Life at Muscleshell in 1869 and 1870
BY PETER KOCH.
[Source: "Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, Volume 2 - By Historical Society of Montana", State Publishing Company, 1896]
The writer spent the greater part of the year 1869-70 at and about the mouth of Muscleshell on the Upper Missouri. It is but a few years ago, and yet at that time conditions of life prevailed in that region, which have already greatly changed, and of which in a few years hardly a trace will be left. From Fort Benton to the Yellowstone the country along both sides of the Missouri was as wild as when Lewis and Clark first stemmed its turbid current. It is true that a few trading posts were planted along its banks, that a number of steamboats yearly made their difficult way between and over its sand-bars to Fort Benton or Cow Island, that at rare intervals a clearing had been made around a woodyard in one of the densely wooded points. But the steamboat passed, and when the sound of its whistle was beyond hearing no sign of its passage was left. The woodchoppers' clearing meant only so much wood cut. No scythe and reaping hook followed his axe, and his solitary cabin never became surrounded with barns and granaries, but was soon left to decay or to be washed into the river, unless its logs were sold for firewood to the steamboat which carried the woodchopper away at the end of the season. The trading post did not become the nucleus of a village or a centre for spreading civilization. It was simply a place to accumulate robes, skins and furs, and the less civilization there was in the surrounding country, the more profitable the trade was apt to be.
The few whites scattered along the river belonged to three classes, and all made their living from the natural products of the country: the wood-choppers from the cottonwood and pine along the river banks, the wolfers and trappers from the wolves of the prairie and the beaver of the streams, the traders from the Indians.
Through the greater part of the year these men were scattered singly or in small bands throughout the country; but when the river broke up in the spring, many of them gathered at the trading posts to await the arrival of the first boat. This was the great event of the year. The trader was then to receive his new stock and to ship the robes and peltries of last season's trade. The woodchopper was to dispose of his wood, the wolfer was to market his wolf skins. Then were the scenes of the old trappers' rendezvous enacted over again, although on a smaller scale. Gambling and carousing were the order of the day, a year's earnings were spent in a few weeks, and when the time came to prepare for another season's work, few were those who had money left to pay cash for their outfit.
The center of this life on the upper part of the river was the trading post at Muscleshell. To those who landed there early in June, 1869, the place presented a characteristic sight. It enjoyed at that time its greatest prosperity and formed quite a little village. There were two trading establishments. One belonged to the Montana Hide and Fur Co. (which failed that year), the other to George Clendenin, Jr. and T. C. Power. There was a gunshop, two saloons (although it was in the heart of the Indian country) and perhaps a dozen other log-cabins, all built at intervals along the high bluff bank of the river with stockades around the stores. The settlement was ambitious and aspired to become a city. A townsite was laid out, and hopes were entertained, that a military post would be established, and that this would be made the shipping point for Montana freights instead of Fort Benton on account of the difficulties of navigation on the upper river. But all those ambitions were destined to disappointment. No military post was established. The Indian trade declined for various reasons. With the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad the river route lost importance for a time, and when it was revived not Muscleshell but Carroll was selected as the shipping point. When I left the place the Missouri had already undermined some of the houses, and to-day not a vestige is left to show where the settlement once stood. It has shared the fate of de Soto: the muddy waters of the Missouri roll over its grave.
The settlement and surrounding desolate, sage-brush covered plain did not usually offer many points of interest to the travelers on the steamboats, except the usual features of a village on the extreme frontier, here perhaps somewhat exaggerated; but when the Huntsville landed there at the time referred to, a sight met her passengers which was certainly calculated to shock the nerves of any eastern tenderfoot. Along the brink of the river bank on both sides of the landing a row of stakes was planted, and each stake carried a white, grinning Indian skull. They were evidently the pride of the inhabitants, and a little to one side, as if guarding them, stood a trapper, well known throughout eastern Montana, by the sobriquet of "Liver-eating Johnson." He was leaning on a crutch, with one leg bandaged, and the day being hot his entire dress consisted in a scant, much shrunken, red undershirt, reaching just below his hips. His matted hair and bushy beard fluttered in the breeze, and his giant frame and limbs, so freely exposed to view, formed an exceedingly impressive and characteristic picture.
