29 December 2011

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes

Since April 2011, the beginning of the first year of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, I've been watching to see what Montana is doing to commemorate that transforming struggle. While the Billing Gazette published a good early one-time article, I decided Montana needs to do better that that. I have begun writing articles for two separate Montana Civil War series. Both, focus on Civil War veterans, Union and Confederate, who came to Montana after the war. Each article tells about their early life, their experiences during the war, and their new life in Montana. The first series began in the Great Falls Tribune in September, 2011 and is published the last Sunday of each month in the Sunday Life section. This series focuses on Civil War veterans who came to Montana and settled in the north central Montana area. My second series started this week in the Fort Benton River Press and will focus on Civil War veterans who came to Chouteau County area.

Both of my Montana Civil War series are available on-line with the Tribune carrying a link to each article in the series. You can access the Tribune series by entering "Remembering our Civil War heritage and heroes - Great Falls Tribune" in Google.

An electronic edition of the River Press is now available, through subscription, on-line. Since the River Press requires subscription, I'll be posting these articles on my blog with the first in the series below:

Chouteau County Civil War Veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
December 28, 2011

This begins a series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.

From April 1861 to April 1865, our nation fought the most brutal and decisive war in our history—the American Civil War. This year, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, let us pause to reflect, “How did the Civil War affect us?” Some might think this is a curious question since that monumental struggle was fought between “The States” more than two decades before Montana became a state. Yet, the real answer lies in the profound impact the Civil War had on our state, our country and its people.

The Civil War answered vital fundamental questions—there would be a unified United States of America, and there would no longer be millions of enslaved Americans. The Civil War directly affected every section, every community, every family, and every individual. The war came at a time when the American West was undergoing settlement by non-natives although Fort Benton had long been a fur trading outpost on the Upper Missouri. Gold strikes in western Montana (then Washington Territory) in 1862 led to the rapid formation of Montana Territory in 1864, and the extracted gold and other mineral wealth helped pay the costs of war. The Civil War dislocated and relocated countless Americans from North and South—many came to the new Montana Territory to escape the ravages of war and to seek a brighter future.

The old saying that Montana was settled by “the left wing of General Pap Price’s Confederate Army,” was true only in part. Many veterans, both Union and Confederate, came to head of navigation on the Missouri to start new lives. In the coming months, this series of articles will showcase Union and Confederate veterans that had an impact on Chouteau County in the aftermath of the Civil War. Names like Robert S. Culbertson, Thomas A. Cummings, Dan Dutro, Thomas Coatsworth, John J. Donnelly, Winfield Scott Wetzel, George Crane, and others will be featured with their stories. Who were these men, how did they participate in the war, and what do we know of their lives and the lives of their families here in Montana?

By 1885, Fort Benton was home for many Civil War veterans, and in early August of that year, Union veterans signed a petition to form a Grand Army of the Republic (G. A. R.) post. Signing this list were the following veterans with their rank and regiment:
J. J. Donnelly, Lieut. Colonel, 14th Michigan
M. J. Leaming, Major, 6th Tennessee Cavalry
J. H. Rice, Captain, 27th New York
William McQueen, Regimental Quartermaster, 1st Iowa
J. L. Stuart, Command Sergeant, 6th Ohio
Max. Waterman, Sergeant, 35th Iowa
Dan Dutro, Musician, 150th Illinois
W. S. Wetzel, Corporal, 25th Iowa
George W. Crane, Corporal, 26th Illinois
T. A. Cummings, Battery C, 1st New York Artillery
E. W. Lewis, Private, 113th Illinois
George M. Bell, Private, 13th Maine
Thomas Coatsworth, Private, 46th Wisconsin
Frank Coombs, Private, 129th Indiana
James Werrick, Private, 129th Indiana
R. S. Culbertson, Private, 6th Ohio

The Fort Benton post was approved by the Montana G. A. R. and designated the G. K. Warren Post No. 20, G. A. R., Fort Benton. The name honored Brigadier General G. K. Warren, a hero at Little Round Top durig the Battle of Gettysburg.

At a critical point in the battle Union General Meade sent his chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, to find a way to block the advance of Confederate forces on the flank of Union forces. Climbing Little Round Top, Warren found only a small Signal Corps station there. He saw the glint of bayonets in the sun to the southwest and realized that a Confederate assault into the Union flank was imminent. He hurriedly sent officers to find help from any available units in the vicinity. Col. Strong Vincent, commander of the Third Brigade seized the initiative and directed his four regiments to Little Round Top. Upon arrival, Vincent received fire from Confederate batteries almost immediately. On the western slope he placed the 16th Michigan, and then proceeding counterclockwise were the 44th New York, the 83rd Pennsylvania, and finally, at the end of the line on the southern slope, the 20th Maine. Arriving only ten minutes before the Confederates, Vincent ordered his brigade to take cover and wait, and he ordered Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine, to hold his position, the extreme left flank of the Army of the Potomac, at all costs. Chamberlain and his 385 men waited for what was to come. For their heroic actions Chamberlain received the Medal of Honor for his conduct in the defense of Little Round Top. The citation read the medal was awarded for "daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top. The 1974 novel The Killer Angels and its 1993 film adaptation, Gettysburg, depicted a portion of the important Battle of Little Round Top.

In December 1890, G. K. Warren Post No. 20, G. A. R., of Fort Benton inaugurated a series of campfires for social enjoyment during the winter. Lecturers from other parts of the state were secured at intervals to entertain the members. At a meeting held December 8, 1890, the following comrades were elected to the stations of office: John C. Duff, Commander; George W. Crane, Senior Vice Commander; Daniel Dutro, Junior Vice Commander; Thos A. Cummings, Officer of the Day; C. B. Hamilton, Quartermaster; Patrick Whalen, Officer of the Guard. The post was inspected by Assistant Inspector John J. Donnelly and everything found in regulation order. Col. Donnelly delivered a brief speech to his veteran comrades, which was highly appreciated and applauded.

The G. A. R was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army, US Navy, US Marines and US Revenue Cutter Service who served in the Civil War. Founded in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, it was dissolved in 1956 when its last member died. Linking men through their experience of the war, the G. A. R became among the first organized advocacy groups in American politics, supporting voting rights for black veterans, lobbying the US Congress to establish veterans' pensions, and supporting Republican political candidates. Its peak membership was more than 400,000 in 1890, a high point of Civil War commemorative ceremonies. The G. A. R was organized into "Departments" at the state level and "Posts" at the community level, and military-style uniforms were worn by its members. There were posts in every state in the U.S., and several posts overseas. The G. A. R. maintained a strong presence in the Fort Benton community for many years as the aging veterans of the Civil War slowly passed from the scene. As this series develops, we hope to determine the last Civil War veteran in this area.

We have identified some 64 Civil War Union and Confederate veterans who lived in the Fort Benton, Big Sandy, Highwood, and Geraldine areas. We’ll begin next month with one of the most colorful Union veterans, John J. Donnelly. If you have Civil War veterans in your family, who settled in this area, we would be pleased to hear from you with copies of stories or photographs that we can share with our readers and add to our Research Center. We heard recently from Edward J. Snider who shared some great stories and photos of his Civil War ancestor Chapman Pennock, who is buried in Riverside Cemetery. We’ll feature Private Pennock of Company C, 18th New York Cavalry in the coming months. In addition, we’ll share photos of Civil War veterans with Muncie Morger for her Veterans display project. Send your Civil War stories or comments to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com or to the Overholser Historical Research Center, Box 262, Fort Benton, MT 59442.

1. Brig. Gen. G. K. Warren, hero of the battle of Little Round Top, Gettysburg, and namesake for Fort Benton G. A. R. Post 20.
2. The menacing heights of Little Round Top in 1863.
3. G. A. R. Medal authorized by Congress for members of the G. A. R.

