04 September 2014

When Myth Becomes a Reality: The Mysterious Background of William Bent

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

When Myth Becomes a Reality: A Mysterious Background for a
Milk River Pioneer William Bent

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
August 27, 2014

This is the twenty-ninth installment of a monthly series commemorating Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War who came to Montana after the war. This month features the mystery of Confederate veteran William Bent—was he, or was he not the son of Colonel William Bent of Bent’s Fort fame? Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com.

   “When myth becomes reality” might well be the title of this saga of William Bent, Confederate soldier, Montana scout, and pioneer rancher. His family legend portrays him as a son of the famed Colonel William Bent, founder of Bent’s fort. Unfortunately, Col. Bent had no son named William. (See Progressive Men of Montana; In the Land of Chinook; and Thunderstorm and Tumbleweeds 1887-1987 East Blaine County.)
   William Bent of Harlem, Montana led a life worthy of legends even if he could not claim those of Col. William Bent. Montana’s William Bent was born on May 11, 1846 in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of William and Sarah Sullivan Bent. After attending private school in St. Louis, young William joined the Confederate Army in the spring of 1863, enlisting in the 2nd Arkansas Battalion of Mounted Infantry.
   On May 14, the 2nd Arkansas joined the Confederate troops of General Joseph E. Johnston engaged in the Battle of Jackson, Mississippi as Major General Ulysses Grant moved to seize the city, cut Johnston’s supply lines, and disrupt Confederate troops from interfering with the on-going Siege of Vicksburg. After Vicksburg’s surrender to the Union on July 4th, the 2nd Arkansas as part of General Johnston’s army attempted once again to defend Jackson from Union attack. After a ten-day siege and strong Union probes, Johnston ordered withdrawal on July 16th, ending any Confederate threat to Vicksburg by then in Union control.
    During the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia September 19-20, 1863, the 2nd Arkansas served with General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. This bloody battle ended with the most significant Union defeat in the Western Theater in the Civil War and resulted in the second highest number of casualties next to Gettysburg. During the battle, Private William Bent was wounded severely and incapacitated for an extended period.
   Bent returned to service in 1864, and he remained with his battalion until the end of the war. The 2nd Arkansas participated in nine major engagements during the Atlanta Campaign from May to September 1864 as General Johnston’s Army of Tennessee attempted to stem the invasion of northwest Georgia and Atlanta by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. The fall of Atlanta on September 2nd, set the stage for Sherman’s March to the Sea.
   With the defeat of Confederate forces at Atlanta, the 2nd Arkansas and the Army of Tennessee, now under Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, participated in the Franklin-Nashville campaign. In a series of five battles, Hood’s army suffered repeated defeats and on December 15-16 his depleted army was routed in the Battle of Nashville, and retreated to Tupelo, Mississippi.
   After the battle of Nashville, the 2nd Arkansas of Reynolds’ Brigade marched via Bainbridge, Alabama, Tuscumbia, Iuka and Corinth to Tupelo, where they went into a brief winter camp on January 19, 1865. They departed Tupelo on January 30 and marched to West Point, Mississippi, from there traveling by rail to Selma, Alabama. From Selma the battalion boarded a steamboat to proceed to Montgomery, and then by rail to Columbus, Georgia. From there they marched to Mayfield, Georgia; once more boarded trains to Augusta. They then marched to Newberry, South Carolina, and on March 19 joined Gen. Johnston’s army to fight their last major engagement at the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina March 19-21.
   After defeat at Bentonville, the 2nd Arkansas marched to Smithfield, North Carolina, where a depleted Arkansas brigade consolidated into a single understrength regiment, the 1st Arkansas Consolidated Mounted Rifles on April 9, 1865. The 2nd Arkansas formed Companies C and D in the new regiment. The new 1st Arkansas Consolidated surrendered with the rest of Gen. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee at Greensboro, North Carolina, on April 26.
