for which Miss Drexel, of Philadelphia, donated the funds--$17,000. This school will be known as the Piegan Indian Mission. It will be for full blood Indian children only, and the intention is to make it an industrial school like that at Carlisle, Pa. N. Monshausen is the architect, Joe Kipp contractor, I. A. Skinner, of Helena, has charge of the carpenter work and James Manix, of Sun River has charge of masonry and plastering. The main building is two stories high, 30x120 feet; wall of 6 inch studding and double boarded, filled in with concrete and lath and plastered. A main wall through the center divides the boys department from that of the girls. In each department on first floor are two school rooms, two play rooms and a parlor. The upstairs consists of dormitories, a chapel and nuns’ work room. A one story wing 30x115 feet is for kitchen, dining room and boys and girls infirmaries. Provision is also made for a bakery, laundry and wash rooms. The building will probably be completed by January first next. The workshops and priest’s residence will be built next year. A chapel 26x50 feet has already been built. With these two school houses completed the educational facilities will certainly be ample.

“The uniformed Indian police are quite a feature of the agency. They are twenty-four in number and are selected from the best men in the tribe. They are very prompt in enforcing the reservation laws and arresting their offending brethren. Chiefs White Calf, Big Nose and Tearing Lodge constitute a police tribunal to try misdemeanors committed on the reservation. Thirty days on the wood pile is generally the fate of the Indian caught drunk or with liquor in his possession. The guard house was empty on the day of our arrival, but we were informed that seven or eight bucks were sometimes in confinement. Despite all precautions some of the Indians manage to get hold of the fiery fluid occasionally. The liquor when taken from them is spilt by one of the policemen ceremoniously breaking the bottle on the agency flag staff al a crusader. It is said that a poor old squaw going by the flag staff shortly after one of these ceremonies picked up one of the glass fragments and sorrowfully licked it, thinking no doubt the while of Ingersoll’s rhapsody on sending a barrel of 18-year old to his friend.

“The Indians expect a mild winter. In this view they are sustained by several white men whom your correspondent met. Hugh Monroe, an old timer 105 years of age—of whom I may have occasion to write again—says that before a hard winter his rheumatism troubles him greatly; he has no twinges to speak of this year. Old man Ellis has observed that a hard winter follows a heavy equinoctial storm and vice versa. B. D. Labreche, of upper Sheep creek has noticed that the hair of cattle and horses, by a kindly provision of nature, is generally very long and wavy before a hard winter. It was so in 1880. This year the hair is short. Chad. Cartwright says that the bark of his dog is not any thicker than usual on the north side this fall. This is an infallible sign.

“Piegan is the home of Joe Kipp, the noted scout and guide. He has a general merchandise store here and has a good trade. R. L. McGonigal is in charge of the store.

“John Eldridge conducts the hotel. He has a good run of custom and provides the best beef steak in all Montana.

“The agency has no physician at present. The Indians look wise and say since the last doctor left nobody has died; but then they are prejudiced against white medicine men. Lately some rich quartz has been found in the main range of the Rockies directly west of here and in the opinion of old timers there will be several good mining camps before long. Of course prospecting and mining are forbidden on the reservation but the prospector and miner “get there just the same.”

“Coal is used at the agency from a vein on Two Medicine creek. [Signed] Pilgrim “

Garrett wrapped up his trip, returning to Fort Benton on November 13th. The trip home was an adventure in itself. Coming down the Teton on the afternoon of the 12th, Garrett was caught in a driving snowstorm. He was looking for the Hefferman Sheep Ranch, but missed the road that led to it. Luckily he met Mr. Hefferman on the road from Benton. Hefferman took the lead to drive to his ranch but in the blinding snowstorm got off the track himself. They finally ran across Hefferman’s herder and found their way to the ranch. After spending the night at the ranch, Garrett drove the 36 miles to Fort Benton the next morning. After resting a few days, Ed Garrett, the roving correspondent for The River Press, departed for another extended trip through the eastern side of Choteau County—but that is another story.
[Sources: FBRPW 30 Oct, 6 Nov, 20 Nov 1889]

08 November 2010

A Woman’s Perspective of Life on the Frontier: The Fort Benton Years of Martha Edgerton Rolfe--Part III An Adventure Down the Missouri River.

By Ken Robison

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 in Fort Benton in its transition years from lawless frontier town of the early 1870s to more peaceful transportation hub at the head of navigation on the Missouri River 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 winter trip the Rolfes made by stage from Helena to Fort Benton arriving in December 1879.