But while the exhibition of these skulls did not indicate any high degree of civilization on the part of the inhabitants, the manner in which they had been procured showed at least that they possessed the courage and enterprise so necessary in the dangerous and exposed life led by them. For several years the country around Muscleshell had become more and more dangerous. The Sioux were feeling the pressure of the advancing settlements in Minnesota and Dakota, and different bands were pushing up the Missouri and crowding into the country claimed by the Crows and other upper Missouri Indians. They were intensely hostile to the whites, and as the principal trading post was at Muscleshell that became naturally the chief objective point of their raids, although they did not disdain to attack a wood yard when occasion served, or to take the scalp of a solitary wolfer when they could take him unawares. But the large war parties did nearly always start for Muscleshell, and the men at that point had suffered greatly from their depredations. It happened that about the first of May nearly fifty men, mostly wolfers and woodchoppers, were gathered, there waiting for the arrival of the first boat. They were partly at the trading posts on the south side of the Missouri and partly at two wood yards in the point opposite. There were two squaws stopping at one of the stores, and early one morning they went out towards the Muscleshell River to gather dry wood. Here they were attacked by a band of Sioux, but escaped to the houses, one of them wounded. As a matter of course every man turned out with his rifle, when he heard the shooting, and a number of shots were exchanged, but without casualty on either side, as the Indians were a quarter of a mile distant and dodging behind the cottonwood trees, while the whites were protected by the houses and stockades. Ordinarily this would have ended the affair, as the Sioux always left as soon as they were discovered, and the whites were usually perfectly willing to have them do so. But this time the issue was different. Never before had so large a number of men been together at Muscleshell, and this was too good a chance to get even with the Indians to let the opportunity slip. Thirty or forty of the boys therefore sallied forth to follow the Indians and give them a lesson they would remember.
The accompanying sketch-map will show the situation better than I can describe it (sorry, not included here). The sage brush on the plain was very dense and breast high, and only towards the Muscleshell River was there a scattered growth of large cottonwood trees. On the east side of the Muscleshell the bank was covered with a very dense growth of small willows. The boys advanced cautiously through the sage brush towards and up the Muscleshell which runs here under a cut bank ten to twenty feet high. This bank could be climbed with difficulty, the earth crumbling easily, except where it was cut by short coulees, running back fifty to a hundred feet. As the hunters approached one of these and were within about fifty yards of it, nearly a hundred Indians rose suddenly out of it and with a yell fired a volley into the whites. One man, Jake Leader, was instantly killed and another, Greenwood, wounded. This checked the whites and they scattered for shelter behind the few trees. For a considerable time a desultory fire was kept up on both sides. The Indians did not dare to expose themselves, but would hold up their guns and fire without any particular aim, and the whites could not see their enemies, sheltered in the coulee which was about fifteen feet deep with steeply sloping sides. So far the hunters had had the worst of it, and it seemed as if nothing could prevent the Indians from holding their position till dark and then escaping to their brethren, of whom several hundred were singing and yelling in the woods some distance up the river, but not daring to come to the rescue. The boys were seriously discussing the plan of rushing up to the brink of the coulee, firing down among the Indians and thus taking their position by storm; but it would undoubtedly have entailed a serious loss of life on the part of the assailants, and yet that seemed the only alternative to allowing them to escape.
There was one point, however, from which an effective attack might be made, the mouth of the coulee: but in front of that the Muscleshell River was rushing at the height of the spring flood, an impassable torrent. Finally Frank Smith, Jim Wells, Henry McDonald and Joe Bushaway succeeded in crossing the river some distance below and made their way carefully through the willow thicket until they were opposite the mouth of the coulee which ran straight back from the river. They were armed with Henry rifles and had the Indians at their mercy. When the first bullet struck among the latter they saw that the game was up, and there was no way of escape. In front was the river and all around them on the plain above men were scattered whose rifles they could not hope to elude. In vain did they seek to dig a shelter in the banks with their butcher knives. One after another fell before the fatal bullets from the unseen rifles in the willows opposite. A dash for life must be made, although almost a hopeless one. First the pipe was lighted and passed around, while they sang their death song, and then sauve gui peut. Some leapt from the coulee and tried to escape through the encircling enemies, others ran along under the bank in the edge of the water, while many threw themselves into the water and swam to the willow thicket opposite. The whites might have killed them all. but they seem to have become somewhat excited, and a part of them came under the fire of the others and had to seek shelter and stop shooting. Yet the Indians suffered greatly and nearly twenty corpses were found on the battlefield.