   The 1st Arkansas was paroled five days later at Jamestown, North Carolina and offered free rail transportation to locations near their homes by the remnants of the Southern railway companies. Most of the men, including presumably William Bent, traveled by rail. Adding to their misery, a large number of Arkansas men were killed or injured in a railroad accident at Flat Creek Bridge, Tennessee on May 25, 1865.
   William Bent’s war was over and after returning to St. Louis he thought about going to Mexico with other Confederates to join Maximilian but instead drifted north. He came to Atchison, Kansas, and remained a while before drifting west into the Platte country. There he fell in with a Spaniard called ‘Sago,’ and the two wandered around until at last they reached the wonders that became Yellowstone Park and from there to Virginia City, in June 1866. Spending only a few months there, Bill Bent moved on to Dry Gulch near booming Last Chance Gulch (Helena) and for a short time worked as compositor on the first issues of Helena’s first newspaper, The Radiator, printed on a hand press.
   In the spring of 1867 Bent joined the Montana Volunteer Militia being raised by Acting Governor Thomas Francis Meagher to respond to incidents on both the Bozeman Trail and the Benton to Helena Road. Bent’s militia served in Helena and was soon disbanded. Many years later after his death, William’s widow was granted an Indian Wars pension based on this militia service.
   From Helena, Bent drifted into the Musselshell River country. During the summer of 1867 he rode for the Northern Overland Pony Express between Forts Abercrombie (near today’s Fargo) on the Red River, and Helena. Bent rode with partner Henry Macdonald on the segment from Fort Hawley on the Missouri River to Diamond City in Confederate Gulch. Fort Hawley, a trading post of the Northwest Fur Company, located about twenty miles above the mouth of the Musselshell, was a mail station on the express circuit. The Express Company started tri-weekly service beginning July 1st, and Bent had several harrowing experiences with companion rider, Henry Macdonald, on that dangerous circuit. That express enterprise failed by March 30, 1868, after just nine months, and Fort Hawley closed for a time shortly after because of incidents with native Indians.
   In 1868 Bent came to Fort Benton and hired out in August to help construct a new trading post (Fort Browning) for Hubbell and Hawley, and an Indian agency, the Milk River Agency, at the “Great Bend” of the Milk River, about 90 miles upstream from the Missouri River, near today’s Dodson.
   When work on the agency was completed the men engaged were discharged. Bent joined William A. Hamilton and five other companions on a gold prospecting expedition to the Little Rocky Mountains. They built a camp on Dry Beaver Creek at the east end of the mountains, where they found gold, but not in paying quantities. When they had to give up prospecting as winter set in, they started wolf hunting and trapping for furs, with considerable success.
   During 1869 Bent served as Indian interpreter for the government along with Alexander Culbertson, the famed founder of Fort Benton. The following year he worked at the Medicine Lodge trading post on the lower end of the Great Bend of the Milk River. Upon the arrival of trader James Stuart at Fort Browning trading post on January 6, 1871, Bent began working for him. During the winter of 1871 Bent hunted buffalo and trapped on streams south of the Little Rockies and Bear’s Paw mountains.
   In 1873 Bent moved to old Fort Belknap, on the south side of the Milk River (opposite today’s Chinook), where he began a long career working for the Indian Service as an interpreter. That same year he was married at the agency to Bettie [NFI], an Assiniboin (or Nakota) woman, and they had eight children; George, Louis, Mary, Lucy, Nellie, Emma, Ida and Florence. After the death of his first wife, Bent married another Assiniboin woman, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Canoe, on April 4, 1891, and they had six more children including Elsie, Ruth, and Louis. The marriage license between William Bent and Lizzie Canoe confirmed that William, a white man, was the son of William Bent and Sarah Sullivan—not the mixed race son of Colonel William Bent and his Cheyenne wives Owl Woman and Yellow Woman.

Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield and the forthcoming Confederates in Montana Territory: In the Shadow of Price’s Army.