In Part II, published in the October 14, 2009, River Press, Mattie talked about her early years in frontier Fort Benton during 1880, the social scene, the military post, the passing of the Blackfeet through town after their last trip to the Judith, and the many activities of her husband Herbert P. Rolfe.

This Part III continues Martha Edgerton Rolfe’s story in 1881 as she embarks on an adventure on the steamboat Far West going down the Missouri River to visit her family in Ohio. Martha wrote [with my additions in brackets]:

After five years in Montana, I decided to spend the summer of 1881 at the home of my parents in Akron, Ohio, taking with me my two little girls, the oldest not quite four [Mary Pauline, age three and a half; and Harriet Louise, age one and a half]. Had my home been elsewhere than at Fort Benton, in order to reach the railroad, a long stage journey, with its attendant discomforts, would have been necessary.

Navigation of the upper Missouri had not then been abandoned and every season saw many steamboats tied to the levee at Fort Benton, where, in fur trading days, mackinaws and keel boats came and went, fetching supplies and bearing to St. Louis their loads of furs and dried buffalo tongues, that much prized delicacy.

Only during the brief period of high water could steamboats ascend so far. For this reason there were many applications for passage down river on the first boat that should arrive and which one that would be was always problematical. In 1881 the Far West, the most famous boat on the river, led the rest of the fleet and on it I obtained passage to Bismarck, hoping by doing so to prolong my visit east by a few days.

During the tragic year of 1876, this boat did valiant service for the government. Commandeered by General [Philip H.] Sheridan, it left Yankton about the middle of May to carry government supplies to Fort [Abraham] Lincoln, which it reached May 27th, with Captain [Grant] Marsh as both Captain and pilot, although Dave Campbell also acted in the latter capacity.

At Fort Lincoln, Mrs. Custer and other army ladies came on the boat,
took tea, and Mrs. Custer asked to be a passenger up the Yellowstone, where Captain Marsh was next ordered. Fearful of what his duties there might be, Captain Marsh would not consent, giving some plausible excuse. It was fortunate, considering what took place later. Taking on officers and soldiers, together with supplies for the cavalry, he steamed up the Yellowstone. General [Alfred H.] Terry ordered him to the mouth of Powder river, which he reached the first week in June [1876]. He then went to Tongue river.

Throughout that season, the Far West made a number of trips up and down the two rivers, serving as a dispatch boat, ferry, transport, gunboat, patrol boat and finally to become a hospital boat. After the battle of the Little Big Horn, it was ordered to the mouth of that river. For 53 miles it ascended the Yellowstone, cautiously nosing its way between the many islands and passing beyond the Little Big Horn under command of Colonel Baker and contrary to the judgment of Captain Marsh.

Returning to the mouth of the Little Big Horn, preparations were made for the reception of the wounded. Soft grass was laid on the lower deck and covered with canvas. This hastily improvised bed must have seemed luxurious to those who had been jolted over the long road from the battlefield and on it the wounded were transported down the Missouri [an amazing feat covering 700 miles in just 54 hours to Fort Abraham Lincoln].

Of all this history I was woefully ignorant at the time I engaged a cabin on the gallant little boat and for many years afterward. It was because of her being of light draft and easy management that Captain [Grant] Marsh chose her instead of the Josephine for that summer’s arduous work. There were accommodations for but few passengers and, unlike most river steamboats there as no ‘Texas’ on the upper deck.

Hardly was I full established on board and ready for the journey when the mule drawn ambulance from Fort Assinniboine drew up at the levee to discharge officers and their families, who had also engaged passage on the Far West. Among those were Colonel [Lt. Col. William H.] Brown, 18th Infantry Regiment and commander of the post, and his wife and son; Captain Cass Durham and family, and Major [William] Arthur, brother of President [Chester] Arthur, who was then paymaster. [Lt. Col. Brown recently promoted and relieve from duty at Fort Assinniboine, was proceeding with his family to his regiment in Texas.] Those, like myself, chose to journey on the first boat down the river to prolong their stay in the east.

But which would be the first boat? The Far West apparently had no further reason for postponing her departure, yet she lingered in an unaccountable manner.

Presently the Helena arrived, drew up alongside of the Far West, landed her freight and took on passengers while we watched, wondering why our boat was tarrying. The others wondered; I simply though the captain knew his business.

