Thursday, November 05, 2015


The post is about THIS book.

Not this book

“Whoop-Up Country” is a familiar phrase, appearing on roadside history signs along nearby highways.  But not so many know the sub-title,  “The Canadian-American West, 1865-1885” by Paul F. Sharp, a professor of Western history.  If you look at my chosen “range,” especially now, when the cross-border ecology -- esp. in terms of energy sources -- is more relevant than ever, and yet we confront the same political issues that have made trouble since before the 49th parallel was determined as the border.  In fact, politicians have slammed the border shut again.  I will not be able to cross to Lethbridge (130 miles away and a major city with good shopping and an excellent university) unless I get my passport renewed.

Most histories of the East Slope of the Rockies are either wilderness-focused (most recently) or early-contact conflict tales meant to reassure the present historical society supporters that their ancestors were in the right, or at least on the winning side.  Sharp is not afraid to confront the ambiguity of violence and to include in his accounts the forces from far away.

Some time ago, a friend encouraged me to think about Clare Sheridan, an author, artist and relative-by-marriage to Winston Churchill.  Under the cover of art and romance, this intrepid female had gone to Russia to “case the joint” and befriend major figures by doing busts of them.  Just before WWII she came to Glacier Park, supposedly to work with the art colony run by Winold Reiss.  Indeed, Winold’s brother taught her how to carve logs.  His example portrait of an Indian still stands at the Big Hotel in East Glacier.  But quietly, Clare spent a lot of time with the family of Reiss’ star pupil, Gerald Tailfeathers, who was from Standoff, the Blackfoot reserve in Alberta.  His mother was Irish.  The motive was that WWII was about to begin and Winston wanted to know about the Fenians on the prairie, because to this day they have not given up resistance to England.  They were neutral during that war, but an idea was circulating that if they could capture Canada, possibly with the help of the Metis Red River Nation, they could use that to control England at a time when England was weakened.

Ken Robison, the pre-eminent Montana and Fort Benton historian explains,  “The Fenian Brotherhood was an Irish republican organisation founded in the United States in 1858 by John O'Mahony and Michael Doheny. It was a precursor to Clan na Gael, a sister organisation to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Members were commonly known as "Fenians". O'Mahony, who was a Celtic scholar, named his organisation after the Fianna, the legendary band of Irish warriors led by Fionn mac Cumhaill

All along I’ve been aware of how many Irish were part of Montana, even the horseback statue of Meagher brandishing his sword in front of the state capitol.  Wiki:He was most notable for recruiting and leading the Irish Brigade, and encouraging support among Irish immigrants for the Union.”  I thought it was partly because of the Boston connection (the banks and mining moguls) and partly because Ulstermen tend to cluster on frontiers. But until I read Sharp’s chapter entitled “Massacre at Cypress Hills” I didn’t realize how strongly the international political sentiments entered into Blackfeet life.

The short version of this tale is that it was not a “massacre.” (The Baker massacre, entirely separate, was absolutely a genocidal massacre.)  But it was a precipitating precursor, entangled with Fort Benton where merchandizing tried to both evade and profit from crime.  (Meagher, the first territorial governor of Montana was lost overboard from a boat anchored on the levee and never found again.)  By the time in question, the controlling interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company had pretty much ended with the wiping out of beavers.  Bison hide hunters with new accurate long guns and wolvers with strychnine were roving the land, interfering with the tribes.  The big preoccupation was stealing horses back and forth.  The little obsession was whiskey and all sides craved it.  In a time of short lives and epidemic disease, it was one of the few ways to get a bit of relief.  Even the judicious Clark, like a ship captain, had given out a bit of “grog” as celebration and reward.  

The next influential man in this turmoil is “Colonel John J. Donnelly.

Ken Robison says: Frontier Fort Benton was a town of colorful characters, but they broke the mold with John J. Donnelly. In the span of six decades, Colonel Donnelly fought with distinction through the Civil War, led Irish Fenian Army invasions of Canada, led a civilian army in the Nez Perce War, served as Fenian agitator, Louis Riel advisor, attorney, county clerk and recorder, and probate judge, and was elected Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives.”  

He tried three times to raise a Fenian force to invade Canada, working his way West and finally connecting with Louis Riel.  (I haven’t gotten to the Nez Perce yet, but Vollman’s major work, “The Dying Grass” is beside my reading chair.)  And he was very much involved in the Cypress Hills “massacre,” which was more accurately described as a series of skirmishes, some in unsettled country and some in the unsettled courts of Fort Benton and Alberta.  Much of the latter dynamics had to do with fear of Fenian politics.  It’s complex, largely undocumented, and -- in any case -- I lost my interest in history largely because it was all dates, personalities and military events like these, so  if you like that sort of thing, Ken Robison is your excellent guide.  In this period it’s all swords and horses.  

Robison again:  In 1866 together with many other Irish Civil War veterans Colonel Donnelly joined the Fenian movement to invade Canada to punish the English for their occupation of Ireland. The Fenians dreamed of capturing Canada, forcing the English to free Ireland in exchange for return of Canada. A thousand strong force of Fenian troops took the field in June, 1866, crossed the Niagara River into Ontario, defeated a company of Queen’s Own Rifles of Toronto, and captured Fort Erie. Shortly afterward the Battle of Pigeon Hill practically ended this outbreak. In this battle Col. Donnelly had 200 men in his command, and was able to hold his position from 9 o’clock a. m. until sundown, with 2,300 men opposing him. He had twelve men killed and seventeen wounded, with Donnelly among the wounded. He was captured, but escaped, and a large reward was offered for him.”  In the end he committed suicide.

Canada deployed the mounties about this time and things settled down, comparatively, but the political forces still linger.  When I taught in Cut Bank for those ill-fated few months. there was an Irish citizen high school student who became disgusted with the way I ran the classroom, gathered up his books and stalked out, declaring he came for an education.  I don’t know what the administration did with him, but he got away with one of my best ecological histories of Ireland.  The American rabble was nonplussed.  They came to be athletic heroes and were succeeding rather well.  This student had recently inherited land in Ireland and probably went back there.  He wore the band-collared pin-striped flannel shirts associated with Ireland.

I had not realized how many Irish studies classes are offered in Missoula, but I’m hoping that one of them will revive this material and get a bit more clarity about it while local paper trails and people like Robison, who is retired, still exist accessibly.  Also, it is way past time to realize that the Blackfeet people and land have been part of the story from the beginning.  I’ll keep you posted as I follow the trail that Sharp laid down.

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