Indian and White
In the History of the Northwest
Part II, Chapter 4
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!
MISSION OF FORT BENTON.
Fort Benton could claim the honor of being the first white settlement in Montana, if the terms "white" and "settlement" could have been properly applied to it from its beginning, for it existed before Hell's Gate and Frenchtown, of which we have just spoken. However, it is not a settlement of whites, neither at its start nor for some years after, but only one of those temporary posts set up for trading purposes and to be abandoned, as many others had been elsewhere, with the falling off of the fur trade. Furthermore, the few whites, or rather, white-skinned Indians, living in the forts were closely related to the Indians by marriage, with the exception of perhaps three or four of the number. Hence our reason for not giving it the first place as a white settlement in Montana.
Fort Benton was established by the American Fur Company in 1846, who named it after Senator Benton from Montana, at the time a leader in national politics. It replaced Fort Louis, erected by the same company near Palboy's Island, a few miles below the new site, two years before.
In the same year, 1846, another company started a rival trading post in the very same locality, naming it Fort Campbell, from the Campbells of St. Louis, who belonged to the new concern. Hence the place became known under both names, and went for some time, now by one, now by the other. This is made evident by the early records of this Mission, where we find it called Fort Benton at one time, and Fort Campbell at another. It appears as Fort Benton up to 1855, becoming Fort Campbell in 1858. Whence it may be inferred that at this date the former had been outstripped by the latter concern. The place becomes again Fort Benton in 1860, and from this on Fort Campbell appears no more in the records.
The rival establishments stood a short distance from each other, one at the upper, and the other at the lower end of the
bottom bordering on the Missouri, and both within the present city limits. Fort Benton was incorporated as a town in 1865, and some time later, it became also the location of a military post, where a few companies of United States troops were quarters for several years.
Fort Benton has seen very prosperous days in the past, it having been in pre-railway times the mart of commerce, the shipping and supply center for the whole upper Missouri country and all the regions in the north. Perhaps nowhere else were ever seen motlier crowds of daubed and feathered Indians, buckskin-arrayed half breed nobility, moccasined trappers, voyageurs gold seekers and bull drivers, all congregating at this point on the opening of the boating season in the palmy days of the town's prosperity.
Nor likely did there ever exist an ungodlier spot then was at this time the hill that overhangs the town on the north side. The amount of profanity vented here by the driver and bull-whacker of early days, was not a whit less than the enormous tonnage carried over that steep. Father Menetrey, in company with our esteemed townsman, Matt Carroll, was riding one day close to a prairie schooner driven by several yoke of cattle and freighted with supplies for the Indian Missions. On nearing the foot of that hallowed spot, the animals seemed to dread the ascent before them, and after a few more sluggish steps, came to a standstill. The cracking of the bull-whacker's whip over their heads, its forceful application to the backs, now of the leaders, now of the wheelers, and of the rest, made little if any impression at all; the cattle would away themselves to and fro awhile without budging an inch. Upon this, Matt Carroll jocosely taunted the driver, saying that the bulls were lazy and no pullers. Stung by the remark, the name came close to Mr. Carroll and whispered into his ear: "Keep the priest back, just one second, please." Mr. Carroll caught the hint at once, and was not slow to devise some excuse for keeping Father Menetrey out of the teamster's way. No sooner did the fellow see the Father beyond earshot than he went at the bulls, not so much with the whip as with his tongue, and spoke to them some cattle talk that seemed well understood of the beasts, and up they went as if they had no load to pull, nor hill to climb.
Matt Carroll had now caught up with the driver, who, with an air of triumph, said to him: "Now, sir, can't they pull? They would not do so before, because I could not speak to them, the priest being too near."
