31 December 2009

Millie Ringgold's Fascinating Story

Millie Ringgold's Grave in the Utica, Montana Cemetery

From an undated article in the Great Falls Tribune: Millie’s Story Recalled by Finch David. Martinsdale--"Rose Gordon of White Sulphur Springs, a sister of the singer and author, Taylor Gordon, remembers seeing Yogo sapphires sold on the streets of Lewistown in 1910," said Finch David, oldtimer who spent many years in central Montana when he read a report by S. E. Clabaugh, survey field geologist for the U. S. geological survey, which stated the Yogo sapphire deposit was one of the most productive gem deposits in the United States in the past.

“Rose owns several of the deep cornflower blue sapphires for which Yogo was famous, bought for a song years ago and now greatly appreciated in value," Finch added.

“When Rose was a child, Millie Ringold [sic Ringgold] of the Yogo country spent a week in White Sulphur Springs at the Gordon home. Rose says of her:
‘Millie was an interesting person, very musical. She played such odd instruments as hand saws, mouth harps and dishpans. We couldn’t get home from school fast enough to visit Millie.’

“Rose had a photograph of Millie given to her brother, the late George Gordon, for years steward of the Bozeman Elks club . It was given to George by T. B. Story of Bozeman and bears Story’s autograph. The photograph shows a comely young face with earnest, beautiful eyes, a far different woman from the one I remember who knew poverty, excessive outdoor work and exposure."

Finch recalls that he landed in Utica on May 19, 1882, and met Millie Ringold a few days later. She cooked for the family in such busy times as lambing, shearing and haying and Finch knew her until her death.

“Millie was born a slave in Maryland," he said, "and when freed went to Washington, D. C. to work as nurse and servant. She came up the river in Fort Benton with the Gen. Switzer family and on to the Fort Shaw on Sun river.

“When the general was transferred east Millie stayed in Montana. She bought a pair of condemned army mules and wagon and went to Fort Benton, where she loaded up with grub and a barrel of whiskey and headed for Yogo, then a boom town. She had $1,600.

“She established a hotel, restaurant and saloon and located several mining claims, one the James A. Garfield and one the Martha Washington. She worked the claims and hired a Negro man to work for her until she was broke and reduced to living on frozen rutabagas.

“Someone wrote the county commissioners of Meagher county and sent Sheriff Rader after her. She fought so against going to the poor house that Rader got her jobs working for families. She could make better music in an empty five-gallon can than most people can on a piano and her favorite tunes were ‘Coming Through the Rye’ and 'Coal Oil Johnnie on a Bum-Bum Solree.’

“She could get up the best meal with the least grub of anyone I ever saw. She expected to make quite a stake raising horses out of those old condemned mules. Two ranchers put in a bill for about $25 for care of the mules, but they took their pay home in whisky so there was not much harm done.

“Millie never owned any part of the sapphire mines, nor did she discover any sapphires. The first sapphires discovered in that part of the country were found by Sandy Nobel and Al Littrel on the Peck ranch, now owned by William Korell. They were placer mining for gold and found the gems in the sluice boxes. Jack 'Jake' Hoover, who later located the Yogo mines, found lots of sapphires in sluice boxes in Yogo creek on the trail to middle Fork.

“No one realized the value of these stones at first," Finch recalls, which reminded him that he is one of the last persons in Montana alive who knew these oldtimers. [Great Falls Tribune Daily unknown date.]

Upon her death in December 2, 1906, the Great Falls Tribune reported: "The Passing of One of the Oldtimers of Yogo. Word was received in the city yesterday morning of the death at Yogo of Millie Ringold [Ringgold], an old colored woman, who has been a county charge for several years. The cause of death was dropsy. The county auditor was notified a few days ago that the old woman was sick and he instructed persons at Utica to have a doctor sent up to Yogo from that place at the expense of the county. Sunday morning a physician from Utica drove up to the old gold camp, but found the sick woman beyond medical aid. She died that evening in the old cabin in which she had made her home for 28 years. The remains were taken to Utica Monday, and were buried in the cemetery at that place. Her relatives, some of whom reside in Baltimore, Maryland, will be notified of her demise. Millie Ringold was a well known character in the Judith country. When gold was struck on Yogo creek in 1879, she among the earlies to reach the camp. She had come up the Missouri from the south where she was born a slave and had cooked at Fort Benton and also for an army officer's family at Fort Shaw, and was considered one of the best cooks in this section in the early days. At Yogo she had cabins built and conducted a hotel in a small way, making a comfortable living for herself for several years. Finally the camp was abandoned by all but a handful of prospectors, but the old colored woman believed that there was gold there, and she refused to leave. She staked a number of claims named 'The Garfield,' 'The Lincoln,' and other names of presidents, which she claimed as her property until the time of her death. On these it was her habit to keep a pick, shovel and goldpan, to show other prospectors that the ground was taken up. During the past 10 years, she has made a precarious living by washing for prospectors, raising a few chickens and turkeys, and occasionally cooking or nursing for ranchers. Last winter she spent in the poor farm in this city, insisting on returning to her home in the mountains as soon as the weather permitted. Here she was always happy and contented, believing that in time the camp would boom and her mining claims would make her wealthy. At the time of her death she was 64 years of age." [p. 10] [Great Falls Tribune Daily 5 December 1906]