10 August 2011

Chemidlin, the Curmudgeon Pioneer Printer

By Ken Robison

This honors the 130th anniversary of the River Press and continues the series of frontier sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

Nicholas T. Chemidlin served as chief assistant to Editor William K. Harber of the Fort Benton River Press for three decades from 1891 to 1920. Chemidlin first tried to emigrate to Montana Territory in 1864 with Captain James L. Fisk’s wagon train from Minnesota. The Lakota drove the Fisk train back that year in Dakota Territory with a bloody loss of twelve emigrants dead. Eventually Chemidlin made it to Montana Territory by 1867 and worked for Helena newspapers. In 1883 he came on to Fort Benton, then the booming head of navigation on the Missouri River. In June 1884, Chemidlin paid $1250 for 50 shares of The River Press, acquiring an 8th interest and becoming secretary of the River Press Publishing Company. Over the years Editor Harber and Chemidlin often used transient printers keep both the weekly and daily newspapers going through the 1890s and the quiet years leading into the homesteading boom of the 1910s.

In late 1919, the aging Chemidlin, whose health was declining, decided to retire, although the decision came only after months of difficult negotiations between Harber and Chemidlin. It is interesting that even in his final letters discussing the situation, Editor Harber consistently referred to his assistant as “Mr. Chemidlin.” After many months delay Harber was finally able to offer Joel R. Overholser the opportunity to replace Chemidlin. In return, Overholser asked two conditions: that he be allowed to buy stock in The River Press; and that the struggling daily be discontinued. Editor Harber agreed, and Overholser moved his family to Fort Benton to join the operation. On the 31st of December 1919, Joel R. Overholser bought Chemidlin’s 58 shares of stock for $1450. His son, Joel Francis Overholser, then age nine, remembers being impressed by Mr. Chemidlin, the Sioux Indian fighter, at his retirement banquet at the Grand Union.

In April 1920, the Montana Newspaper Association distributed an article about Nicholas Chemidlin to its weekly newspaper subscribers. Author E. R. Russell wrote the story of the old newspaperman under the title, “Pioneer Printer”:

N. T. Chemidlin, of Fort Benton, who has just retired from active work at the age of 77, is believed to hold the record for continuous service as a printer in Montana, if not in the west. Mr. Chemidlin performed his first work as a printer on the Helena Herald in 1867, and when he sold out his interest in the River Press at Fort Benton in January, 1920, he did his last work in that line.

At the time Mr. Chemidlin commenced work on the Herald, that newspaper had been in existence but a short time. Fisk Brothers had purchased a newspaper known as the Radiator and shipped its equipment into Helena from Virginia City, and re-christened it The Herald. A little later the Herald was purchased by Jim Whitlash, a big mine owner from Unionville, and the outfit was doing business in the upper story of a log building at the corner of Bridge and West Main street. The lower floor of the building was used as a hurdy house. Later the Herald company built at the corner of Broadway and Jackson streets.

Mr. Chemidlin also worked on the Rocky Mountain Gazette at the time it was run by Wilkinson, Ronan and McGinnis, and was also employed on the Helena Independent at different times.

Joins Stevens at Benton. In 1883 he was invited by Jim Stevens, then one of the proprietors of the River Press, to come to Fort Benton, and he remained there until he sold out in January last. The River Press was founded in 1880, and had as a rival the Benton Record, which had been in existence since 1895 [sic 1875]. On account of the rivalry between the two papers the River Press commenced the publication of a daily edition. This was quite an innovation for a town of the size of Fort Benton, on the frontier. This little daily hung on valiantly for 38 years when, finding its days of usefulness at an end, it quietly dropped out of existence in 1919.

Life Far From Spectacular. While he has witnessed many stirring events and momentous changes as Montana has emerged from small beginnings in territorial days to the progressive and front-ranking state of today. Mr. Chemidlin’s life has been that of a very necessary, if non-spectacular chronicler of events through the medium of the newspapers. He did not make a very determined effort to get into the millionaire class through mining, although reports of gold in Montana was his principal reason for coming west. He never had occasion to join in the work of the Vigilantes, but was satisfied with being a spectator of two of their executions at a reasonable distance. He has not mixed much in politics, although urged at different times to take office in Fort Benton. He did serve several terms at a salary of less than a dollar a year, as school trustee in the Fort Benton schools.

Two Attempts to Reach Montana. If Mr. Chemidlin’s residence in Montana has not abounded in adventure, his attempt to get into the territory from the east was not without thrills. He made two attempts to get to Montana in pre-steamboat days, the first one of which was unsuccessful on account of the interference of Indians, his expedition being compelled to get back to civilization after the loss of 13 of its number.

It was in 1864 when Mr. Chemidlin, then 21 years of age, first took passage with an expedition bound for Montana under the management and personal conduct of Captain James L. Fisk, who had been for several years engaged in expeditions to the west from Minnesota, some of which were in the service of the government. The means of transportation was wagons drawn by oxen and mules, making from 20 to 25 miles a day.

The expedition leaving in 1864 was known as the Third Fisk Expedition, and started from Fort Ridgley on the western boundary of Minnesota. [Ed. Note: When the expedition was organized at Fort Ridgely, it included Fisk’s staff, members of his protective escort, and other emigrants—a total of about a hundred wagons and some 170 people. August Chemidlin, a French-born farmer and watchman-tollkeeper of the Minneapolis Suspension Bridge, was in charge of the commissary, and his nephew, Nicholas Chemidlin, drove the commissary wagon.]

There were about 150 people [sic] in this expedition, most of them men, with a small escort of soldiers. They also had a small mountain howitzer, which later aided materially in saving the expedition from complete annihilation. The expedition was headed for the mouth of the Big Horn river, where it was reported that gold was being found, but which report was not well founded as it proved afterwards.

Encounter Marauding Indians. When 200 miles beyond the Missouri river in Dakota signs of Indians appeared and several attempts at raiding warned the travelers that they must be on guard day and night. It was afterwards learned that General [Alfred] Sully had been after marauding tribes along the Canadian line, and had scattered them and broken up their food supplies. Many of them had drifted south and this fat train looked good to them. The raids finally resulted in a battle, when the Indians attempted to appropriate the “wet” goods from a wagon that had been overturned in a coulee.

Thirteen Whites Killed. The breakdown of a wagon resulted in the dividing of the train, as those in the lead went on. This gave the Indians a chance of attack, which they took advantage of. The Indians were armed principally with bows and arrows, though there were enough of them who had taken guns from whites they had killed to make them a dangerous outfit, as the travelers found to their sorrow. Thirteen of the whites were killed and it was estimated that over a hundred of the 900 Indians were killed. [Ed Note: After three days of fighting in late August 1864, 9 were killed and five wounded, at total of 14 casualties. Overall 12 died, while wounded Louis Dostaler and Charles Libby, recovered.] The Indians in this raid were known as Unkappa [Sic Hunkpapa] Sioux. The expedition, disheartened, proceeded on west, harassed every day by the troublesome reds, but by the utmost vigilance was able to defend itself from any further serious attack.

Had White Woman Captive. Mr. Chemidlin, in telling of the return of this expedition, says:

“After fighting and traveling for a couple of days we concluded to camp, and while in camp the Indians sent a party with a flag of truce. They wanted to parley with the captain. The captain sent out two or three men to find out what they wanted. They said they were starving and wanted some provisions. They were asked how much they wanted. They said they wanted two wagon loads. They also said they had a white woman, a Mrs. Kelley, whom they had captured in Wyoming and they wanted to trade her for these provisions. [Ed. Note: Mrs. Fanny Kelly was captured 12 July 1864 west of Fort Laramie while traveling in a wagon to Idaho.] The captain sent them word that he would give them a wagon load of provisions and four yoke of oxen. But they refused it, saying it was not enough for them. So after parleying a while they concluded to leave us.”

Forced to Abandon Journey. “There were two soldiers left of our escort—two or three at any rate—and the first night after the fight the captain sent two of the men to Fort Rice on the Missouri, about 15 miles below where the city of Bismarck is now, where there was a company of the 30th Wisconsin regiment stationed. He sent them back for reinforcements, and they sent us a company of cavalry to relieve us. We were ordered back by the commander of the regiment. A ballot was taken by the party and we decided to turn back. So we went back with the relief to Fort Rice, and from there on down the Missouri in flat boats, with the 30th Wisconsin, which was ordered home.”

