Sunday, February 10, 2013

Kate Perry: First woman in camp

On August 11, 1905 the Philipsburg Mail published the following letter: 
Lewiston, Illinois, July 31, 1905; I have been contemplating to write you for some time. You of course will not know me but I hope some of the old settlers will, if any are left after years of toil. I made quite a little money there.  When I went up to Philipsburg, it was not much of a town, nothing but a mining camp. There were no women there. I had some cows and a horse.

I built myself a shack on the side of the hill and it was the first building of any kind there. The men lived in tents and in holes dug in the hillsides. I peddled milk to them and would gather up their wash and take it home to wash. I got twenty five cents a piece for shirts and sold thirty dollars worth of milk a day. Two holes cut in my shack served as a door and window and I hung a blanket up to each. I slept on poles stuck through the shack and pine boughs thrown on them and a buffalo robe over them; that was my bed. I had no pillow. The roof on the shack was made of poles and pine boughs and dirt thrown on top and I cooked by a log.

Now mind there was not another woman in the camp or within twenty miles of me. When I relate this story here now they ask me were you not afraid of the men? No indeed, God Bless the miners, a better class of men never lived. I was treated like a queen. I lived there until fall and then took my cows and horse to better range for the winter. By that time the camp had been laid out in lots and had quite a good many buildings and the town had been named after the man who laid it out. If I knew that you would appreciate it I would give you my history from the time I arrived in Montana.
 I will say this much, that after all of my hardships and after having many cows and horses and a ranch, a schemer came along, he was the Pony Express man and persuaded me to marry him. Then the first thing was to sell out and take the money in gold dust and come to my old home where I now live. Perry sent the gold dust to Philadelphia to have it minted. As soon as it arrived, $18,000.00 he took it and skipped and I have not heard from him since.
 This was thirty years ago and now I am seventy-five years old and have nothing left but my old hands to make a living with. I will send you a copy of my marriage certificate. It reads as follows: Territory of Montana, County of Deer Lodge SS.; The undersigned, Justice of the Peace, did on the 27 day of January A.D. 1868 join in lawful wedlock L.S. Perry and K.C. Coyendall with their mutual consent in the presence of Henry Adams and John H. Bell. Signed John B. Van Hagen, Justice of the Peace, Philipsburg Township, Deer Lodge County, Montana.
Will you please answer this letter and tell me what that town is and if there is anyone there that knew me. It would give a great deal of pleasure to a poor old forsaken woman. signed Kate Perry
 There was no follow-up in the Philipsburg Mail. Much of her early life story, however, is given in a 1906 story about her in the Canton Weekly Register, which reveals that her maiden name was Owens, and that she immigrated to Illinois with her grandparents when she was just a child. Her census records indicate she was born in Indiana to a father born in Ireland and a mother born in Ohio, and newspaper obituaries indicate her given name was Catherine. After a brief and unsuccessful marriage at age 16, she crossed the plains to Pike's Peak, Colorado. From there she appears to have joined the exodus of many Pikes Peak "goldrushers" (among them, W.A. Clark) to Montana, and, in the summer of 1867, she landed in the silver boomtown of Philipsburg. By winter, she had apparently moved to winter quarters in the lower Flint Creek Valley, since on December 14, 1867 The Independent newspaper stated that travelers who stop at Gird's Ranch will be treated "most hospitably" by Mrs. Dustin. Kate was apparently at one point married to a man named Dustin. Gird had a ranch on Lower Willow Creek near Hall, as well as at the mouth of Gird Creek near Stone, with a roadhouse at the latter ranch (see Flint Chips No. 35). 

Another service needed by the new residents along Flint Creek was mail delivery. The March 1, 1868 Weekly Independent  states: " The Philipsburg and Helena Express runs as regular as a clock-arrives at this place precisely at 11 o'clock, and departs at 2 p.m. on Friday. Perry has for sale all the late eastern, western, northern and southern publications, including the LaCrosse DemocratIllustrated. He will deliver in person all letters, packages etc., entrusted to his care. 