29 December 2009

On Being a Black American in Territorial Fort Benton—Part 3

In Honor of Black History Month
On Being a Black American in Territorial Fort Benton—Part 3

By Ken Robison

This continues the series of frontier sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

One of the hidden treasures in the history of Fort Benton is the surprising role played by the substantial and vibrant black American community in the decade of boom from 1875 to 1885. This was a time when the resident population of Fort Benton was a racial mixture of white Americans, native Indians, black Americans, Chinese, and mixed race. Parts 1 and 2 of this story highlighted the role of blacks and attempted to answer the question, "What can we learn from an understanding of black history in early Fort Benton?" We can all learn by taking a closer look at their lives and events. We must also recognize that mixed with these stories were the ever present challenges of discrimination, failed lives, and soiled doves.

James Beery killed at the Ophir Massacre in 1865. Little is known of James Beery, also known as James Price, a black laborer, who was one of the ten men killed at the Ophir massacre at the mouth of the Marias River on May 25th 1865. Native Blackfoot Bloods later reported him the toughest fighter among the group.

Edmund Bradley killed at the Cow Creek Canyon fight in 1877. Edmund Bradley, also known as Edmund Richardson, was a young black man killed at the battle of Cow Creek Canyon by the Nez Perces on September 24th 1877. Bradley had come to Fort Benton in the early 1870s, built a modest house, and married a Gros Ventre woman. They had at least two children, a son and a daughter.

Major Guido Ilges, commander of the military post at Fort Benton, recruited Edmund Bradley to join a force of 50 civilian volunteers sent to reinforce a small detachment of the 7th Infantry Regiment under Sergeant Moelchert assigned to protect a large cache of steamboat freight at Cow Island on the Missouri River. After Bradley was killed in action, Major Ilges ordered his body removed from the Cow Island trail and returned to Fort Benton. The River Press covered the impressive funeral:
"The funeral of the lamented volunteer, killed in the Cow Creek fight on the 24th of September last, took place on Saturday, the 8th inst. The remains were followed to the grave by nearly all the residents of the town, including the Home Guards, commanded by Captain John Evans, the volunteers who participated in the gallant fight at Cow Creek, and the soldiers from the military post. A number of ladies were also present at the grave. The coffin was covered with black velvet and tastefully trimmed with black fringe and silver mountings. The procession, commanded by Major Guido Ilges, 7th Infantry, fell into line at fifteen minutes past 1 o'clock, p. m. There was no confusion, loud talking or other disturbance, but all present seemed deeply impressed with the solemnity of the occasion. When the command, 'Forward, march,' was given, the line moved off in the following order, to the sound of a muffled drum: Fife and drum. Firing party, consisting of eight soldiers from the military post. Hearse bearing coffin covered with United States flag. Party of fifty citizens, on foot. Volunteers and home Guards, mounted, about forty in number. Six wagons, containing county officials and other invited guests. On arriving at the cemetery, the coffin was first placed beside and afterwards lowered into the grave. The funeral service was read in a very impressive manner by Mr. J. A. Kanouse, while all present stood with uncovered heads. After the service the firing party discharged three volleys over the grave, which completed the funeral ceremony and the honors to the dead.”

The following year, in 1878, Major Ilges sent the remains of Edmund Bradley by the steamboat Colonel Macleod to the mother of the deceased who resided in New Haven, Connecticut. The Major also sent Bradley’s little girl to Bismarck, where the grandmother had come to meet her. Many years later, it was learned that Bradley’s wife and his young son, Steve, had returned to the Gros Ventre people at the insistence of her grandmother.

