Montana the Magazine of Western History, Winter 2020, p. 74
Historic Tales of Whoop-Up Country
Montana Book Roundup by Aaron Parrett
“Ken Robison is fast becoming a Montana institution. Author of numerous volumes on military history connected to Montana, his latest is a thrilling overview of the heyday of the Whoop-Up Trail, the overland wagon road that connected Fort Benton (the terminus of the Missouri River steamboats) and Fort Whoop-Up, near what is now Lethbridge. Alberta. In Historic Tales of Whoop-Up Country, (History Press, 2020, 223 pp. $23.99) Robison deftly weaves period newspapers, periodicals and letters into an engaging narrative that brings neglected episodes of Montana history to life. In this latest effort, Robison does not disappoint, regaling the reader with lively anecdotes, such as the tale of the Spitzee Cavalry, a collection of wolfers who tried to eliminate the whiskey trade in Blackfeet country. One version of the story has the cavalry confronting Johnny Healy, the infamous proprietor of Fort Whoop-Up, and harassing him to stop selling whiskey. With characteristic aplomb, Healy called the vigilantes’ bluff, growling, “If you do not get out of my store, I’ll blow you all to blazes, including me.”
Fairfield (MT) Times: November 27, 2020
Montana Senior News Feb/Mar 2019
WWI Montana: The Treasure State Prepares
By Aaron Parrett
Ken Robison happens to be at the peak of his powers in his second career. After honorably serving a full career in the Navy as a Captain in Naval Intelligence, Robison returned to Montana and began writing history, and perhaps without meaning to, embarked on a second career.
His output has been prodigious: at last count, he’s authored four books of his own and co-authored three more, including the celebrated Beyond Schoolmarms and Madams: Montana Women’s Stories.
His latest book fittingly arrived on my desk the week before Armistice Day. In World War I Montana: The Treasure State Prepares, Robison skillfully chronicles the investment of men and women that Montana made in the so-called “War to end all wars.”
“Montana men served in the Great War in a greater percentage than any other state,” Robison writes, and he reminds 21st century readers that Montana’s natural resources fueled the war effort.
It was often said, with only a shade of hyperbole, that practically every bullet fired on the battlefields of Europe had been encased in Butte copper, for example. And among the most famous battle cries of the allies was the old cowboy and cattleman’s slogan, “Powder River, Let ’Er Buck.”
Montana figured in the political history of the war as well: every Montana student knows that Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress, but less celebrated is the fact that within a week of entering that august body, she cast her most famous vote—a vote against the declaration of war in 1917.
That vote, and her anguished comment, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” crystalized her long career as a pacifist. As Robison points out, she was joined by only 49 other “nay” votes in the House.
That mood was reflected back in her home state, where “communities throughout Montana organized public mass meetings and parades in support of President Wilson.” Every part of Montana, of course, except Butte, where miners—almost all of them immigrants from all over Europe—opposed a war that was likely to kill the men and women of their old countries. In his chapter, “Mobilizing State and Nation,” Robison documents the labor strife that arose in Butte as a consequence of the war effort, including the arrival of federal troops charged with compelling striking miners to keep the mines open. That strife culminated in the assassination of IWW organizer Frank Little, whom Robison quotes, “if the mines are taken under federal control, we will make it so dammed hot for the government that it will not be able to send any troops to France.”
Robison deftly stitches together the innumerable individual ways in which the war touched Montana lives, careful to maintain the historian’s objective perspective, but conscientious as well to deplore “the hyper-patriotism” that led to xenophobia and the burning of German books in 1918 in Lewistown.
The author contrasts the reactionary zeal of Tom Stout with the wiser statesmanship of Sheriff Matlock, for example. Stout clamored that “those who would not be destroyed must purge their hearts of every thought not in consonance with the spirit of our institutions, not in obedience to the stern purposes of our common country,” whereas Sheriff S.W. Matlock of Yellowstone County issued a “Sheriff’s Proclamation to foreign-born residents” assuring them that they had no “need [to] fear any invasion of his personal or property rights so long as he goes peaceably about his business,” though such reassurances often gave way to mob fears.
This book will make an excellent resource for any student of Montana history, and a memorable gift for anyone from the Treasure State who has served.
