Indian and White
In the History of the Northwest
By Holice and Pam
Extra special thanks to Holice B. Young for transcribing this book. The excellent work she does continues to help many researchers! Thanks also, to Pam Rietsch, for sharing her books with genealogists!
FIRST GRIST MILL
AND FIRST SAW MILL IN MONTANA--DANGERS
Returning to the local history of the Flat Head Mission, we regret to have to chronicle a melancholy event, the untimely and sudden death of Father Peter Zerbinatti, which occurred early in the fall of 1845, and which filled with grief his confréres and every member of that new Christian community.
As previously related, Father Zerbinatti came to the Rocky Mountains in the summer of 1844, a little over a year before his untimely death. He was assigned to St. Mary's as companion and assistant to Father Mengarini and applied himself assiduously to the study of the Indian language, in which he soon became proficient. One day, September 15, not feeling quite well, he went to bathe his feet in the river close by. whether he was seized by apoplexy is not known. Being missed, a brief search revealed the cause of his absence; he was found lifeless, with his feet in the water, and holding fast with his hands to the limb of a tree projecting over the bank. His death was a sad and serious loss for the Mission.
Father Peter Zebinatti was the first priest to die in Montana and his remains were buried at St. Mary's, where they reposed some twenty-nine years. With the help of some Indians, who had assisted at the father's funeral and asserted that they knew
the exact spot of his grave, the body was then exhumed by Fathers Giorda and Van Gorp and brought to St. Ignatius.
But as no indication was ever discovered by which it could be ascertained that the remains removed were really those of Father Zerbinatti, their identity has ever been a matter of doubt, even in the minds of the two Fathers who had disinterred and brought them to St. Ignatius.
The writer himself buried those very remains some nine years after, placing them in the same grace with the body of Father Joseph Specht, the same day that the latter was laid to rest, June 19, 1884. They had been lying in a corner of the sacristy, apparently forgotten.
The death of Father Zerbinatti brought to Montana Father Ravalli, who was at this time on duty among the Colville Indians. Directed by the Superior to take the former's place as assistant to Father Mengarini, he arrived at St. Mary's late in the fall of the same year, 1845.
As we have seen, they had wheat at the Mission for some time, but not flour, at least, not for domestic use. What little they had was imported once a year from Vancouver, or Fort Colville, and almost Exclusively for altar purposes. More than once there had not been enough of the article to supply the missionaries with altar bread the year around. as to "the thing" made at the Mission by Passing the grain through a coffee-mill, it was not even a decent substitute. Hence, up to this time, the wheat had to be boiled or roasted.
It was not long, however, before flour and bread became realities and associated ideas with wheat and wheat-raising even among the Flat Heads in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains. On leaving Antwerp for the Indian Mission in North America, Father Ravalli had been presented by Mr. McCoy, a merchant of that city, with a set of small burhstones, some twelve inches in diameter or thereabout. Accepting the gift, he took the stones with him to St. Xavier's, on the Willamette, Oregon, where he was to land, and thence, packed on the back of a horse, they were transported, sometime after, to St. Mary's among the Flat Head. Ingenuity, mechanical skill and hard work did the rest. Through the persistent efforts of Father
Ravalli, the two brothers and a French Canadian, a miniature milling plant, the first grist mill in Montana, was constructed, where the tiny buhrstones, made to run by water power, were turning out excellent flour, though the amount was barely sufficient in the beginning to supply that small Indian community.
The stones can be seen, among other mementos of the early history of the state, in the Capital Museum at Helena.
Necessity s always been the mother of invention, and so the first saw mill in Montana was constructed by the Jesuit Fathers here at St. Mary's. It was, however, a most primitive affair, to work the saw. A fifth tire, flattened out and hardened into a steel blade by dint of hammering, and then toothed by means of a cold chisel and long filing, made the saw. A sledge hammer from melted tin cans was also a curious ad useful piece of work of Brother Joseph Specht; while Father Ravalli, by means of a miniature still of his own making could extract a good alcohol for medicinal purposes from the camas root.
The Fathers' manner of living at St. Mary's was in the main like that of the natives, their fare consisting of dried buffalo meat and its tallow, of game, roots, and berries. When the missionaries first arrived among them, the Indians brought
Them some seventy bales of buffalo meat, each bale weighing close to eighty pounds. Beginning with the spring of 1842 they were able to plant a garden and raise a variety of vegetables such as carrots, onions, lettuce, beans. Fish they had in abundance from the river close by, whole clear waters were then alive with mountain trout.