Mattie Bell Castner, “mother” of Belt. Mattie Bell Bost was born a slave in North Carolina in 1855. Freed under the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, she moved to St. Louis after the Civil War and worked as a hotel maid. In the spring of 1876, Mattie was hired by a Mrs. Sire to bring two Sire children to Fort Benton by steamboat to join their mother. On arrival at Fort Benton in June, Mattie was hired by John Hunsberger at a salary of $100 a month to run the laundry at the Overland Hotel. Within a year she owned her own laundry and was on her way to a life that leave an indelible mark on territorial Montana. Free, black, and a successful businesswoman, Matte met a remarkable white Fort Benton entrepreneur, John K. Castner, and the two were married in Helena in 1879.

John Castner discovered coal at New Pittsburg (present day Belt), and freighted it to Fort Benton. John and Mattie built a log cabin near the coal site, and soon expanded it into a hotel, featuring Mattie’s exceptional cooking and hospitality. Mattie raised a large vegetable garden, using some at the hotel and hauling other produce by night to Fort Benton to market. Through the enterprise of the Castners and others, the town of grew as an important element in the industrialization of Great Falls. The Castner coal mines were bought by the Anaconda Company, and the town of Belt boomed. John and Mattie Castner became revered as the “father” and “mother” of Belt.

At the time of John’s death in 1915, his funeral was held in the Belt High School auditorium with the funeral service conducted by the renown Methodist minister, Brother Van (William W. Van Orsdel). Five years later, beloved Mattie Castner passed away, and the former slave was honored with two funeral services. At the first, Reverend Almon Taylor, the white Methodist minister of Belt, officiated at a service held at the Belt High School auditorium. “Mother Castner’s body then was taken to the W H. George Chapel in Great Falls for a service jointly conducted by the Great Falls African Methodist Episcopal Union Bethel Church pastor, Reverend A. W. Johnson, and by Reverend Taylor. Mattie’s exceptional will distributed more than $30,000 of the substantial estate to friends and charitable causes, including $5,000 to the poor in Belt and Great Falls to be administered by the two churches.

Alexander A. Martin, chef de cuisine at the Grand Union. Young black Alex Martin was acclaimed as the finest chef and restaurateur in territorial Fort Benton. When the Grand Union hotel opened November 2nd 1882, an opening ball was held in celebration. In the words of the Benton Record:
“The grandest affair of its kind ever witnessed in Benton, and most probably in the Territory, was the opening ball of the largest hotel in Montana, the Grand Union of Benton, by Messrs. Stephen Spitzley & Co., last evening. For some past the proprietors have been busily engaged in preparing for the coming ball which took place last night, and the number of lives of chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese which Mr. A. A. Martin, chief cook, and his able corps of culinary assistants, will have to answer for is perfectly overwhelming.”

Notably, the entire staff of Benton new luxury hotel, the Grand Union, was black with the exception only of clerk William H. Todd and lead housekeeper Mrs. A. L. Marsten. The nine black employees were: Edward S. Smith, barkeeper; Lafayette Hall, poster; Alex Martin, chief chef; Jerry Flowers, second cook; Samuel Jones, third cook; Henry Courtney, head waiter; Frank Martin, waiter; Charles Carroll, waiter; and Mrs. Henrietta Johnson, chambermaid.

By February 1883, Alex Martin had joined with black George Washington Bullett to open Bullett & Martin’s Grand Central bar and restaurant opposite the Court House on Main Street. Ads for the Grand Central emphasized, “Its Tasteful Elegance, superior Appointments, and a Cuisine unsurpassed by any in the city.” Later in the same year, Alex Martin moved on to become the head chef at the Choteau House, and he was “acknowledged to be the only first-class cook in town.”