Robison has a gift for connecting the vast panorama of our national history to its origins in local events lived by people we know and recognize. World War I Montana tells the story of our state’s intimate involvement in one of the most devastating conflicts of the 20th century in a way that keeps you turning the page, astounded at the depth of detail and the endless ways in which what happens in one modest, mountainous corner of the world can affect history over 7000 miles away.
One component of a new Ken Robison book that I always look forward to is the wealth of photographs he manages to discover and share, and this volume is no exception. I’m proud to see, in fact, a photograph on the front cover of my own grandfather, Alf Pettersen, a Norwegian immigrant-turned-Butte miner who proudly served in France. MSN
Historic Tales of Whoop-Up Country
History Press, Charleston, S.C., 2020, 224 pages, $23.99, trade paperback.
by Carole Ann Clark - long-time reviewer for the Great Falls Public Library.
Likened by the author to a wagon wheel hub, tiny Fort Benton, Montana Territory, became the world’s innermost port. The Missouri River “highway” and numerous trails (the Mullan Road, the Northern Overland Trail, the Camp Crooke Trail, among others) made it a surprising commercial center as well. But the best-known in its day, and then the least well known for decades, was the notorious Whoop-Up Trail, heavily used from 1870-1885, then largely abandoned. This spoke of the wheel ran from Fort Benton north to the Medicine Line (the U.S./Canadian border) into the North West Territory and west to the Rockies.
With a moniker like “Whoop-Up Trail”, there must be a rip-roaring reason for the name. There are, in fact, several. Fort Hamilton, a trading post built by Americans John J. Healey and
Alfred B. Hamilton near today’s Lethbridge, was the first in a chain of “whiskey forts” where Fort Benton free traders brought desired goods to trade with the Blackfoot and other Indian nations for bison robes, furs and pelts. Always, whiskey lubricated the exchanges. John D. Higginbotham related the tale of a trader who described the situation at Fort Hamilton as “O, they’re still a-whoopin’ of ‘er up” . The name stuck. Other versions are less savory.
Charles Schafft said of Whoop Up that he “saw some dead bodies there, but the place was not as bad as represented”.
The history of the Whoop-Up Trail is entwined with the arrival of the North West Mounted Police, sometimes seen as peacekeepers, sometimes as encroachers on American freedoms, especially when they liberally arrested Montana free traders and even the most upstanding citizens. In the end, law and order prevailed and truces were made, perhaps the beginnings of the long friendship between our two countries. Conrad and Fort Benton, Montana, and Lethbridge, Alberta revived the old stories and celebrate them by periodically “whoopin’ it up”.
Robison, an Historian/Preservationist (honored by the Montana Historical Society as a Montana Heritage Keeper) has done exhaustive research into the chain linking Fort Benton, Fort Hamilton, Fort Macleod and all points between that’s yielded fascinating, funny, tragic, and cautionary facets of our state’s history. Many historic photos, maps, and drawings pull the reader into this brief but important part of our less polished past.
Great Falls Tribune
05 October 2018
8 February 2017
Yankees and Rebels on the Upper Missouri
Robison follows the adage that “history is best told through stories.”
Books & Writers Feb 8, 2017
By Kristi Niemeyer
Robison describes the challenges of navigating snags, rapids and scoundrels on the big river.
Great Falls historian Ken Robison continues to trace the tumultuous times before, during and after the Civil War in Montana Territory with a look at the Missouri River, and the steamboats that plied it with massive cargoes of freight and travelers, en route to new opportunities.
Fort Benton – where Robison is a historian with the Overholser Historical Research Center – is “a small town with a big history.” A hub that connected the Missouri River to the newly minted Mullan Road, it became a destination for miners, freight-haulers, pioneers and freedom seekers.
In a scant seven years, from 1860-67, Fort Benton boomed from a quiet, orderly trading post to a town that boasted “the bloodiest block in the West,” with brothels, saloons, gambling houses and dance halls open ‘round the clock.
Steamboat travel and gold discoveries were largely responsible for this boom in business. Robison describes the challenges of navigating snags, rapids and scoundrels on the big river. He shares the stories of some of the early riverboat captains, like Capt. Grant Marsh; and recounts the lives of both Union and Confederate soldiers who had an impact on local history.
