Friday, April 12, 2013


Great Falls Tribune, Vol.69, No 357, Sunday, May 6, 1956

Levi Julian Burd, 78, Browning rancher and oilman, died Saturday morning at a Great Falls hospital.

Private funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Monday at the George Co. with Rev. Vernon Hanks officiating.  Cremation will follow.

Burd, a Montana native, had been active until he was hospitalized two weeks ago after suffering a stroke.  He suffered another stroke Thursday night.  Five years ago he underwent brain surgery.

Burd was born Sept. 7, 1877, at Sun River, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Burd.

His father came to Virginia City from Michigan in 1864 in search of gold and stayed to establish a ranching empire that extended from the Sun River north to Canada.

The family later moved to Choteau where Burd, the last survivor of a family of six children, received his education.  He also attended Gonzaga University at Spokane.

At the age of 12, Burd’s father made him a representative in charge of his outfit which joined with wagons and wranglers of other ranches in finding and branding cattle on the range.

These roundup teams would leave Choteau in March and travel to the Sun River, Great Falls and into the Sweetgrass Hills seeking cattle.  They usually ended their job in November.  At that time there were no fences or homestead farms in the region.

Following his father’s death, Burd managed the vast estate.

He married Daisy Francis Wetzel of Fort Benton Dec. 1, 1897, at Holy Family Mission near Browning and the couple ranched in that area until Burd’s death.  They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary here in 1947.

Burd served two terms on the Montana livestock board.  He had been active in promoting the oil industry in Glacier county and managed the Levi Burd Trustee Oil Interests in association with a son-in-law, B.P. McNair.

Survivors include the widow; two daughters, Mrs. Ben P. McNair, formerly of Great Falls, now of Laguna Beach, CA., and Mrs. Dorothy Cassutt, Detroit, and a grandson, Richard Cassutt, Browning rancher.


Levi Burd, who was thirty when the 1907-08 census was taken, married Daisy Wetzel, who was a sister of Pearl Wetzel Hagerty.  Levi Burd and Wright Hagerty were the two richest tribal men on the Blackfeet reservation, worth $100,000 in the Thirties.  They ranched five miles apart along the Milk River.  Both were active in tribal politics, oil development, sheep and cattle.  One of Bob Scriver’s prized possessions was Wright Hagerty’s custom saddle.  It was one of his markers of success.

Levi Burd’s mother, Susan Two Guns, was married three times:  first, to Sam Burd, who was white; then to Anthony Austin; and third to Two Guns Whitecalf “in the custom of the country,” for 35 years.  Her father was Good Medicine.  Her half-sister, Gretchen, (same father) was the wife of David Duvall, the informant for Clarke Wissler, the first anthropologist to seriously study the Blackfeet.  Susan was well-connected.  

In fact, the Burd/Hagerty/Two Guns Whitecalf complex is an excellent illustration of how power and wealth develops in a delineated hybrid group.  There are cross-overs that supply starter investment, a family conviction of superiority and entitlement that lends confidence, lines of private communication between Indian and White as well as among contingents of full-blood, mixed blood, and hardly-any-blood.  Levi Burd was capable of putting on a beaded white buckskin parade outfit plus Sioux eagle-feather bonnet in order to visit Washington, D.C.  But he normally wore a suit appropriate for visiting a bank.  In that guise one might assume he was Mexican or Mediterranean, a stocky man with sturdy features.

His most remarkable alliance has only recently come to light in the process of Joyce Smith sorting her aunt’s papers, which include correspondence with Clare Sheridan, Winston Churchill’s cousin, who was on the Blackfeet Reservation in the summer and fall of 1937.  Officially, Clare was there as an artist and did indeed learn from Hans Reiss how to carve a tree trunk, not into a totem pole, but into a vertical sculpture, often religious.  She also stayed with the family of Gerald Tail Feathers on the Alberta side.  But she spent enough time with Levi Burd that people talked.  Technically, she was staying with Norma Smith, who was teaching in the one-room school house near the Burd ranch.  