Lydia Johnson, the “bell of Benton in the colored circle.” Lafayette Hall appears in the 1880 census as a servant in the household of an elderly white woman at Fort Assinniboine. By November 1882, “Fayette” as he was known was on the staff of the Grand Union. One year later, the River Press described his marriage to Miss Lydia Johnson:
“We are pleased to announce the wedding of two of our most estimable young colored people last evening. Miss Lydia Johnson and Mr. Lafayette Hall were united in the indissoluble bonds of matrimony at the residence of the bride’s mother, Mrs. Henrietta A. Johnson, the Rev. Fackenthal [a visiting white Episcopal priest from Iowa] [performing the impressive ceremony. . . Among the many [racially mixed] guests who graced the occasion with their presence were John W. Power, Dr. Frank Atkisson, Col. J. J. Donnelly, John Schroeder, John C. Tutt, John K. Castner and lady, Alex Martin and lady, Gibson Finn and lady. The only original ‘Duke’ [very likely Duke Dutriueille] acted as master of ceremonies, assisted by his faithful aide-de-camp, Col. B. Franklin Stone. The pleasures of the occasion were not decreased in the least by the splendid supper or the genuine Philadelphia fish-house punch that was provided in abundance for them all. The groom is well known as a young man who is remarkable for his suavity and politeness to all. Every one who is acquainted with the bride has only good words to say for her and she has long been acknowledged to be the bell of Benton in the colored circle. The River Press wishes the couple a long and happy wedded life.”

For several years, Fayette Hall made a modest living, serving as janitor at the city hall. By 1887, he had a small ranch on the Teton River near Government coulee, and by 1890 he had moved his family to Great Falls.

“Preacher” Johnson holds Sunday services. Little is known of early religious activities of the black community in Fort Benton. Among the few, but intriguing hints, is brief mention in the Benton Record of services held by black minister, “Preacher” Johnson, at the schoolhouse on one Sunday evening in May 1878. Flowers were presented to the “eloquent clergyman,” and the congregation had remarkable singing voices. No other mention of Preacher Johnson has been found.

Although there is no proof that a congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal (A. M. E.) Church was formed in Fort Benton, several in the community, notably Ed Simms, the Courtneys, and Mrs. Tennie Finn, later were leaders in forming the A. M. E. congregation in early Great Falls. Other blacks in Fort Benton attended the mainline Methodist Episcopal Church, and in the case of Gibson Finn there is record of his acceptance as a full member of the Methodist Church.

The Adams sisters, Maria and Mary, impact the Custer controversy. Mary and Maria Adams, born in Kentucky in 1849 and 1852, respectfully, were mixed race free blacks. By 1875 both women worked for General and Mrs. George Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln. In June 1876 Mary Adams accompanied Custer as his cook on the Sioux expedition. She was present on June 22 when General Alfred Terry and Custer met for the last time. Mary later swore an affidavit for the Army in 1878 regarding what she had heard during that fateful final meeting, quoting General Terry as saying to Custer, “Use you own judgment and do what you think best.” This has become crucial testimony in confirming that Custer in fact had a free hand going into his disastrous last campaign. Historians discounted Mary’s testimony for many years because they knew an “M. Adams” had remained at Fort Lincoln with Mrs. Elizabeth Custer. They considered that as proof that no Adams cook was in company with General Custer. Finally in the 1970s, Editor Joel F. Overholser, of the Fort Benton River Press, discovered proof that there were in fact two “M. Adams,” Maria and Mary. Historians finally accepted Mary’s testimony and based on that concluded that Custer had not gone against orders given by General Terry, but rather had used his own judgment.

So what was the Adams sisters connection with Fort Benton? With the death of the General, Elizabeth Custer had to vacate her military quarters and so she released Mary and Maria Adams. The sisters worked for the Army at Fort Keogh, Miles City, before moving on to Bismarck. In 1878 they heard of the boom days and good wages at Fort Benton, the head of navigation on the Missouri River, so the adventurous young women took passage on the steamboat Nellie Peck. On arrival at Fort Benton, Mary began working for Mr. Hill, a clerk at the I. G. Baker & Company store, and later went to Fort Shaw to work for Army Dr. Greenleaf. Mary became seriously ill so returned to Fort Benton to live in a house she and Maria owned. Mary Adams passed away at age 30 and was buried in Fort Benton.

