Author Archives: Carol Buchanan

About Carol Buchanan

Montana has never been an easy place to live. Generations of Montanans have discovered that, and still learn that it's true. An old joke asks, "How do you make a small fortune in Montana?" Answer: "Bring a large one." Yet some of us can trace our ancestry back to the Civil War. I'm a relative newcomer here; my widowed grandmother began homesteading in 1900. At times, Montanans have to make dangerous decisions in order to thrive. Their stories are the fabric of our shared history, and in writing historical fiction and nonfiction, I'm in a sense writing about my own history, too. I focus on writing fictional and nonfictional stories people: those misrepresented by other writers, the forgotten, the scorned, the ignored. After long years wandering in the overpopulated deserts of concrete and glass canyons, I came home in 2001 with Sir Richard. We operate a couple of small businesses in Kalispell, Montana, surrounded by mountain ranges, national forests, and vast wilderness areas, close to the Spine of the Continent. It's a good place to live out the rest of my life and write. Write till God says I'm done.

Why I’m Ending This Blog

De facto, I ended this blog about a year ago, but in the back of my mind, I thought I’d start it up again.
I’ve decided to discontinue it instead.
For the last few years I’ve been re-tooling as an author, pivoting more toward the early history of Montana. Spring semester 2021, I started teaching a class called “Becoming Montana” at Flathead Valley Community College. I’m teaching it again this semester (fall 2021), and I’ll teach it every semester from here on until I drop over.
As part of my “retooling,” I’ve studied current methods of storytelling, and I’m well into a new novel that incorporates some of those techniques. I find it exciting to write short – shorter sentences and fewer words. It’s slower, because it takes more time to write short than to write long.
If you’re interested in early Montana history: the Vigilantes, the Fur Trade, in short how ordinary people built this place into a state, subscribe to my email newsletter or enroll in my class. You can find links on the home page of this website.

Hell Gate

Backtracking a little from my previous post, “In the Beginning,” by early fall of 1862, the little settlement of Hell Gate had been established as a trading stop for travelers heading east or west along the Mullan Road. The wagon train led by James Liberty Fisk stopped there on the way from Minnesota to the Salmon River (Idaho) gold fields. Captain John Mullan’s bright idea, linking the Missouri and Columbia Rivers by a wagon road, paid off for settlers in (then) Washington Territory.

Hell Gate never had much of a population. Historians number only 14 permanent residents, but it was important in early Montana history, because some notable names at one time or another during its brief life stayed there for varying periods.

Typical of Montana settlements, it had a saloon (owned by Peter J. Botte), a blacksmith shop, and Worden & Co.’s general store, owned by Christopher P. Higgins and Frank L. Worden.

Atypically, however, it also had a church. Father DeSmet founded St. Mary’s in 1861.

St. Mary's Catholic Church

St. Mary’s is the oldest building in Montana, constructed in Hell Gate in 1861 and moved to Old Fort Missoula, where it stands today.

You can see the log church, the oldest building in Montana, at Old Fort Missoula, where it was moved to prevent it from rotting away or being demolished by the growth of population spreading out from modern Missoula. A gas station now stands on the site of Hell Gate.

The names “Hell Gate” and “Missoula” come from the same Native word meaning an opening to a mountain pass or canyon and implying to a place of dread or darkness.

With the nearest post office at Walla Walla (450 miles west), and the seat of government for Washington Territory at Olympia, nearly 800 miles away (as roads went in 1862), people in the Hell Gate region were pretty well left on their own to administer justice if conflicts arose.

Conflicts did arise. One resulted in the first trial in what would be Montana.

Adolphe Dubreuil, aka “Tin Cup Joe,” accused Cornelius C. “Baron” O’Keefe of malicious destruction of property and animal cruelty for shooting his horse. Two versions of the case differ in what the horse did, but they agree that the animal ate grain or hay that O’Keeffe needed for his own use. One version says that O’Keeffe, an Irishman of uncertain, quick temper, drove the horse out of his barn with the result that the panicked animal fell into a partly dug root cellar and died of its injuries before it could be hauled out. The second version has O’Keeffe blasting away at the frightened creature.

A jury of 12 men was empaneled in Botte’s saloon, the only space large enough to hold a trial. O’Keeffe defended himself, saying that he shot the horse in self-defense. Frank Woody represented Tin Cup Joe, and painted a horrifying picture of how people would be frightened away from the region for fear of desperadoes like O’Keeffe.

Not surprisingly, O’Keeffe with “blood in his eye” (according to McAdow), attacked the judge, Henry R. Brooks. O’Keeffe demanded, “Say, old Brooks, who in hell made you Judge?”
Brooks said that he had been commissioned by the authority of Isaac I. Stevens, Governor of Washington Territory.

McAdow reports that O’Keeffe called Brooks a “fraud,” and said, “You’re nothing but a squaw-man living with two squaws at the present time. You and Frank (Woody) are a disgrace to the community and should be driven out.” There was more, but Woody started for O’Keeffe, intending to break a chair over his head, and the fight soon involved every man in the place until the saloon owner, Peter J. Botte, managed to make himself heard. (A club may have helped quiet things, too.) The trial proceeded. Judge Brooks instructed the jury to go quietly to the shack behind Higgins’s and Worden’s store, examine the evidence carefully, and bring in a verdict in favor of the plaintiff.

O’Keeffe, restored to his usual bonhomie, treated everyone to a drink on him, but it had no effect. He was fined either $40 or $10 (depending who tells the story) and costs (perhaps for broken furniture) of the trial.

Neither account of the trial mentions James Stuart, Granville’s older brother, who had been elected sheriff of Missoula county.

In the fall of 1862 word spread by word of mouth, or bush telegraph, that a group of men led by John White had made big gold strike on Grasshopper Creek, in the Beaverhead country, almost 200 miles due south of Hell Gate.

There a settlement named Bannack, for the Bannock Indians that claimed the ground, mushroomed like most mining towns. As word of the gold strike spread, men left the Bitterroot and rushed to Bannack.

Hell Gate settled down, but nearly two years later, it was the scene of a much larger drama, involving the Vigilantes of Montana.