Saturday, November 14, 2015


Fort Benton, Montana

I suppose I won’t closely review every chapter in “Whoop-Up Country” but it has enough thoughtful detail that a person of more current theories can find it useful to reflect on this Fifties material.  The chapter called “Chicago of the Plains” is a good example.  If you’ve ever been to Fort Benton, you’ll realize that it’s an hour’s drive (in a modern car) out onto the grain flats of Montana until you unexpectedly come to a valley created by the farthest reaches of the Missouri-Mississippi headwaters.  It was this system, reaching all the way down to New Orleans, that made the citizens have fantasies of becoming Chicago.

In fact, it was a landing platform made of gumbo whose front street along a “fort” not intended for war (much of it was adobe) had been stripped of trees by the need for firewood.  It was the Blackfeet agency (constantly contentious until it was moved north), a center for Fenian plotting, and a boomtown made of wood that easily burned.  It was racist against Indians, Chinese and African-Americans.   When the “fort” aspect was abandoned and the land, which was adjacent, offered for homesteading, people were so avid for land that they forgot to survey streets and so alert to defend their boundaries that they built fences everywhere, so that it was a puzzle to get around from one building to another.  But the townspeople remember those days with nostalgia and include many historians.

Commodities out, coal or grain back to town.

Sharp is interesting on the subject of religion.  Most people think of it as missionary work, which is fair enough, and split into two camps: protestant and Catholic, united by their belief that Indians would appreciate missionary work because it was the key to civilization.  They forgot that the Indians already considered themselves civilized on their own terms and that religious notions from European villages weren’t helpful on the open prairie.  But Sharp does realize -- as many do not -- that life on the trail is so different from small-town life that once adjusted to one (small town churches with music and steeples) or the other (nights sleeping under a wagon, days struggling with the land and animals) a person was restless in the alternative.  The trade-off was security and social relationships versus freedom and an emotional connection with existence.  

Demographics of “kind,” status and identification, probably had less importance that the simple population numbers.  Living someplace with few people is quite different from clustering, whether it is Fort Benton or Chicago.  In fact, big cities usually form internal neighborhoods about the size of a small town.  The government back east had no consciousness of this kind of thing, so their idea about religion is to “make the Indians be like us.”  Therefore, they wanted churches.  And denominations.  The Catholics, controlled from Rome, evaded these ideas, but the government thought the Methodists, among others, might be the solution to “primitive savages” and corrupt agency employees.  They turned out to be just as corrupt as anyone else.

Charlie Russell's version of Brother Van.
I don't know how much fantasy or teasing was involved.

Brother Van (1848-1919), a robust Methodist clergyman with a wonderful singing voice (I wish there were recordings!) arrived in Fort Benton on a steamboat, crossed the gumbo front street  that added fifty pounds to each foot, walked into the closest drinking establishment (a close relationship between spirits and The Spirit), and began to organize a church service.  It was very welcome.  Encouraged, Brother Van extended his message and methods to the indigenous people.  That didn’t work out and he soon declared that the whites needed religion, especially moral guidance, more than the tribes did.  From then on he worked the small towns and the trails between them.  He hitched rides, slept with the families, ate at their tables, and preached in their churches.  

My favorite Brother Van story is an episode where he walked into a town and found it seemingly deserted.  He’d been singing as he went and continued to do so.  As he entered the dusty streets, the townspeople -- hiding on roofs and behind barrels -- gradually realized who he was.  They had been notified by telegraph that a murderer was headed their way and they should prepare.  The sound of familiar hymns was a huge relief and Brother Van ate well that night.

Dendermonde city hall

Father DeSmet (1801-1873) was an earlier Jesuit missionary.  He was born in Dendermonde, now in Belgium.   In 1821 he came as a novice to establish a school in Maryland.  Between 1833 and 1837 he was back in Belgium recovering his health.  When he returned to the US, he helped to map the whole Upper Midwest, which noted the locations of the Native Americans villages.  Those tribes had true towns because they were based on agriculture and trade rather than hunting buffalo, so his ideas about gathering all indigenous peoples in villages were not unreasonable against that background.  He just didn’t understand life on the trail could be religious, even though he was actually a “man of the trail,” shaped by the experience.  In the end he died in St. Louis.  It would not be too far wrong to characterize Fort Benton as the “St. Louis of the Plains,” a trading post town, a point of debouchement in a wide unknown world, an intermodal hub between water and land travel.

No matter, the Catholic love of material symbols and complex mythic systems fit much better with the Blackfeet love of necessarily portable religious objects, though they understood them in a near medieval way, a form of magic efficacious in hunting and war.  It was a complication that first contact with Jesuits came from the Flathead Valley rival tribes in a fertile place where crops could thrive.  The other similarity to medieval religion was the importance of seasonal festivals that brought everyone together to reinforce ceremonies of unity.  

Dendermonde, DeSmet’s hometown, also began as a fort, eventually chartered as a town in 1233.  The economic foundation was making cloth, probably because of water wheels on the river that would power factories.  The fortunes of the town included many invasions and treaties, the worst being the destruction from WWI.  DeSmet was particularly helpful in persuading Sitting Bull to consider a treaty.  [Totally irrelevant is the 2009 event of an insane 20-year-old man who stabbed to death little children in a nursery in a wild attack, except that when one googles Dendermonde, the story is retold and retold.  I am writing this the day after the Paris atrocity.]

Father DeSmet

DeSmet was not of the religious kind to oppress and punish anyone.  He tells in his diary about befriending two feral dogs, one of them half-coyote, and taking them food.  He says that if he took his gun out to walk on the prairie, presumably hunting, the dogs would go with him.  Then one day a wolfer left poisoned meat where DeSmet had left food and the dogs died in agony.  I suspect the thought occurred to him that wolfers were the Devil’s disguise.  But what tortured him was the idea that if he hadn’t accustomed the dogs to him leaving food in a certain place, it wouldn’t have been so easy for the wolfer to do his evil work.

These two men were very different, one (Brother) the hearty American Methodist guest in the white towns, and the other (Father) the international mapper and generous observer on the trail, but that’s the main thing about the settling of the West -- it took many kinds of people.  If they weren’t dedicated and tough, they didn’t last long.  At least this is the story they tell now.
Father DeSmet died in St. Louis.  Brother Van is buried in Helena.  Neither married.  Ellen Baumler tells the story of Brother Van's broken heart.   Whether it is a cover for something else has never been considered.

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