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History of Lewistown, Montana

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Early history

Long before Lewistown was founded in 1879, Central Montana was the domain of the Indian and the buffalo. By the terms of the 1855 Stevens' Blackfeet Treaty, negotiated near the mouth of the Judith River, all of was set aside for the Blackfeet. But, as it turned out, it never became their exclusive territory. The Crows from the south, Nez Perces from the west, and later the Sioux from the east also used this vast area as a great crossroad on their hunting and raiding expeditions. They also used it as a retreat whenever conditions on their own home grounds became unfavorable. Clashes among them were many. Central Montana served these Indians well having the beautiful giant springs, Spring Creek, and the abundant supply of wild game.

Eighteen years after the 1855 Treaty, the federal government entertained still another idea. This time it made an agreement with the Crows for them to settle in the Judith Basin. Never carried out, this agreement of 1873 is important, nevertheless, because it brought the economic potential of Central Montana to the white man's attention for the first time. A reservation meant that there would be an agency, which in turn, would require supplies.

From Bozeman came Peter Koch. He built a post (Fort Sherman) approximately on the site of the Meadows Apartments in December of 1873 for Nelson Story and Charles W. Hoffman. When it became apparent that the plans for a Crow reservation in Central Montana would never materialize, Story and Hoffman were no longer interested in keeping the trading post they had just built. They sold it to Theodore I. Dawes.

The following year, 1874, interest was centered on Central Montana because of the new Carroll Trail. The shortest route between Carroll on the Missouri and Helena, it crossed the Big Spring Creek, known as Carroll Crossing, on the place now occupied by Herman Lode. To provide military protection, Company "F" of the 7th U.S. Infantry established a temporary post where J.C. Penney is now located. It was named Camp Lewis after Major Wm. H. Lewis.

When the Carroll Road was laid out, Dawes, realizing that his post was about two and one half miles away, sold it to Alonzo S. Reed and John J. Bowles. They moved the post down Big Spring Creek at or near the Carroll Crossing. Known as Reed and Bowles Trading Post or Reed's Fort, the post operated from November 1874 until 1880.

During this period the main business consisted of trading with Indians, chiefly in Indian liquor – a very small amount of low grade liquor liberally spiced with plug tobacco, red pepper, and other warming ingredients, and a generous supply of spring water. The traffic in liquor with the Indian was outlawed by the Federal government; as a result the post was a bootleg joint in Indian country. Except during the summer months of 1874-1875 when soldiers were sent to guard the Carroll Trail, this post was some one hundred miles beyond the reach of organized law.

As the only station between Martinsdale and Carroll, a distance of around 150 miles, the Reed and Bowles Trading Post was a regular stopping place and a center also for trappers and traders. Big game hunters from the East and even from Europe came here to hunt.

The proprietors were self-avowed kings, maintaining their position and prestige by guns. Reed was known as "Major" by virtues of having served four months as Indian agent at Milk River Agency in 1870, even though he was summarily dismissed. Bowles served as assistant in Reed's various projects for many years. Even in a day when gunfire was an accepted method of end many arguments, the men had a reputation throughout the Territory.

Known widely by the Indians as Reed and Bowles were, it is no wonder that Chief Joseph remembered them on his famous retreat to Canada in 1877. With his band of Nez Perces consisting of about "300 warriors and an equal number of women and children, and up to 2,000 horses, he camped near Reed and Bowles Stockade, their accustomed trading post, on the night of September 21st."

Metis Settlers

The first permanent settlers in what is now Lewistown were the peaceful, quiet, but colorful Metis, descendants of the French and Indian. In 1879 three bands comprising of about forty families came in their "creaking, growling all-wood wagons known as the Red River Carts." A few of the names that became very familiar to all were Berger, Wells, Laverdure, Oulette, and "Uncle Ben" Kline who down through the years was looked upon as their spokesman and leader. They immediately filed on homesteads. (The Oulette addition to the city, for example, located near the Garfield School, and known as "Buckskin Flats", was Antoine Oulette's original homestead."

Francis A. Janeaux, the found of the Lewistown, was another leader and a member of this group as was his wife, Virginia Laverdure Janeaux. A French Canadian, Janeaux was a licensed trader. He filed on a homestead, and i n the fall of 1879, Janeaux built a stockaded trading post on the Big Spring Creek "near the intersection of Third Avenue North and Broadway."

After the Metis arrived, Major Reed severed his association with Bowles. In 1880-81, he took up land and established a trading post across the road from the Charles W. Cooley property. A log structure, still standing, was the first post office, and it was called Reedsfort. Serving an immense area surrounded by Fort Maginnis, Judith Gap, and Philbrook, mail was delivered only three times in the winter of 1881-82.

In the meantime, there was much activity in the Janeaux stockade. Interested in the welfare of the youth, Janeaux invited Edward Brassey to teach the school children. (Brassey, incidentally, earlier had ably assisted Montana's Secretary and acting Governor, Thomas Francis Meagher, in establishing school districts in that far-flung area that became Meagher County). According to Mercy Jackson, a longtime public school teacher, "the school was opened in 1881 with 35 breeds and 4 white children. The log school was across the street from the present post office. Mr. Brassey lived with Janeaux in the stockade."