The survivors made their way to the agency at Fort Peck, and according to their own story thirty-three were killed outright or died from their wounds on the way, while only two Indians escaped without a wound of the ninety-eight who had taken part in the fight. Breech-loaders had just been introduced on the river, and most of the whites were armed with Henry and Spencer rifles, which were as yet unknown to the Indians, who declared with great emphasis that Muscleshell was bad medicine, as the men there could fire their guns right along without reloading or even taking them, from their shoulders.
From that day the Sioux swore eternal vengeance against Muscleshell, and numerous war parties started from Fort Peck or from Sitting Bull's camp on the Dry Fork of the Missouri with the avowed purpose of capturing that place. This made it a very dangerous residence, and to the day of its abandonment its inhabitants were never safe, although no serious attempt to capture or burn it was ever made.
The trade at Muscleshell was principally with the River Crows and upper Gros Ventres. The River Crows were a band of the Crow tribe of Indians, in no way different from the mountain Crows who made their home on the Yellowstone, except in their inordinate love of whiskey which the mountain Crows would not admit into their camp. When the two bands met, it was easy to see the ill effect of that curse of the Indians on the River Crows. They were much poorer than their brethren of the mountains, had fewer horses, fewer good arms and took much less pride in their dress and general appearance.
The Gros Ventres of the prairie must not be confounded with the Gros Ventres of the river or Minnetarees who lived below the mouth of the Yellowstone, although now nearly extinct. The latter were a branch of the Crows and belonged to the great Dakota family, while the former were an offshoot of the Arrapahoes who lived on the Sweet Water and other headwaters of the Platte. While I was on the Missouri, an epidemic of smallpox came among the Gros Ventres, and probably two-thirds of them perished. They were camped on Milk River at the time and nearly all who were attacked died, as they treated it with their usual cure-all, the sweat-bath, followed by a plunge into ice-cold water. Quite a number committed suicide from fear of the disease. Finally the camp became panic stricken, and the Indians scattered to the mountains, each lodge by itself. At last the epidemic wore itself out, but I was told that it was no uncommon thing to find lodges standing in the mountains, all their former inhabitants lying dead around them. Many of the whites along the river took the disease, but all in a mild form. Infected robes which found their way east are said to have caused the outbreak of smallpox which occurred the following year at Philadelphia and other points.
The Gros Ventres were a very peaceable tribe and friendly to the whites, differing in that respect greatly from their cousins, the Arrapahoes; but they were poor and suffered greatly in their constant warfare with the Blackfeet who have been a perpetual scourge to all their neighbors, whether red or white. The Crows were less tractable. They were apt to be insolent and overbearing, when they felt they had the upper hand, and, while they might hesitate to kill a white man, they did not scruple to set him a-foot and strip him of everything he had when they thought they could do it in safety.
