A Year in Montana

"The swift Yellowstone and the Colorado rise in lakes in the enchanted Wind River Mountains..."

While thus cut off from all communication with the outer world, and buried in the dull town, there was little for us to do save to study each other's characters and talk the miners' language. In all new and thinly settled countries, many ideas are expressed by figures drawn from the pursuits of the people. Among the Indians, more than half of every sentence is expressed by signs. And miners illustrate their conversation by the various terms used in mining. I have always noticed how clearly these terms conveyed the idea sought. Awkwardness in comprehending this dialect easily reveals that the hearer bears the disgrace of being a "pilgrim," or a "tender-foot," as they style the new emigrant. To master it is an object of prime necessity to him who would win the miner's respect. Thus the term "adobe," the sun-dried brick, as applied to a man, signifies vealiness and verdancy. A "corral" is an enclosure into which the herds are gathered; hence a person who has everything arranged to his satisfaction announces that he has everything "corralled." A man fortunate in any business has "struck the pay-dirt"; unfortunate, has "struck the bed-rock." Everything viewed in the aggregate, as a train, a family, or a town, is an "outfit." I was much at a loss, on my first arrival, to comprehend the exact purport of a miner's criticism upon a windy lawyer of Virginia,—"When you come to pan him out, you don't find color." But this vocabulary is not extensive, and the pilgrim soon learns to perceive and use its beauties.

Helena, the second point of importance in the Territory, is one hundred and twenty-five miles north from Virginia. We travel to it over a fine, hard road, through the low valleys of the Missouri. The beauty and richness of these valleys increase as we leave Virginia, and everywhere the green spots are becoming the homes of thrifty farmers. On the divide near Boulder Creek are wonderful proofs of the gradual levelling of the mountains, in the huge blocks of rock piled up in the most grotesque shapes. Many of these are colossal pillars, surmounted by boulders weighing many tons. The softer rock and gravel have washed down the ravines, leaving these as monuments of the primal ages. The ravines penetrate the mountain on every side, and little by little wear the monster away. The beavers choose the prettiest nooks in them for their villages, and the miner, finding the water cut off, often learns that in a single night these busy architects have built a tight and closely interwoven dam up the stream, which it takes him many hours to demolish. Is it strange that, in speaking of a beaver dam, he should sometimes transpose the words?

We ride down the pleasantest of the ravines, till it develops into the Prickly Pear River, and past embryo cities,—at present noticeable for nothing except their rivalry of each other,—and hurry on to the Last Chance Gulch and the city of Helena. A few emigrants from Minnesota had been here for many months. They made no excitement, no parade, but steadily worked on amid their majestic mountain scenery, and asked no heralding of their wealth. On either side of their cabins grew tall pines straight as arrows, and in front spread a vast fertile valley watered by clear rivulets, marked here and there with the low cottages of the rancheros, and dotted everywhere with innumerable herds of cattle. Beyond the Missouri rose abruptly chains of snow-capped mountains, glistening in the sunlight and veined with gold and silver. Reports of these men came at times to Virginia,—reports always of a quiet and unostentatious prosperity. In the winter of 1864 their secret became known, and half the nomadic population of Virginia hurried to the new mines, and puzzled the slow-moving Minnesotians by their bustle and activity. Claims advanced rapidly in price, and the discoverers reaped fortunes. A city rose like an exhalation. Yet I never saw better order than in the earliest days of Helena, though I am afraid that Hangman's Tree could tell some stories of too much haste and injustice in taking the lives of criminals.

The hundred ravines near Helena showed gold, and every one of them was soon claimed from mouth to source. Every night I heard the clattering hoofs of the stampeders for some new gulch, starting in the utmost secrecy to gain the first right for themselves and friends. A trifling hint induces these stampedes. A wink from one old miner to another, and hundreds mounted their horses to seek some inaccessible mountain fissure. The more remote the diggings, so much the greater the excitement. Half the people of Helena lately hurried, in the depth of winter, to diggings on Sun River (where many and many a brave fellow perished in the snows,) to learn that far richer mines had lain unclaimed for months within a stone's throw of their homes. The excitement over quartz lodes rapidly followed; and every spot on the mountains which showed any slight indications of auriferous quartz was claimed by the prospecters. Hardly a third of these can ever prove rich, but here and there is one of great value.

