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Catlin, John B: Part 3, Section A - Catlin Finds a Home

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Finding A Home

A. L. Stone wrote a second article about John Catlin appearing in The Missoulian on January 20, 1912:

The general eastern idea of Montana, even now, is pretty vague. And this condition exists in spite of the publicity which has been given our state and its resources, in spite of the records that have been made by its people and its products. It is easy, then, to understand that the conception of Montana in 1866 must have been very misty in the minds of those people of the east who set out to locate in the then territory.

They had much trouble – most of them – in reaching their destination. In these Old Trail stories I have related the experience of some of those early participants in Montana homeseeker excursions. The very hardships which were encountered along the overland trail insured a good population for Montana, for if ever there was a case of the survival of the fittest, it was in the journey to Montana in the days when the bull-team held the place which the Pullman now occupies. Montana got the persistent, earnest ones; the others dropped out along the way.

When they finally got to Montana, these early arrivals were not altogether sure they liked the place. It was different, perhaps, from what their fancy had pictured it, and the gold nuggets didn’t rattle into their pans as fast as they had expected. Certainly it was very different from the places they had left behind. They had no basis for comparison other than that and they wanted – some of them – to size up Montana along with other western sections. There were a good many of them who did that very thing. After a stay in Montana, they moved on through Idaho, to the coast territories and drifted through the camps in Oregon and Washington. And the records show that a good many of them came back. Montana stood their test and there was nothing better in their estimation.

Of this class is Major John B. Catlin, of whose arrival in Montana I wrote a week ago. He and his partner, Steve Grover, having fought their way through Indians and having dodged the protection of soldiers, arrived in Virginia City, December 9, 1866. They looked about the placer camp a bit and concluded that it was not a very good place for a tenderfoot to winter in. So they took another partner and set out to find a place where they could winter comfortably and economically. The three had three saddle horses, a team of mules and a wagon. They loaded supplies into the wagon and set out upon their tour of discovery. It was a good many months before any of them located permanently and when this did happen, they were all well scattered. But in the case of Major Catlin the long trail led back to Montana and to the Bitter Root valley.

“I have had a good many chances,” said the major to me the other day as he reviewed some of the incidents which are here set down. “If I had done differently in regard to some of them, I might be a millionaire now. But I also had a good many chances to be dead. I passed those up, as well, and I am alive and in Missoula, well satisfied with the way things have turned out and not begrudging any of the good fortune which came to those who picked up some of the chances which I passed by and sorry for the fate of some of those other fellows who accepted the chances which I missed and are now a long time dead.”

The three tenderfeet with their winter outfit left Virginia City over the old stage-road, which they followed toward Silver Bow as far as the mouth of Divide creek. There they turned up into the Big Hole valley and drove to the first stream. It is now called Charcoal creek and it is where the dam is built which sends power and water to Butte. They had taken in two older men who were experienced in western life, and the five of them built a cabin, 16 by 24 feet in size, near this creek. There they spent the winter of 1866-67.

Thirty years after that winter – in 1896 – Major Catlin’s son, Wilbur, went up Divide creek to make surveys and measurements for the Big Hole dam. It was a job that required nearly the entire winter’s time. Young Catlin and his partner, looking about for quarters, came upon an old cabin. They cleaned it out and lived in it all winter. In the spring he mentioned the cabin to his father. The major listened. “Where was it?” he asked. He was told that it was on the first creek above the mouth of Divide. Wilbur described it – the sill logs were big firs, two feet through, and the rest were cottonwoods; a big stone fireplace was in one end; and so on. It was the cabin which Father Catlin and his partners had built the winter after they left Virginia City.

“I couldn’t cook,” Major Catlin says, “so in the division of labor that winter I was made packer. We killed a lot of antelope and deer and some elk and sheep. When our supplies got low, I would pack meat down to the stage station at Divide and trade it there for groceries. The station was run by Mrs. Fischer, whose husband drove the stage between Silver Bow and Virginia City. She was a fine cook and when I got down there I used to stay as long as I could. When I got home I’d tell the boys about the rough trail. They accepted the story all winter and it was not until we went out in the spring and stopped at Mrs. Fischer’s for dinner that they understood, and then, under the influence of that dinner, they couldn’t blame me. I used to stay a week at a time. Hay for my horse was 40 cents a pound, but I could pay for it in meat, so I didn’t care. Mrs. Fischer used to send up and down the line by her husband for books and papers and she lent us all she got. We had something to read – though there was no news in it – and our winter was comfortable and pleasant. It was one of the finest winters I ever spent in my life.”