Indians Eat Poisoned Food. In connection with this disastrous expedition and the Indians who wrecked it, a story has been told which Mr. Chemidlin does not vouch for and of which all other members of the company were always extremely skeptical—a story of poisoned food. Most of the company would have agreed that the plundering murderers deserved poisoning, but of course none of them knew anything about it. The story got back east and was made much of by the newspapers. This is what seems to have happened:

On breaking camp one morning, while the Indians were still harassing the travelers, orders were given as usual to burn all camp refuse. Among other things on this particular morning was a box of damaged hardtack or crackers and that was left on the burning pile. No sooner had the camp been abandoned than the Indians were seen to rush in and the hardtack was rescued from the fire. Later it was learned that the hardtack had slain more Indians than the firearms of the whites and it was hinted that the doctor’s medicine chest had been used to season the crackers.
[Apparently some 25 Hunkpapas died from strychnine poison planted in the hardtack by the Cavalry escort. The War Department censored Capt. Fisk’s report of this incident for more than 100 years.]

Second Attempt is Successful. Mr. Chemedlin’s second attempt to get into Montana was more successful. This was two years later. In 1866 he was a member of what was called the “Hundred Dollar Men.” That was a company of 100 men who had paid $100 each to get to Montana—no particular point guaranteed. There was also a number of emigrants in the expedition who had made other arrangements for their transportation. This expedition was also a Fisk expedition and conducted by Captain Fisk. [Ed. Note: The headquarters staff of the 1866 Expedition included Nicholas Chemidlin, who again served with the commissary.] It took the northern route this time, leaving Fort Berthold. No trouble on account of Indians was experienced but the travelers were afforded a chance to see a scalp dance at Berthold indulged in by Gros Ventres who claimed to have been on a raid against some of their red brethren.

[Ed. Note: During this expedition, Chemidlin’s Fisk Train followed two weeks behind an emigrant train led by Thomas A. Holmes. A member of the Holmes Expedition, Luther M. Brown, described their arrival at Fort Benton: “August 15th the main train arrived at Fort Benton, at least eleven hundred miles from St. Paul. We had been on the road between Fort Ridgely and Fort Benton, seventy-six days, and that, too, on a road that we had made ourselves, with small exceptions. At Fort Benton we again came in contact with the world. Here we found quite a thriving little town which is known as Benton city. There are quite a number of white people, and more have since come in. At the time we arrived at the Fort they had not fully ‘adopted the habits and customs of civilization,’ but they could lie, swear, steal and drink whiskey with a remarkable degree of accuracy, and were hat might be called quite ‘heavy on the steal.’ They stole my jack knife for which I doubt if I ever forgive them. But seriously Fort Benton should it remain as it now is, ‘the head of navigation on the Missouri,’ will be quite a large town in a few years, as the Montana trade increases. There was last season before our arrival there, about 7500 tons of freight landed there by steamboats from St. Louis. . .”

Reached Benton in 1866. Mr. Chemidlin arrived in Fort Benton in August, 1866, where the party broke up and scattered to various places. There are very few of the party who can be located at the present time. W. O. Dexter, public administrator of Chouteau county, living in Fort Benton, is one of the few. Mr. Chemidlin, with 18 other hundred dollar men, went up Sun river to the south fork, about three miles from Haystack butte, and camped there for several weeks. They had heard of gold prospects in the hills there. Nothing of value, however, was found, and the party made its way to Helena, where most of them engaged in placer mining and Mr. Chemidlin began his work as a printer.

In 1872 Mr. Chemidlin married Miss Mary Cox, in Helena. They have two children, Miss Marie Chemidlin of Fort Benton and W. S. Chemedlin.

Like so many early Montana pioneers, Nicholas T. Chemidlin quietly lived and worked, but thanks to the historical series of the Montana Newspaper Association we know about his exciting emigration in the 1860s to the new territory.

[Source: River Press Publishing Company Stock Book and Minutes; MNA The Roy Enterprise 26 Apr 1920; Ho! For The Gold Fields Northern Overland Wagon Trains of the 1860s by Helen McDann White, Editor; Overholser Historical Research Center SC 36 Correspondence W. K. Harber and Joel R. Overholser]

(1) Nicholas T. Chemidlin in the Press Room of the River Press.

(2) Legendary Editor William T. Harber

(3) The River Press home for more than a century.

(4) Fisk 1866 Northern Overland Wagon Train Minnesota to Fort Benton

(5) Elderly N. T. Chemidlin nearing retirement in early 1920.

25 April 2011

The Life of the Community: The Fort Benton River Press 1880-2010

By Ken Robison

[Published in the Special 130th Anniversary Edition of the River Press 13 April 2011]

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

Journalism in Fort Benton has a proud tradition. Only the Virginia City/Ennis Madisonian (which was established in 1873) is an older weekly newspaper than the Fort Benton River Press, which first published on October 27, 1880. One River Press editor, William K. Harber, is in the Montana Newspaper Hall of Fame, and another, Joel F. Overholser, should be. On this 130th anniversary of The River Press let’s look at this proud history.

Fort Benton’s first newspaper, the Benton Record, was established February 1, 1875. This was eleven years after the first Montana newspaper, the Montana Post in Virginia City. The long delay in starting a paper in Fort Benton likely resulted from the “wild and wooly,” transient nature of the town’s population, with just a handful of white women resident until the mid-1870s. By 1875, the fur trade and gold rush days were past, and Fort Benton had weathered a long depression lasting until the birth of the Canadian trade including the arrival of the Mounted Police. Fort Benton was becoming a stable, prosperous, and growing town.

The Benton Record became a daily on Feb 2, 1881, and continued until owner-editor W. H. Buck went broke in 1884. The Record is an important source for area history covering the early boom years of the town as it emerged from fur trading post to a regional transportation hub. The Record carried lists of steamboat arrivals, passengers, departures, and cargo, many historical articles by Montana’s first great historian Lieutenant James Bradley, and Frontier Sketches from the pen of wildly colorful Sheriff Johnny J. Healy, who was also business manager of the paper. Exceptionally valuable coverage of the Sioux, Nez Perce, and other Indian Wars flowed through the pages of the Record. The paper strongly advocated free navigation on the Missouri River and championed Fort Benton as the head of navigation. The Record was close to Benton’s Irish Fenian residents, and passionately Democratic in politics.

The Record had been in existence five and a half years, when the first steps were taken to found The River Press. James E. Stevens had gone to work for W. H. Buck on the Record in 1880, but disliked his boss intensely. When H. C. Williams and Thomas D. Wright suggested Stevens join them in a newspaper venture, he jumped at the chance. Stevens later admitted, “the three of us together didn’t have $50. . . but we had lots of days work up our sleeves.” After a talk with Timothy Collins of the Bank of Northern Montana, the trio found backing from local citizens, chiefly on the partisan Republican political side.
James Stevens continued, “We bought a $2,300 outfit from the Helena Herald, which was then putting on a new dress and making other changes, including a new press. We paid the Herald $1,500 down and gave a mortgage for the balance. We borrowed $1,700 from the citizens of Fort Benton and it cost the other $200 for the freight from Helena. That was the start of the Fort Benton River Press . . . The first issue of The River Press was dated October 27, 1880. Timothy E. Collins, Scott Wetzel, John W. Tattan, John Power, Jeremiah (Jerry) Collins, Billy [William H.] Todd, and other leading citizens of Fort Benton took a turn at the crank in honor of the event. Billy Todd, who was managing Murphy, Neel & Co.’s store was an old Helena Gazette printer of former years.”

H. C. Williams, editor for the initial issue, proclaimed, “We present to our readers this week a paper which in typographical execution and general appearance is equal of any in the west.” Editor Williams claimed Fort Benton was big enough for two papers and said they had not come to sow seeds of dissention, but dissention there was. The first issue of the new River Press was printed in a large log cabin with an adobe exterior, once Jim Nabors’ “hotel,” near Main Street. This building was on the site of the current H-O Parts Plus. With Editor Williams, J. E. Stevens operated the mechanical department and Thomas Wright served as business manager.