The first white dwellers of Fort Benton were the fur trader, the trapper and voyageur, the two latter being mostly French-Canadians. The occupation of these people was not merely to hunt, trap and run errands for their employers, but also to help boats up stream by the cordelle or tow line, great and constant exertion being often necessary to stem the current in the upper Missouri. Many of these white savages, who borrowed much of their costume from their red-skinned cousins, bore names that were famous in the annals of the wilderness, and the narratives of their exploits would fill entire volumes of most interesting and romantic reading. They were generally, not only on friendly terms with the Indians, but also bound to them by marriage ties. But the glory of these venturesome and daring children of the woods is at this time well nigh extinct, and soon will be no more than a pleasing legend of the forest and inland waters of the American continent.
As we related in the first part of the book, Father N. Point passed at Fort Benton the winter of 1846-47, and was the first priest to dispense the comforts of religion to the few whites of the faith in that trading post just then established. We find no indication of any other priest visiting the place from that date until 1855, when we meet with the Rev. James Croke--in later years the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Cal.--who are this time of our history was a "traveling missionary of the Diocese of Oregon," as he signs himself in the MS. Document before us.
The document is a register in his own hand of a number of baptisms performed by him at Fort Benton, this being the name by which he designates the place. The Rev. J. Croke was there in October, 1855, and baptized seventeen half-breed children, five of them on the 19th, and twelve on the 23rd of October; "whose parents," says the record, "are all Canadians attached to the trading posts." The word "posts" in the plural is understood at once, when it is remembered that at this date there were two.
trading posts in that locality, Fort Benton and Fort Campbell. As the name of the "traveling missionary" appears no more after October 23, it is fair to surmise that he must have left the place soon after.
Whether on this or some other missionary excursion through this wild country we cannot say, but it is related of the Rev. J. Croke, that one day while at some post or station with other travelers, it was whispered around that a priest or Catholic missionary was among the number. An elderly lady, who had never seen a priest in her lifetime, hearing this, became at once very curious to know what a priest looked like. On being introduced to the priest, the backwoods lady directed a searching gaze upon the reverend gentleman, and after she had surveyed and scrutinized him from hear to foot to her entire satisfaction, she returned to her quarters, seemingly much disappointed, and while retreating: "A priest!" she was head to exclaim, "why, that's a man."
Father N. Congiato--at this time the Superior of the Rocky Mountain Missions--visited Fort Benton next, as we find him here September 2, 1858, baptizing four half-breed children. The place is called by him in the register of those baptisms Fort Campbell. The following year, 1859, we find at Fort Benton Father De Smet, who, August 1, gave holy baptism to eight half-breed children and to some Indians also, and on the next day, August 2, married two couples. The contracting parties of the first couple were Clement Cornoyer and Mary Champagne; of the second, J. Morgan and rose Masero, the witnesses in both cases being Col. J. Vaughn, A. Dawson and Francis Cabanna. The latter marriage, however, was found soon after to have been null and a sacrilege, as Morgan had another wife living at the time. This is declared ina note in Father Giorda's own hand appended subsequently tot he record of that attempted marriage.
In the spring of 1860, we meet at Fort Benton with Fathers
A. Hoecken and C. Imoda, and in July again with Father Congiato. Father Imoda was there once more early in the spring of 1861 for a short while. He returned toward the end of October with Father J. Giorda, who on Christmas morning married three couples. Father De Smet visited Fort Benton in the summer of 1862, when, on June 29, he joined in matrimony Malcom Clark and a daughter of Isidore Sandeval, Matthew Carroll and Francis Cabanne being the witnesses.
From the fall of 1861 to the spring of 1866,m Fort Benton was occasionally visited from St. Peter's Mission by Fathers Giorda, Menetrey, and a couple of times also by Father Kuppens, as appears from the baptismal records of that Mission.
July 2, 1867, dawned most mournfully at Fort Benton, and the gloom and sadness that overcast the busy little town in the early hours, quickly spread throughout the whole of Montana and far beyond. General Thomas Francis Meagher, the acting Governor of the territory, July 1, had taken passage on the steamer G. A. Thompson, to go east on official business. He disappeared that night, and no one has seen him since, living or dead. It is certain that in the darkness of the night he was engulfed in the turbid waters of the Missouri, but now the drowning occurred no one has ever heard.
