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On Western Trails in the Early Seventies
Chapter XXXIII
At Fort Benton—Steamer comes up the river--Strange scenes on landing—First sight of a silk hat—Start for Sun River Settlement.


When we reached this frontier town, in the early summer of 1875, we found everybody waiting for the arrival of the first steamer of the season. Couriers had brought word of a boat having been seen steadily stemming the current away below, and when we made our entry all eyes were watching the distant bend, around which this communicating link between civilization and barbarism would appear. This was now past the middle of May, and it was early in September when the last boat disappeared behind the same bend, and merchants and people and hearts and homes were now on the qui vive for the first sight of another. How well I remember standing beside a mother, the wife of a rancher, who was there that morning, hoping to meet her two children, from whom she had been parted for some years. The boy and girl had been away at a far-distant school. The mother had lived on the lonely ranch. Her dear ones might be on this first boat. She was not sure. She laughed, she sang, she cried.

Presently there came a shout, and, sure enough, there was the wheel-house, and later, a smokestack of the big river steamer, whose monstrous superstructure now slowly came in sight. It would take an hour or more for her to make the landing and throw out her big gang-plank; but this mother had already run down to the water's edge, and now she was coming back. She was so tremendously excited she could not wait in quiet, and I found myself hoping strongly with her that her children would be among the passengers of this first boat of the season.

Scores of wild and hardened men took note of that mother's agitation, and we all hoped with her, and the crowd shouted when the mother, as the steamer drew near, recognizing her loved ones, cried out through her tears, "There they are; there they are. Thank God!" I fully believe we all were thankful and rejoiced with this pioneer mother. We had with us men and boys who had never seen a steamer. Their people throughout all the ages had never beheld this sight—this big, moving village, the clouds of smoke, the hissing steam of the high- pressure engines, the shrill scream of the loud whistle.

My, my, what a sight, what strange sounds!

It was a study to watch these men, as, with bulging eyes, they were now beholding a new world. And to us who, though familiar with steamboats and railroads, had but seldom seen them for some years past, to stand once more in touch with all this, to come, as we had just now, out of the big wilderness and intense isolation, and here again to feel ourselves akin to all humanity, surely we were also stirred. St. Louis and Fort Benton were three thousand miles apart by river navigation, but the awakening of men and the discovery of steam- power had bridged across the currents and around the bars and weary distances, had cut out the dugout and canoe and small hand-manned boat, and here we were, with the products of the far East landed in a good water season from St. Louis to Fort Benton at the rate of three cents per pound.

The overland rate from Fort Garry to Edmonton was ten cents a pound, and the loss by wear and tear very much larger. Great is steam and great is mind! Here we have ocean and river and magnificent world, and when we are permitted to behold all these in conjunction, we must concede, "Great is God." In Fort Benton, on the headwaters of the long Missouri, during the hours of that lovely summer's day in 1875, very few men thought of God. They took His name on their lips. On every hand this was done. One could not get out of the sound of blasphemy. But to think rationally of God—here was no evidence of this.

I well remember the hush for a few minutes caused by the appearance of a gentlemanly-looking Easterner, who suddenly came down the gangway wearing a tall silk hat. Very many of the white men and Indians and mixed-bloods present had never seen such a hat on a white man, and all of us had not seen this for many years; but now, behold, here he came, fully arrayed in a long Albert coat and a tall silk hat. Merchants stood, and teamsters looked, and natives wondered.

Was this the President of the United States?

One of our men, with a hush in his voice, said to me, "John, what great chief is that?" I confessed I did not know; and yet, perfectly unconscious of the effect of his wonderful hat, this man came on shore and moved up the bank; and behold, Benton stood the shock, and again men breathed, and wheels turned, and oaths came free and full, and another boat hove in sight, and we traded and bartered and loaded up our carts and wagons and prepared for our long and dangerous journey back to our mountain home.

My brother and his wife went down the river by the return of the first boat, my sister-in-law to spend the year and more in Eastern Canada, and David to outfit anew and return from Fort Garry or Winnipeg across the plains to the mountains.

In the meanwhile, he left all his interest in this trip and at home with his brother-in-law, Mr. Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., who, coming as a strong, growing lad to Manitoba in 1869, had thoroughly westernized and was a first-class pioneer and a splendid fellow. "Kenny," as we called him, could always be depended upon to be found in his place, and fitting.

Going south, we had with us Sam Livingstone and his outfit, but for the return journey, Sam not being ready, we left him in camp near Fort Benton, and the McDougall outfit, as we were termed, made up our party. Each of us had bought a string team, and it fell upon Kenny and myself to drive these. For us, and for our Northern modes of transport, these were an innovation. The method was to have two or three wagons coupled together, and from eight to sixteen horses or mules hitched to the lead wagon. The driver rode the nigh wheeler, and drove by a single rein, which was attached to the bit of the nigh leader, which, in turn, had a small rod snapped from his mouth to that of his mate, so that when the nigh horse or mule turned, the mate must do likewise. There was a long strap from the strong shank of the brake handle, reaching loosely to the saddle of the driver.

Before we left Benton I came up against a typical Westerner, who had ridden to town from somewhere, and was now well on in whiskey, and who was so "eternally glad" to come across his "old friend, John," that he pulled me into a saloon, and, before I could interfere, had called for the drinks. However, as I would neither drink nor smoke, he was becoming mad, when just then I caught sight of an apple up on the shelf between the decanters. I said I would gladly take the apple and eat it while he drank the whiskey and smoked the cigars. The bartender did not want to sell the apple, but my friend grabbed his revolver and told him to pass it down, which he did. Then I thought of my wife, who had not seen an apple since she left the East, and when we were ready to start, I went to this same saloon, and by paying handsomely, secured seven apples, which I carefully packed and put away in my wagon, hoping to bring these home to my wife in due time.

This time we concluded to return by way of the upper trail, along the mountains and foothills. This would take us to Sun River Settlement and within sight of Fort Shaw. It was now in June, and summer was clothing the prairies with wealth of grass and richness of color. Man had placed strong poles along this route between Fort Benton and on to the mountain town of Helena, and had stretched heavy wire thereon to carry his messages to and fro; but the countless herds of buffalo had knocked these poles down, and broken the wire, and scattered it over the prairie. As we travelled we saw constant evidence of this.


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