Monday, November 24, 2014

Tough History

 African Americans journeyed West with the gold rush and were a presence in Montana’s first communities. While some were freemen of color, some came as slaves with their white owners and others arrived after the Emancipation. The unspeakable, deep-seated tragedy of human commerce today is difficult to understand. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s recent annual conference in Savannah, Georgia, offered a unique opportunity revisit this history. It was a powerful, thought provoking experience.

Although Savannah, settled in the 1739, initially banned slavery, the city and surrounding plantations desperately needed laborers. So slaves were imported from nearby South Carolina, and in 1749, the ban was lifted. Savannah became one of three major ports of entry for West African slaves.

Researcher and tour guide Karen B. Wortham of the Slave Dwelling Project, Inc., led a small group of us to some of the city’s little-known places related to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. She recounted Savannah’s darker, gut-wrenching past and showcased the places that served the lucrative industry of human commerce.

Savannah's River Street barracoons were holding areas for slaves newly arrived from West Africa.
Among the places we visited, the River Street “barracoons” vividly interpret this appalling history. The word comes from the Spanish barrac√≥n, or barracks, where slaves awaiting transport were held. After the grueling passage before arriving at port, traders separated the sick and weak. Some they quarantined, but others they chained together and tossed overboard. Men, women, and children healthy enough to work were then chained and “stored” in these cave-like holding areas until public auction.

The barracoons are built of gray Savannah bricks made by slaves whose fingerprints are sometimes found in the clay.
We ended at the nation’s oldest black church, the First African–Baptist Church, where Karen shared its long and impressive history. In the square across the street, Martin Luther King practiced his “I Have a Dream” speech. The current historic church building dates to 1855, and its sanctuary is elegant in its sober simplicity. Downstairs in the fellowship hall, West African Congo cosmograms—diamond-shaped prayer symbols—drilled into the wooden floor, were intended to appear as part of religious ritual. However, they actually served as air holes for runaway slaves concealed below.
Learn more about slavery in Savannah and the rich history of the church here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Photo: Thanksgiving Turkey

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 950-354
Are you ready for Thanksgiving dinner? I'd say this young man isn't. I hope your feast is filled with joy and free of regret.

P.S. The photo was taken by Evelyn Cameron.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Murder or Suicide?

The Grand Lodge AF & AM Museum in Helena displays the masonic apron of Meriwether Lewis. Not only is this treasure important to Freemasonry, it is also important for the role it played in the nation’s most intriguing unsolved mystery: Lewis’s controversial death.

Portrait of Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale
Independence National Historical Park
According to family lore, Lewis died with the apron in his breast pocket. He was traveling to Philadelphia along the Natchez Trace, on his way to Philadelphia to arrange publication of the Expedition’s journals. This was a dangerous route, called the “Devil’s Backbone,” infamous for criminal activity. Mystery surrounds what happened at Grinder’s Stand, a stopping place along the trail. Lewis died there of gunshot wounds. Mrs. Grinder, the innkeeper, wrote the letter informing President Jefferson that Meriwether Lewis had died by his own hand. The family, however, always suspected foul play.

Stephen Ambrose in Undaunted Courage does not examine the evidence and dismisses the possibility of murder, believing that Lewis was suicidal due to either depression, which he claims is evident at various times throughout Lewis’s life, or due to mental instability, possibly brought on by final stage syphilis. This narrow view ignores the evidence extant.

In 1848, the Tennessee legislature allocated funds to create a memorial at Lewis’s gravesite, but first had to prove Lewis was buried there. The body was partially exhumed and Dr. Samuel Moore examined the remains. He concluded that assassination was the likely cause of death, but it is unknown how he came to this conclusion. According to renowned forensics expert Dr. James Starrs, most historians fail to acknowledge this finding. Further, in 1928 when the Lewis monument was refurbished, the skull was “accidentally” exposed. Delong Rice of the National Park Service reportedly commented, “Isn't it interesting that a man who killed himself had a bullet hole in the back of the head?”

In the 1990s, Dr. Starrs collected 160 signatures of Lewis descendants on a petition to exhume Lewis’s body and settle the question once and for all. The Park Service has refused, perpetuating the mystery.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Great Place to Gather

The remote Judith River Ranger Station traces its origin to 1906 when Forest Service Ranger Thomas Guy Myers took up residence in the newly created Jefferson National Forest. His challenge was to interpret and administer policies regarding public use of the area’s abundant natural resources.

