Monday, December 8, 2014

The Sad End of Major John Owen: Part 1

John Owen came west as a sutler—or provisioner—for the army. He was in the Bitterroot Valley in 1850 when Jesuits closed St. Mary’s Mission and offered it for sale. Owen’s purchase for $250 was reputedly Montana’s first recorded legal document. Relocating a short distance north of the mission, Owen built a trading post. In 1856, he was appointed special agent to the Flathead Indians, hence the honorary title, “Major.” Owen openly criticized the government and advocated passionately for the Indians.

Montana’s first written conveyance of property is this bill of sale.
Joseph Joset, S. J., to John Owen, recorded in Missoula County. MHS Archives.
Elected to both the first and second territorial legislatures, Owen attended neither. Yet even in his absence, Owen was named a charter member of the Montana Historical Society. Among the twelve original members, which included W. F. Sanders, Granville and James Stuart, and C. P. Higgins, Owen was the first to reside in Montana.

Owen’s hospitality at Fort Owen became widely renowned. Travelers and guests enjoyed excellent hospitality and fine wines, delectable meals, even iced lemonade. Owen’s library was, according to Lt. John Mullan, the finest in the Northwest. However, Owen’s status in the territory was tenuous. The government viewed his position as Indian agent and trading post proprietor as a conflict. Legality of the title to his land was in question even in the 1850s, and the boundaries were disputed. By the late 1860s, financial troubles forced Owen to mortgage his property. Worse, he began to suffer deteriorating mental capabilities and lapses of memory. Then in 1868, Nancy, Owen’s beloved Shoshone wife, died. This event escalated his diminishing mental health.

Fort Owen was an oasis in the wilderness from the 1850s through the 1860s.
Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana-Missoula
In 1871 or 1872, friends committed Owen to St. John’s Hospital in Helena where the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth cared for the indigent “mentally deranged.” Owen’s fort was abandoned. Most blamed his dementia on alcoholism. Future president James A. Garfield, then a congressman, passed a night at Fort Owen and noted in his  journal that the major was a “bankrupt and a sot.” Father Lawrence Palladino, however, contended that “it may not have been so,” since Owen appeared robust but “his memory continued slowly to fail.”

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