At that time the trade was yet carried on in the old way. One or more robes were traded for one kind of goods only, such as a robe's worth of sugar or a robe's worth of cotton cloth. The Indian had not learned to divide up the value of the robe, which was the unit of trade, so as to take for instance half of its value in coffee and half in flour. This simplified the trade very much, and when business was lively, a great many robes could be bartered in a day. When the Indian came to trade, he was usually followed by his squaw who entered the room staggering under the load of a dozen or more robes. These were thrown over the counter one by one, and the Indian would call out what he wanted. Half a dozen or more would go for a gun and a saddle, as many more for blankets, generally one was traded for coffee and several for sugar. These articles were measured out in a tin cup and simply poured into a corner of the squaw's skin-dress. When the goods had been measured out and handed over, "tail" was thrown in, corresponding to the amount of the trade, and the trader was ready for the next Indian. Profits were large when I first came on the river. A robe was bought with three cups of coffee, or six cups of sugar, or ten cups of flour. A red three-point Mackinaw blanket cost three robes and all other goods in proportion. Beads and other fancy goods afforded the largest profit. I remember one particular kind of pale blue necklace beads to which the Indians took a great fancy, and the robes purchased with them cost just sixteen cents apiece. It is curious that while it is a generally accepted truism that the most glaring colors are the most acceptable to uncivilized people, the Crows will not buy or use bright beads. Almost without an exception their favorite beads are pale, dull colors, and the squaws are as particular in choosing and matching them as a white woman with her ribbons. The pale blue seed-beads are their favorites for embroidering, and the squaws will invariably throw out any bunch which is the least off color. Fashions in beads and fancy goods of all kinds change rapidly with them also, and it is very important that they be selected by someone familiar with their tastes, as they will not accept for a gift beads of a color which does not strike their fancy.*
[* The first care of a company was to select a quantity of Indian goods, suitable to the trade with the various savage tribes in whose country they designed to execute their operations. There had to be much judgment displayed in the selection of these goods; for, if the blankets were of a color different, or a fraction larger or smaller, or of a different shape from those to which they had been previously accustomed, and which they had adopted as the standard of taste, they would have been rejected by the fastidious savages, and would have been unsalable lumber upon the hands of the company. It was the same with the tomahawks and the rifles, which had to be of a certain shape and length, or they would have been refused by certain of the swarthy sons of the forest, who, extravagant in their offers for everything that suited their wayward fancy, could not be prevailed upon to receive, even as a gift, what their custom had not recognized as congenial to taste. From these peculiarities of the different tribes, it was very important that the selection of goods should be made by some one perfectly familiar with the customs and tastes of the Indians where it was the intention of the company to trade.—Edwards's Great West.]
A great deal of whiskey was sold to the Indians in defiance of the United States laws. As there was profit in it, it could not be otherwise. There were no officers within several hundred miles to enforce the law, and as far as there was any public opinion it sustained the whiskey traffic. I say whiskey, but it is only by a euphuism that the vile stuff on which the Indians got drunk can be called by that name. The recipe for its manufacture was something like this:
1 quart alcohol,
1 pound rank, black chewing tobacco,
1 handful red peppers,
1 bottle Jamaica ginger,
1 quart black molasses,
Water from the Missouri ad libitum.
Mix well and boil till all the strength is drawn from the tobacco and peppers.
The Indian who had consumed a bottle of this stuff must have sighed sadly for soda-water next morning; but it is possible that it did not do as much harm after all as a stronger and purer article would have done. Hostile Indians came around so often that no horses could be kept, unless guarded constantly, and whenever the attempt was made they were invariably stolen sooner or later. It was almost impossible to cut hay even, as the Indians nearly always burned it. The Blackfeet did not trouble us much; but it seemed that whenever the Sioux had nothing better to do, they made up a war party for an attack on Muscleshell. The Assinniboine, Yanctonnais, Tetons, Cut-throats and other bands all took a hand in the fun. The agency for most of these Indians was at Fort Peck, near the mouth of Milk River, and we were several times warned from that point that a war party had started for Muscleshell before the party reached that place and made their attack. Their usual road lay up the river. Sitting Bull's bands came from the Yellowstone or the Dry Fork of the Missouri and followed a trail which led over the high table land between the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers and struck the latter at the mouth of Squaw Creek a few miles below Muscleshell. The war parties varied greatly in size, sometimes numbering only eight or ten and again several hundred. Their habit was to lie in wait for days or even weeks for a chance to take someone unawares. But that could not often be done; for everyone was constantly on the alert. Not a step was taken without a breech-loading rifle, a revolver and a well filled cartridge belt. Even when going from one house to another at Muscleshell, the gun was taken along as an alarm might come at any moment, and no one left the house a hundred yards without throwing a cartridge into his rifle.
As soon as the Indians were discovered, they went away after exchanging a number of shots, whether anyone was killed on either side or not. During the summer a raid might be expected about every two weeks. In winter and during the highest water we were comparatively safe. Since leaving the place I have often wondered that we were not all killed. We never hesitated to go out hunting or wherever else we wanted to go, and I can only account for our safety by the fact of our never being caught napping, and the extreme reluctance of the Indians to make an attack when they were almost certain to lose some of their own number. I could fill this volume with stories of narrow escapes; but I will mention only a few cases in which white men's lives were lost. They occurred in the winter and spring of 1870-71, for, curiously, during the eighteen months the writer spent at Muscleshell not a white man was even wounded in all the skirmishes which took place, although on several occasions some of the Sioux were transformed into "good" Indians.