Myers temporarily took over an abandoned miner’s cabin and set to building a field office and permanent home using a catalog-ordered “house kit.” He supplemented native logs and scrounged barbed wire from a nearby abandoned sawmill to reinforce the daubing. This kept the house snug in cold weather. The station’s simple square shape and use of recycled materials reflect the Forest Service conservation ethic. A log barn and corrals accommodated the horses and livestock needed for the ranger’s self-sufficiency.  

Myers married Emily McLaury in the early 1910s and brought her to the station. The couple made their remote quarters warm and inviting, adding bead board walls and wallpaper. The couple raised their son, Robert, at the station, and Emily taught school. The family lived there year-round until the early 1930s. Rangers thereafter occupied it seasonally until 1981.  

When Forest Service preservationists began extensive restoration, carpenters made wonderful discoveries. They found a teaching tool, forgotten beneath a layer of sheetrock, in young Robert’s upstairs bedroom. A historic timeline Emily drew on the wallpaper depicts the Stone Age and ancient Mediterranean history. Ranger Myers recycled everything. The house kit’s shipping crate framed the living and dining room doorway; wallpaper samples and opened mail filled in gaps around the windows and doors.

Today, visitors trade electricity and running water for a rare opportunity to live as the Myers family did a century ago. The station has an ambiance where the past and its energy linger. Remember this ghostly experience at the cabin?

The Judith River Ranger Station sleeps eight and is available for rental throughout the year. The station is equipped with propane heat, cook stove, and an adjacent modern vault toilet. For further information or to reserve the cabin, visit

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday Photo: Milking

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 91-69.64
I hope that today's photograph gives you a chuckle. This woman is a talented milker, but unfortunately nothing is known about the picture or the photographer. Do you recognize who she is or where the picture was taken? Leave a comment and let me know.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Chinese Altar

Preparations are underway for the Montana Historical Society’s latest major exhibit, The Chinese in Montana: Our Forgotten Pioneers. The exhibit will feature Chinese textiles, ceramics, and cultural treasures that have never been on public exhibit. Items  include a sixteen-foot hand written banner from the Chinese Masonic Temple in Virginia City, a noodle machine from the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor in Butte, and traditional clothing. But one especially exciting item is an altar from the Chinese Masonic Temple in Helena.

The Chinese altar from Helena’s Chinese Masonic Temple is currently undergoing conservation.
When the conservator laid the altar on its back, the address “206 Clore” was discovered penciled on its underside. From the 1870s to about 1892, the address belonged to a small log cabin on what is now Park Avenue, immediately next door to the Pioneer Cabin. The tiny dwelling was one of a row labeled “Chinese.”  Whoever the occupant of the cabin was must have played some role in the altar’s installation in the Helena temple.

The altar is not only beautiful art, but it is also richly symbolic of the land left behind.  Worship in the temple was a solace to these sojourners who kept their customs, their beliefs, and adapted their lifestyles to the western frontier. Rich green, red, and gold paint is typical of Chinese furnishings.  Intricate characters flanking the altar’s sides, according to our translators, poetically glorify some long ago military hero. Carvings in the wood across the top poignantly represent the Chinese homeland. Golden silkworm moths, wings outspread, flutter among flowers; pairs of bats, their expressions peculiarly menacing, symbolize good luck.

Bats appear menacing in the altar carving but represent good luck.
The altar was a gift in 1973 of Helenan Doris Marshall who, with her husband Walter, founded the Brewery Theatre.  The altar was purchased at auction when the temple fell to urban renewal. Mrs. Marshall likely used it in a stage production and then donated it to the Montana Historical Society. And it is fortunate that she did. This rare object will be a focal point in Forgotten Pioneers, scheduled to open in May 2015.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Legacy of War

Orville .G. Willett was an army veteran, a state senator, and the person who suggested the name for Mineral County. He was also the victim of a dreaded disease. Willett had suffered undiagnosed bouts of illness for years, but while serving in the legislature in 1917, the Mayo Clinic finally determined the cause. Willett had leprosy. He had become infected while serving his country during the Spanish American War in the Philippines in 1902. He was one of some two hundred veterans of this war to contract the disease.

Willett posed for this legislative portrait just months before his diagnosis.
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 945-620
The State of Montana had no rules and regulations in place for the isolation and quarantine of lepers. It was a mysterious disease, believed to be a fatal and highly contagious. The Alberton community was horrified to learn of the Willetts’ troubles. Willett and his wife were newly married. The couple was placed under quarantine in a small cottage in rural Mineral County near Alberton and cared for at county expense. Willett refused to submit to painful chalmoogra oil treatments, which doctors at that time believed was a viable cure. Instead he resorted to faith healing as his health deteriorated.