But while food was not wanting, isolation and dangers made the Fathers' life very trying. When we state that the order recalling Father Point to the Mission of Upper Canada, issued from France in 1844, took three long years to reach him, an idea may be had of the difficulty of communications, in those days, as well as of the isolation of our missionaries. Scarcely once a year did they hear from the outside world; and this only at the cost of along journey to the lower country, when they went to Vancouver for their annual supply of altar wine and other provisions. Nor were they always sure of safety either in going or coming, as the Indians, whom they took along or sent to fetch the supplies, were attacked by hostile bands and robbed of all they carried twice within five years.
The Mission itself was not secure, it being often menaced by he enemies of the Flat Heads, especially at the hunting seasons, when most of the men of the tribe would be away in the buffalo country. At times, even as much as to venture out of the stockade which they had built for their protection, was unsafe, as the missionaries were in danger of being shot at by some Bannack or Blackfoot Indian prowling about or lurking in the brush. The environs of the Mission were covered with thick underbrush, and frequently hostile Indians would lie ambushed for days, biding their chance to come out, murder and scalp some Flat Heads, and run away with their ponies. Someone had to stand guard on such occasions, and the man on watch during the night would now and then fire black shots in the air, as a warning to prowlers.
One day some flat Heads discovered in the brush, quite near the residence of the Fathers, a Blackfoot, one of the war party who had come to steal their horses. Laying hold of him, they took him to their camp, after a brief consultation, put him to death. Another Blackfoot, to whom the hospitality and friend ship of the tribe had been extended, happened to be
in the camp at this very time. Becoming alarmed and, afraid for his own life, he now sought to flee, and started out on a run. He was instantly fired upon as a traitor. But, though mortally wounded, he lived long enough to be instructed and baptized at his own request by Father Ravalli, in whose opinion the man's life seemed to have been providentially prolonged, that he might die in the faith.
The killing of these two people, but particularly of the latter who was of great influence with his tribe, could not but incense the Blackfeet nation. Hence the well-grounded fear that they would soon come in force and wreak their vengeance not only on the Flat Heads, but also on the Mission and missionaries. To make matters worse, the Flat Heads had all gone by this time, the latter part of August, to chase the buffalo, and had left behind only one feeble old man, two boys who were staying with the Fathers, and a few old women who had several little children in their keeping. In constant dread of being surprised by their foes, these helpless people would gather every evening within the enclosure for protection during the night.
Early one morning, September 12, a savage yell rent the air, and a large body of Blackfeet were seen advancing toward the stockade. Father Mengarini had gone to St. Paul, Oregon, to consult with the Superior of the Missions, leaving Father Ravalli and Brother Claessens to look after things at St. Mary's. Resigned to their lot and expecting any moment to be slain, both fell on their knees, to meet death in prayer. The suspense did not last long. An invisible power seemed to render the marauders confused and undecided. They whooped and yelled, going round and round the premises, but made no attempt to force their way into the enclosure by scaling or breaking through the palisades. Then all of a sudden and most unexpectedly, they retired into the brush, but not before they had taken the life of one of the boys who were staying with the missionaries. Too eager to known whether they had gone, the youth opened the gate a little to look out. He was seen by the retreating savages who shot him dead on the spot. They left the alley soon after, running off several horses that were grazing around the Mission.
Notwithstanding isolation, privations and dangers, the Fathers kept bravely on in their work of improving the condition of their spiritual wards, whose good will, docility, and affection were all the compensation they sought here below. The result we have seen partially described by Lieut. John Mullan in his official report quoted in a previous chapter. And to quote the same honorable gentleman once more, we are told by him that, "the tribe of Flat heads, among the Indians is a subject of the highest esteem, and all that I have witnessed myself justifies this advantageous opinion." And again, "the heroism of the Flat Heads in battle and their good faith toward others have been the theme of praise both from priest and layman." To the testimony of Lieut. Mullan may be added that of Governor Isaac Stevens, who in his report to the President of the United States speaks as follows of our Flat Heads: "they are the best Indians of the Territory, honest, brave and docile." And again in describing their manner of living, he says of them" "they are sincere and faithful and strongly attached to their religious convictions." These statements were reproduced and endorsed by Mr. Pierce himself in his Annual Message to Congress.
That so favorable a testimony deserved by them in the past, is no less due to them at the present day, became strikingly evident during the Nez Percés outbreak of recent date. It is well known that the rebel band of Joseph sought first to tempt, and then to intimidate the Flat heads into making common cause with them against the whites. But all to no avail; and we shall see further on in our narrative, how the loyal and noble conduct of the Flat head chief, Charlot, and his son, saved the Bitter Root Valley from pillage and bloodshed on that critical occasion.
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