In the Beginning of Montana …

In the beginning of Montana, there was no Montana. The eastern slope of the northern Rocky Mountains was geographically included in the Pacific Northwest, an enormous region without political divisions. In 1846, the United States and Great Britain agreed to divide North America at the 49th parallel, despite a belligerent American campaign slogan: “54-40 or fight!” Two years later, the U. S. recognized its part of that agreement south of the 49th as the political entity, “Oregon.”

In 1853 settlement north of the Columbia river and west of the Rockies had grown so that Oregon Territory received its current boundaries, and Washington Territory was all the rest. On a contemporary map of the Pacific Northwest, Washington Ty. curves around Oregon and flows eastward from its eastern boundary. Nobody in Washington, D. C., expected to change boundaries for at least another 50 years.

Almost by accident, people, however, changed the politicians’ minds.

The Stuart brothers, James and Granville, left California in 1857 to visit their family in Iowa. When they neared Utah, they were warned not to go near the Great Salt Lake valley because the Mormons threatened to “send to hell” any “Gentiles” they caught.

Rerouting northward, Granville came down with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. James and another traveler, Reece Anderson, stayed with him for the seven weeks he lay ill. When he recovered enough to travel, they made for the Bitterroot Valley, which people had recommended as a habitable place with mild winters.

There they met Robert Hereford and his wife, a Bannack woman who died of smallpox during the winter. Together with other early settlers they spent the winter.

That first winter started out mild, although later, driving winds and deep snows made game scarce, so that for weeks they ate, as Granville put it in his diary, “meat straight.” How they staved off scurvy he does not say.

When the weather softened enough to dig into the ground in 1858 the Stuarts and Anderson started prospecting. They had seen some flakes of free gold floating in Gold Creek and occasionally in other places. These sightings made them want to see more. Word spread that this region had wealth for the taking if you could find it.

Suffering from an economic depression in Minnesota, people welcomed the rumors of gold in the Far West. Lieutenant John Mullan, on the surveying party with Gov. Isaac I. Stevens in 1853, had seen the potential for a road from Fort Benton on the Missouri River to Walla Walla on the Columbia. Lewis and Clark had not found a “Northwest Passage,” but a wagon road linking the two great rivers would do the job nicely, Mullan thought.

People could travel upstream on the Missouri to Fort Benton, then by wagon to Walla Walla, and downstream on the Columbia all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Congress agreed, but in its usual fashion delayed over one thing and another (including the “Mormon War” of 1857-1858) so that it was not until June 1859 that work got underway.
The Mullan Road was completed in 1860, with improvements being made well into 1862 on account of damage done by winter snows and spring floods.

The new route enabled people to dream big.

They envisioned fortunes made in gold fields, of course, but even more, they began to see the entire region as pivotal in placing the United States within the family of Pacific nations. For land-locked Midwesterners, these dreams fueled their desire to go there.

In 1862, James Liberty Fisk led his first expedition, aiming for the gold fields of the Salmon River in Idaho. Besides the military guard that came along for protection, travelers in his train numbered 117 men and 13 women, including some who later figure in the Vigilante story: Nathaniel P. Langford; J. B. “Buz” Caven and his 17-year-old wife, Henrietta; Emma and George W. Biddle (dentist); James L. Fergus; George Brown; the Dalton family.

The train started on June 16, 1862, from St. Paul and traveled along the route surveyed by Gov. Isaac Stevens northward. At Fort Abercrombie, west of the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, it followed along the Missouri, then the Milk River, until turning south to the Missouri River and on to Fort Benton. A large group of passengers left it in the Prickly Pear Valley to prospect for gold. When the train reached the Deer Lodge Valley about September 25, most of the other passengers, including Langford, Emma and B. B. Burchett, and Henrietta and J. M. Caven left the train. The Dalton family stayed behind at Hell Gate, on the Mullan Road three miles below present Missoula.

On September 18, Granville Stuart notes that he and Frank Woody met two young men named Henry Plummer and Charles Reeves. Reeves and Plummer were probably on their best behavior, for Granville wrote in the diary that Woody and he “liked their looks”. They had left for the Beaverhead diggings by September 21.