While running her way station for the hungry or weary traveler at Gird's, Kate made the acquaintance of Mr. Perry. On Feb 22, 1868, Correspondent K.D.C. of the Deer Lodge Independent reported the first wedding for which we have record in Philipsburg: 

I was surprised not to see the notice of our energetic expressman L.S. Perry's union to the amiable Mrs. Kate F.A. Dustin, in your last issue. They were joined in the holy bonds of matrimony at the 'Traveler's Home,' near this place, on the 26th of last month, by his Honor, J.B. Van Hagen, Justice of the Peace. I always entertained a high opinion of friend Perry's good sense, and I must say it is not in the least lessened, but 'muchly' increased by this last act of his; for no one can, without experiencing it, imagine  the difference between a cheery smile, a hearty welcome and a fond embrace from the being we prize the most on earth, at the conclusion of a hard day's ride across the hills and snow drifts of this northern clime, to the coarse 'helloa is that you' from the bachelor landlord of some of our way-side inns. Friend Perry, we do not blame you much for arming yourself with that shot gun when you started from town on last Monday morning, but if the boys had 'smelt the mice' one shotgun would have been 'nowhar; they'd have taken the chances against half-dozen of 'em to have wished you and your blushing bride 'much joy at the proper time.'

We will leave the decipering of the final paragraph to the reader, noting only that the "Traveler's Home" where they were married was located at or near what became "Porter's Corner", a short distance south of Philipsburg on the road to the Cable mine, at the mouth of "Travelers Home Creek", which flows into Flint Creek from the south at the junction of Highway 1 and the Skalkaho Highway (MT38).  

In the summer of 1868 local newspapers note that Kate was thrown from her horse and seriously injured while riding along the Mullan Trail near Gold Creek. Perhaps shortly after that event the Perrys moved away from Montana, back to her old home in Illinois, because no more mention of them is made in the Montana papers, and Perry's operation of the Pony Express route also ends that summer according to Dan Meschter's book on early mail routes of Montana. 

The precise timing of the "schemer" making off with her gold is uncertain, but the 1880 census shows her reversal of fortune - Kate was by then a servant in the home of Sarah H. Davidson in Lewiston, Illinois. The 1900 census shows her living alone. No divorce papers have been found. 

Searching census records gives one possible answer to what became of L.S. Perry. In 1900, a Leverett S. Perry was living in Fremont, Colorado, running a livery stable, which would fit for a former Pony Expressman. Post Office records show that in the 1880's, he had become the Postmaster at Fremont, which would also fit for a mail deliverer fresh from Montana.  The 1900 census records state Leverett S. Perry was born in Kentucky in 1836, making him 6 years younger than Kate. They further show that by 1900 L.S. had been married for four years to Amanda, 12 years his junior.  A 29 year old child Merton and a 17 year old child named Mogene lived with them. "L.H. Perry", who shows up in the 1880 census as living in Fremont, is also Leverett Perry, since "L.H. Perry" is also listed as having a son named Merton. In 1880, Perry was married to a woman ten years his junior named Sarah. 

If by chance the Montana Pony Expressman L.S. Perry, and Leverett S. Perry of Colorado are the same man, one can only hope that Kate's money was put to good use in the livery stable. 

On April 30, 1908 The Illinois State Registar stated:
First woman to cross plains
Mrs. Kate Perry, pioneer resident of Fulton county, dies at age of 80 years.
Lewiston, Illinois, April 29, -Mrs. Kate Perry of this city, the first white woman to cross the plains and reach Pike's Peak in the early days, died here at the age of about 80 years.
                                (THE END)
original sketches by Loraine Domine 2013, all rights reserved


  1. Such a riveting story...I'm left wanting to know more about this woman's life. I wonder if anyone was left in Philipsburg who remembered her when she wrote. Thanks for honoring her memory by sharing this research!

  2. In Philipsburg itself I'm not sure any pioneers of 1867 were left by 1905. The town had been abandoned except for 3 people in 1869 when the mill briefly closed. Some of the 1867 pioneers, like William Graham and Hector Horton, returned to town in the 1870's but those two gents were dead by 1905. Can only think of one western Montanan alive in 1905 who we can be certain knew Kate Perry in her Philipsburg days - Granville Stuart. If she got any response to her letter he would have been the most likely author.

  3. Kate Perry is a very important historian for the town of Philipsburg. Not only does she describe the town and living conditions, she also establishes Deidescheimer as the person laying out the town. This fits with the street names reflecting California sites and one street even being named California.