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.