Naturally, given Clare’s frank ideas about intimacy and the public suspicion about what rich men do, the idea was that they were having an affair.  But after looking at the references to Levi Burd in Paul C. Rosier’s indispensable book,  “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912-1954,” I suspect that was just a distraction -- sex is always a dependable distraction.  1937 was the early beginnings of WWII.  My premise is that Clare had been asked by Churchill to scout the territory between Alberta and Montana, which has always been a major oil-producing field.  No one understood the oil business better or was more deeply involved than Levi Burd.

Far from being a revenue-generating serendipity that only has to be pumped out of the ground and transported to market, the business of leases, price-setting, governmental regulation, profit-sharing was then-as-now very complex.  Properly handled, there was a lot of profit.  Without some expertise and restraint, the carpet-baggers got most of it.  Old-timer tribal leaders believed that the government was legally obligated to take care of them.  Mixed blood entrepreneurs just wanted the BIA out of the way.  There were times when Burd reached out to protect full-bloods, and other times when Two Guns Whitecalf bowed to the Middle Class mixed bloods.  It’s confusing enough to reconcile participation in mainstream America with the need to retain Blackfeet identity, without figuring out how some of these little surprises happen.  No doubt at least sometimes it was family loyalty, consciousness of a need, creating favors to be called in later.  

There is another reason for Churchill to want to know more about this region.  The Fenians, Irish independents, had a diaspora here descended from fur trading and the Red River metis community.  There must have been worry about how they would react to an English/German conflict since they had such a long history of conflict.  In the end they were neutral, but there would be the possibility of some “monkey-wrench gang” interdicting the access to oil that a nation needs in order to wage war.  Gerald Tail Feathers’ mother was half-Irish.  Clare and Churchill shared another cousin who was landed gentry in Ireland.

Earlier Clare had gone to Moscow to make portraits of the important Communist leaders.  She always insisted that she did not spy and did not go there to spy but simply as a sculptor of busts.  Churchill was very angry with her.  And yet her opinions and observations had to be valuable.

Levi Burd was not a lean and naked young man on a buffalo-running horse, but he was also an important figure in the history of his people as the globe became more connected and therefore more dangerous.  On the rez they call oil “the second buffalo.”  One goes out hunting for it while wearing a suit.


I'm including this in the post instead of as a comment, because I think it is too important to overlook.  It's SO vital to look beyond just Montana.

Dear Mary:

Interesting article on Levi Burd, Clare Sheridan and oil wells.

Regarding your idea that Winston Churchill wanted Clare to scout the region, you may know that the burgeoning Turner Valley oilfield southwest of Calgary so interested Churchill that he visited the region in 1929 while in Calgary for a talk to the local branch of the Canadian Club.

To understand the importance of Turner Valley, note that by 1941 it was providing about one-quarter of all of Canada’s oil needs during the Second World War. Churchill is reported to have said during his 1929 visit: “There are unbounded possibilities both to Alberta and to the British Empire in this valuable oil-bearing structure.”

Churchill is further reported to have bought shares in three oil companies while in Canada. Maybe Churchill was also interested in Montana oil production.

As for any possible dalliance between Levi Burd and Clare Sheridan, I think it would have been unlikely – not impossible, just unlikely. I found an old report about the reservation (1914-15) in which loose morals are a center of discussion. The head of the police was living with a married woman, and it asked how he could enforce the Montana marriage code when he was breaking it himself. There was quite a discussion about native marriage and divorce customs, the citizenship status of natives and whether the rules of white men could apply to natives who weren’t then classified as U.S. citizens.

Given that sort of atmosphere, Burd’s mixed blood status and his rank in the community, it’s more likely he would have stayed clear of any hanky-panky that could have brought him unwanted scrutiny.

Burd had seen what happened to Robert Hamilton, a mixed blood activist on the reservation, and took a lesson from it. I say that based on an investigation in 1915 of Hamilton that I turned up which contains some pretty nasty claims about Hamilton being a cattle thief, forging checks, abandoning his family and the like. Enough that there was a scuffle at the Browning post office involving Hamilton and others in which Hamilton says he was badly manhandled. The affidavits are fascinating reading – a who’s who of Browning and reservation society, including James White CalfDick Sanderville and Wades in the Water.

Burd, who was active in local politics, often opposing Hamilton’s efforts, would have wanted to avoid any situation (like having an affair) that would have compromised his influence and standing in the community.

Ray Djuff

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