Willett and his wife lived under quarantine near Alberton, Montana.
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 945-621
Ten years later in 1927, a legislative act committed Willett—who had continued to refuse medical treatment—to the federal leprosarium at Carville, Louisiana. Although local residents had been supportive of the Willetts, arsonists wasted little time after their departure for Louisiana. Their house and all their possessions burned to the ground. Doctors at Carville were hopeful that Willett would benefit from chalmoogra oil treatment. The disease had not disfigured him, but it was far advanced. Despite treatment, Willett died in 1928.

Today, Carville, Louisiana, is still a center for the study of leprosy, or Hansens’s Disease. Undamaged by Hurricane Katrina, research was disrupted while the facility served as the identification center for 910 victims of the storm.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Friday Photo: Cousin Jack Race Horses

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, ST 001.072
The description included with this stereograph states that: "A Cousin Jack is a person from Cornwall." Perhaps this is insight into the humor that photographer N. A. Forsyth intended in his caption. He took the photo in Butte between 1901 and 1911.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Gruesome Legacy

Violence in Montana’s mining camps affected everyone, and Helena’s Hangman’s Tree was a community icon. Mary Ronan recalled in her memoir, Girl from the Gulches, that one morning she and her classmates saw a man hanging from the tree. She never forgot  “…that pitiful object, with bruised head, disarrayed vest and trousers, with boots so stiff, so worn, so wrinkled, so strangely the most poignant of all the gruesome details.” Nearly seventy years later as she dictated her memories to her daughter, Mary still remembered.

David Hilger recalled climbing the tree’s dead branches as a youngster and examining rope burns on its lower limbs. He and his friends played marbles beneath it. On April 30, 1870, vigilantes interrupted their game for the lynching of Arthur Compton and Joseph Wilson. Once the double hanging was over, according to Hilger, the boys resumed their game. These were the last two recorded hangings on the Hangman’s Tree.

Records show that some of the tree’s victims were buried in various Helena cemeteries, but the burial places of others are unknown.  At least two coffins have surfaced in the neighborhood where the Hangman’s Tree once stood. In 1900, a workman digging a foundation for an addition in a backyard uncovered one coffin. A crew hit the other working on gas lines on Davis Street in 1931. Were these victims of the Hangman’s Tree? Both burials were in close proximity to the spot where the tree once stood.

This photo of James Daniels' hanging in 1866 clearly shows his high-topped boots.
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 948-124
David Hilger examined the contents of the pine box discovered in 1931. Along with shreds of clothing were the remains of the victim’s unusual high topped boots. Hilger compared the boots with a photograph of the 1866 hanging of James Daniels. The boots, further described as “wrinkled,” seemed to match those in the photograph. If the remains were those of Daniels, the boots could be the ones that Mary Ronan described.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

Celebrate Woman Suffrage Today!

When Congress created Montana Territory in 1864, women had few opportunities. Not only could they not vote, they could not work in most professions and could not attend most colleges. Some women were against woman suffrage because they believed it threatened traditional views. Belle Winestine of Helena, a great campaigner for women’s rights, explained the controversy this way: Men said, “Women’s place was in the home. Women are on a pedestal. Why should they come down and mix in ‘dirty politics?'” Well,” we women replied, “who made politics dirty and how many women who worked in factories or labored on the farm are on pedestals?”

Between 1869 and 1871, seven western legislatures considered giving women the vote. Montana was not one of them. Only Wyoming and Utah granted women the right to vote. Men dominated Montana Territory seven to one, and this is partly why suffrage was slow in coming. One small victory came in 1887 when an amendment to Montana’s territorial constitution gave women the right to vote for school trustees if they paid taxes in that district. An important “first” came about upon statehood in 1889 when Ella Knowles Haskell became Montana’s first female attorney and, in 1892, the first woman in Montana to run for public office.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 951-821
The Montana Woman Suffrage Association formed in 1895. Suffrage amendments repeatedly came before the Montana legislature. In 1911, Jeannette Rankin pled the cause. “Men and women are like right and left hands;” she said, “it doesn't make sense not to use both.” But the amendment failed again. Finally in 1913, Governor Sam Stewart took up the cause, and Montana’s suffrage amendment passed with only two dissenting votes in each house of the legislature. Put to public ballot on November 3, 1914, men voted 41,302 to 37,588 in favor of the suffrage amendment. Montana women won the right to vote in state elections and to hold state offices. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted all women citizens the right to vote in national elections.
Exercise your right to vote on November 4!