In a fascinating section titled “Cradled in Dixie,” Robison chronicles the experience of newly freed slaves and freedmen, seeking a less repressive life in the West. While some black Americans arrived as travelers, others were deckhands, stewards, cooks, cabin boys and chambermaids aboard the steamboats.
In “Memorable Characters and Outlaws,” he explores the mystery of whether the infamous brothers, Jesse and Frank James, and their accomplice, Cole Younger, spent several months in Montana Territory. He also reveals that Col. Everton Conger, who tracked down President Lincoln’s assassin, eventually served on Montana’s territorial supreme court and is buried in Dillon.
Robison, who follows the adage that “history is best told through stories,” fills pages with first-person accounts of a turbulent time, and paintings and photographs of the remarkable people who settled in the grandeur of a sparsely settled frontier.
Historian unravels Montana's World War I history
By Kristen Inbody
On Nov. 11, bells will ring across Europe to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
Get ready for Armistice Day in Montana with the latest book from Great Falls historian Ken Robison, "World War I Montana: The Treasure State Prepares."
Robison is speaking about his new book and the war at 6 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 6 at Cassiopeia Books, 721 Central Ave.
With short anecdotes, photos and newspaper clips, the book explains how "cowboys, miners, foresters, farmers and nurses" did their part to win the war.
"It is likely that no nation ever went into a major war less prepared," Robison wrote. "Our standing army numbered fewer than the number of casualties suffered in France in single battles in the Great War.
Thus the first year of America's war became a race Robison called it "remarkable" that in one year Montana communities were able to mobilize, to send soldiers, to increase food production despite a drought, to volunteer for the Red Cross and to bear war bond drives and tax increases to pay for the war.
Among the interesting people featured in the book:
Nurse Regina McIntyre of the Flathead Reservation is the only known woman tribal member from Montana to serve in World War I. She served 10 months in France and was buried at 27, succumbing to pneumonia in 1923. American Legion members formed a guard of honor for her funeral in Polson.
Private Willard Hall of Butte came home in July 1919 with harrowing tales of surviving the sinking of the S.S. Tuscania, the first transport ship carrying U.S. soldiers to France to be torpedoed by a German U-boat. He described the hit as happening as fast as a camera's flash and said he "could feel the boat strain and quiver like a wild thing."
Charlie and Nancy Russell did their part for the war, with Nancy helping organize a Liberty Loan drive and personally canvassing the city for war funds, while Charlie sent to Camp Lewis, Wash. an oil painting "Smoke 'Em Out" depicting cowboys herding in Montana's Missouri Breaks as a morale booster for all the former cowboys there. It's now on display at the Kansas City Museum of Art.
Local African-American draftees from sent a letter from Camp Lewis to the citizens of Great Falls thanking the community for the grand send-off and alerting to the bad condition of the tourist sleeper train car in which they rode. "We are in this fight for world freedom in dead earnest, and we hope after the war that every man will be recognized on his merits, regardless of creed or color."
Chouteau County librarian Pauline Madden took part in the American Library Association's campaign to provide reading material for those at military training camps around the country. Her notice in the River Press asked people to include their names and addresses so soldiers would know who had their welfare at heart and added: "Here is your chance — the chance of everyone to help. If you cannot fight at the front, you can send a book to the man you have sent to do your fighting for you."
Roy Carrington Kirtland, the future namesake of Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., was born at the Fort Benton Military Post in 1874 during the Indian Wars era. He left Montana at age 4 and played an important role as one of the first Army pilots. Robison called him the "first son" of Montana to find his way to military glory.
The Yank: Everybody wondered at the start of the war what to call American troops, something like Britain's "Tommy." Before everyone settled on "Yank," "our soldier boys," "Teddies," "Sammies," "Buddy," "Red Avengers" and "doughboys" were terms.
2 December 2016
Did James brothers once hang out in Montana?
By Kim Briggeman
Nothing like a good ol’ Montana history mystery to get the holiday season rolling.
Legend has it that Jesse and Frank James – murderers, robbers, rabid Confederates and folk heroes in the decades following the Civil War – spent time cooling their heels in Montana between heists farther south.