1.     Battle of Jackson, Private William Bent’s first major battle.

Milk River Pioneer William Bent
 Played a Key Role in the Nez Perce War. (Continued)

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
September 3, 2014

This continues the story of Confederate veteran William Bent who fought with the Arkansas 2nd Battalion of Mounted Infantry in the Civil War before heading up the Missouri River to Montana Territory. Settling with the Assiniboin Indians, Bill Bent became an important advisor on the Fort Belknap Reservation. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com.

   In 1876 the Nez Perces sent a delegation with horses to trade and present as gifts to the Assiniboin. According to Bent, the Nez Perces stated that they expected to have trouble with the whites in the country where they lived in Idaho Territory. One year later by late September 1877 the Nez Perces had moved from their traditional homeland, with the U.S. Army in pursuit, and were approaching the Missouri River with their clear destination the Province of Canada. In early October with Colonel Nelson Miles was in pursuit from southeast of the Bear Paw mountains, Major Guido Ilges, commanding the Fort Benton Military Post, sent couriers to Fort Belknap directed Bill Bent to keep the Assiniboin from joining the fleeing Nez Perces. Bent related to historian Al J. Noyes in 1917:
    “I at once called the Indians together in council and told them that the people who were here the summer before [the Nez Perces] with all the horses and presents were fighting the soldiers and that the soldiers were after them and coming this way and the best thing they could do would be not to have anything to do with them as the soldiers would punish all they found in arms.”
   Just an hour later five Nez Perces arrived in the vicinity, though the Assiniboin heeded Bent’s advice, refused to offer assistance to the Nez Perces, and remained in camp. Two days later sounds of battle were heard in the distance in the direction of Snake Point north of the Bear’s Paw. To keep the Assiniboin in camp, Bent told them it would be better for him to go to scout the situation. Bill Bent related,
   “So I started and kept going toward the sound and got south of the West Fork of Snake creek and it became so dark that all I could see was the flashes of the guns once in a while. I got up to where I could see the pickets in one place and laid down and waited till morning. As soon as it was light enough I went to one of the men on picket and explained who I was and he told me to go in. I could see the whole thing, the pits of the Indians, and the breastworks of the soldiers, and away back were the tents. I went over and reported to Miles . . .
   “In my report I told him what the Assinniboines were doing and the orders I had from the War Department through [Major Ilges]. He told me to go back and keep them in hand and see that they did not get in the fight . . .
   “After going back and telling the Assinniboines what Miles had said I returned to the battlefield. I think it was the fourth day of the fight that Miles, Sweeny, Arthur Chapman, an interpreter from Idaho, Captain John, a Nez Perce, and myself went down to have a talk with the Indians. John was sent down into the pit to talk with the Nez Perces while we laid down peeping over a hill. He rode a pinto horse with a hospital sheet tied to a pole. He would stop and wave the flag and halloo at them and at last he was allowed to approach near enough to carry on a conversation. You could see them throwing out the dirt, as they were occupying all their spare time fortifying. After a little some of the Indians came out and John went out of sight for a few minutes and then appeared again with six or seven of them. They all had their guns with them, and Miles said to Chapman: ‘You tell those fellows not to use any treachery because there are hundreds of men looking through their sights ready to shoot.’ They shook their heads and came on. Of course we did not know who they were.
   “We started towards Miles’ tent but a lot of officers began to crowd around, the Indians stopped and Miles said to Arthur: ‘What’s the matter with them?’ Chapman replied that they did not like the officers to be so handy so Miles ordered them back as they were confusing the Indians.
   “We all went over to Miles’ tent and he got some camp stools for the Indians, but not enough as some had to sit on the ground. They sat there a while and then he said that they had better have a smoke but for the Indians to furnish the tobacco as then they would be sure it was all right.