John Lambert “Duke” Dutriueille, barber to the Presidents. Maria Adams met and married a lively young black man, John “Duke” Dutriueille in Helena in 1880. The newlyweds resided in Marysville for one year, and moved on to Fort Benton. Duke operated a barbershop, known as “Duke’s Place,” in each town. In Fort Benton Duke operated his “elegant” shop in the Grand Union Hotel and was active in Republican Party politics. During the mid 1880s, the Dutriueille’s moved to Butte, Helena, and later to Belt. Duke Dutriueille’s life story reads like fiction. Born in 1837 on board a ship in Philadelphia harbor, 16-year-old Duke enlisted as a cabin boy on a man-of-war. He returned to Philadelphia to become a barber and served in the Civil war as an aide to General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Duke Dutriueille had the distinction of having shaved three presidents, Buchanan, Lincoln, and Grant. After the war, Duke came up the Missouri River to Fort Benton in 1870. His obituary in the Belt Valley Times praised his “keen intelligence and grasp of public affairs,” adding that “he was always an interesting talker and had a fund of anecdotes gleaned from a more than usually adventurous career.” Duke died in Belt in January 1911. His widow, Maria Adams Dutriueille moved with her children Francis A. and Marie to Great Falls, where she lived and worked actively in the Union Bethel A. M. E. Church until her death in 1939.

Leah Ward, Fort Benton’s “angel of mercy.” Leah Ward came up the Missouri River in the 1870s and operated her own Benton Laundry, which she closed in 1879, perhaps when she married teamster, John C. “Dixie” Ward. Leah had substantial assets in the Choteau County tax list of 1879, owning two town lots and $1255 assessed property. When Dixie Ward died in 1882 at the age of 42 years, Leah earned a living by taking in the poor and caring for the sick for the county. When her own health began to fail in 1887, the River Press announced, “We regret to learn that ‘Aunt Leah,’ who is well known to every old resident of Fort Benton, has been and is still very sick. The poor old woman has the very kindest of kind hearts, and for years she has responded, as long as she was able, to the calls back to health and strength, without hope or expectation of reward, as long as she was able, for she well knew they had nothing to give. Now that she is sick and feeble, and in need of sympathy and a few kind comforting words, or some little delicacy, we feel sure that she will receive them from our people, who have not forgotten her good deeds. It is only necessary for them to know that she is sick.”

One year later in 1888, the River Press reported, “We saw ‘Old Aunt Leah’ out on the streets yesterday, and was glad to see the old woman looking so well. In the early days, before Fort Benton had a hospital, or other means of caring for the sick, Aunt Leah was always ready and willing to tenderly nurse back to health the unfortunate ones, who, far from friends and home, were stricken down with disease. To many a poor frontiersman Aunt Leah was an angel of mercy in those earlier times; and there be some who owe her a debt of gratitude they can never repay. Money can never pay for such acts of kindness as she rendered at a time when all the wealth of the Indies could not buy nurses or pay for the many little delicacies the old lady prepared for those who were helpless. Sometime ago when she was sick and bedridden, the River Press spoke of it, and we believe many of our good people, remembering her kind offices in the past, rendered her substantial aid. She has done enough good in her time to entitle her to a comfortable old age without work, and we would be glad to see her bountifully provided for.” Leah Ward passed away in St. Claire Hospital in 1891 and is buried in an unmarked grave at Riverside cemetery.

John C. “Dixie” Ward, early pioneer and freighter. Leah’s husband, Dixie Ward, came to Montana Territory from Missouri in 1864 during the Civil War gold rush excitement. He worked as a freighter for many years for the Diamond R Overland Freighting Company. Prior to 1880, Dixie settled in Fort Benton and married Leah. In 1881 he opened Dixie’s Saloon, which proved a popular “watering hole” in a town famous for its saloons. By mid 1881, the River Press reported, “J. C. Ward, or ‘Dixie’ as he is known through all Choteau county, is just ‘tearing the bone out’ with his excellent supply of wines, liquors and cigars. His business is so good that he is enlarging his saloon to meet his increasing customers. Well! Dixie deserves it. He is polite and is always ready to do the square thing—and that is more than can be said of some of the other saloons on that side of Main Street. For our part we repeat our advice to our patrons, to go there or to Johnny Lilly’s across the street—but nowhere else. Now put this in your pipe and smoke it, and take a lemonade at Dixie’s.” Dixie’s success is reflected in the 1881 tax list, when he property was valued at almost $4,000. Unfortunately later that same year, his health began to fail, and during the winter he went to his old home in Missouri hoping to recover. He did not, and Dixie Ward died of consumption at Warrenton, Missouri in March 1992.

