Saturday, February 01, 2014


It happened sometime between 1884 and 1897.  This little story is about “Major George I. Steell” (b. 1837, d. 1916), Hiram Upham, Joe Kipp, a man named Barron, and Robare, the town “too wicked to persist.” It is entwined with the beginnings of the irrigation system that feeds from Birch Creek on the reservation out across Pondera County.

Robare was a little settlement just south of Birch Creek as it emerges from the Birch Creek Flats.  You can see a sign pointing to its original location just west of Highway 89 as you approach the Birch Creek bridge from the south, but the last remnants of it were washed away by the ’64 flood.  Formed by the reservation boundary that was Birch Creek and the policies of Methodist Indian Agents who wanted neither liquor nor Catholic missions on the reservation, it therefore featured both church and tavern, side by side, each with its own kind of spirits. 

"Major George I. Steell"

Steele had actually been the Indian agent, twice but briefly both times, declaring he would clean out this nest of thieves.  He was a strong Republican and in those days, as now, tried to present themselves as virtuous.  Yet he knew Robare well enough to make deals in the bar, “Deadwood” style.  He owed his status to T.C. Power and George Bird Grinnell who drew on Back East liberal intellectuals with political connections but little real knowledge of Indians.  Grinnell was not above either whitewash or blackening as suited what he thought were the right goals.

Steell’s English mother and Scots father immigrated to Quebec where Steell was born and raised.  Looking for his life, he went from New York to Boston, to St. Louis, and up the Missouri to Fort Benton in 1857.  For seven years he worked for the American Fur Company in Helena.  Then for Matthew Carroll in Fort Benton, where he and Carroll were what Jack Holterman, historian, calls “merchant princes.”  That is, they were linked to C.A. Broadwater and T.C. Power who dominated both wagon trains and politics.  He was one of the first commissioners of Choteau County.  In 1869 he went back to Ticonderoga, NY, and married Eva Treadway, a sign that he was secure enough to want to start a family, but within months of reaching Montana, she died.

Steele (who evidently had no military status or service) went to Salt Lake City for a few years, then returned to ranch in 1875 on the Sun River and the Missouri.  In May of 1877 he married Annie Dias, a Blackfeet.  (Other places her name is given as Last Calf.)  This is probably how he acquired a ranch in the foothills above what became Swift Dam.  That year he served in the territorial legislature and also in 1879.  In 1884 he participated in the constitutional convention and in 1890 he was appointed agent of the Blackfeet.  By then his ranch had moved downstream along Birch Creek to near Dupuyer. 

The controversies of Steele’s time included the usual mingled assets and corruption by suppliers, the Great Northern Railroad’s constant “taking” of timber, hay, and right-of-way, the scandalous Willow Creek School, rumors of mineral riches in the mountains, and alcohol.  But these headaches, which became literal, he treated with morphine to the point where the agency doctor said he was incoherent most of the time and he would only talk to the Indians through a little peekhole he cut in his door.

His friend J. W. Schultz also had back pains which he eased with “grass” as well as morphine.  Schultz said that once the two of them played Ouija with prospector Dutch Louie Meyer and made the Ouija board tell Meyer where there was gold in the mountains.  There was, but not much.  In this way they discovered how good the gold strike was without investing money or effort.  A more exciting story by Schultz is that Steell, called “Puhpoom” or Thunder because of his temper, had a powerful black stallion that was stolen.  Schultz cleverly and heroically stole it back.

Steell, like Grinnell, felt that the tribe should sell “the east half of the Rockies” to the government.  Hill proposed moving the tribe to Dakota.  The east slope and the rez were both in the crosshairs of Republicans v. Democrats; fur and whiskey trading vs. livestock and grain ag; respectability vs. opportunism -- all pushed hard by the industrial revolution with its drive for cross-continental railroads and hunger for copper.

In 1897 Steell's agent career ended, after an interlude during which a harsh reforming Army captain tried to stamp out Blackfeet culture.  All through this time Steell was friends with Joe Kipp (who was always everywhere) and the two of them took a delegation of “chiefs” to Washington, D.C.  Then the collaborators -- with two other prominent citizens, Barron (possibly an ancestor of a Valier sheriff) and Hiram Upham (patriarch of a talented family) --were in the habit of gathering in a Robare bar to speculate and do a little trading, though Steell had a reputation as a despiser of alcohol, of which he had little need since he was a drug user.  In the bar the movers and shakers dabbled in water rights, that other dangerous liquid.

Joe Kipp sold some land and his water rights to Anna M. Steell, George’s wife.  She operated her place, which included the Carroll homestead, until 1905 when she sold it to the Conrad Irrigation Company, a predecessor of the PCCRC.  Interviewed old-timers said Anna irrigated it for timothy hay.  A photo of her ditch taken in 1919 shows Swift Dam with the ditch intake for Anna’s place.  It appears that she and George ran separate cattle herds on the rez, but that Anna’s cows were herded by Indian Agency employees.  Grazing vs. plowing was another dynamic but both needed irrigation.

In the time period around WWI -- 1909 to 1925 -- settlers and immigrants were coming and going.  Some seriously underestimated their ability to take root and thrive.  The CIC went broke, and so did its successors.  The irrigation works fell into disrepair until the next surge of settlement after WWII.  Edgar J. Steell, George’s son, testified that the original Steell ranch was “up at the mountains” and then moved 15 miles downstream from Swift Dam in 1898.  The ditch took water to Sheep Creek, then from that stream to Dupuyer Creek, and then to the Conrad holdings.  Thus PRCCR claims those water rights.

A law called “The Statute of Frauds” allows for a settler on public lands to sell land and water rights to someone who immediately moves there and uses them, making the deal orally without written record -- just a handshake.  But the squatter needs to have made improvements like fences and buildings.  Kipp, Barron and Upham were not improvers of land.  But they did “take out” (dig) a ditch in 1884 to irrigate on Birch Creek Flats, perhaps thinking of reselling the water.  In the 1892 survey, the surveyor Paul Bickel called it “the Kipp and Upham Ditch” and reported gardens and crops growing there.  Anna M. Steell and Raphael Moran acquired the water rights in a written document, properly recorded and dated in 1897.  A neighbor and relative to Steell by marriage, Charles P. Thomas, testified that the ditch was taken out in 1873 and used for irrigation every summer afterwards, but then it fell into disuse until Lewis Carroll’s father redeveloped the area in the 1940’s.

R. to L.:  Heart Butte, Feather Woman Mountain, Major Steell's Backbone Mountain.  Truly.

The mix of opinion, bar deals, written registration, use and development, unreliable witnesses, Indian rights and female ownership reveals the unstable legality of the headwaters of Birch Creek.  It’s tempting to bring another Lewis Carroll’s book, “Alice in Wonderland,” into this story.  But I keep thinking of the modern parallels, with Cut Bank dives taking the place of Robare saloons.

(Sources for this post include the Michael F. Foley Indian Claims Commission Docket Number 279-D and a far rosier account at


northern nick said...

. . . thanks for this story. You've got quite the way of making sense of a complex telling. You mention a Moran (Morin). Any inclusion of the Salois, Racine, Bushie, LaRance, and other Michifs in the mix -- all living in the neighborhood at the time?

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

None of the names you mention show up in the lawsuits or other documents I looked at. In fact, I suspect this is closely related to both the Michif population and the Badger/Two Med ceded strip. Grinnell's name pops up an awful lot.

Prairie Mary