At that time Thomas Bogy (since dead) was in charge of the trading post at Muscleshell in the absence of George Clendenin, Jr. at Fort Ellis, where he had the appointment of post-trader. About the first of January, 1871, he sent two employees — Ross, an old mountaineer, and Charles MacKnight, a young man lately from the states—across the river to secure some ash timber for the repair of a wagon. Night came and the men did not return. Early the next morning a search party went out and found both men killed. It was a time of year when all felt comparatively safe, and they had probably omitted the usual precautions, as the Indians had evidently surrounded the gulch in which they were chopping and taken them by surprise.
The other instance showed unusual pluck on behalf of the Indians. Three men, Lee, Drew and Thompson, were on their way from Muscleshell to Little Rocky woodyard about forty miles above. Some distance above Fort Hawley they saw fresh signs of a numerous party of Indians. They made at once for the dense willow brush along the river, confident that no Indians would follow three well armed men into such a place. But for once they were mistaken. The Indians had already discovered them and contrary to their usual custom determined on an attack. They belonged to the Yanctonnais tribe of Sioux, which band is superior in daring and enterprise to any of their brethren. The fight was described to me as a most desperate one. The thicket was almost impenetrable, and it was possible to see only a few feet. The men lay down behind drift-wood logs, but the Indians followed them so closely, that at times only a log was between them and their assailants. Lee was killed. Drew was shot in the breast, but the bullet was stopped by a package of letters which he carried in the breast pocket of his hunting shirt. Thompson was wounded in the shoulder. The fight lasted nearly all day, and eight or ten Indians were killed. At nightfall Drew and Thompson succeeded in reaching the bank of the river, rolling in a log and by means of it swimming across to the opposite bank, whence they made their escape.
To the middle of this century the warfare of the Crows was directed principally against the Blackfeet and Cheyennes. The only Sioux with whom they came in contact were the Assiniboines who lived above Fort Union, north of the Missouri. Only when parties went to visit their relatives, the Gros Ventres of the river, did they come across the Arickarees and the main bands of the Sioux. But these Indians were gradually being pushed westward by the advancing civilization. The bulk of them crossed the Missouri and occupied the country of the Gros Ventres and the Mandans after nearly exterminating these tribes. The Crows used to range down to the mouth of the Yellowstone and came often to Fort Union to trade, but at the time I refer to they did not often venture below the mouth of the Big Horn or the big bend of the Muscleshell. They were carrying on a constant warfare with the Sioux, and although far inferior in numbers managed to hold their own quite well, as they were much better armed and equipped and on the whole better fighters. They realized their precarious situation, and I am confident that to this fact only did we owe it that they refrained from open depredations on the whites. The whites were enemies of the Sioux, equally with themselves, and only through their help could the Crows hope to escape extermination.
Usually their warfare was not very bloody. I witnessed once a battle between a small band of River Crows who were camped at Muscleshell and a war party of about twenty-five Sioux who were discovered in the broken bluffs on the north side of the Missouri. The Crows mustered for the battle with the utmost activity and prodigious din. With great ardor and apparently an unquenchable determination to do or die did they plunge into the river and swim across. At full gallop did they charge up the heights, yelling and shooting. The Sioux were posted on the brow of the bluff. They wavered a moment then turned and fled, the Crows in close pursuit. But hardly had they gone out of sight before they returned pell-mell, their positions reversed. It was now the turn of the Sioux, and they chased the enemy half way down the bluff, when the Crows rallied and in their turn drove the Sioux. These furious charges and counter-charges were kept up through a whole afternoon with a mighty expenditure of ammunition. Not less than a thousand shots were fired and the casualities were — one Sioux horse. At last the Sioux grew tired and withdrew, and the Crows returned, singing a song of triumph and claiming a feast as a reward for their valor.