I overheard one of the army contingent inquire, ‘I wonder if we are to take one of those Indians?’ ‘What Indian?’ said I. ‘Why Sitting Bull’s band that is to be sent to Standing Rock agency. Had you not heard?’ When this conversation took place we were out of sight of Fort Benton, well on our way down the river, with the Helena a close companion by day and when we tied up to the shore at night. The army folk worried. I heard them talking about the situation. By special favor due to my army connections, I was admitted into their circle. [Martha’s brother Wright Edgerton was an Army Colonel.] Evidence of my singular good fortune appeared at the table, where my seat was next to a captain’s wife.

At that time the government gave large contracts to the river craft for carrying supplies to posts along the way and for those further inland in the Dakotas and Montana, where railroads had not yet penetrated. It naturally followed that the army received first consideration from those in command of the boats and there were rules of etiquette, as on ocean steamers, regarding the precedence to be accorded passengers, with army officers always given first place.

The trip would have been delightful but for the growing fear that our boat was to be one of those to take the Indians to Standing Rock. The weather favored us and the season was not far enough advanced for mosquitoes and buffalo gnats to be troublesome. From early morning until late at night we sped down the river, tying up at the bank generally at a woodyard, when it became unsafe to travel because of the difficulty of determining the channel and danger of sand bars and snags.

In the deepening twilight, the passengers sat on deck idly watching while the roustabouts went and came over the plank extending to the shore, fetching in wood or going for more, their work hastened by the reiterated commands of the mate watching them from the deck.

Now and then during the day a visit was made by an occasional passenger to the lofty pilot house from which a magnificent view could be obtained of the country for a long distance east and west, cleft by the sparkling Missouri. One could converse with the pilot, but his replies were given with his eyes straight ahead, noting every peculiarity in the treacherous current.

We passed the mouths of the Judith, Musselshell and Milk rivers, streams still bearing names given them by Lewis and Clark. In all that long distance where twenty years earlier herds of buffaloes crossing the river often impeded the progress of the boats, now but one was seen.
This, an ancient bull, wandered to the sheltering willows close to the water and became the target for every gun on board. When killed, the boat drew alongside, where, with the aid of a donkey engine, the crew hauled it aboard, to the consternation of at least one of the army ladies, who anxiously inquired, ‘Do you think they are going to feed us on that?’

The sight of it certainly was not appetizing. For days afterward, whenever meat appeared at the table, the woman referred to would ask the waiters, who well understood her squeamishness, ‘What kind of meat is that?’ With a broad grin, displayed a faultless set of teeth, the reply was always the same ‘Buffalo steak, ma’am.’ That woman became a vegetarian for the rest of the journey.

One afternoon, when several of the civilian women, myself among the number, were seated at the front of the boat, we caught sight of a large river on our right that stretched like a shining ribbon through the brown plains. What made the scene more impressive was that down it a steamboat was hurrying, omitting a long trail of smoke that shone white under the intense rays of the sun.

An army woman stood behind me, her hand on my shoulder as she exclaimed, ‘See there! See that boat! It is coming to join us. That makes it sure we are to take those Indians.’ Then her thoughts and speech took another direction. ‘I wonder if there are any nice people on that boat,’ she reflectively remarked; and then, lest she be misunderstood added, ‘any army people.’

This was too much for the civilians, one of whom retorted, ‘Mrs. ____ I wish you distinctly to understand that all the nice people are not confined to the army.’

Her prophecy regarding the Indians proved correct, as we learned a little later at Fort Buford, when the three boats, the Helena, Far West and the new arrival from the Yellowstone, whose name I have forgotten drew up side by side at the landing place. [This steamer was the General Terry.]

Shortly afterward officers of the fort came down to call on their brother officers on our boat. What they had to say did not tend to calm the fears of the already alarmed army people. That the rest of us feared less may be attributed to our ignorance.

Every effort was made to have the officers’ wives and children remain over until the next boat and stay at the fort, but the rest of us had no such invitation. Whether there were not sufficient accommodations for all of the women and children at the fort or it was thought civilians would be in less danger, I cannot say. However, after thoroughly debating the question, our officers decided to run the risk of a possible uprising of the Indians, rather than lose a few days in the east.

That night the Sioux held a dance and had a dog feast. Many of our passengers attended, and were treated in a friendly manner by the Indians. The squaws especially admired a little white girl, with long golden curls. They stroked her hair, as they smilingly uttered exclamations of delight. At least, so her mother interpreted the ejaculations given in a language she did not understand.

Next morning the exodus began. From the fort came wagons loaded with provisions for the exiles. Of what these consisted, I do not know, aside from hundreds of loaves of bread. As the teamsters bent to their task of unloading, the strong wind blowing pelted them with sand and distended their shirts until they looked like animated balloons.