Edward “Ed” D. Simms, from steamboat steward to pillar in the community. Ed Simms came to Montana first in 1873 at the age of 19, serving as assistant steward on a steamboat that came up the Missouri River to Fort Benton. Simms later said, “The people and the country looked good to me from the first, and I determined to live here. After a time I got employment on another boat, the Red Cloud, on which I worked from 1878 to 1880. It was owned by Howard Conrad and later by the firm of Conrad & I. G. Baker. I quit the boat on August 15, 1880, and went to work for Joseph A. Baker and after that I worked for Charles Price, both of them living in Fort Benton. I served them as cook and general handy man about the home . . . Then I worked in the dining room of the Choteau house at Fort Benton for Jerry Sullivan and then I went to Fort Shaw to work for Mr. McKnight. That was 1882, and I stayed there till 1886, when I came to Great Falls.” Ed Simms was the first black American to live in the new town of Great Falls, and he became a pillar in the black community and the A. M. E. Church. For the rest of his life, Ed Simms served as spokesman for the black community, owned his own small businesses, and was widely respected throughout the city.

Millie Ringgold, gold rush stampeder. Millie Ringgold was born a slave in Maryland and emancipated during the Civil War. She traveled up the Missouri River as the nurse and servant for a U. S. Army officer. When the officer was transferred back to the “States,” Millie remained at Fort Benton and opened a boarding house. In January 1879, Millie moved her boarding house to Front Street, next door to the Montana House. Her success is indicated by the tax list that year which recorded her personal property at about $1,400. Later in 1879, Millie with many others from Fort Benton stampeded to the Yogo gold strike. She bought a wagon and two condemned army mules, loaded them up with provisions and a barrel of whiskey, and headed for the Little Belt Mountains. There, Millie established a restaurant, saloon, and a small hotel. During the brief boom, Millie prospered, and as the bloom faded on Yogo, she bought claims from departing miners. Over the next 25 years, Millie refused to leave her camp except for brief absences to recover her health at county poor houses in White Sulphur Springs and Great Falls. Millie Ringgold died at Yogo alone and in poverty in January 1906. In a touching tribute to this Yogo legend, the supervisor of the English-owned Yogo sapphire mine personally drove the mine wagon team to take Millie’s body to Utica Cemetery for burial.

Many other stories could be told about the black Americans on the Upper Missouri and in Fort Benton during the fur trade and steamboating eras. The town’s black children were the focus of dueling editorials between the Benton Record, supporting segregated schools in Fort Benton, and the River Press, eloquently arguing for integrated schools. The school board ruled for integrated schools, and once admitted several of the black children led their classes in monthly grading performances. Jerry Flowers, former second cook at the Grand Union, became a boxer who gained statewide success. Irascible barber and saloon keeper, William Foster, owner of Foster’s Tonsorial Palace on Front Street and later the Eagle Bird Saloon, saw a fire start in his saloon in January 1883 and spread to the old Court House burning it, and its priceless county records, to the ground. Billy Foster then skipped town owing hundreds of dollars, only to be murdered a year later at End of Track on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Henry Courtney, head waiter at the Grand Union, stampeded to the Little Rockies in 1884, only to return to Fort Benton with “two dollars and a half and a dog, the result of one year’s mining. Courtney and his wife moved on to become early residents of Great Falls and helped found the A. M. E. Church. Lee Isabell owned the Break of Day House and the Star Bakery on Main Street in partnership with white businessman, John H. Gamble. John Francis Gordon met and married Ann Goodlow in Fort Benton, then moved on to the Barker mines and other camps before settling in White Sulphur Springs and parenting nationally famous singer Taylor Gordon. James Ogleby, alias Beauregard, had a short and unsuccessful career as a horse thief. “Old Rachel” Gibbs, often in trouble with the law, died alone in Fort Benton of alcoholism. It is fitting to end with brothers Joseph and Charles Meeks, both Civil War veterans, Joseph having served with the first black combat regiment, the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, commanded by Colonel Robert Shaw, namesake for Fort Shaw.

The multiracial society in Fort Benton began to change with the end of the steamboat era in 1890. The town lost its glamour and base of service industry jobs, and many black Americans moved on to greater opportunities in the growing towns like Great Falls. We can all learn from their stories and the legacy they left behind.

Black American Steamboatmen on the Upper Missouri

Black American Steamboatmen on the Upper Missouri

In Honor of Black History Month
Black American Steamboatmen on the Upper Missouri
By Ken Robison

Published in the Fort Benton River Press 15 Feb 2006

This continues the series of frontier sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center at the Schwinden Library & Archives in Fort Benton.

We don’t know the first black American to come up the Missouri River to Fort Benton by steamboat, though he no doubt came not as a passenger but rather as a crewman. We do now that many blacks worked as steamboatmen on the Upper Missouri, while some came as passengers, and some remained to become Montana pioneers. Little has been written about their experiences.