Dr. L. A. Lapalme, a friend of Janeaux's, plated the town in 1882. A doctor, and not a surveyor, he used Janeaux's fence as a starting line which did not conform to the true North-South bearings. (Hense, the reason why the streets are off by around forty-five degrees).

Immediately the following year, 1883, Janeaux, the great benefactor, donated eight lots of choice land to the school district. Construction started immediately. The first framed school house, used for a number of years, was built on or near the site of the Lewistown News Argus. Assuming her duties there in December 1883, Miss Winifred Shipman was the first lady teacher.

Cattle and Sheep

By 1884, it must be noted, not only had the white settler arrived, he had already become dominant. The same year that the Metis arrived in 1879, for instance, came Dan and John Crowley, brothers; Paul and Mary Wydert; and Henry P. Brooks. The last mentioned established a well-known Horseshoe Bar Ranch with the financial backing of T. C. Power, "The Merchant Prince of the Plains."

In 1880, Granville Stuart founded the DHS outfit and James Fergus settled in the Armells area. Angus McMillan, Zacharias Tresch, J. D. Waite, George W. Ayers, Frank Anton Yaeger, and Robert Sullenger and his family, to name some, also came that same year. John T. Clegg, F. T. Colver, Pete Anderson, Samuel Phillips, Dave Hilger, Mr. And Mrs. Josef "Chris" King and sons arrived the following year. Shortly thereafter, there were others: John Glancy, M. L. Woodman, John L. Raw, J. P. Barnes, Frank and A. W. Stoddard, William Fergus, Clark Shipman and family, Ed McDonnell, J. C. Walker, Abraham Hogeland, Ben Hill, E. P. Chandler, Frank Moshner, and Frank E. Wright (?) and more.

Many of these people were interested in cattle and sheep, which developed into major industries as there was a plentiful supply of land to accommodate both. Trailer in from the west, east, and the south, the cattle grazed on the vast open ranges all around Lewistown. The know-how needed to operate the new and different open range business was provided by the Texas trail rider who acquired his skill as he trailed the cattle north through the rough open range country. Whether he had trailed the longhorns or not, the cowboy was in his prime. It was his day. But not for long, because he, too, would eventually lose out to the homesteaders who would swarm in by the thousands, 1904-1916.

Because of limited space one can only mention Bill Burnett. Formerly a Texas trail rider, he was truly an outstanding cowboy highly respected by all. His word was his bond. Hired by Stuart, Burnett was the roundup captain of the Maginnis Association. Only in his twenties, he was responsible for about a hundred cowboys and thousands of head of cattle during the spring and fall roundups. For this, he was paid $2.50 per day. In the opinion of Stuart, "Burnett knew the cattle business from A to Z." He also knew Lewistown where he was a frequent visitor.

Local roundups were handled by four large cattle associations. Reputed to be the best managed because it did try to improve the quality of its herds under open range conditions was the Judith Association. Operating west of town, it had as one of its nighthawks and night herders, the fame Charles Russell. By working at night, this budding artist could draw and sketch during the daytime. It was in the small village of Lewistown, in saloons, where he met the cowboys from the other ranges. Visiting with W. H. Culver, the local photographer, Russell once said that he would come more frequently to the Culver Studio, but it didn't serve any liquor.

The cowboys of the Maginnis and Moccasin Association also made their contribution to the national folklore. In 1884, on order of Stuart with the backing of James Fergus and others, they hung and shot 15 to 18 cattle and horse thieves. (It's interesting that it took the late Oscar O. Mueller, a lawyer-historian, twenty years to obtain the details from his friend, Bill Burnett. In charge of one of the three raids, and under secret oath, Burnett refused to "open up" until all the other participants had passed on. Also, Mueller assured him that no historical account would be written until after Burnett's death).

The Fourth association was the Flatwillow that worked very closely with the Maginnis. A ranch in this district that is still operating under the same brand, issued, it is believed, in 1879-1880, is the N-Bar Ranch.

Cattlemen either supplied their own horses or they brought them from horse ranches such as James Fergus & Son, C. Barr Smith, and D. M. Crowley. Bailey, Seligman, and Kennett, a very large outfit, supplied all the horses to Fort Maginnis built in 1880 to protect the cattlemen and their stock.

By 1884, the sheep men were also established and were well on the way to becoming the leading producers in the state (1887-1897). In 1884, they organized their own association with G. W. Cook as president; David Hilger, secretary; and E. P. Chandler, treasurer.

While the sheepherder was never immortalized, as was the cowboy, nonetheless, he too, was important. To the young able ambitious man, herding sheep provided the unique opportunity he needed to do bigger and better things. By the very nature of the business, a capable herder could, in a relatively short time, acquire enough sheep to have a band of his own. Some of the town's later prominent civic leaders who took this route were G. J. Wiedeman and G. W. Cook.