Fifty years later, in 1900, old time Fort Benton resident Al. G. Wilkins sent a letter of congratulations to the editor of the River Press recalling that first winter. Wilkins wrote: “I am pleased to congratulate the River Press on its 50th birthday as I knew it in its infancy, just fifty years ago, and helped to keep the fires burning through the hard winter of 1880-1881 by hauling cordwood fourteen miles through two feet of snow to enable the force to continue their good work. I am proud to reflect back through so many years and note the progress of the River Press. There were two papers printed at Fort Benton at that time—the Benton Record and the River Press. It was an evident fact that through lack of business one or both had to fall, but the friends of the River Press helped to boost it over the hump and today, I believe the few old timers that are fortunate enough to be alive are elated over the outgrowth of their work. I received eight shares of stock in the River Press for the wood it took to carry it through that memorable hard winter, and I am pleased to know that it has not been snowed under since.”

The River Press started with two disadvantages: its publishers were comparatively new to this part of Montana; and there was already an established newspaper in the town that many thought too small for two papers. Editor Buck of the Benton Record was not amused and sourly welcomed its new competitor, proclaiming that the new upstart would not live a month. The stage was set for dueling editorials over many issues over the next few years such as the hot topic in 1882, when the staunchly segregationist Benton Record argued for a separate school for Benton’s growing number of African American and mixed race children. The River Press argued forcefully for integrated schools, supporting the school board in their decision for a single school. Despite a boycott promoted by the Record, the integrated school prevailed. The journalistic squabbles in fact helped the circulation of both papers—after all, you had to buy both papers so that you did not miss anything.

To put pressure on its upstart competitor, the Record started a daily in February 1881, doubtless aiming to kill the upstart with a five days to one volley of abuse. The Press countered with The Daily River Press, also a five-day-a-week publication, which began operation on June 6, 1882 and remarkably continued until January 1, 1920. The daily began as a four-page paper, while the weekly was a 5-column eight-page newspaper.

By June 1881, Jerry [Jeremiah] Collins bought the interest of H. C. Williams in The River Press, and later in August Collins and Stevens bought out T. D. Wright. By then they had dressed up the look of the newspaper and considerably expanded the job printing department. Advertising patronage increased and public acceptance grew, and The River Press rapidly gained a dominant position in Northern Montana.

In August 1882 shares of stock were sold, and The River Press Publishing Company incorporated in December 1882, with Collins and Stevens taking half of the stock and being retained as editors in charge. At the first annual meeting of the stockholders December 4, 1882, J. C. Bothine, President, was in the chair. Trustees elected included J. E. Stevens, Jerry Collins, George Steell, W. J. Minar, and H. G. McIntire. The next day the stockholders met again and elected J. E. Stevens, President; George Steell, Vice President; H. G. McIntire, Secretary; Jerry Collins, Treasurer. Collins was appointed General Manager (and editor) at a salary of $30 per week. About twenty others held stock in small amounts, including William J. Harber, who bought the Stevens stock in 1883. While earlier The River Press had been a republican-leaning independent in politics, with the organization of the stock company, controlling interest moved solidly to republicans, and The Press became recognized as a republican journal.

By late 1884, Editor Buck went broke and the Record financially went under after sporadic publication for several years. Its fine printing plant was moved to a warehouse in preparation for a Sheriff’s sale. The River Press was quartered on Main Street in the lower floor of the Odd Fellows Hall, beside the new furniture store of Ferdinand C. Roosevelt. This building was on the site of the current home of Wally and Muncie Morger. On July 8, 1885, the River Press building burned out along with Roosevelt’s store. Fortunately, the Record’s modern press was available for the Press to continue operations in a new location. Only one edition of The Press was missed due to the fire. The Press moved into a fine brick building at 1212 Front Street, which had been the home of the Davidson & Moffitt Saddlery from 1881 to 1883. The River Press stayed in this location for more than 108 years

Jerry Collins was instrumental in the formation of the Montana State Press Association in Butte August 20-21,1885. Editor Collins was elected the Press Association’s first “corresponding” secretary and printed the proceedings at The River Press. By 1887, Collins had moved on to the new town of Great Falls, where he became publisher of the Great Falls Tribune. The following year, Collins sold the majority interest in The River Press to William H. Todd, a committed Democrat, and Democrats had taken over the board of trustees led by Charles E. Conrad as Presiden. On August 13, 1888 William H. Todd became manager, and he named Daniel Searles, also a partisan Democrat, editor.

Several men and women left marked imprints on The River Press. One was William K. Harber, an Englishman, who stepped off a stagecoach in Benton on January 23, 1884. Fort Benton’s population at the time probably was 2,000. It was the smallest city in the nation with two dailies. The town and the papers were in trouble. The Canadian trade had ended in 1883 with the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Empty storefronts were appearing on what had once been busy Front Street. Steamboat traffic from St. Louis and upper Missouri river ports was declining as the railroad moved westward.

As the 1880s passed, Montanans were looking forward to statehood, and in 1889 Choteau County merchant giant Thomas C. Power, a Republican, campaigned for governor. During the campaign, Editor Dan Searles turned his River Press against the favorite son, and Democrat Joseph K. Toole squeaked into the governor’s office by 576 votes, carrying Choteau County by 32. In addition, Editor Searles urged the defeat of T. C. Power’s brother, John W., running for state senator in Choteau County.

As consolation after his narrow loss in the governor’s race, T. C. Power with Wilbur Fisk Sanders, both Republicans, in a hotly contested election, were selected by the Montana legislature for the U.S. Senate as the state’s first two Senators, serving from January 2, 1890. Throughout this campaign, The River Press became even more vitriolic against Power and the Republicans. After Power’s selection for the Senate, The River Press refused to honor Power with the title “Senator Power.”