True, very strong suspicions of foul play were at first entertained because of his sudden disappearance. But as not a single shred of evidence has been forthcoming, all this long while to substantiate them, they have been generally dismissed.
The idea that General Meagher might have taken his own life by deliberately throwing himself into the river, is inconceivable. He was a man of deep faith, he had a firm belief in God and a hereafter, and such men do not commit suicide, except they be temporally unbalanced. He was, moreover, a hero, and heroes will face every manner of death but that of the coward who rashly and foolishly ends his own life, to escape what he has not the courage to endure.
General Meagher was seen and spoken to by several of his friends, who accompanied him on board and remained with him up to the moment that the boat made loose. He was then ina
normal and perfectly sound condition of mind and body. Hence, the common belief that General Thomas Francis Meagher came to his death by some fortuitous mishap, the nature of which remains unknown.
The boat had no guard rail; hence a fatal misstep in the darkness of the night could easily have occurred. It is, of course, possible that General Meagher, taken unawares and without the slightest apprehension of danger, may have been pushed overboard by an enemy. But as we have said, there is absolutely no evidence to substantiate this view.
The whole country near and far was shocked beyond expression at the exceedingly sad event, and the untimely loss of the firm believer, staunch patriot, gallant solder, gifted scholar and eloquent orator, was deeply mourned on both sides of the Atlantic, and wheresoever sons and daughters of Erin are to be found.
His obsequies were held at Virginia City, where he resided, and we shall speak of them in the local history of that Mission. Services for the repose of his soul wee held likewise at Helena and also at St. Ignatius. He and Mrs. Meagher had visited the latter place, the Mission's honored guests for several days, only a few months before his death.
Returning to the local narrative of Fort Benton, in the interval between the closing and the reopening of the Mission of St. Peter, that is, from the spring of 1866 to the fall of 1874, the place was attended from Helena by Fathers C. Imoda and L. Van Gorp. After this period, the Fort Benton community began to be visited from St. Peter's, now by Father Imoda, now by Father Rappagliosi, and for a time also by Father J. Guidi.
The first regular services at Fort Benton were held by Father Imoda in 1878, when he began to reside in the place. The first church edifice in that town, the chapel of the Immaculate Conception, was erected by him at this time, 1878-79. Not long after, 1880, Father H. Camp was assigned to this post, and had spiritual charge of the Fort Benton district for about three years.
Desirous of having a Sisters' Community in their midst, the people of the town commenced the erecting of a hospital in 1883, a substantial brick structure, which they completed in 1884, at a cost of some $12,000. It remained, however, unoccupied till
September, 1885, at which date a colony of Sisters of Providence arrived, and opened the new institution under the name and patronage of St. Clare of Mountefalco.
In the meantime, July, 1883, Father Camp had returned to the States, Father Frederick Eberschweiler succeeding him at Fort Benton, and laboring on this field some four years. Between intervals, both before as well as after this period, the Fort Benton community was attended some few times by Father Damiani and some other confreres from St. Peter's.
Father Philibertus Tornielli next took charge of the place, holding it for a couple of years. On his being transferred to the Holy Family Mission, Fort Benton for a time fell to the care of Father Herman Schuler, and other of the Society of Jesus.
Fort Assiniboine, a large military post on Beaver Creek, near Milk River, established in 1879, as well as the settlements of Shonkin, Upper Teton and Highwoods, belong to this missionary district and were attended more or less regularly from Fort Benton. The Catholic population of the entire district in 1888 was reckoned at 800. In 1891, he number had increased to 1,800.
During the last four years, from 1888 to the end of 1891, the baptisms recorded in this church numbered 159, and the marriages 24.
It is perhaps well to state here, as a conclusion of the local history of Fort Benton, though attended from its first beginnings by the Jesuit Fathers, the place, properly speaking, has never been a residence of the Society.
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