Ken Robison of Great Falls is too good a historian to insist it’s true. But it’s also too delicious a story to ignore, and so Robison spends a chapter in his latest book laying out what evidence he’s found that the James boys, along with Cole Younger and others of their ilk, spent the last months of 1873 in Deer Lodge. “I was pretty surprised by the fact that the legend had persisted for so long and yet I couldn’t find any evidence that anybody had seriously dug into it and tried to compile all the evidence,” said Robison, who’ll be at the first of four December Author Extravaganzas at Fact and Fiction Books in Missoula on Saturday to sign “Yankees & Rebels on the Upper Missouri: Steamboats, Gold and Peace.”
The James brothers (Frank was four years older than Jesse) were Confederate guerillas from Missouri who fought for Quantrill’s Raiders and Bloody Bill Anderson during the Civil War. Later they became among America’s Most Wanted, and their crimes and alleged crimes were well documented by papers throughout the nation, including those in Montana.
There’s a gap of several months in the gang’s timeline following their first train heist (while wearing Ku Klux Klan masks) near Council Bluff, Iowa, on July 21, 1873. Robison said the next action attributed to the James gang was another train robbery in Gads Hill, Missouri, on the last day of January 1874.
Robison cites three primary pieces of evidence that at least some of the time between the two crimes was spent in Montana.
First is a letter dated Dec. 20, 1873, postmarked Deer Lodge, Montana Territory, that bore the signature of Jesse James. It appeared in the St. Louis Dispatch nine days later. It claimed James was living in Deer Lodge, insisted he and Frank were innocent of recent crimes and said he would agree to surrender if they could get a fair trial in Missouri. There never was one.
The next clue came in 1882, after Robert Ford shot and killed Jesse James on April 3 in St. Joseph, Missouri. Robison found an article in the Fort Benton River Press of April 26 titled “Jesse James in Montana.”
“Anent the recent excitement concerning the killing of Jesse James, it may be of interest to know that the famous outlaw and his brother Frank were once in Montana,” the story read.
It said the Jameses fled Iowa and Missouri and found work “in the placer mines at Rock Creek where they worked for some time incognito.”
An unidentified friend in Deer Lodge helped them write the letter that appeared in the St. Louis Dispatch in December 1873.
“The James boys were well known by many people in Montana at that time, and it is said that at least twelve members of Quantrill’s gang were living in Deer Lodge while they were in the Territory,” the article concluded.
To Robison’s mind the most provocative evidence appeared in the Montana Standard in 1942. It was a reminiscence by Charles S. Warren, a Civil War veteran on the Union side who was sheriff of Deer Lodge County when the James brothers supposedly were in Montana.
Warren said in 1873 or ’74, Thomas Napton, then one of the leading lawyers of the county, set up a meeting with the sheriff. Napton is a key figure in the saga because he was from a prominent slave-owning family in Missouri and served as a lieutenant in a Missouri Infantry Regiment on the Confederate side.
Warren said Napton asked him what he’d do if Jesse James were to come to the county. Warren replied that unless James broke the laws of the county or Montana he would “be treated just like any other citizen, for the reason that so many of us had to change our names when we came here.”
Napton asked Warren to return to his oce that afternoon, which Warren did and “was startled at being introduced to Jesse James and Cole Younger.”
“I was immensely surprised at the intelligence of these men, and we were not long in reaching an understanding,” Warren said in 1942. “I could see at once they wanted immunity, and I simply said: ‘Mr. Napton will inform you as to the laws of this territory, and as long as you do not break any of them you will not be interfered with.’”
He told the outlaws if a request for their arrest were to come from Missouri, Warren would make sure Napton got the paper to “pass on the legality of it.”
“The moment he gets the papers will be an invitation for you to leave the country,” he told James and Younger.
Warren met the men on the road “many times” afterward and was duly impressed, he said, adding the outlaws "stayed in Montana several months and never attempted to do any business.”
He told of the time he was traveling from Pioneer to Deer Lodge with $20,000 for Donnell, Clark and Larabie’s bank when he met both James boys and Younger at Rock Creek.
“Jesse said to me, ‘Sheriff, you’ve got a big swag with you today. If you think there is any danger we’ll ride with you to Deer Lodge,’” Warren reported. “They stayed around some months and then disappeared as mysteriously as they came.”
In his 2002 book “Jesse James and the First Missouri Train Robbery,” Ronald Beights expresses doubt the James brothers were ever in Montana.