Helena, supported by the trade of the surrounding mines, already rivals Virginia. Perhaps in years to come it may have a larger population and a more reckless enterprise. One hundred and fifty miles north from Helena is Fort Benton, an old fortified post of the American Fur Company, and the head of navigation on the Missouri. Steamers have arrived here in the spring, but the uncertainty of the water will fix the terminus of travel at some point farther down. A town charter for such a terminus was granted to a party of Virginia speculators at the mouth of Maria's River. They called it Ophir, which friend of mine says is a very appropriate name and of poetic origin, being derived from Cowper's line,

"O for a lodge in some vast wilderness!"

On the first visit of the proprietors to their new site, every one of them was murdered and scalped by the Indians.

These regions are held by the Blackfeet, who, with their offshoots, the Bloods, Gros Ventres, and Piegans, are the most formidable Indians of Montana. They are polygamists, being in that respect exceptional among the Indians. But Catlin rather unsentimentally apologizes for this, on the ground that the chiefs are required to give expensive entertainments, in getting up which the labor of a hundred wives is no trifling assistance. Attempts have long been made to civilize and Christianize these savages by the Catholic missions under Father de Smet, and the government has furthered these attempts by establishing a fine farm on Sun River. The chiefs would sometimes be induced to stolidly witness the grain-planting; but Captain Mullan quietly describes all this waste of philanthropy in the words: "I can only regret that the results as yet obtained would not seem commensurate with the endeavors so manfully put forth."

The noble Indians of history and poetry do not exist among the Indians of to-day. You seek in vain for Logan or Pocahontas, for Uncas or Minnehaha. The real Indians are cruel and treacherous, lazy and filthy, crafty and ungrateful. Many of them live upon ants and grasshoppers, and at the best only know enough to preserve in the rudest manner a few of the commonest roots and berries.

These tribes have no history and no growth. They live a mere animal life. Even their few traditions are rude and disgusting enough. I am indebted to Mr. Stuart for a fair example of the Bannack superstitions, from which not even Longfellow could glean any poetry or beauty. Among the caves in the rocks dwells a race of fairy imps, who, with arrow and quiver, kill game upon the mountains, and sing boisterous songs on the cliffs in summer evenings. Whenever an Indian mother leaves her infant, one of these pleasant cannibals devours it straightway, and takes its place, crying piteously. When the poor woman returns and seeks to pacify her child, the little usurper falls ravenously upon her. Fire-arms, knives, and stones are all powerless; and when the screams of the woman bring the men to her help, the destroyer runs away and leaves her in a dying condition. She always dies before morning. When little children play at a distance from camp, these fairies seek to sport among them. Lucky is it for those timid few who, frightened at the long tail, scamper away from the intruder; for, when allowed to mingle in the sport, he suddenly seizes the fairest child, and hurries away to make a dainty meal off him with his little wives in elfin-land. To the Indian men the fairies profess a real friendship; and when they meet one near their dwellings they invite him in and feast him and press him to stay all night. He invariably declines the polite invitation with his thanks, and his regrets that he has killed an elk and must take it home before the wolves can eat it.