Black Americans, both slave and free, had long served on riverboats in the ante-bellum years. Steamboat owners employed their slaves as roustabouts, or “roosters,” as well as immigrant Irish and Germans, other foreign-born, and young Americans. Free blacks often served as stewards, cooks, cabin boys and chambermaids.

With black emancipation and the end of the Civil War, the composition of steamboat crews changed. For freed blacks, working on the river offered jobs and some opportunity for advancement and relocation. Mixed race crews became common on the western rivers including the Missouri.

Some insight into the crew situation on the Upper Missouri is provided by the 1880 census. Taken in Fort Benton in early June, this census shows two steamboats were located at the levee with their crews recorded in the census records. The steamboat Key West under Captain Frank Maratta brought about 270 passengers to Fort Benton from Bismarck including 200 North West Mounted Police. Among the crew of 41 were seventeen Scandinavians and three blacks. The black Americans were young Kate Murphy, age 20 from Kentucky, working as laundress; Frank Thomas, age 24 from Virginia, a rooster; and David Homes, age 33 from New York, a rooster.

The second steamboat in the census, the Nellie Peck, under Captain Martin Coulson, was manned by a crew of 39 with eleven foreign born and four blacks. The black Americans were Lucy Chapman, age 30 from Missouri, a servant; Bush Glenn, age 18 from Kentucky, a waiter; Henry Randoff, age 20 from Tennessee, a cook; and George Stockwell, age 25 from Virginia, a waiter.

A reminder of the dangers of travel on the Upper Missouri comes from the experience of Wesley McClellan, a young black deckhand age about 20 from Nashville who fell overboard off the Helena enroute Fort Benton in June 1882 and was presumed drowned.

The best knowledge we have of a black crewman who remained on the Upper Missouri comes from remarkable young Edward D. Simms. Ed Simms was just nineteen years old when he made his first trip by steamboat to Fort Benton in 1873. Simms, had been born into the slave society of Arkansas in 1853, and after emancipation worked for a time in Texas. On the steamer he worked as assistant steward on that first trip, and in his words, “The people and the country looked good to me from the first, and I determined to live here.”


(1) Steamboat crewman Ed Simms [Photo from Great Falls Tribune 1911]

(2) Ed Simms worked on Steamboat Red Cloud 1878-1880 [From Overholser Historical Research Center]

Simms continued his account, “After a time I got employment on another boat, the Red Cloud, on which I worked from 1878 to 1880. It was owned by Howard Conrad and later by the firm of Conrad & Baker. I quit the boat on August 15, 1880, and went to work for Joseph A. Baker and after that I worked for Charles Price, both of them living in Fort Benton. I served them as cook and general handy man about the home. One of the colored people in Fort Benton then was Henrietta Johnson, now living in this city.” [Mrs. Henrietta Johnson was one of 76 blacks living in Fort Benton in 1880, and she worked as chambermaid at the Grand Union on its opening November 2, 1882.]

Ed Simms went on, “Then I worked in the dining room of the Choteau house at Fort Benton for Jerry Sullivan and then I went to Fort Shaw to work for Mr. McKnight [the post trader at Fort Shaw]. That was 1882, and I stayed there till 1886, when I came to Great Falls.” Ed Simms became the first black resident of Great Falls, and in the summer of 1886, he returned to St. Louis to marry Elizabeth Miller. Their daughter Gertrude, born in Great Falls in 1887, was the first black child born in the growing town. Simms worked as chef at the Cascade Hotel and later as steward for the exclusive Rainbow Club. Ed and Elizabeth Simms became social, religious, and civic leaders in the black community of Great Falls.

Few black passengers are known to have come by steamboat up the Missouri River since the trip was relatively expensive and an adventure into the unknown. The first recorded in our Upper Missouri River Passenger file came to Fort Benton on the steamboat Emilie in June 1862, either as the slave or servant of William Hurlbert. In June 1876, adventurous Mattie Bell Bost, who was born a slave in North Carolina and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, brought two white children to Fort Benton to join their mother Mrs. Sire. Within a year of arriving in Fort Benton, Mattie owned her own laundry. In 1879 she married John K. Castner, and this dynamic couple together founded the town of Belt.