In October 1890, The River Press declared war on Senator Power, his brother John W., and their empire, T. C. Power & Brother. In an editorial on October 15th entitled “The Power Bros.” Editor Searles wrote:
“The River Press did not propose to enter into a discussion of the business affairs of the Power Bros. or of their business relations with the citizens of Fort Benton and of Choteau county. The people of northern Montana know all about the firm and have formed their opinion concerning it. They generally concede that its grab all policy has seriously injured this city, but they know that all the Powers in the world cannot kill it. The firm may succeed in crushing out all opposition as it has succeeded in crushing out many small houses, but it cannot destroy the natural advantages of the place which, some day, will make it one of the most prosperous cities in the state.
“Neither the [Helena] Independent nor [Butte] Miner correspondents, nor the [Helena] Journal man nor his correspondent “Old Timer: can give the people of this county any pointers concerning the firm. They know all about it, and the River Press, recognizing this fact, was content to leave Mr. John W. Power and his candidacy for the state senate to their tender mercies. But the truth of history must be vindicated, and the Journal’s “Old Timer?” in his amusing floundering in fact and fiction, makes it necessary for the River Press to vindicate it. In giving the history of the early settlement of Fort Benton “Old Timer” either ignorantly or purposely leaves the impression that John W. Power was in front of the procession of that noble army of men who blazed the trail into Montana and made it possible for others to follow them without enduring the hardships and privations of pioneer life. The impression is a wrong one. The house of T. C. Power & Co. was not established in Fort Benton until 1867. John W. Power was then selling hay in Dubuque, Iowa. He came to the then territory in 1868—a year in which over 40 steamboats landed at Fort Benton and when it was the liveliest and most prosperous town in Montana. John experienced his first dangers and trials of pioneer life in the wild and wooly west when he stood behind his brother’s counter in his city and traded a cup of sugar for a buffalo robe with the Indians who daily flocked to the place with furs and pelts of all kinds. The next year found the blooming modest John in Helena in an agricultural implement house, next door to John R. Watson’s on Main street, owned by his brother Tom and in charge of the late John M. Sweeney.
“We have traced the personal history of Mr. John W. Power thus far simply to prove that “Old Timer” knows nothing about it. It is not necessary to look farther into it. He became the junior member of the firm of T. C. Power & Bro. and there he is found to-day. What that firm has done from the year 1873, when it was mainly instrumental in causing all of northern Montana to be set off into one vast Indian reservation that it might, with others, control the whiskey and fur trade of the northern Indians, down to the present time is, as we have stated, pretty well known to the residents of Choteau county. “Old Timer” is ignorant or purposely misleads the readers of the Journal. We will show it.
“It is a well known fact that when the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba railroad entered the state it proposed to make Fort Benton its western terminus and that the Montana Central would be built from this point. In anticipation of this all the ground between the bluffs upon both sides of the river was surveyed and platted. A large flat a mile and a half below the city was also surveyed and platted. A fine imposing court house, the largest public school building in the state, a larger hotel than either Butte or Helena has, and several fine business blocks and private residences were erected.
“All this was done in anticipation of Fort Benton becoming a railroad center. The place was booming and times were lively. Men came in from Helena and from the east to invest their money and grow with the place. But they were crowded out or crushed out. Col. Broadwater, A. J. Davidson and Paris Gibson were among the number. The latter started a small lumber yard here. T. C. Power & Bro. shipped it in by the steamboat load and by selling at cost drove him out of business. Lumber then went up. A. J. Davidson brought in a big stock of harness and saddles, etc. T. C. Power brought in a larger one and undersold him. Col. Broadwater proposed to build a saw mill here. He was swindled out of his mill site. Men brought in drugs and medicines. T. C. Power & Bro. brought in drugs and medicines. Others started jewelry shops. T. C. Power & Bro. soon had more clocks and watches and silver and plated ware to sell than any one in town. A furniture store was started only to be closed by a larger one opened by T. C. Power & Bro. Wholesale liquor and cigar stores were met by a wholesale liquor and cigar department at T. C. Power & Bro.’s. Books and stationery stores were compelled to compete with T. C. Power & Bro. And so it ran along through the whole line of trades. They even started an opposition hotel to the Grand Union because the latter was not built where they wanted it built. Their latest venture is the starting of a newspaper in the city to run out the River Press because the latter cannot conscientiously recognize the senior member of the firm as a United States senator.
“The hoggishness of the firm became so pronounced that before the railroad reached here Mr. Paris Gibson, who had been one of the greatest sufferers by the oppressive dealings of the Power Bros., pulled up stakes, went to Great Falls and obtained a title to some land there. He then directed the attention of Mr. James J. Hill to the place, and we all know the result. Fort Benton was left out in the cold and one by one those in the city who had been victims of the Power Bros.’ oppressive competition followed Mr. Gibson to Great Falls and are now among the most prosperous and enterprising citizens of that phenomenal town.
“These are the facts in the case and every old timer in the country knows them. If the Journal’s “Old Timer” had confined himself to the truth the River Press would have had no occasion to refer to them at all. It has done so now simply to preserve the integrity of the record. Now that the Journal has invited a discussion of this subject we propose to notice in the near future other matters in which it will appear that the Power Bros. propose not only to override all opposition in business matters in Choteau country, but to ride into office on the backs of the very people who are striving to build up a living business here which the firm itself has done so much to cripple or destroy.

Editor Searles continued his attacks against both T. C. Power and his brother John throughout the fall of 1890. By the end of November, Senator Power had had enough, and he retaliated against the River Press by withdrawing his substantial advertising patronage. In response, Jerry Collins blasted back with an editorial headlined “The River Press Boycotted.
“The firm of T. C. Power & Bro. has commenced a boycott against the River Press. The motive is easily surmised. During the past campaign this paper was outspoken in its denunciation of the course pursued by Thomas C. Power to obtain a seat in the United States senate. It also gave a number of good and sufficient reasons why the people of Choteau county should not support John W. Power for the state senate. To avenge itself for the unpleasant exposures which the River Press was forced to make the arrogant, domineering firm now seeks to drive the River Press out of Fort Benton or to seriously cripple it. The firm started the boycott by withdrawing all its patronage from the office, stopping its papers, daily and weekly, and advising its friends to do the same. The attitude of the firm towards this paper is on a line with that which it has pursued toward every other business enterprise in the city during the past few years. It evidently thinks it owns the bodies and souls of the people of northern Montana and proposes to ruin any man or set of men who dispute its claim or title thereto. The firm will tolerate no opposition and seeks to destroy what it cannot put down by fair business methods. In pursuance of this well known and long continued practice the selfish, partisan outfit has turned its batteries against the River Press. As this paper has no apologies to make to Tom Power or his big fat brother [Author’s emphasis] for what it has said concerning them, the boycott which they have inaugurated against it means war to the knife and the knife to the hilt. If the River Press go down in the fight it will go down with its flag nailed to the mast head and unfurled to the breeze.”

In addition to the boycott, Tom Power started an opposition Republican newspaper, The Benton Review, under editor Charles L. Harris. A group of leading Republicans, Jere Sullivan, Charles L. Harris, J. M. Boardman, George W. Crane, and Charles E. Miller, incorporated The Review Publishing Company. In the first issue of The Benton Review on August 28, 1890, Editor Harris proclaimed, “Politically, the Review will be republican, but not one of that rampant class which can see no good in anything that did not spring from its own party and which is continually on the war path in search of the scalps of those who are disposed to differ with it in regard to what each may consider to be the proper mode of dealing with public affairs, either local, state or national, as is so frequently the case among journals in all parties.”

On October 1, 1890, Searles’ River Press carried a long, critical article about the T. C. Power firm and his new newspaper. This editorial was followed by another, blasting Tom Power’s company for crushing opposition and driving Paris Gibson out of Fort Benton.

By 1891, T. C. Power was acquiring a majority interest in The River Press from W. H. Todd, who saw the handwriting on the wall, and Editor Dan Searles moved on to Great Falls in April to work for the Democrat Tribune. Todd’s resignation as manager and treasurer of The Press came on September 19, 1891. By January 1892, the Republican take-over was complete with the election of Republicans Thomas A. Cummings, President; George D. Patterson, Vice President; and Jere Sullivan, trustee. William K. Harber became editor and manager of The River Press with Tom Power’s take-over, and continued until Harber’s death in 1922. Editor Harber satisfied Power, and the ads came back to help keep the Press alive. The Benton Review quietly closed down operations in January 1892. In Joel F. Overholser’s opinion “there were never any efforts by Thomas C. Power, or brother John, local manager of Power businesses here [Fort Benton], to control or influence stands taken by the River Press except the implied ‘just keep off my back.’”

By the Presidential election in the fall of 1892, The River Press was safely back in Republican hands, featuring on its editorial page large woodcut portraits of Republican candidates Benjamin Harrison of Indiana for President and Whitelaw Reid of New York for Vice President. Featured also was the slate for the State Republican ticket. In a bit of bi-partisanship both Republican and Democrat tickets for Chouteau County were listed. The Press took special pleasure in opposing Timothy E. Collins of Great Falls, Democrat candidate for Governor, with headlines such as “Caught in the Act. T. E. Collins Makes a Futile Attempt to Steal Valuable School Lands.”

A quiet, soft-spoken Englishman, William K. Harber was skilled in the newspaper trade from experience in England, including serving as the London correspondent for the Northwest at Deer Lodge, Montana Territory. His arrival at Fort Benton in January 1883, from England was to protect a loan he made to a brother, W. J. Harber, for an interest in the River Press. W. K. Harber returned to England to marry Fannie Hart at Saffron-Walden February 6, 1889, and they spent the rest of their lives in Fort Benton. Harber was editor during the great open range ranching days, and he invested in local ranches. As editor and manager, Harber showed skill and a fine command of language. One Montana editor reflected, “He seldom wrote an editorial, but when he did it went the rounds of Montana’s newspapers.”

Safely republican, during the 1900 election of William McKinley as President, The River Press lamented, “Choteau County Laurel’s Lost. A few days after the presidential Election the River Press claimed for Choteau county the distinction of being the banner republican county in Montana, her plurality of 469 for McKinley electors being the largest among the official returns made public at that time. We must now regretfully surrender the palm to Custer county, which comes to the front with a McKinley plurality of 503; which secures to her the proud honor that we fondly hoped was ours. We doff our roughrider hat to the loyal republicans of Custer county.” This commentary was carried in the Anaconda Standard of December 15, 1900.
During the turn of the 19th century battle of Montana’s Copper Kings, William Andrews Clark emerged successful in controlling most Montana’s newspapers including the Great Falls Tribune. Clark became U. S. Senator by buying votes and newspapers. Some publishers were able to remain independent, especially those in rural areas. Dennis L. Swibold in Copper Chorus, his study of the Montana Press, wrote, “Men such as William K. Harber of Fort Benton’s River Press . . . would come to deplore the corruption that scrambled Montana politics and corroded their profession’s credibility. After the storm, they and other Progressives would argue passionately for reform—and Montanans would listen. But the stain on Montana journalism would linger for decades. The legend of the state’s copper-collared press was no mere fiction.” Ironically, in 1886 W. A. Clark had bought 8 shares in The River Press, which he later transferred to Jerry Collins and W. H. Todd. The River Press was one newspaper in Montana the infamous Clark did not control.

