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
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
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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