By 1878 the boom building period of Fort Benton had begun, and the word had spread downriver that there were jobs and good times at the head of navigation. In that year, Henry and Henrietta Johnson came up the Missouri by steamboat. The Adams sisters, Mary and Maria, were mixed race young ladies who had worked at Fort Abraham Lincoln for General and Mrs. Custer, until the general’s death. Mary and Maria heard about the good times in Fort Benton and took passage on the steamboat Nellie Peck. Mary died at Fort Shaw within a year of arrival in Montana territory. Maria prospered as a businesswoman and in 1880 married Duke Dutriueille. Until her death in 1939, Maria was a leader in the black social and religious community in Fort Benton, Helena, Marysville, Belt, and Great Falls.

We can all learn from the steamboat adventures of black Americans on the Upper Missouri. Blacks shared with native and foreign-born adventurers of all races that frontier Montana offered challenges and opportunities for all.

On Being a Black American in Territorial Fort Benton—Part 2

On Being a Black American in Territorial Fort Benton—Part 2

By Ken Robison

Black pioneers came West for many of the same reasons as whites, seeking, adventure and social and economic opportunities. By 1860, at least four black men worked for the American Fur Company at its Upper Missouri Outfit post at Fort Benton. As the town of Fort Benton began to develop at the head of navigation on the Missouri river and the hub for overland freighting into Montana and southern Canada, blacks came on steamboats often as crewmen, sometimes as passengers. By 1870 Fort Benton’s black community had at least 25 residents, and the growth of both the town and its black community were accelerating. By the next census in 1880, some 76 blacks resided in Fort Benton, and both Choteau County and Fort Benton showed the highest percentage of blacks of any county or city in Montana.

While Montana’s black population was never large, a close look at Fort Benton during the decade of its earliest period of “civilization” from 1875 to 1885, reveals a robust black community with surprises and fascinating stories. The story is much more than a statistical game. During the early 1880s, Fort Benton showed positive signs of opportunity and acceptance for its black residents despite an ever-present element of intolerance and racism. At least six blacks owned their own businesses, and in two cases blacks and whites co-owned businesses. Among the black businesses, some were located in prime real estate on Front Street. Black residences were spread around the town, not confined to one area, and some blacks built their own homes. Black families were being formed, and after a sharp struggle in 1882, black students were admitted to Fort Benton schools. Blacks were acquiring property with several black male and female entrepreneurs on the county property tax lists with substantial accumulations of property.

So why were black Americans “accepted” in early Fort Benton? There are no doubt many reasons, but perhaps two are primary. Fort Benton in the late 1870s and early 1880s was booming. New businesses were essential to serve the steamboating and overland freighting industries. New hotels, restaurants, barbershops, and other services were in demand. Blacks were moving up the Missouri River, ready to take the service industry jobs. In Fort Benton, they had opportunity. Perhaps equally important, the fur trade post of Fort Benton had a long tradition of mixed race and nationality work forces including acceptance of fur trader intermarriage with Native American women. Early Fort Benton featured a racial mixture, and, perhaps without oversimplification, early Fort Benton society seemed to have a hierarchy with whites at the top followed roughly in order of acceptance by mixed race white-blacks, black Americans, white-Indian children, Chinese, and at the bottom native Indians. Many families in Fort Benton in the 1870s and 1880s involved interracial marriages of native Indians and whites and at least four black and white marriages.

So, what do we have to learn from black history in early Fort Benton, Montana? Black Americans shared with whites the challenges of living in a frontier environment. Young James Berry was killed in the Ophir massacre of 1865. Edmund Bradley fought and died in action at Cow Island in 1877 during the Nez Perce War. He was given a hero’s funeral and burial at Fort Benton. Other blacks shared the opportunities. Through hard work, Mattie Bell Bost acquired her own laundry, married adventurous John K. Castner, and the two “founded” the coal town of Belt. Young Alex Martin parleyed his culinary talent into a position as head chef on the opening of the Grand Union. Martin along with eight other blacks held nine of the eleven jobs on the staff of the Grand Union. At least two black women, sisters Maria and Mary Adams, had a surprising impact on our understanding of General Custer’s actions during the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Several blacks gained special respect among all races in their community. “Old Aunt Leah” was eulogized as Fort Benton’s “angel of mercy” on her death. Many of Fort Benton’s blacks moved on to other communities in Montana, and some became pillars in their new communities, including Edward Simms in Great Falls and Duke Dutriueille in Helena. The story of black Americans in early Fort Benton is the story of many lives and events.