Gold Discovered

Gold was discovered in 1880 in the Judith Mountains of Central Montana. By 1881, the town of Maiden, with its surrounding hamlets of Rustle, Alpine, and Andersonville, was the largest community in Central Montana. Opened mainly by placer mining, hundreds of prospectors poured into the Judiths. Claims were staked abundantly amid gunfights, claim jumping, murders, and brawls in the streets.

By August of 1883, Maiden had a newspaper. The Mineral Argus, which later moved to Lewistown in 1886, was the forerunner of the Lewistown News Argus. Its pages reek with the ups and down of the early gold fields - - the gradual shift from placer mining to big business stamp mills.

The Collar Mill, Maiden's first, provided hope. But it went broke in about six months, leaving workers unpaid and machinery not paid for. It sold at a sheriff's sale to the highest bidder. The Collar Mine and Mill were never reopened.

Next the citizens collected money for a community venture, the "smelter". It, too, went broke and sold at a sheriff's sale leaving the stockholders cursing in despair.

Two paying mines, the Spotted Horse and the Maginnis, produced thousands of dollars for their owners, but in the political process had their ups and downs, and were sold a time or two at sheriff's sales as they changed owners.

Originally within the boundary of the Fort Maginnis Military Reservation, Maiden and the mining district, consisting of some 1500 persons, were due to be evicted by the Army in 1883. Prompt action of Maiden's citizens led the U. S. Congress and the President of the United States to take acting in shrinking the Fort's boundaries to exclude the gold fields.

The development of cyanide in gold mining later led to the revolutionization of golf mining in Central Montana, and the latter day towns of Gilt Edge in 1893 and Kendall in 1901. For many years Fergus County was one of the state's leading producers in gold production.

Post Office

The miner, sheep and cattlemen were welcomed by Janeaux and Reed who became intense rivals for their business. All during the early 1880's there were two settlements: Reedsfort and Janeaux's Post, a half mile apart, with a total population of less than a hundred. (It's interesting to note that as competition between them continued, nearby Cottonwood was a thriving village which eventually lost out to Lewistown when it was bypassed by the railroad, 1903.)

Determined to outdo Reed, Dr. L. A. Lapalme circulated a petition for a post office. Interviewed about this on July 6, 1917, David Hilger recalled that Dr. Lapalme charged Major Reed "with gross neglect of his duties and some irregularities." It was customary it seems for Postmaster Bowles to put all the mail in a box that was placed on the floor in the corner of a room. Everyone had to sort through all the letters to find his. Although the system worked, according to Hilger, Lapalme made a big issue of it. "My," recalled Hilger, "Reed was one angry postmaster when he read those charges!" Hilger, since he had signed the petition, and was called "on the carpet" by Major Reed, "immediately envisioned a new mound in Major Reed's private cemetery." Convinced that Hilger was telling the truth when he said that he had not read the petition he had signed, Reed let Hilger go unharmed.

Major Reed then sold his holdings to Frank Day and J. Holzmer who built the Day House Hotel and a blacksmith shop on the present residential property of C. W. Cooley. Day became the postmaster in 1882.

In the summer of 1883 Janeaux's store was purchased by T. C. Power with N. M Erickson as manager. "The following spring William Hortop built a two story hotel facing the store; livery stables and saloons were soon added to the grouping and the name "Lewistown" was much in use, the hotel having that name."

The post office having been secured in 1883 was named Lewistown, and N. M. Erickson became the first postmaster in March 1884. Janeaux's generosity was again shown when he and his wife that same year donated a plot of 40 acres between Broadway and Pine Streets to the town's residents for their use and benefit.

By this time it is interesting to note that the Catholics who had been attending services in Janeaux's home and in his post were now looking to him for new quarters. Methodists were listening to the inspiring dynamic "Brother Van" (W. W. Van Orsdel). And Bishop L. R. Brewer, having held services at Maiden, Fort Maginnis, and at the home of Edward Brassey on Beaver Creek was well known among the local Episcopalians.

While the residents were most content with their new location and settlement in Lewistown, they soon found themselves in action as though they were in a filming of a wild west movie. It was for real and not pretense according to Mueller:

On July 4, (1884) ….. Occurred the killing of two desperadoes, not by Vigilantes, but by local citizens. This event illustrates the desperate characters that infested Central Montana at that time. The two desperadoes, "Rattlesnake Jake" Fallon and Charles "Longhair" Owens, appeared at the celebration dressed in buckskin suits and armed to the teeth. Without provocation, except a quarrel over a horse race, they attempted to fight it out with the citizens. A gun battle ensued in the streets of the little town, in which the two desperadoes, fighting gamely to the finish, were finally riddled with bullets and killed. One citizen was killed.

These early local settlers helped to shape the Western tradition. They had to shoot in self-defense. The nearest court was at White Sulphur Springs, the county seat, over 100 miles away – too distant to be effective. Desiring law and order, they wanted a county of their own. Accordingly, they prevailed on the state legislature. Fergus County was created in 1885, to take effect on December 1, 1886. And the City of Lewistown, the county seat, was incorporated in 1899.