Wednesday, November 16, 2016


Grant-Kohrs Ranch

In my pickup in case of having to wait, as when I take my wash to the laundromat, I keep a book that’s suitable for short reads — that is, without a long plot line and a lot of characters to be remembered.  For a while I’ve been packing around Patricia Nell Warren’s anthology, “My West: Personal Writings on the American West: Past, Present and Future.”  The articles were written over decades and appeared in many places, but most of them lead back to the Grant-Kohrs ranch in Deer Lodge, Montana, and through that ranch to the lives of the Grant progenitor, John “Johnny” Francis Grant (1831 - 1907).

Warren (b. 1936) is a high energy woman who grew up on that ranch, spent years in Europe and in California, wrote key books about gays (“Fancy Dancer”, “The Front Runner”,) and the long threads of her own mixed heritage (“One Is the Sun”), and — when publishing collapsed — ran her own publishing house.  I’ve reviewed her books on this blog, but this post is not about her.  “My West” is primarily about the Grant-Kohrs Ranch as she knew it, a remarkable near-colonial mix of European luxury imported by immigrants, and a 10 million acre grassroots ranch now a national historic site.   Compare to the Chateau de Mores   Or the empire of the Conrad Brothers whose ranch included the location of Valier, where I live.

Johnny Grant, was a product of the Hudson’s Bay Company which is to say his father was a white employee with a convent-educated Metis wife, and so was his grandfather and his half-brother, James.  These alliances and many like them created a diaspora nation that cast a web of alliances all across the high prairie on both sides of the 49th parallel.  Not only did they blend the practices of tribal people, mostly Cree and Chippewa, with the pre-Victorian Scots values of order, thrift and profit, they produced generations of genetically sturdy children who could choose their identification from a range of life-styles extending from close-to-the-land old ways to orderly modern towns.  

Eventually, there were enough of them with enough culture in common to try to establish a nation called after their heartland, the Red River country.  The Louis Riel Institute,, is named for their revered leader who was hanged by Canada.  In Canada the Metis are classified with Aboriginal original peoples and have their advantages, but in the US the Metis are only considered tribal if they self-identify as Cree-Chippewa.  

Speaking of Johnny Grant specifically, he was born in Edmonton when it was still a “fort,” raised in Quebec until he was fourteen, then sent by his father to Fort Hall in Idaho and Fort Vancouver in Washington.  In 1861 he created his ranch site in Deer Lodge (“Cottonwood.”)  In 1867 he sold the ranch to Conrad Kohrs (no relation to the Conrad brothers).  His four more or less formal wives produced more than a dozen children, all of which he cared for by making sure they had homes and entitlement to scrip.  The records of these efforts are our main source of information.  He also adopted many children, some of them African-Canadian.  After years of struggle in the birthing of nations, including the boom and bust of land speculation, in 1907 he completed the circle of his life by returning to Edmonton to die.  He was not involved directly in the Red River Rebellion.

The Grant name is still alive on the Blackfeet Rez.  Other names I recognize in Riel Institute account of his life are Delorme, Bruneau, Barnes.  Harry Barnes is the current chair of the Blackfeet Tribal Council. The bio of Johnny’s half-brother, James Cuthbert Grant (b.1836) brings up the names of Cadotte, Red Head, Magee, McKay, Rides-at-the-Door, Chocquette, Higgins (he was involved in the founding of Missoula), and Robare, fondly called the little town too wicked to exist.  It was on the Robare ranch at the edge of the Blackfeet rez that the little town of the same name was established by persons who had been thrown off the reservation by the Methodist agent who had his own ideas, like temperance and anti-Papism.  Thus, a saloon was built adjacent to the Catholic priest’s house.  It was in that saloon that the plans for the original Swift Dam were made.  It was on Major Steele’s Blackfeet wife’s rez allotment.  Steele served two separate terms as the Blackfeet agent.  The last traces of Robare were washed away by the flood of ’65 when Swift Dam broke.  Mrs. Rose Grant, aged 84, wife of Jimmy’s son Richard, was killed along with eight family members.

According to Dorothy Floerchinger’s historical work (Conrad newspaper, Nov 20, 1991), “Just east of the Sheep Creek bridge north of Dupuyer are graves of Jimmy Grant and two little children who died of measles.  For years those graves were unmarked until an old-timer pointed them out to Paul Bruner and he placed a stone marker on them.”  (I haven’t looked for that marker, but I will.)

Jimmy’s death at 45 was dramatic.  His wife was in a romantic relationship with another man, half-tribal, and they were camped between Birch Creek and Dupuyer.  Someone told Jimmy and he set out to confront the runaways.  The two men confronted each other in a shoot-out and Jimmy’s first shot glanced off a rib.  The lover shot twice and his second bullet pierced Jimmy’s heart. 

At daybreak a posse of six “citizens” went out, dividing into three “squads.”  By 9AM they were back in town and did not venture out again.  The body of the lover was found, riddled with bullets.  No one says what happened to the wife, but the Blackfeet along Birch Creek fled to the agency for a while.  The story about the deaths was in the New Northwest Newspaper of August 17, 1883.  They said, Grant “was highly regarded as an honest, industrious and sober citizen.”

Dorothy Floerchinger (1901-1996) was one of several diligent female historians around the area.  I spoke to her several times and have always wondered where her papers went.  (Her grandson owns the laundromat in Conrad.)  Now I know:  Her maiden name was Bruner, a Metis name connected to the Grants.

The Red River Nation was a potential that never really became a country, an idea something like the current proposal of “Cascadia” as a sub-national area extending from southern BC down through Washington and Oregon, west to include the Flathead Valley, but leaving out SW Oregon.  Nations are formed by ecology, family connections, trade, travel routes, and sometimes other affinities such as religion.  The Red River Nation was aborted in part because England was worried about their connections to the rebellious Irish and possible alliances with them.  Once the Hudson’s Bay Company gave up “Rupert’s Land,” that Canadian land was still part of the British Empire.  Worries about the potential of the Irish continue until the present.

We often think of history as long ago and mostly irrelevant, partly because it has been written by the victors, but no more.  The Metis diaspora nation is part of what joins us on the high prairie.  A phrase often used in the context of a religious congregation is “a community of memory and hope.”  They persist just a little beyond us as testimony that life goes on.  When times get tough, they’re good to think about.

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