He says the letter in the St. Louis Dispatch in December 1873 was probably written with the help of Dispatch editor John Newman Edwards, a Southern sympathizer who one month earlier published a 20-page supplement on the James brothers, Cole and John Younger and Arthur McCoy.
“A Terrible Quintet” did much to embed Jesse James in the public imagination as a heroic figure.
Beights wrote that Jesse James’ claim that he was living in “faraway Deer Lodge” is “as unlikely as his innocence.”
Why Deer Lodge? Besides being among the two or three prominent settlements in Montana in 1873, outstripping the likes of Butte and Missoula, Deer Lodge was a “hotbed of Southern sympathizers,” said Robison.
The historian at Fort Benton's Overholser Historical Research Center, Robison has researched and written two previous books examining the connections Montanans prominent and otherwise had with the Civil War.
“There were several places around Montana” that attracted Southern sympathizers during and after the war, Robison said, “but none more so than the Deer Lodge Valley.
“Nobody has a complete inventory about who was here, but this idea that there were a dozen or more Quantrill Raiders ... it makes perfect sense.”
Adding to the mystique are other unsubstantiated but persistent stories of the James gang in Montana, such as one still told in the Highwood Mountains that Frank James taught school there one winter. Robison said he’s not tracked down all the tales.
“The fun thing would be to encourage readers to send in their stories, either to help build a case or take the case apart,” he said.
If you have such a story, Robison can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or he can be found at Fact and Fiction’s downtown store, 220 N. Higgins, on Saturday from 1-3 p.m.
Voices of Montana
16 November 2016
Montana Author Ken Robison–A True Montana Jewel
By Jon Arneson,
For some reason whenever I interview Montana author Ken Robison, I end up calling him a “True Montana Jewel.” I never go into the interview intentionally meaning to say it, but listening to his stories and all it just comes out.
Mr. Robison has a new book called “Yankees & Rebels on the Upper Missouri” published this month by History Press. This book, just like his previous books, has great, lost stories of Montana history.
His tireless research continues and how he unearths gems of the past is truly remarkable. As he told us on Voices of Montana, it comes down to a lot of research. “There is no substitute for long hours of study and travel looking for the best stories possible.”
Robison is a Montana native who now lives in Great Falls. He served 30 years in the US Navy as an intelligence officer. And, has now authored 6 books with forgotten Montana history concerning people traditionally ignored by historians.
Just as in his earlier books, Robison is again great at finding and telling the stories of African-Americas. Including Mary and Maria Adams, sisters who served the family of George A. and Elizabeth Custer as, respectively, cook and housemaid.
There is also the fascinating story of another ex-slave, Mattie Bell Bost. She ended up marrying a white man, John K. Castner. Castner was a freighter and coal mine operator in Helena who built and ran the well-known Travelers Inn in Belt.
Better known people also come to life including Grant Marsh, whose exploits as a steamboat captain on the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, which were almost un-navigable at times, were unrivaled.
John C. Lilly, an ex-Confederate, whose post-war adventures on the upper Missouri were detailed in his own words, describes how he and other men riding with the Rebel Calvary officer Nathan Bedford Forrest, attempted to capture a Union gunboat during the war.
During Voices of Montana, Robison goes into detail about the persistent rumors that outlaws Jesse & Frank James spent time in Montana, possibly the entire winter, in Deer Lodge Valley. It is a rumor that after hours of study he seems to truly believe.
His love of history and of Montana is evident in everything he does, and in 2010 he was honored with the “Heritage Keeper Award” by the Montana Historical Society. An award he truly deserved.
In addition to his books on Montana history, he wrote a series of columns for the Great Falls Tribune and the Fort Benton’s River Press about Montanans involved in the Civil War.
His latest book is available across Montana and would make a great Christmas gift. Now maybe you understand and might even agree with me that Author Ken Robison truly is a one of a kind, a True Montana Jewel.
28 September 2016
Local historian’s new book unveils little-known stories on the steamboat era
By Bethany Monroe DeBorde,
Local historian and author Ken Robison released a new book published by The History Press this month “Yankees & Rebels on the Upper Missouri: Steamboats, Gold and Peace.”
Fort Benton plays a starring role in this volume, with many colourful characters finding their way to town via steamboat. The book stands on its own, but also serves as the third instalment in a trilogy focused on Montana’s Civil War ties.
