19 May 2013

Billings Gazette Review of Life & Death on the Upper Missouri

Historian publishes 'Frontier Sketches' of early Montana adventurer

17 hours ago  •  
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Johnny Healy was a multifaceted man of action.
He served as a soldier, joined an emigrant train to Oregon, prospected for gold in Idaho, fought and traded with Indians, founded the infamous Fort Whoop-Up in Canada, served as sheriff for sprawling Chouteau County in Montana Territory and ran steamboats in Alaska.
Healy was working to build a railroad in Russia -- he had already secured the czar's permission -- when he died in Seattle in 1908.
And he was a man of action who could also write. In a thrilling series of "Frontier Sketches" written for The Benton Record in Fort Benton in 1878, Healy drew a vibrant picture of the violent, tumultuous world of frontier Montana in the 1860s and 1870s.
Healy said he undertook the series of sketches to "rescue from oblivion" the many brave but forgotten heroes of early Montana history.
Now a Great Falls historian is performing the same service for Healy. Ken Robison recently published "Life and Death on the Upper Missouri: The Frontier Sketches of Johnny Healy," the first-ever collection of the pieces Healy wrote for The Benton Record, supplemented by a few later writings and interviews.
Robison said he was astonished that no one had ever published the complete sketches before. He called them an invaluable contribution to the early history of Montana, giving, for example, the most complete record available of the violent conflicts between Blackfeet Indians and white settlers between 1865 and 1870.
As he read Healy's sketches, Robison said, he thought to himself, "Gosh, these are great stories, but are they true?"
Based on his many years of research into the history of the Upper Missouri River country, Robison said, "I became absolutely convinced he was accurate." Healy may have exaggerated somewhat -- the pioneers in his writings all seem to have been unerring marksmen, for instance -- but he gets the history right, and he tells it with a breathless immediacy.
Robison said Healy had to have been keeping a journal during the years covered in the book.
"They were clearly written hot on the heels of events in the 1870s, and even the 1860s," he said.
What impressed Robison about Healy is that he apparently was sincere about drawing attention to many of the lesser known figures of early Montana history, people who died young or died obscurely but still accomplished much, or showed great courage and ingenuity.
As a result, Robison said, "he's constantly recording name after name after name."
He was also impressed by Healy's thirst for adventure. There was a commercial motive behind many of his undertakings, Robison said, but what drove Healy on was not a lust for money but the desire to experience some new adventure.
And though Healy indulged in the casual racism of the times, constantly referring to Indians as savages, fiends, etc., he was also a keen observer of Indian culture, adept at sign language and knowledgeable about the customs of various tribes.
It's no surprise that Robison was attracted to Healy's stories, given his own abiding love for the Upper Missouri River country.
Robison grew up on a farm on Square Butte Bench near Geraldine, about 25 miles southeast of Fort Benton. In grades 4 through 8, he said, won "first in the county" ribbons in history every year.
He earned a political science-history degree from the University of Montana and later got a master's in colonial history from George Mason University in Virginia. After a 30-year career in naval intelligence, he retired as a Navy captain and returned to Montana full-time in 2001.
He has been immersed in history ever since. He lives in Great Falls, where he is a historian for the Great Falls-Cascade County Historic Preservation Commission, but he spends several days a week in Fort Benton, where he is a historian at the Overholser Historical Research Center and a trustee of the River and Plains Society and Museum Complex.
He writes monthly history columns for the Fort Benton River Press and Great Falls Tribune, and he has published previous two books, one on Fort Benton and the other on Cascade County and Great Falls. He was honored as a "Montana Heritage Keeper" in 2010 by the Montana Historical Society.
Robison said the collection of Healy's sketches was worthy of a major publisher, but he really wanted to learn about the business of self-publishing, so he put the book out himself. It was published last month and should be widely available in Montana bookstores soon.
Robison said he also self-published to avoid the time-consuming process that inevitably accompanies working with a big publisher.
"I really wanted to get his stories out there," he said.

Read more: http://billingsgazette.com/news/history-events/historian-publishes-frontier-sketches-of-early-montana-adventurer/article_4f3bd036-ee1b-5831-ac96-4b72639e30c7.html#ixzz2Tms61pVu