But there were exceptions to this usually bloodless character of their engagements. In the fall of 1869 a war party of thirty-two young River Crow warriors went to the Dry Fork of the Missouri to steal horses from the Sioux. They were prowling around a large camp when they were discovered. They fled, but were overtaken and compelled to take refuge on the top of a small, isolated butte, where they threw up stone breastworks. The entire Sioux camp with several thousand fighting men surrounded them. The Crows held them at bay here several days, until their ammunition and arrows were exhausted. Then, shouting their death song, they leaped from their breastworks down among their enemies, striking right and left with their knives and battle-axes. They fell, but only after killing nearly a hundred Sioux. Two only were captured alive, and such was the admiration of the Sioux for their bravery, that they permitted them to go unharmed. The next winter a party of Crows went to the battlefield and gathered the bones of the slain. I was in the Crow camp when they returned, and their expressions of grief were a more sickening sight than the slaughter itself can have been. All the squaws had their faces blackened, dozens of fingers were cut off, and all related to the dead in any way slashed and stabbed their arms, breasts and thighs, until they were covered with a mixture of blood and black paint. Add to this their doleful cries and piercing screams, and it would be hard to imagine a more horrible scene.
Wolfing will soon be one of the lost arts, because no wolves will be left to poison. It may therefor be worth while to describe the wolfer's modus operandi. As soon as cold weather began, he would start into his chosen field. Generally two went together for company and greater safety. Their outfit consisted of their blankets, coffee, sugar, flour and a liberal supply of ammunition and strychnine. It was necessary to go to the buffalo country, because the wolves followed the buffalo herd, and yet, if possible, the place selected must be one where the Indians do not hunt much, or too many carcasses would be left lying around on the prairie. The first thing to do was to put out baits in convenient places; where buffalo were killed. These were partly skinned and three or four bottles of strychnine, containing one-eighth ounce each, were sprinkled over the carcass after gashing it well with the knife, and the strychnine was rubbed into the flesh and the blood with the hands and then left. Another buffalo was killed a mile or two from the first and prepared in the same way and so on, until frequently thirty or forty baits were put out, generally forming a circle. During mild weather it was necessary to visit the baits every few days to skin the poisoned wolves, or the hide would become loose and the skins spoil. Where the country was not too dangerous the wolfer managed to take advantage of mild spells throughout the winter and keep his wolves well skinned up; but if he couldn't do that, the dead wolves, when frozen stiff, were piled up to protect them as far as possible from the magpies, which birds spoiled many skins in spite of all precautions. Towards spring a final visit was paid to the baits, all the wolves skinned and the furs carried to the nearest trading post, where each skin was worth about three dollars. The most profitable wolfing country, however, was infested by hostile Indians, and there different tactics were pursued. Three or four wolfers went together and put out their baits in November and December, then they returned to a safer place and did not go to their baits again until spring, when the weather became soft enough to skin the wolves. It was an exceedingly rough and dangerous life, but for that reason all the more attractive to the class of men engaged in it, and a successful wolfer made considerable money. When the poisoned buffalo carcasses were frozen hard, a very small quantity of meat sufficed to kill a wolf, and more than a hundred wolf skins have been taken at a single bait. But it happened frequently that the Indians became so dangerous that it was found impossible to go to the baits in the spring, and then a whole winter's work was lost. At the time of the Fort Pease expedition in 1875, a great many baits were put out north of the Yellowstone. The country was alive with wolves, and during the winter thousands of them were seen lying dead around the baits; but in the spring it was worth a man's life to leave the fort half a mile, and even the hardy wolfers, inured to danger as they were, dared not attempt it, so that hardly a wolf skin was saved. The wolfers were never on good terms with the friendly Indians even, as these always had many of their dogs poisoned when moving their camps through a country in which baits had been put out, and they cut up the wolf skins whenever they had a chance, and annoyed the wolfers in every possible way, so that many a fracas took place between them.
Frequently the wolfer was "set a-foot" (i. e. had his horse stolen) on the prairie and then had to make his way to the nearest post, as best he could. His work was mostly in the open plains country, where he suffered greatly from the winter blizzards. I have heard many tales of frightful sufferings and know of several instances, where the hapless wolfer was reduced to feeding on the carcasses of the poisoned wolves. Strangely enough I have known several old wolfers who always fried their batter-cakes in wolf fat, when obtainable, alleging that it gave a much finer flavor to the cakes than if fried in any other kind of grease.