“It’s a tribute to both the Upper Missouri and Fort Benton,” Robison said. “I kind of saved the best for last in the trilogy.”
The first two books include “Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield” and “Confederates in Montana Territory: In the Shadow of Price's Army.”
Robison grew up on the Square Butte Bench and is a retired Navy Captain. He lives in Great Falls and makes frequent trips to Fort Benton to explore archives at the Overholser Historical Research Center.
He’s found that in the 1860s and 1870s virtually everyone making their way into Montana either served as a Union or Confederate soldier or had other close ties to the Civil War.
Freed black slaves also moved to Montana to carve out a new life. The more he dug, he discovered that seemingly every major event in Civil War history had a close Montana tie.
One particularly fun part of the project has been meeting the ancestors of the people he is writing about in the three books and seeing how Montanans have connected and reacted to the stories.
This book dives into stories that easily could have been lost to history, giving the reader an introduction to people who led modest but remarkable lives.
In the 1950’s Great Falls author Florence B. Franklin announced plans to publish a book that would share the stories of some of the young black women who settled near Fort Benton and Belt.
However, relatives of one of the women threatened a lawsuit, allegedly not wanting it known that their ancestor was black.
Robison decided it was time for some of these stories to see the light of day. He also gleaned a few characters from “Great Falls Yesterday,” a mimeograph book of pioneer history edited by Edith Rolfe Maxwell and published in the 1930’s. The book provided short snippets of not just the men, but also women, both black and white, who settled in the region.
As one of his next projects, Robison plans to work with genealogist and retired educator Jan Thompson to edit, add photos and republish “Great Falls Yesterday.”
Using these stories as starting points for four of the characters in his book, Robison went on to flesh out details, searching out slave backgrounds and their earlier years before arriving in Montana.
In chapter 18, Robison shares the story of Millie Ringgold, a former slave who traveled up the Missouri river by steamboat to Fort Benton as a servant for a senior army officer’s family.
She went on to operate a boarding house and restaurant in Fort Benton, but the beckoning of the gold rush drew her away in the 1879 and she ventured into the Little Belt Mountains to set up a restaurant saloon and hotel.
As the miners moved on, times grew tough and she struggled to scrape together a living, sometimes relying on her cat’s rabbit hunting to provide a meal. She eventually moved to the Cascade County Poor Farm, only to return to her Yogo City home in the mountains to live out the rest of her days.
“Millie had always said she would be the last ‘man’ to leave Yogo City – and she was,” Robison wrote.
For each new book project, Robison tries to tackled a mystery or uncover unknown stories that haven’t been widely shared.
In one Chapter in “Yankees & Rebels,” he dives into the legendary outlaw tale of Jesse and Frank James and explores the possibility that the brothers spent time on the upper Missouri during a six or seven-month period where they were not accounted for elsewhere.
“In a case like this, I can’t conclusively prove they were here,” Robison said. ‘But there’s a lot of evidence.”
One such piece of evidence is the record of an uncollected letter at the Deer Lodge Post Office addressed to Jesse W. James. Robison has also found multiple accounts claiming the brothers spent a winter in Montana Territory.
“It’s like other Montana legends and mysteries. It’s fun to see what’s behind it, beyond the family stories,” he said.
In the epilogue, Robison shares a brief history of Fort Benton beyond the steamboat era and entices readers to visit the local museums. In closing, he writes, “As you follow the levee trail from the Interpretive Center downriver to Old Fort Benton, you walk hallowed ground through the pages of history.
Locally, “Yankees & Rebels on the Upper Missouri: Steamboats, Gold and Peace.” And Robison’s other books are available at the River Press, the River and Plains society museums bookstores, River Break Basecamp, the Grand Union Hotel gift shop and the Benton Pharmacy. The book can also be found at Cassiopeia Books in Great Falls or at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other booksellers. The cover price is $21.99 for this 250-page paperback.
The book officially launched on Sept 5, though a small supply of copies had been made available earlier at select locations. Robison has been travelling around the state for book signings and guest appearances to promote the new book and will be at Cassiopeia Books for a reading on Thursday, Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. He also plans to hold a book signing in Fort Benton at a later date.