Beyond the main chain of the Rocky Mountains are the Deer Lodge and Bitter Root Valleys, celebrated for their great grazing capabilities. I rode through these valleys in June, passing up the Pipestone Creek, whose waters flow into the Missouri, and down the Silver Bow, whose waters flow into the Columbia. At the highest point we could almost see the springs of either river, flowing on the one hand to the Atlantic, on the other to the Pacific. How widely are these children of the same mother separated! Summer sprinkles all the ravines with innumerable wild-flowers, which make a rich carpet even up close to the white line of the snow. I found among them wild varieties of the harebell, larkspur, and sunflower, and many pansies. Upon the Silver Bow Creek is a city of the same name, built in the winter, when it was hoped that spring would prove the richness of its mines. From a distance it looked like a large town; but upon riding in, we found only here and there a straggling inhabitant. Other mines proved richer, and any purchaser can buy its best house for less than the cost of drawing the logs to build it. At Deer Lodge in this valley,—almost equal in extent and fertility to that of the Gallatin,—old Johnny Grant lived for many years a life of patriarchal serenity among his wives and concubines, his flocks and herds. By constant presents of beads and whiskey, and many a warm meal when on the war-path, he had raised himself high in the esteem of the savages, and had a favorite squaw from almost every tribe among his wives. When the Flatheads passed by, no woman appeared at his hearth but a Flathead; when the Blackfeet came, the sole wife of his bosom was a Blackfoot. Thus for many years, almost the only white man in these solitudes, he lived at peace with the natives, a sharer in all their spoils and arbiter in all their quarrels. And when the patriarch was gathered to his fathers, he left cattle on a thousand hills to his son. Young Johnny is a mere repetition of his father. He cannot read or write, and in conversation his nominatives are not always true to his verbs; but he has all the slyness and craftiness of the Indian. I heard that he was immensely disgusted at the white immigration. He acknowledges that his beeves are of greater value, and he has no small admiration for dollars and cents; but he fears that his moral and intellectual standing will suffer.

Passing down the Deer Lodge River,—
"In the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound
Save his own dashings,"—

We came to pass through the mountains, called Hell-Gate by the Flatheads, because through it rode the scalping parties of the Eastern tribes. Beyond is the sunny valley of the Bitter Root. It has long been settled by hardy trappers and hunters, and by comfortable farmers with well-stored barns and granaries and fenced fields. There is a charm about this isolated life, and a freshness and exhilaration about these Daniel Boones, that one meets nowhere else. Many of them are old army officers, men of education, who left the exploring parties to which they were attached to make their homes among the wild allurements of this fascinating valley. It is pleasant to hear their stories of life among the Indians, and their accounts of the strange features of the mountains, their animal life, their flora and minerals. Most of them have squaw wives, and are rearing large families of ugly pappooses, and many have amassed wealth by their long trade with the fur companies. The great Hudson's Bay Company has for many years had a station in this valley, and drawn from it large quantities of costly furs and skins. Here and farther west is spoken the famous Chinnook jargon, invented by the Company to facilitate its trade with the Indians. It borrows words from the English, from the French, from all the Indian tongues, and works them all into an incongruous combination. It has an entire lack of system or rule, but is quickly learned, and is designed to express only the simplest ideas. The powerful influence of the Company introduced it everywhere, and it was found of indispensable utility. Ardent Oregonians are said to woo their coy maidens in its unpronounceable gutturals. The white man is called "Boston" in this tongue, because the first whites whom the Oregon Indians met came in a Boston ship.

The best Indians of the mountains dwell in this valley,—the Flatheads and Pend' d'Oreilles. Many of them are devoted Catholics, but liable at times to lapse into intoxication. The Jesuits have a thriving mission among them, with a neat church, whose clear ringing bell sounds strangely enough in the mountain recesses. The strict asceticism of the fathers, their careful nursing of the sick and wounded, and their cordial co-operation in all objects of philanthropy, have enabled them to wield an immense influence among the Indians. The white miners also, who have often lain sick or frost-bitten in their hospitals, except these zealous priests in their too common sneers at religion. Captain Mullan quite reflects the universal sentiment when he says: "The only good that I have ever seen effected among these people [the Indians] has been due to the exertions of these Catholic missionaries."

I have hurried over the points of interest in the early days of Montana. But any picture of its shifting life can only be a view of one of the combinations of the kaleidoscope. The discovery of new mines, and the abandonment of old ones, the fresh advent of gold-seekers and the exodus of the winners of fortunes, the increase of facilities for travel and of all the comforts of life, are daily and perceptibly working out new combinations. But while welcoming all changes tending towards refinement and a higher civilization, the careful observer of the life of these remote people can point to some qualities among them which he would have unchangeable as their grand old mountains,—their frankness and honesty of purpose, their love of justice, and their sturdy democracy.

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