   After a while Miles began to talk. He said that it pained him to do what he was doing but it was his duty. They did not make any reply. Captain Baird and another officer were taking down everything that was being said in writing. When Miles was talking he was addressing a very fine tall Indian who was sitting on a stool not far away. When Chapman was doing his interpreting he was looking and talking to an Indian sitting on the ground. The Indian to whom Miles was talking would hardly say anything but the Indian sitting on the ground would smile. A little while after I noticed an old gray-haired officer come in and stand way back, he only had one arm and the coat sleeve was pinned across his breast. As soon as the Indians saw him they seemed to be awful angry, their eyes blazed. This was Howard.
   “Miles once more addressed the Indian sitting on the stool and asked him if he hadn’t had enough of this by now. But the Indian did not reply. Miles turned to Chapman and looked for an answer. Chapman had noticed that Miles had addressed all his talk to the particular Indian who would not reply and as Miles looked at him he said (pointing to the one on the ground). ‘Why don’t you ask him? Miles said: ‘Who is he?’ ‘That’s the leader, Chief Joseph.’
   “Miles was surprised but he got up and handed his stool to the Chief and from that time all his remarks were made to the proper person. Joseph said that White Bird did not want to surrender and that he would take one more night so as to give him a chance to think it over. During that night White Bird escaped with his two wives and went over the line.
   “The next day, the last day of the fight, Miles said: ‘I want you to go down to the river and tell the Indians down there not to kill any more Nez Perces. About seven Nez Perces were killed by the Assinniboines.
   “The day that Joseph surrendered he said he thought the [Missouri] river was the line and that the Indians would be friendly but as they were enemies he would give up. He handed his gun, muzzle first, to Howard but Howard said: ‘No, that man, pointing to Miles, is the one who won it.’ He then turned and handed his gun, butt first, to Miles. I have always thought that if Howard had reached for that gun he would have been shot.”
   When Bent left the battlefield to go to the reservation to tell the Indians what Miles had said, he was captured by some of the escaping Nez Perces. His captors claimed that Bent was a soldier since he had been on the battlefield and was riding a government horse. Bent replied, I am “not a soldier but belonged on the river and that my children were the offspring of an Indian mother.” Eventually, Bent convinced his captors that he was from the Assiniboin camp, and he was released to go.
   William Bent played a key role in counseling and convincing the Assiniboin Indians not to aid the Nez Perces. The failure of the Nez Perces to win over Indian allies to their cause as they moved through Montana Territory was a devastating blow. The actions of roving bands of Assiniboin to seek out and kill escaping Nez Perces must have been a great disappointment to Chief Joseph. The role of the Assiniboin aiding the U.S. Army was rewarded later when their service was honored in 1879 when a new military post on Beaver Creek near today’s Havre was given the name Fort Assinniboine.
   Bill Bent continued work at Fort Belknap as interpreter until 1890, under successive Indian agents, Alonzo S. Reed, Clark, Capt. Buck, Fenton, Capt. Williams, W. L. Lincoln, Fields, Andrew J. Simmons and Lieut. Macanny. As interpreter and an intermarried ally of the Assiniboin, Bent played an important role in commissions negotiating relinquishment of Assiniboin lands. His influence together with that of Major W. L. Lincoln, were factors in negotiations that gained the right-of-way for construction of the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba (later Great Northern) Railroad through the Milk River Valley.
   From 1890-93 Bent worked as interpreter at the new Fort Belknap agency, located southeast of today’s Harlem. The following year he served as government farmer at the agency and thereafter as government butcher for two years.
   In the fall of 1896 Bent located a 400-acre cattle and horse ranch at the mouth of Snake creek, five miles southwest of Harlem. Unlike most former Confederates, William Bent became an active member of the Republican party.
   William Bent lived the rest of his days on his ranch, working, reading, and swapping old time tales with visitors including Charles M. Russell. Suddenly on November 15, 1919 William Bent died at his home of heart failure. The old Confederate soldier and Montana pioneer was interred on his ranch beside the graves of two of his daughters.

Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield and the forthcoming Confederates in Montana Territory: In the Shadow of Price’s Army.


1.     Civil War and Nez Perce War Veteran Bill Bent in his later years. [In the Land of Chinook]     

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