The little River Press spoke loudly during this period as Editor Harber took on the corporate giants and their mouthpiece newspapers. Writing in the September 13, 1903, Press, Harber asked, “Is it not the mission of these newspapers to serve their masters? When the interests of the corporations and the general public conflict, is it not reasonable to assume that corporation-owned newspapers will work for the success of their proprietors?”

In the words of Dennis Swibold, “Harber’s criticism of the [Clark’s Amalgamated Copper] company and newspapers carrying the company’s water rang loudly in rural areas beyond Anaconda’s direct influence.” Editor Harbor wrote on November 18, 1903, “Corporation ownership of Montana newspapers and corporation interference in Montana politics are not dictated by an unselfish desire to promote the welfare of the general community.”

Editor Harber led promotion of reforms such as a direct primary law in Montana, woman’s suffrage, higher mining taxes, legislation by initiative. Dennis Swibold writes, Harber “made an elegant spokesman for Progressive Republicans east of the Continental Divide.” President Teddy Roosevelt and his Republicans in Montana such as Congressman, then Senator Joseph Dixon enjoyed the strong support of The River Press.

In the Republican landslide election of 1906, Choteau County’s “favorite son” Charles N. Pray, just 37 years of age, was elected to serve as Montana’s Representative in Congress, defeating popular Democrat Thomas J. Walsh.
The River Press of September 19, 1906, headlined on its front page, “Pray For Congress. The Favorite Son of Chouteau County Is Highly Honored by Montana Republicans. Nomination Made By Acclamation and Followed By Enthusiastic Demonstration.
“The happiest people in Montana Saturday night were the friends of the Hon. Charles N. Pray, Chouteau county’s popular and efficient prosecuting attorney, who was the recipient of congressional nomination honors conferred by the republican state convention at Helena. It was a red-letter occasion for Mr. Pray and his multitude of friends in various parts of the state; it was a day of triumph for those who, to the best of their ability, have urged and worked for the nomination of the favorite son of Chouteau country for representative in congress. . .”

With the strong backing of The River Press, Pray swept to victory throughout Montana, carrying Chouteau County by 1310 votes to just 395 for Democrat Thomas J. Walsh. Within ten years of his arrival in Montana from Vermont, young Pray was serving as Montana’s lone Congressman and working to create Glacier National Park. The River Press supported Pray throughout his six years in Congress as he skillfully moved the park legislation through the House despite the opposition of powerful Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon. Pray succeeded in passing important new homestead legislation, increasing the patent to 320 acres and reducing prove-up time to three years. In this and many other measures directly impacting Choteau County and its homestead boom, Pray enjoyed the solid support of The River Press.

A decade later, Editor Harbor was still taking on the Great Falls Tribune and its master, Amalgamated Copper, writing in the River Press on March 26, 1913, “It has been announced from time to time that the Amalgamated is ‘out of politics,’ but its lobby and other legislative agencies have not yet disappeared from public view.”

The River Press had one other competitor over the years, the Chouteau County Independent, established by the Schmidt Brothers in 1910 at the beginning of the homestead boom in the area. The Independent operated by B. H. Kreis and William H. Jenkinson, lasted well into the agricultural depression until 1925 when it was purchased by The River Press and discontinued. Other Chouteau County “boom” newspapers popped up at Highwood, Carter, Loma, Square Butte, Montague, Floweree, Genou, though most of these lasted but a few years. In addition the Geraldine Review published for fifty years, 1913-1963, and the Big Sandy Mountaineer, begun in 1921 continues today.

Chief assistant over the years to Editor Harber was Nicholas T. Chemidlin, who first tried to emigrate to Montana Territory in 1864 with Captain James L. Fisk’s wagon train from Minnesota. The Fisk train was turned back by the Lakota in Dakota Territory with a bloody loss of twelve dead. Chemidlin came to Benton via Helena in 1883, and bought an 8th interest in The River Press. Harber and Chemidlin, often with transient printers, kept both the weekly and daily newspapers going through the quiet years leading into the homesteading boom of the 1910s.

On to the scene came young Joel R. Oversholser to homestead in the Egly community near the Goosebill in Chouteau County in 1913. Oversholser, born May 31, 1885, on a farm near Polen, Iowa, worked for several newspapers in Iowa, before he and his new bride Beulah Fuller joined the homestead stampede promoted by the Great Northern Railroad. Overholser proved up his 320 acre homestead and worked for The River Press as time permitted, until he got title to the land in 1916. He then bought the Moore Independent in the Judith Basin and operated it for three years.

In early 1920, Editor Harber offered Overholser the opportunity to replace the retiring Nicholas Chemidlin. In return, Overholser asked two conditions: that he be allowed to buy stock in The River Press and that the struggling daily be discontinued. Editor Harber agreed, and Overholser moved his family to Fort Benton to join the operation. His son, Joel F. then age nine, remembers being impressed by Mr. Chemidlin, the Sioux Indian fighter, at his retirement banquet at the Grand Union.

The great editor William K. Harber died in 1922, and the Tom Power stock came on the market upon the latter’s death the following year. With financial help from Mrs. Fannie Harber, Joel R. Overholser, by then editor of the paper, was able to take controlling interest. Mrs. Harber loaned the needed money to the new editor with no security beyond his signature, saying “my husband trusted you also.”

A high point for the memory of Editor Harber and for The River Press came in 1970, when the Montana Press Association elected Editor William K. Harber to the Montana Newspaper Hall of Fame.

Nora E. Harber, a daughter, had inherited her father’s fine editorial writing and business abilities, and she continued to worked at The River Press for many years until a stoke, ultimately fatal, ended her long career on December 3, 1967.

Editor Joel R. Overholser kept The River Press operating during the agricultural depression of the 1920s that extended into the national depression in the 1930s. In 1930, Editor Overholser wrote: “With this issue of the River Press this newspaper completes fifty full years of service to Fort Benton and Chouteau County. Fifty years in any line of business for an institution is a long time, but in the western states where settlement was of a more recent date than throughout the eastern portion of the United States, this is indeed, a long period of time.
“Twenty-six hundred weekly publications have been issued from the River presses in that length of time to say nothing of the hundreds of daily issues which have been put out. From 1883 to 1920 the River Press issued, in addition to its weekly newspaper, a daily and possibly 11,100 days news was chronicled before the daily passed into history. For a good many years Fort Benton had the distinction of being one of the smallest cities in the northwest to be furnished with a daily newspaper.
“. . . There have been ups and downs in the newspaper business in Fort Benton the same as in all businesses but throughout the years the company has been able to meet the demands of the people of this section, and gradually add to its equipment until today, we believe that we are safe in saying that this newspaper has one of the best equipped newspapers plants in the state for a city the size of Fort Benton.
“It is interesting to go through the old files of this newspaper and see the progress that has been made in Fort Benton. A copy of every paper printed in this office, with the possible exception of a very few, is on file in bound volumes in this office. [Note: This is true today in 2011.] The publication of items of 41 years ago and twenty years ago was started about 1920 and has proved a very interesting feature of this newspaper for the past ten years and we believe that all, both old and young, are interested in these items as shown by the numerous letters received at this office and the many words of comments expressed.
“It has been the aim of the present publishers of the River Press to give to our many readers a newspaper furnishing as nearly all the news of the county as is possible of interest to Chouteau county readers. That we have partly succeeded in our efforts is manifested by the growing list of readers in all parts of the county.”

