Thursday, April 3, 2014

First Mountain Men in Granite County

The record of the first mountain men to visit Granite County was hidden away in the archives of the Hudson Bay Company until 1950, when the journals of Peter Skene Ogden for 1825 were published.
Ogden was then the chief trader for the Hudson Bay Company. We provide a biography elsewhere in this blog.
He led a fur-trapping expedition to the "Snake Country" in the summer of 1825. After trapping in the upper Big Hole Valley, they turned north and crossed the Continental Divide into the upper Clark's Fork drainage, taking either the Deer Lodge Pass (according to Stewart) or the Mill Creek Pass (according to a map published with the Journals - this map seems to be a better match for the daily journal report.) The group then took the route now generally followed by US Highway 10A, up Warm Springs Creek, past Silver Lake, which Ogden notes, and into the Philipsburg Valley. Eventually they traveled down Flint Creek to the Clark's Fork River (which they called the Arrowstone). They worked their way upstream, eventually circling the Flint Creek Range and then retracing their route back to the Big Hole. One biological note... it appears that moose were very scarce and the expedition is surprised when they see moose in the lower Flint Creek valley. This is the only place moose are noted in the journal.

map showing Ogden's camps, by Loraine Domine, 2014

Edgar Stewart recounted the story of Ogden in Montana in the Montana Magazine of History in 1953. As far as we know this is the first expedition of mountain men to traverse what became Granite County.

In addition to the official Hudson Bay Co. journals, part of the 1825 Snake River Country expedition is also recounted in Ogden's book "Traits of American Indian Life and Character", published posthumously in 1845. The second chapter of this book is set in 1825, and most of the story takes place immediately before Ogden's exploration of Granite County. The Chapter is titled "The Red Feather", and it recounts the exploits of a Flathead Indian war chief by that name. Practically every chapter of this book deals with a tragic subject, and this particular story is no exception.

During the last few days of 1824, Ogden's party set out from Salish House (near Thompson Falls), and traveled south through the Bitterroot and across the divide into the Big Hole and Beaverhead country. His trapping journeys took him over Lemhi Pass and south into the Snake River plain in early spring. By summer he was in the Henry's Fork area, camping and traveling with the Flathead tribe, who were engaged in their summer bison hunt.  According to his account in "Traits", Ogden returned to the Flathead camp from an extended trapping foray and planned to hold council with Red Feather, a war chief of impressive appearance, bravery, and sagacity - who was, however, absent, conducting a raid on a nearby camp of Blackfeet. Each tribe has been attempting to steal horses from the other all summer, and Red Feather was particularly interested in a handsome horse called "The Black". On this try he finally secured this fine horse. On the return trip to camp Red Feather and his son-in-law easily outran the Blackfeet, who were in pursuit. Red Feather, however, reined in his horse and stood for some minutes in defiance of his pursuers. But the wind was blowing strongly toward him - the Blackfeet set a prairie fire which overran and killed  him and his steed.

The tale of Red Feather reads like a parable of the tragic consequences of human pride. As "Traits" tells it, Red Feather is well on his way to a clean escape astride "the Black" when he turns as if to bid defiance.. to gloat. He's spiking the football in the end zone!  And he pays for it with his life.

But is this chapter a true account of the events or an embellished version akin to historical fiction? The story, while certainly very dramatic, also has somewhat of an improbable ring to it. The authoritative work on prairie fire by Professor Julie Courtwright chronicles the uses of prairie fires in the wars of the Blackfeet and other plains Indian tribes. As one might expect, fires were used defensively to impede the advance of foes, and to obscure and mask retreats. It was less often used offensively, to flush enemies from cover (see p. 40). Courtwright does not report instances of fires used to run down fleeing opponents as in the "Red Feather" story... fire is too unpredictable to be used in such a manner. The story of Red Feather's death in "Traits" has the color of a tall tale.

In that event, who really told this "tall tale"? It appears that "Traits", though written in the main by Ogden and recounting his experiences as a fur trader, was "worked over" by one or more authors (including Washington Irving) by the HBC and the publisher before it went to print. Certainly, some of the language of "Traits" is more in keeping with Irving's style than Ogden's, such as the use of the word "varlet" to describe subordinates - we have yet to note Ogden using this word in his journals but Irving uses "varlet" very frequently in his writing. The contributions of various authors are difficult to sort out, but as to the actual fate of Red Feather, enough evidence remains to settle the question, which we will now do.

The first clue to the true outcome of the story is that Ogden does not relate the death of any Flathead chief in his daily journal. However, Red Feather is twice mentioned in the journal of Ogden's assistant, William Kittson, which is included as an appendix in the "Journals".

In late June, 1825, Kittson's journal describes numerous encounters with Blackfeet as the trappers work their way northward toward and through the Lemhi Valley. On June 28th, Kittson tells of a friendly visit from a large group of Blackfeet accompanied by the famed fur trapper and guide Hugh Monroe, Morrice Picard (an Iroquois voyageur) and James Bird, son of the HBC Chief Factor James Bird. Not surprisingly, the Blackfeet are trapping beaver and there are few left in this vicinity.

On July 3 Kittson reports that they meet up with a large encampment of the Flatheads. The tribe's main chief, La Breche, is temporarily absent and Red Feather is in charge. They've crossed eastward into the upper Big Hole and there are "buffaloe in great bands". A huge hunt is in progress.

On the 4th a group of Flathead arrive from an unsuccessful horse-stealing raid on the Blackfeet camp. "One of their party is still missing". However, on the 8th he reports that "Last evening the horse thief that was missing on the 4th Instant arrived just in time to hear his relation mourning his death as they supposed him to be killed". This incident echoes the Red Feather story but with an opposite outcome.

On the 14th they are at Jackson Hot Springs. That night a Canadian came in and paid them a visit with a few Piegans (Blackfeet). "The former was in search of a horse which he says the Flatheads stole from the door of the Chief Piegan". He searches for the horse but no luck. This incident certainly resembles the exploit of Red Feather as Ogden reported it in "Traits", but (again) with a completely opposite outcome!

Two days later Kittson and Ogden part company, with Kittson headed through Gibbon's Pass, bringing the furs to the HBC trading post at Fort Spokane. Ogden is headed down the Big Hole on the first leg of his trapping and exploration journey that eventually brings him to Flint Creek and the Deer Lodge valley.

On July 18 Kittson pays a visit to the famous Medicine Tree near Darby. On July 20 he is camped at Lolo and reports that he just received a present of a little fresh deer meat - from Red Feather!

Since the Kittson journal demonstrates that Red Feather emerged from the Big Hole very much alive instead of consumed in a prairie fire, we can only conclude that "someone" took elements of Ogden's experiences in the summer of 1825 and melded fact and fiction to create the "parable" of Red Feather. But given his description of Red Feather as exceptionally brave, wise, and noble in a tribe Ogden (and other mountain men) consistently describe as embodying those traits above all others, there is  greater satisfaction to this reader in the image of Red Feather riding down the Bitterroot valley, swapping stories with his friend Kittson, astride a great Black horse. 

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