Meanwhile the Indians were going down to the boats. Men, women and children, dressed in their best, crossed the landing planks to the lower deck and were stowed away like so many sardines.

A few of the chiefs were assigned to the upper deck, in deference to their prominence in the tribe. They ate and slept there. Which ones of these notables the Far West carried, I did not then have the curiosity to learn.

From the shelter of our deck, I watched them come on board. It was a sight never to be forgotten. Steadily the throng moved onward, with no disturbance in its ranks. A chance and uninformed observer might have thought they were excursionists; not a people banished from their country for which they had fought so desperately to repel the white invaders. It is now admitted they defeated Custer, retreating only when their ammunition was exhausted.

On this day of their enforced departure, the warriors, although unarmed and wearing neither war paint nor war bonnets, walked to the landing place with the bearing of conquerors. Several of them carried long pipes, the stems set with knife blades, five or six in number, and ranging in length from two to four inches. It struck me that the pipes might prove to be formidable weapons in the hands of determined men, who, from sheer force of numbers, might easily overpower the 13 soldiers assigned as drivers in each boat. It is not surprising that our army folk were apprehensive. How the 39 soldiers felt, no one ever knew.

The march to the boats was by no means a colorless affair. Blankets of every color the agencies provided for both men and women. Shirts and tunics of buckskin were adorned with bead embroidery and fringe. Here and there a woman could be seen, wearing a cape reaching below her waist, that would be worth $1,000. These capes were made of alternating rows of inch-wide dark blue cloth, its edges pinked and trimmed with the long white teeth of elk that glistened like pearls under the sun’s rays.

A few of the men had hats with a feather stuck in the side but the heads of most of them were uncovered, unless by a blanket to protect them from the stiff breeze that blew from the southwest, a summertime chinook.

While the Indians were going on board, we, who watched them from the boat, saw no soldiers. Those detailed for our protection were doubtless already there to receive their charges. The entire embarkation was conducted in an orderly manner until the last Sioux joined us. The cables were loosened and the three boats carrying Sitting Bull’s band began their journey down stream. I have heard different estimates of their number, ranging from 1,000 to 1,300. Whatever it might have been, there were enough to alarm the white passengers especially for the next 24 hours.

When we were nearing Fort Berthold, I went to the upper deck, where there were a half dozen young warriors. It was sunset, with the sky straight ahead of us glowing pink from the edge of the horizon line to the zenith. It looked as though we were steaming straight into it, following the course of the shining river.

At the front of the deck, facing down stream, the Indians stood, splendid figures of young manhood outlined against the sunset background. They were singing, apparently ignorant that they had a white audience, as they never glanced in our direction.

As they sang one and then another swung part way around, pivoting on his heels. This was not the first time I had heard Indians sing but never before did I recognize any melody. This was my introduction to Indian music, and this was music although extremely primitive.

As the braves sang, shrill boys’ voices from the lower deck took up the strain, not always in the same key. Some one who professed to know said they were singing a war song, as they were approaching an enemy’s country. It may have been a call to battle or a lament. It was all one to us who were ignorant of the Sioux language.

With the growing darkness, the song ceased. Reaching Fort Berthold, the three boats tied up side by side, although the captains had been importuned not to do so. Nor was this the worst. Planks were placed from boat to boat, over which the Indians could pass freely.

Our passengers were thoroughly frightened at the situation and the army officers, the worst. We gathered in the cabin to discuss the matter. Should we sit up all night? Everything tended to increase, rather than allay, our fears. In sheer desperation, I decided to go to my stateroom, where my children lay sleeping, unconscious of danger.

The door of my room [opened] on the deck and not on a passage. I attempted to lock it, only to find this could not be done. The lock was out of commission. All I could do under the circumstances was to barricade it by putting the washstand against it. This accomplished, I went to bed and to sleep, never awakening until morning.

As morning broke, an Indian child, in attempting to cross from one boat to another, fell into the water. Immediately a chief’s daughter plunged to its rescue. Child and maiden were drawn by the current underneath the boats and drowned. Immediately the Indians raised the death wail. This meant but one thing to the white passengers who heard it--their time had come; as they would be ruthlessly murdered. And I slept calmly through this by the side of my children, my dreams undisturbed by the commotion.