One of Editor Joel R. Overholser’s four sons, Joel Francis, showed early interest and ability in the newspaper business. Joel F., who was two years old when his father came to Montana to homestead in 1913, graduated from Chouteau County High School in 1928. He received a B. A. degree in journalism from the University of Montana in 1932, after working on the student newspaper, the Kaimin, and returned to Fort Benton to work on the River Press. Joel F. served in the U. S. Army during World War II, from 1942 to 1946, and then returned once again to Fort Benton to work with his father on The River Press.

Joel R. Overholser, his son recalled, “spent more than seventy years at the printing trade and a half-century of those in The River Press. . . For forty-seven years, he was the guiding spirit . . .” At one period, Joel R. was an officer of the Montana State Press Association, but he resigned in panic when scheduled to be elected president at the next convention.

The decades of the 1940s and 50s were golden years for the Press, and Joel F. emerged as Montana’s premier newspaper historian, injecting a steady diet of historical articles in the small weekly. During these years, The River Press was far more important than most Montana newspapers, and it is likely that the River Press carried more significant history in its weekly pages than most dailies.

Over the years, The River Press has published historically important special editions. The first, in July 1926, honored the annual meeting of the Sons and Daughters of the Society of Montana Pioneers in Fort Benton. A second special edition was issued in honor of the 10-12 June, 1937, St. Louis to Fort Benton Boat Race. The Fort Benton Centennial Special Edition, published August 21, 1946, received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History in recognition of its outstanding contribution to American local history. Joel F. Overholser wrote this edition shortly after his return from service in the U. S. Army during World War II. In 1960 Overholser assembled a Centennial Steamboat Edition of the River Press to commemorate the arrival of the first steamboats at the Fort Benton levee in 1860. For the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976, The River Press issued a Bicentennial Edition. More recent special editions have honored the 125th Anniversary of the Grand Union Hotel and the 150th Anniversary of The Mullan Military Wagon Road.

With a seamless transition from father to sons, Joel F. Overholser took over editorial operation of The River Press while Leland, Joel’s brother, took over bookkeeping. During these years, Joel F. published the weekly paper and spent countless hours reading and researching Montana history, building meticulous and extensive index entries and vertical files.

In 1973, The River Press converted from letterpress to offset printing, and began to have the paper printed in Shelby.

Joel F. Overholser served as a member of the Montana Constitutional Convention in 1972, and wrote a pageant, “Wagons to Whoop-Up,” that was presented during the Whoop-Up Trail celebration. He served as a member of the Montana Lewis and Clark Memorial Committee in 1976, and in 1984 he received the Montana Historical Society Board of Trustees Award as Fort Benton’s resident historian. A final tribute came in February 1995, when he was honored at a reception in Fort Benton attended by many residents and Governor Marc Racicot. The day was proclaimed Joel F. Overholser Day in Fort Benton by Mayor Roger Axtman.

In 1980 Joel F. Overholser retired to write a book based on his lifelong research on the history of Fort Benton and the Upper Missouri. Joan Stewart, daughter of Leland Overholser, took over editorship of the newspaper. Joel’s book, Fort Benton, World’s Innermost Port, was published in 1987, packed with great detail and insight into Montana’s most historically significant region.

The day after the sale of The River Press in 1993, Joel sadly came to visit John G. Lepley at the new Museum of the Northern Great Plains/Montana State Agricultural Museum. Joel said, “What am I going to do, I don’t have an office any longer.” Lepley’s answer came back, “I’ve got an office for you, here at the Ag Center.” They quickly made arrangements for Joel’s historical archives to be merged with the Museum archives. Joel’s office in the Ag Center from 1993 until his death in 1999 was a welcoming research center for a constant stream of historians and researchers. Today, this operation continues under the non-profit River & Plains Society as the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center, named in his honor.

In 1992, as The River Press owners Leland Overholser, Joan Stewart, and William A. Johnstone worked toward selling the paper, they had a four-person staff from the Liberty County Times in Chester come in to manage The River Press. Sharon Dunham, who had been a reporter-photographer for the Liberty County Times, became The River Press editor in January 1993. This relationship lasted for three months, and then Leland Overholser and Joan Stewart again took over the publication of The River Press. In May, 1993, Stan and Esther Tichenor, who had previously owned The Townsend Star, purchased The River Press. At this time, Stan’s brother, Daryl Tichenor, owned The Madisonian, Montana’s oldest publishing weekly newspaper, so the two brothers owned the two oldest weekly newspapers in Montana.

The week after purchasing The River Press, Stan and Esther Tichenor hired Tim Burmeister as a writer and photographer. The Tichenors moved the printing of The River Press from Shelby to Great Falls. In February 1994, they moved The River Press office from 1212 Front Street to its current location at 1114 Front Street, the former location of the Farm Service Agency offices.

Tim Burmeister was named editor of The River Press in 1994. While Burmeister was gone from February 1998 to February 1999, Curt Wall was editor of The River Press for four months, and Larry Thornton was editor for ten months. Tim Burmeister returned as editor in May 1999. Mike Tichenor purchased The River Press from his parents, Stan and Esther, in July 1999. Tim Burmeister purchased The River Press from Mike Tichenor in October 2007.

Recent years have seen a shift in form and substance with a heavy emphasis on local photography, Chouteau County community reporting, and historical sketches by historians from the Overholser Historical Research Center.

The River Press continues operations today as it celebrated its 130th Anniversary on October 27, 2010. Locally owned and community focused, the Press carries on its proud journalistic tradition.

[Sources: River Press Minute Book and Stock Book; Joel F. Overholser Vertical File Notes; The Press Gang A century of Montana newspapers, 1885-1895. By Sam Gilluly; Copper Chorus Mining, Politics, and the Montana Press, 1889-1859. By Dennis L. Swibold; various Fort Benton River Press; John G. Lepley Oral History; Tim Burmeister.]


1. River Press issue No. 1 [Tim may want to take a photo of this first issue]
2. The First River Press building, a long wood and adobe building.
3. Second River Press Building [This is the Lithograph I set this morning. The second River Press location in first floor of the Odd Fellows Hall on the corner of Bond and Main streets
4. W. K. Harber, famed editor of The River Press 1891-1922, member of the Montana Newspaper Hall of Fame
5. Joel F. Overholser
6. The Third River Press Building.

The Travelling River Press Correspondent in Territorial Montana

By Ken Robison

[Published in the 20 April 2011 River Press]

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:

Joe Kipp's Place

“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.”

Early Dupuyer in the 1880s

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 2011]

“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]

The Saga of Pitamakan, the Pikuni Blackfeet Joan of Arc

The Saga of Pitamakan, the Pikuni Blackfeet Joan of Arc

By Ken Robison

Nestled between Upper and Lower Two Medicine Lakes in Glacier National Park is one of the most remarkable and most beautiful waterfalls in America, Pitamakan, or Running Eagle Falls. In the spring so much water rushes over the upper falls that the lower falls is completely hidden. During the summer, as the river flow decreases, the water appears to change course and flows out of the lower falls, a jagged hole half way up the side of an almost perpendicular cliff. This is why white men named it Trick Falls. In recent years, the name has returned to its historic name, Pitamakan or Running Eagle Falls, to honor the memory of the only famous woman warrior of the Pikuni Blackfeet.

Pitamakan, or Running Eagle, is a man’s name, and it is a high and unique honor for a woman to be allowed by the Blackfeet to bear it. In fact this woman is said to be the only woman of the tribe honored by being given a man’s name. She died about 1836, but her name and her history were long known by older tribal members.

As a girl this woman’s name was Weasel Woman. She was the eldest of two brothers and two sisters, and her early years were spent in learning the domestic chores of the women of her tribe. Even though she had no interest in women’s work, she learned them well and did perform these duties whenever her mother became ill, or was not able to care for the family.

Weasel Woman’s real interests and talent were formed when her father, a respected warrior in the tribe, began teaching her to shoot a bow and arrow. Her skills soon became proficient so that she was allowed to go on buffalo hunts with the men, and she killed her share of buffalo. On one such hunt when she was 15 years old, the group encountered a large Crow Indian war party. In their attempt to flee, the horse of Weasel Woman’s father was shot from under him, and he was killed. She turned back, picked up her father’s body, loaded the fresh buffalo meat onto her horse, and escaped to her village. She was given great praise for her fighting spirit and her bravery in the face of the enemy.

