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.


  1. Quantum Binary Signals

    Get professional trading signals delivered to your mobile phone every day.

    Start following our signals NOW & gain up to 270% daily.

  2. If you need your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend to come crawling back to you on their knees (even if they're dating somebody else now) you need to watch this video
    right away...

    (VIDEO) Want your ex CRAWLING back to you...?

  3. eToro is the ultimate forex broker for rookie and pro traders.