By October 1862, these people, among others, had met in Deer Lodge Valley:

James Stuart
Granville Stuart
Robert Hereford
Nathaniel P. Langford
Mr. and Mrs. J. M. “Buz” Caven
Mr. and Mrs. B. B. Burchett
Henry Plummer
Charles Reeves

In September 1862, there was still no Idaho Territory, or Montana Territory. The gold discovery at Bannack (the “Beaverhead Diggings”) would change the political makeup of the region for good.
The Mormon War. A Study of early Utah-Montana Trade, p. 26)

Granville Stuart, Forty Years on the Frontier, p. 129.

Mullan surveyed and planned the road so well that U. S. Highway 10 and later Interstate 90 between St. Regis, MT, and Coeur d’Alene, ID, follow much of the route of the old Mullan Road.

Helen McCann White, Minnesota, Montana, and Manifest Destiny, Helen McCann White, Minnesota History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (June 1962) pp. 53-62. p. 54

Helen McCann White, ed. Ho! For the Gold Fields: Northern Overland Wagon Trains of the 1860s. MN Historical Society, St. Paul, 1966.

Granville Stuart, Forty years on the Frontier, p. 223.

History Helps Navigate Tough Times

When I watch the news on social media and TV, sometimes my heartbeat increases. It went pitty-pat during this past week as Congress hassled over the coronavirus relief bill, which has now passed and President Trump has signed. The fierce arguments in the Senate reminded me of an attack on Senator Charles Sumner in 1856.

The run-up to the Civil War bears an astonishing resemblance to the spectacle of Senators and Representatives flailing the air in manufactured indignation, except that 164 years ago we couldn’t watch in real time or on video. Communications were obviously much slower or nonexistent between 1850 and 1865. No social media, no telegraph or radio. Not even any typewriters. When the first transcontinental telegraph tied the two coasts together in 1861, communications made a great jump ahead. And put the Pony Express out of business.

In Congress tempers flared over slavery even before the first guns fired on Fort Sumter. On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks, a Democrat and pro-slavery representative from South Carolina, attacked Charles Sumner, a Republican abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts, as he sat writing at his desk. Brooks beat Sumner unconscious with his heavy gold-headed cane, and continued to beat him after he was down. Sumner was so badly injured that he could not return to work for a few years, but the Massachusetts legislature reelected him anyway. His empty desk in the Senate awaited him when he was able to return in December 1859. He became the leader of the Radical Republicans, the people who demanded that slaves be freed immediately, with full citizenship rights.

During this era Americans fought each other, families came apart, and violence became a way of life for some. And a remote section of mountains and plains became Montana Territory (May 26, 1864). Some young men grew up to think of a shooting war as a way of life, and they became the outlaws beloved of stories and movies of the “Old West,” aka the “Wild West.” In Montana, the frontier ended later than in other states, and the Curry Gang, most notably Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, rode and robbed and murdered well past the turn of the Twentieth Century.

But while Western fiction and movies love to portray gun-toting good guys as righteous, another type of young man rode hard for a different way of life. They were literally voices crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

Chief in the hearts of Montanans was William Wesley Van Orsdel, the Methodist circuit rider known as “Brother Van.” As a boy, he watched the battle of Gettysburg, which touched the Van Orsdel family farm. In 1872 he came to Montana to “preach and sing and encourage people to be good.” His lifelong message was God’s love for everyone, and he carried that love in his heart throughout his life. He befriended saloon keepers and drunks as well as “respectable” people. He condemned no one, but sought to bring them all to a better way.

Knowing Montana history comforts and inspires me, not from the example of the Curry Gang, but of Brother Van. Far more than Kid Curry (Harvey Logan) or the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh), Brother Van remains a part of who we are a 101 years after his death.

When I’m discouraged by situations and the news media, I think of Brother Van and I think that while evil stalks the land, goodness rides to counter it. Then I have hope for the future. And I’m comforted.