Saturday, October 30, 2010


Before beginning to seriously compose a vernacular history of the 20th century Blackfeet, I’m trying to note the “keynote” to each decade, the same as I noted the “theme” of each generation for my historical sequence of stories called “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” which start with the coming of the horse and proceed up to the present. So this post will not be an organized essay, just a list of ideas as I reflect and begin to sort through my library. I’m relying heavily on the notes I organized in “Blackfeet Paper Trails” which is available as a free download or a low-cost book from If it doesn’t work, contact me at

1900, like 2000, was a year of optimism. There was considerable feeling that things would turn around, that it was a new beginning. With number magic there’s always a bit of self-fulfilling prophesy. The “whiskey” traffic was dying down and the railroad was coming. James Willard Schultz and Joe Kipp were acting as guides into Glacier Park which was visited by the same people in the same spirit as went on safari to Africa or India or Hawaii. These people are very focused on England as a source of civilization so they were shaken when Queen Victoria died, beginning the Edwardian Era, which I think of as the Upstairs/Downstairs years.

The first decade, 1900 - 1910, was when the small towns formed both on and off the reservation. Browning developed, beginning in 1894, alongside the final location of the US Indian Agency on Willow Creek’s flood plain, about two miles from the eventual railroad depot. No one knows why. The post office was established in 1900. The Methodist mission was begun by Rev. E.S. Dutcher in 1893.

There was a lot of exploration for minerals, hoping for another Butte, and Altyn began as a mining town, eventually abandoned and covered by Sherburne Lake. What is now East Glacier was then Midvale, originally clustered around the ranger station. Teddy Roosevelt appointed a man named Herrig as the first ranger in the newly created Glacier National Park. This was the location of the flagship lodge.

Much of the infrastructure that in 2010 begins to fail, esp. water and sewage, was first built around this time. A few years earlier Walter McClintock had come for the first time to do a government survey of Glacier Park and he was returning annually with crates of gifts for his adopted family. “The Old North Trail” has many photos that will make this period real. People still lived in canvas lodges and tents as well as log cabins. The traders who worked from forts -- Power, Conrad, Kipp, Weatherwax, Wetzel -- were old men. J. H. Sherburne had built his mercantile store and Thad Scriver came to clerk in it in 1900. Broadwater and Pepin were there as partners. Willits and Scriver started the Browning Merc in 1907. James Willard Schultz, in trouble for poaching, left for California where he wrote his autobiography. He would return later. Charlie Russell was around and as soon as the railroad got to Glacier National Park, there was an influx of fine artists.

Monteath, the new agent, also has a “new policy” which is the old one. Logan, the previous agent, had left collapsing buildings, dry canals, a scandalous school and a failed hay crop. The biggest problem was the constant incursions of the surrounding ranchers who liked to graze their large herds on the reservation. Monteath issued permits and tried to drive off those without permits. When the ranchers left the rez in the fall, they took their cattle AND the rez cattle. In the big to-irrigate or not-to-irrigate vacillation, Monteath claims he wants to make farmers of the Indians so he’s for irrigation. The last recorded smallpox epidemic comes through about this time, though vaccine has been developed.

In 1902 the headline in the Great Falls Tribune reads: “Piegan Indians in Open Revolt.” Monteath threatens to arrest White Calf, whereupon the Indian Police all quit. Little Dog comes to the agency office to say that if Monteath arrests White Calf, Monteath will be bound with ropes and thrown in front of the next train. Enrolled Blackfeet number 2,084 with 50 births and 33 deaths, the first year that the births outnumber the deaths. 10,000 cows with 4,000 calves and 22,000 horses. Mike Connelly is a nearby stockman who ran his cows on the rez. (His descendants joined the tribe through marriage.) This is a flood year and 75% of the seeds wash away.

Monteath says all his troubles are due to Joe Kipp, Maggie Wetzel (who married Joe Kipp) and Horace Clarke. He wants to eject them from the rez. In 1903 White Calf dies. He is usually identified as the last of the hereditary chiefs. (Ray Djuff in Calgary is developing the first biography focused on his family. Someone is also developing a book about the Clarke family. Events are now far enough in the past to be interesting.) Now the first of the formal tribal councils is organized: Joe Kipp, Horace Clarke, and seven older full-bloods. There’s a terrible outbreak of mange among the cattle.

1904 is year the Conrad Investment Company takes hold in Valier and begin to divert water from Birth Creek. They are able to effectively irrigate, a system that persists to this day at considerable profit. This is a drought year. Bookkeeping begins to be a problem: embezzlement is now a factor. Also nepotism, as agents conventionally employed their wives and grown children.

In 1908 C.A. Churchill arrived as agent. His daughter married J.L. Sherburne, the son of J.H. Sherburne. Schemes and accusations abound as the Dawes Act assigns acreage to each Indian and a system of “patenting” makes it possible for an enrolled person who is automatically defined as an “incompetent” to take his allotment out of government trust and own it himself. Many do that, partly reacting to the epithet of “incompetent,” partly because they wanted personal control, and partly because they didn’t really understand what’s going on. As soon as the land was individually owned, it could be taken for debt and since Sherburne Mercantile had extended credit in large amounts to many people, they used this legal strategy. Of course, the land and its profit that was left in trust with the US Government did not fare much better.

In 1910 150 Rocky Boy Chippewa was dumped onto the reservation because they had no place to go. Until a reservation was found for them (a decommissioned fort) the friction between Blackfeet and what were called in shorthand, “Cree,” was a constant problem.

One might call this decade “Civilization and Its Discontents.” I’m relying mostly on the Foley Report, which is the most detailed account I’ve found of these early years. If you feel I’m in error, let me know now while I’m still in a noting and outlining mode. I will appreciate it.


Scott Miller said...

A few months ago I read every book on the Blackfeet my local library had (Colorado Springs), five in all. I remember reading about James Willard Schultz incident with the bighorn sheep ("big heads"). The guy had an idiot for a client, what can you do?

Thanks for blogging!

prairie mary said...

Scott, James Willard Schultz is not held in high regard by Blackfeet.

You might have better luck researching the Blackfeet by using Google, but even so you're likely to run across a lot of nonsense. You'll do better looking for BlackFOOT in Canada, which is the same tribe.

Or Google Rosalyn LaPier and follow up every link on the list. There is no decent account of contemporary Blackfeet, which is why I'm undertaking it.

Prairie Mry