The wolves have shared the fate of the buffalo, and of the large prairie wolves few are now left; but in 1869-70 Muscleshell was in the heart of the buffalo country, and there seemed then no end to either buffalo or wolves. In March, 1870, I traveled from Muscleshell to Fort Browning on Milk River, and for a distance of forty miles I do not think we were ever out of easy rifle shot of buffalo. Our trail led along a low ridge through a gently undulating country, and we could see many miles on either side; but turn where we would, the eye only met herd after herd of grazing and slowly moving buffalo. We did not disturb them, and they moved barely far enough to one side to let us pass. Three days later I passed over the same trail on my return trip, and the vast herds had disappeared as if by magic. Only two or three old bulls were still wandering over the prairie; but the grass was cut as close as if fed over by sheep, and immense quantities of bois de vache were left for the convenience of later travelers over these treeless plains. At Muscleshell it was no uncommon thing to shoot bulls from the doors of our cabins, and during the rutting season we were frequently kept awake at night by their incessant bellowing, pawing and fighting. Elk, deer and antelope were also abundant along the Missouri at that time, and although we depended on game altogether for our meat supply we had usually more than we could possibly use.
At the time I refer to steamboats had to tie up and cut their own wood throughout the Sioux country, except in a few places, such as Fort Peck, where wood-yards were established in the immediate neighborhood of the trading posts. But from Muscleshell to Fort Benton wood-yards were found in abundance, wherever there was any accessible timber. Cottonwood sold for five and six dollars per cord on the bank of the river, pine and cedar from eight to twenty dollars according to the difficulty of getting it and the necessity of the steamboat. Considerable money had been made in the wood business; but my own experience was rather unfortunate. 1870 was the year of the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad, and the number of steamboats on the upper Missouri dropped from forty in 1869 to eight in 1870. Consequently wood was a drug in the market and could not be sold at any price. Out of several hundred cords which my partner and I banked we sold less than twenty-five cords, and before the summer was over the Indians burned the remainder.
Even as high up as Muscleshell wood chopping was a dangerous business. We never worked without a man on guard and our rifles leaning against the nearest stump. And even with all possible precaution men were killed nearly every season. Hardly a "point" but had its rudely marked grave and its tale of battle and death. But lower down the river the business was still more risky and had been almost entirely abandoned. In 1868 a party of eight young men came out from St. Louis and went ashore near Spread Eagle bar above Fort Union to establish a wood yard. They were told it was almost sure death, but they were inexperienced and thought they could conciliate the Indians and insisted on carrying out their purpose. A few weeks later the boat on which they had come up the river returned from Fort Benton just in time to bury their bones.
A party of Sioux had come up to them, played friendly, mingled among them without suspicion, been allowed to examine their Henry rifles and finally killed them with their own guns. After plundering the cabin they set it on fire, and the logs were still smouldering when the steamboat arrived. Truly the banks of the Missouri are bloody ground.
I must not close this sketch without mention of the one white woman at that time living on the upper Missouri below Fort Benton. Her name was Jennie, by courtesy called Mrs. Smith, but better known throughout Montana under a sobriquet not fit for polite ears. She lived with a man by the name of Frank Smith, who went to Michigan with her in 1870 and there married her. While at Muscleshell she lost her scalp. One day she was carrying dinner out to some men hauling wood in the hills, when a war party of Indians surprised her, shot her through the neck and, supposing her dead, scalped her before any one could come to the rescue. The Indians were soon driven off and it was found that, except for losing her scalp, she had suffered no serious injury. When I saw her she was apparently none the worse for her adventure.
Such was life on the Missouri fifteen years ago, full of danger and exposure and apparently with few attractions to relieve its rude and repulsive features. Yet so easy is it for man to relapse into barbarism that even now men of education and refinement become infatuated with its untrammeled freedom and find it difficult to tear themselves away after once becoming accustomed to it.
[Source: "Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, Volume 2 - By Historical Society of Montana", State Publishing Company, 1896 -- Transcribed by K. Torp]
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