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