Last Best News
25 September 2016
Prairie Lights: Author sifts gems from Montana history
By Ed Kimmick,
In 1881, Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann, the daughter of Montana’s first territorial governor, made her way down the Missouri River from Fort Benton aboard the steamboat Far West.
In a detailed account of the journey, she wrote of the alarm she and other passengers felt when they learned that the Far West was to stop at Fort Buford, near present-day Williston, to pick up Sitting Bull and his band of Sioux Indians and transport them to Standing Rock Agency, south of Bismarck.
In spite of her fears, she paid close, sensitive attention to the Indian passengers, as in this description of a gathering at sunset:
“They swayed gently side to side, now and then half turning round, and meanwhile chanting what sounded like ‘Hi-yi-yi,’ repeated again and again. Their voices were good, and I discovered that there was a real melody to what they sang. … There they stood, their splendid, almost naked forms outlined against the glowing sunset. As they sang, shrill boys’ voices from the lower deck took up the burden of the song in another key, but with similar intervals. It was a concert never to be forgotten, on a stage impossible of reproduction, and hung with curtains of celestial hue.”
Plassmann’s recollections take up 11 full pages of Ken Robison’s new book, “Yankees & Rebels on the Upper Missouri,” published this month by the History Press. Turning to the notes and then the bibliography, I found that the passage came from Plassmann’s “Memories of a Long Life,” an unpublished manuscript in Robison’s possession.
That is the great value of Robison’s growing collection of books about Fort Benton and the Upper Missouri River: His tireless research continues to unearth buried nuggets of unknown or forgotten Montana history, much of it concerning people traditionally ignored by historians.
As in his other two books dealing with Civil War-era Montana Territory, Robison is particularly good at finding and telling the stories of African-Americans. In this book, their ranks include Mary and Maria Adams, sisters who served the family of George A. and Elizabeth Custer as, respectively, cook and housemaid.
Possibly the toughest person in the book is Millie Ringgold, who was born a slave in 1845 and accompanied the family of Gen. Nelson B. Sweitzer when he was sent out to command Fort Ellis, near Bozeman. She would remain in Montana the rest of her life, first as the proprietor of a boardinghouse in Fort Benton and then of a restaurant, saloon and small hotel in Yogo City, in the Little Belt Mountains.
There is also the fascinating story of another ex-slave, Mattie Bell Bost, who ended up marrying a white man, John K. Castner, a freighter and coal mine operator in Helena. They later moved to Little Pittsburg and built the first log cabin there. It would become a well-known traveler’s inn and Little Pittsburg would become the town of Belt.
A few chapters earlier, Robison tells a sad little tale related to the Castner family. It seems that a woman by the name of Florence B. Franklin once had plans to publish a book called “Cradled in Dixie,” partly about the life of Mattie Bell Bost Castner, whom Franklin had known as a child in Belt.
“The mystery of why ‘Cradled in Dixie’ was never published was answered,” Robison writes, “when this author discovered an article on the proposed book in the vertical files of the Great Falls Public Library. Written on the article in the handwriting of legendary African American librarian Alma Jacobs was the following explanation:
‘This book has not been published. Mrs. Franklin told me in June 1970 that Castner heirs threatened her with a lawsuit if she published because the descendants did not want to be earmarked as having Negro blood.’”
One can only imagine the thrill, and the disappointment, Robison must have felt when he stumbled upon that evocative fragment of Montana history.
Other, better known people also make their appearance here. In a chapter on Grant Marsh, whose exploits as a steamboat captain on the Yellowstone and Upper Missouri rivers were unrivaled, Robison presents a useful year-by-year look at his steamboats, itineraries and accomplishments.
John C. Lilly, an ex-Confederate whose post-war adventures on the Upper Missouri were detailed in Robison’s “Confederates in Montana Territory,” enters this book in his own words—a previously unpublished account of how he and other men riding with the Rebel cavalry officer Nathan Bedford Forrest attempted to capture a Union gunboat during the war.
The chapter on William Bent serves as a reminder of how fluid frontier society was, and how eagerly people jumped at new opportunities. In Montana, Bent, another Confederate veteran, worked as a newspaper compositor, Pony Express rider, rancher, gold prospector, wolf hunter and Indian interpreter who married two Assiniboine women.