Very shortly after the death of her father, Weasel Woman’s mother died of a broken heart. This left Weasel Woman responsible for her brothers and sisters, and forced her to make serious choices. Since she had no love for domestic chores, she brought a widow woman into the household to care for the family, and Weasel Woman assumed the role of family head. She carried her father's rifle with pride and perfected her hunting and fighting skills. She managed to keep the little family together.

Weasel Woman was a very attractive young woman and soon had many admirers among the young warriors of the tribe who wished to marry her. The girl refused them all, however, and it soon became apparent that her mind ran much more to war than to love. Wherever a party of warriors gathered for a dance or feast, she would be found looking on, listening to their talk. Whenever a party returned from war, she was foremost in hearing of their exploits and praising them. All she thought about was warfare and brave deeds.

As with much oral history, the times and events of Weasel Woman’s emerging exploits are blurred. One evening in her 20th year a large party of Blackfeet started out to cross the Rocky Mountains for a raid in the Flathead country. They traveled all night, and when day broke discovered that Weasel Woman was with them. The war chief bade her go home, but she calmly refused, saying, “If you will not let me go with you, I shall follow behind.”

The medicine man spoke up and said: “I advise you to let her go with us; something tells me that she will bring us good luck.”

“As you advise, so shall it be,” said the chief, and so the woman joined the band of warriors. No man of the party teased her or bothered her in any manner. Each one treated her as he would a sister.

On the edge of Flathead Lake a large camp of Flatheads was discovered with a party of their friends, the Pend d’Oreille. The Blackfeet waited till night and then quietly approached the circle of lodges of the enemy. Then Weasel Woman said to the war chief, “let me go in first to see what I can do. I feel that I shall be successful in there.”

“Go,” the chief told her, “and we will wait for you and be ready to help you if you get into trouble.”

Weasel Woman went into the camp and found where the best horses were tied—the fast runners, the Flatheads’ best racers and their stallions. They were picketed close to the lodges of the various owners. By the faint moonlight she was able to select the best horses and she made her choice carefully. She cut the ropes of three fine pinto horses, and led them quietly out to where the party of Blackfeet awaited. There she tied them and again went into the Flathead camp and again came out with three horses. Then she said: “I have taken enough for this time. I will await you here and take care of what we have.”

Then the warriors made many trips and brought out a number of the best horses of the Flatheads. Striking out for the mountains with them they finally reached the Blackfeet camp in safety without the loss of a single man or horse.
A few days after the party returned the medicine lodge was erected and the warriors, according to custom, gathered and related their exploits on the trip to the Flathead camp. Two or three young men who had performed their first exploits in stealing horses from the enemy were given their new names as warriors, and then an old medicine man called Weasel Woman and had her tell of her own performances in the Flathead camp—of going twice among the enemies’ lodges and taking six horses. All the Blackfeet shouted approval at that, and then the medicine man gave her the name, Pitamakan, or Running Eagle, a very great name. It was the name of a famous chief whose shadow had some time before gone to the Sand Hills, where the Blackfeet believe the spirits of the departed live.

After that Pitamakan did not have to sneak after a war party. She was asked to go, and Pitamakan had her first war experience with Crow warriors who had stolen horses from her village. Upon reaching the Crow camp, she and her cousin were responsible for reclaiming eleven of their horses. While the main party rested under cover on their way back home, Running Eagle kept watch from a nearby butte. She attacked two enemy riders trailing her main party, killed one warrior and took his rifle. Shooting both her rifle and his, she chased away the remaining rider.

After this experience, Running Eagle was directed by the tribal elders to go on a Vision Quest in order to learn her true destiny. During her ceremony, she slept in the cave under a waterfall and received a vision and the power necessary to become a successful warrior in the tribe. She was never questioned again by her people, and was given the respect of one who had received special powers from the Spirit World.

After many successful raids against the Sioux, Crow, and Flatheads, in all of which she distinguished herself as a warrior and showed the most extraordinary bravery, she, herself, was made a war chief and led expeditions on which warriors begged to be allowed to go because they believed that where she was leader, nothing but good luck could come to them. On the warpath she wore men’s costume, but at home dressed like a woman and was very modest and self-effacing. But she gave feasts and dances like the other warriors, as was her privilege, and the greatest chiefs and medicine men came to them and were glad to be there.

Once Pitamakan led a large war party against the Flatheads, and somewhere on the west side of the mountains fell in with a war party of Blood or Kainai Indians, one of the brother tribes of the Blackfeet. For several days the two parties traveled together, and then one evening the Blood chief, Falling Bear, said to Pitamakan’s horse herder: “Go tell your chief woman that I would like to marry her.”

The boy told the Blood chief that he could not give her the message. “She is not that kind,” the boy said. “Men are her brothers—nothing more. She will never marry and she would be angry with me for carrying your offer.”

The next day, as they were traveling quietly along, the Blood chief rode up to Pitamakan and said to her: “I have never loved; but I love now. I love you; my heart is all yours; let us marry.”

“I will not say ‘yes’ to that; nor will I say ‘no,’” the woman chief answered. “I will consider what you ask and give you answer after this raid.”

That very evening the scouts ahead discovered a large camp of Flathead and Kootenai—more than 100 lodges of them, and when night fell both parties drew close to it. Pitamakan then ordered her followers to remain where they were and told the Blood chief to go into camp and take horses, and he went in and returned with one horse.

“It is now my turn,” said Pitamakan, and she went in and brought out two horses. The Blood chief then went in and returned with two horses. Pitamakan went in and brought out four horses. The Blood chief got two the next time and Pitamakan got one more.

Then she said to the Blood chief, “Our men are becoming impatient to go in and take horses. We will each of us go in once more and then let them do what they can. So the Blood chief went in for the fourth and last time and came back leading four horses, making nine in all. And then Pitamakan went in and cut the ropes of eight horses and safely led them out, making in all 15 that she had taken. The warriors then went in and stole all the horses that could be driven easily, and the big double party headed for home.

On the next day the Blood chief approached Pitamakan and said: “I love you so much that I must have your answer.”

Pitamakan said: “I gave you your chance. My answer would have been ‘yes’ had you taken more horses than I did from the enemy’s camp. But I took most; therefore I cannot marry you.”

That was her way of getting around refusing to take the chief as her husband. She had beaten him, an old, experienced warrior, in one of the games of war, and he could not again ask her to marry him. The Blood chief felt very badly, but said no more.

Pitamakan went on to become a mighty warrior. She took part in many raids, and was permitted to tell of her adventures in the medicine lodge ceremonies. She became a member of the Braves Society of young warriors, and successfully led many war parties. It is told by old chiefs of the Blackfeet that Pitamakan was one of the first of the Blackfeet to use a gun in warfare, and she was a fine shot for those times of crude firearms. Three enemies fell before her musket in different fights.

Then, one day, she led a party against the Flatheads near the Sun River, and while she and her men were in the large enemy camp stealing horses, the Flathead cornered them and attacked. Pitamakan was clubbed from behind and killed along with five of her warriors.

So passed Pitamakan, which the French traders used to call the Blackfeet Joan of Arc. The whole tribe mourned her death and the next spring bitter warfare was waged on the Flatheads till more than six of their warriors had fallen in tribute to the brave young woman chief.

The beautiful waterfall between the lakes of the Two Medicine was the place of Pitamakan’s Spirit Quest, and it was named Pitamakan Falls in her honor. For many years Blackfeet children were told around the campfire at night of her exploits in war. It was later renamed Trick Falls in Glacier National Park, and the name Pitamakan or Running Eagle disappeared from white man’s history until the Pikuni storytellers passed on the story of this great Blackfeet woman. Through the efforts of The Apikuni Society (the James Willard Shultz Society) the name Pitamakan Falls was restored in 1977 to this historic and beautiful waterfall.

Today, you can visit fantastic Pitamakan Falls once again and enjoy the area sacred to the Blackfeet People.

[Source: MNA The Columbus News 7 Sep 1936]