“Splendid on a Large Scale: The Writings of Hans Peter Gyllembourg Koch, Montana Territory, 1869 - 1874,” edited by Kim Allen Scott, joins two other first hand and in-the-moment accounts of early Montana life, each of them unique. “Montana, 1911: A Professor and his Wife among the Blackfeet,” edited by Mary Eggermont- Molenaar, and “Letters from the Rocky Mountain Indian Missions,” edited by Robert Bigart, required translation as well as editing. The 1870’s letters of Father Philip Rappagliosi’s were originally in Italian or German and the diary of Wilhelmina Maria Uhlenbek-Melchior was translated from the Dutch. Koch, of Danish descent, was writing in English.
These were early white/Euro contact accounts rather than American Easterners coming West. Professor Uhlenbeck and Father Rappagliosi were on the scene specifically to explore or convert the indigenous peoples. Koch, raised in Denmark, had followed the Mississippi River north to make his fortune so as to bring his bride up from the fever-ridden marshes of southern Mississippi. Believing at first that with determination and applied talents he could accomplish this goal in a few years, it turned out to require six years of struggle and setbacks before he could bring her to him. Their hardship turns out to be our gift as he pours his heart out in letter after letter to her. Tenacious planning, huge physical effort, and a clear goal finally developed into a key role in the development of Bozeman, Montana, and the eventual university there.
Serendipituosly, I’ve just begun reading Simon Schama’s book, “Landscape and Memory,” which is an excellent lens for understanding what drives Peter Koch. He begins with a discussion of a concept that arose in Europe under several names: landschaft (German) -- landschap (Dutch) -- landskip (English) -- parerga (Italian). It translates to something like homestead or home place, the place that a family has made its own with a comfortable house, a charming yard, a productive garden, an orchard, a wood lot, pastures and -- on the prairie -- a wind break. My grandparents established such places over and over. It is at the heart of what this village of Valier wants to be -- maybe without the barns for livestock. Koch often describes this ideal home.
C. S. Lewis spoke of the enormous power of this figure (Schama offers examples from art) when juxtaposed against mighty nature, saying that one of the intense moments of sensing the “sublime” for him was when the train on which he traveled came around a bend just at evening and he saw a small farmstead nestled at the bottom of a majestic mountain. It is a figure at the heart of my own life partly because of displacement: my welcoming and sheltering farm was that of my aunt. My parents left the rural life to make their fortunes just as Peter Koch did, though their migration was much shorter. The pull of rural home memories stayed with them throughout their lives in Portland, OR, and guided me to reservation small town Montana.
Another aspect of my sympathy with Peter Koch is books, which traveled with him until he had his homeplace and then settled onto his shelves to become a major library, even as he helped create and support a community library in Bozeman. Comfort, guidance, strength and know-how all had their roots in books for Peter Koch. Though he complained bitterly if work kept him indoors in his early years and he excelled at the arduous task of frontier surveying, carrying the rod up and down coulees and through brush, in his later years he was much content to stay in his own library, studying and writing.
Since he had lost his mother in childhood, he adopted Laurentze’s mother as his own. Laurentze, his patient betrothed, exchanged ideas, papers, and flowers in their letters. Peter was a friend to women, sharing interests and extending protection to them in a place where there were few comforts and many losses, especially children. This in return brought him sympathy, insights and help with local matters.
But his real focus was the constant effort to get ahead, to make a fortune, to establish a reputation as a skilled and dependable worker. He taught himself law, passed the bar, and finally began to achieve a little prosperity as a banker. Things happened fast and loose in those days and were always full of risk. People were hasty and cut corners, for instance when two alleged murderers were not tried in a timely manner, so vigilantes simply broke into the jail and lynched them. Then those sympathetic to the murderers lynched the chief witness against them, a “chinawoman.” Peter had a not-entirely-comfortable relationship with the powerful Nelson Story who redeemed himself after Peter’s death by providing for Laurie’s comfort. Peter died in 1917, aged 73, in Pasadena, CA.
Blackfeet reading this material will be interested in Koch’s view of Major Baker, the drunken perpetrator of the so-called “Baker Massacre.” Koch was working for the man at the time and scorned him as a resentful and incompetent fool. Later near Billings Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull caught Baker and company hung-over after a night of drinking and gambling, and administered a rebuke. Koch expected Baker to be cashiered. He was hardly disinterested. Baker had intended to fire Koch earlier, which would have been disastrous for the hard-working Dane. Somehow Baker lost his intention. Koch had influential friends.
Though it might be more romantic to consider the open range of the American prairie frontier, in fact the establishment of towns and the creation of transportation among them is the real essence of development. Though the mighty empires of prominent men are normally the subjects of books, it is the quiet families that ultimately support economic systems and educational development. Though the massacres and battles preoccupy some, it is the conscientious recording of transactions and the careful surveying of boundaries that are the foundation of whatever happens in the end.
Somehow Peter Koch knew this as he alternated cutting logs for stockades with pursuing botanical knowledge in his library. It’s the tension and interchange between the physical and the mental that made him so vital. As for the emotional, one should consult his fond letters to Laurie, or perhaps the opinion of the present Peter Koch, his great-grandson and curator of the family heritage. Today’s Peter has reverse-migrated to Berkeley where he is the owner of a distinguished letter press business, but the book of Peter’s letters was published from Montana through the cooperation of the Drumlummon Institute and Bedrock Editions.