And don’t miss the intriguing chapter in which Robison explores the persistent rumors that the notorious outlaws Jesse and Frank James spent time in Montana, possibly one whole winter in the Deer Lodge Valley.
Robison, who retired from a career in Naval Intelligence in 2001, is a native of Geraldine who lives in Great Falls and does research several days a week in the Overholzer Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.
In addition to his books on Montana history, he wrote a series of columns about Montanans involved in the Civil War for the Great Falls Tribune and the River Press in Fort Benton.
His love of history and of Montana is evident in everything he does, and in 2010 he was given a well-deserved “Heritage Keeper Award” by the Montana Historical Society.
American Prairie Reserve
20 September 2016
Recommended Reading for the Upper Missouri
Tough Trip Through Paradise by Andrew Garcia.
Lewis and Clark Among the Grizzlies: Legend and Legacy in the American West by Paul Schullery.
Across the Wide Missouri by Bernard DeVoto.
Yankees and Rebels on the Upper Missouri by Ken Robison. Recently released, you'll find lots of history of the Upper Missouri in this new book. According to a recent review in the Great Falls Tribune, "This new and highly anticipated volume introduces us to a different type of person, often quite as important as the “legends,” but perhaps undeservedly buried in the archives."
Great Falls Tribune
8 September 2016
Migrating to Montana Territory
By Carole Ann Clark,
Great Falls Public Library
This is the third book by popular author Ken Robison exploring Montana and Montanans before, during, and after the “War between the States”, following “Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield”, and “Confederates in Montana Territory: In the Shadow of Price’s Army”. While the first shows the influx of Northerners and Southerners lured by the promise of gold before the War, it demonstrates how this “vibrant and volatile mix” helped to mold and form the state of Montana from its territorial origins. The Civil War was indeed important to Montana.
The second title showcases the predominantly Rebel sympathizers who fashioned homes out of exile. This book is filled with legendary characters, most of whom were involved in one way or another with the conflicts before they “rode into the sunset” and the rough and raw country that was Montana.
This new and highly anticipated volume introduces us to a different type of person, often quite as important as the “legends,” but perhaps undeservedly buried in the archives. But archives and dusty history books, old newspapers and long-ago recorded oral histories are just what this historian loves to dig in, and he gleans more gold than most of those miners whose tales are included here. And while not human, the Upper Missouri River and the steamboats that traveled it are equally colorful and important.
According to the author, it was, in fact, deciding which of the nuggets he unearthed should be included that was the hardest part of writing the book — he said it could have easily been twice as long! When I asked Robison his favorite character or story here, he mentioned the “adventuress” Rosalie Ruthren, outspoken and opinionated and certainly ahead of her time. But he confessed to a particular fondness for the section, “Cradled in Dixie: On a Highway from Slavery to Opportunity”, and said he makes it a point to always include the black experience in each book, as African-Americans were present in each era of Montana history, but are often neglected or their stories are absent from the records. As an example, Mattie Castner can properly be called the “mother of Belt” and played a more significant role than Mary Fields in the state, but Mary is better documented in writings and photos and so is much more well known.
As Ken stated, “If you look closely at those who came to Montana Territory during and after the Civil War, you can find someone who participated in every important event of that War.” These are fascinating stories of the rich and poor, men and women, Yankees and Rebels, old and young, who brought those experiences to our state and in their time here, whether weeks, months or years, enriched the state’s history, and indeed, ours.
So what’s next for this historian and prolific author? In 1939, the WPA produced “Great Falls Yesterday”, a pioneer history of the area’s residents even before the city was founded. Robison and genealogist Jan Thomson plan to redo this originally mimeographed production, adding photos where possible and making it much more available (only 121 copies exist). A new title will reflect its scope.
There’s gold in these here books
• “Splendid on a Large Scale: the Writings of Hans Peter Gyllembourge Koch, Montana Territory 1869-1874” edited by Kim Allen Scott
• “African American Women Confront the West, 1600-2000” edited by Quintard Taylor, et al.
• “A Tenderfoot in Montana: Reminiscences of the Gold Rush, the Vigilantes & the Birth of Montana Territory” by Francis M. Thompson
• “Then & Now, or 36 Years in the Rockies: Personal Reminiscences of some of the First Pioneers of the State of Montana” by Robert Vaughn