That day and the succeeding one found us reconciled to the inevitable and we came to regard the presence of the Indians as a show for our exclusive benefit. At the front of our deck, we sat hour after hour, watching what was going on below, and that was plenty. One man from Philadelphia solemnly remarked, ‘If I told the folks at home what I have seen today, they would not believe me.’ And this I could readily understand.

Unconcerned by our inspection, the Indians acted as if in their own tepees. They laughed and chattered, worked at bead embroidery, made love and ate and slept, even to the examination of one another’s heads for vermin that constituted a delicate morsel for the head of a family, but sent our fastidious army lady hastily to her stateroom ejaculating, ‘That is more than I can stand.’

As for myself, this was not my introduction to the ways of the Sioux. [That] took place 18 years earlier at Fort Laramie, when, in the summer of 1863, they gathered there to receive their annuity, and I, a girl of 13 years, with my family, had reached that point on our journey across the plains. Later we received visits from wandering members of the tribe and while passing one of their villages we were threatened with scalping if the requisite amount of ‘shug’ and ‘hog meat’ were not forthcoming. Fortunately, being in the neighborhood of a large train, we retained the provisions, and also our scalps. From this it will be readily understood that the Indian customs so shocking to others, were to me an old story.

After leaving Fort Berthold, none of us though it necessary to sit up nights awaiting an attack from the exiles, and the days, until our arrival at Bismarck, were spent in the manner I have stated.

Although we were assured soldiers were on the boat, we never saw them. Our apparent lack of anxiety arose from the realization of our condition. After leaving Fort Berthold there remained no other alternative than to accept whatever happened between there and Bismarck, where most of us took the train for our respective destinations.

All sorts of rumors were afloat about what happened later on the boat, none of which could be verified. One was that the Indians became so unruly our captain concluded it would be safer to go to Standing Rock by rail, turning over command of the Far West to his next in rank. This is not credible in view of their apparent contentment and willingness to abide by the terms of their surrender.

The rail journey was exceedingly tiresome. Father and mother met me in Cleveland. It was a great relief to me to have their assistance in the care of the children, as I was utterly exhausted. My delight at seeing them once more, was tempered on noting that they had aged and mother, especially, was not very strong.

[Sources: Memories of a Long Life by Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann; Passengers on “Far West” Afforded Thrilling Experience When Sioux Tribe Is Transferred. Famous Missouri River Boar that Played So Important Part in Battle of the Little Big Horn Carries Sitting Bull’s Warriors from Ft. Buford to Standing Rock, Their Place of Banishment. By Martha Edgerton Plassmann, Montana Newspaper Association Big Timber Pioneer 7 Jul 1924; The “Far West,” Famous Missouri River Steamer--the Part it Played in Tragic Expedition Against the Sioux Indians. By Martha Edgerton Plassmann, Montana Newspaper Association, Sanders County Signal 30 Jun 1924.]


(1) Legendary steamboat Far West.
(2) Captain Grant March, the greatest riverboat commander and pilot.
(3) Mrs. Martha Edgerton Rolfe

05 November 2010

Move Over Shep . . . Check out the Dog-Tramp "Bum"

The Dog Tramp. “Bum,” the Traveling Tourist Registered at the Manitoba Hotel in Great Falls.

We have read many stories of the sagacity of dogs, cats and other animals, but never until yesterday were we ever brought into personal surveillance of such a freak.

A great many of our townspeople have, no doubt, heard more or less of the railroad dog, “Bum” and may be somewhat interested to know that the traveling tourist and railroad pet is in our midst.

The curious feature of this dog is that he is strongly attached to railroad men and has a perfect abhorrence for any other person. He knows a railroad man when and wherever he meets him from the humblest section man to the great magnate, Jim Hill.

He has traveled from coast to coast and is especially partial towards the Manitoba and Northern Pacific, as on these roads he makes his home.

Bum goes to a place, where he always selects a railroad house and from his intimate acquaintance with railroaders gets the best of treatment, staying until he seems to become tired of laying around and the first thing you know the gentleman of leisure is at the depot taking the first outbound passenger to scenes more enchanting.

He came to Great Falls a few days ago and is now at the Manitoba house where he makes himself perfectly at home.

There is something very remarkable about such doings among dumb animals that almost leads one to think they have calculating and reasoning powers. Be that as it may one thing is certain and that is, that “Bum” is a professional tramp and that he lives on the fat of the land.

It is expected that he may go east any day, as he has made about the usual stay in Great Falls.

The dog-tramp, “Bum” took the afternoon passenger for the east yesterday [December 23, 1889]. He just came from St. Paul over the N. P. [Source: GFLD 22 Dec 1889]