It was Christmas day when the little cabin was finished on Charcoal creek. In March the boys said farewell to their winter quarters and moved down the trail to the stageroad. The season was early that spring. The water started running well in late March and when they got to Silver Bow the tenderfeet made a contract with a man named Walker to work some ground on shares. Walker was to furnish water, sluiceboxes, tools and cabin; the boys were to be allowed $3 a day out of the first gold taken out; the balance was to be divided equally. The boys stripped ground for the first pit, Walker good-naturedly showing them how to do it, and had that first pit cleaned up in 30 days. The cleanup netted them $11 a day for the time they worked. The next pit cleared them $9 a day; and on the third they earned $7 a day. That ended their contract work and they found employment at $6 a day for the rest of the summer.

In the fall of 1867, Catlin and Grover left their partners and went to Bannack, Boise, Baker City, Umatilla, Portland, Olympia and Seattle. They wanted to satisfy themselves as to which part of the country was best. They traveled in their own outfit to Umatilla; there they sold their horses and went down the river by steamer. That winter they worked in a sawmill at Port Discovery, 12 hours a day.

In the spring of 1868, they talked it over and agreed that they had seen nothing as good as Montana and decided they would return to the mountains. They bought an outfit and started across the range. It was too early and the snow was so deep in the passes that the blazes on the trees were hidden and the travelers forced to retreat. They shipped to Portland and then went to The Dalles, where they planned to outfit again for the trip over the Columbia trail. In the afternoon of the day they reached The Dalles, each bought a saddle horse; they planned to buy a pack horse in the morning.

“We went to bed that night,” said Major Catlin reminiscently, “both firmly determined to come to Montana. I was surprised in the morning when Steve said he was going back to Portland. He was positive. I was equally positive that I was going to Montana. He gave me the saddle horse he had bought. I went to the wharf to see him aboard the steamer. We shook hands and parted, after years as blanket mates. So quickly do things happen. I have never seen Steve since. Last year I heard he was living in California.”

Catlin then went to get his horses; he had no need to buy a pack animal. His was a roan and the Steve horse was a gray. Saddle, pack and supplies were bought and Catlin started alone over the Columbia trail, back to Montana. He got to Montana all right, but there were many things which happened before he got there.

“The trail was the worst I ever saw,” said the major continuing his narration. “It ran along blue slide rock for miles and miles. Now and then there was a scraped stone, where a horseshoe had marked it, but for two days that was the only guide I had. On the second day out, I came to a little creek, where there was a clearing. Here were running water and clover. I lost no time in feeding the horses. It was 11 o’clock in the forenoon and I made camp and cooked a meal. The horses were greedily eating in the clover and I lay down in the June sunshine for a nap. In my pack I had an army Remington six-shooter. It occurred to me that I should have this gun handy and I got it out, cleaned it, oiled it and loaded it. Then I went back to take my nap.

“I don’t know how long I slept, but it was considerably after noon when I waked and discovered that my horses were missing. I was some scared. On the edge of the clearing there was a giant fir that had been uprooted and I climbed up on the roots of this tree to look out over the trail. Up and down the river I could see nothing. But, looking up into the woods on the little creek, I got a glimpse of the gray horse. Then I hiked out through the timber to overtake the horses. I had a hackamore on the roan, as he was hard to catch sometimes, but the gray had no rope at all, as he followed the roan. I hurried on after them, thinking that the roan was leading the way into the hills.

“I gained on the horses and just as I was about to speak to the gray horse I made a discovery that a man was leading the roan ahead. Looking again, I discovered that this man wore a gun that looked to me to be about three feet long. Later I discovered that it was a regulation revolver. There was but one thing for me to do and that was to work around in front and get the drop on the fellow before he saw me.

“Keeping behind trees as much as possible, I flanked the horsethief and finally got around in front of him. The roan horse saw me and lifted his head. I thought he was going to whinny and I made one quick jump behind a tree. I pulled my gun and held it on the fellow, who had not heard me. I told him to drop that rope and hold up his hands.

“He complied quickly. Then he told me his gun was not loaded and offered to show me. I told him I would find out for myself and ordered him to hold his hands higher. He stretched up his arms and I relieved him of his gun. It was not such a very big gun, either, when I came to get it in my hand.

“Well, I had my horses back, but I had a horsethief on my hands, and I didn’t know what to do with him. I told him to take the rope and lead the roan back to camp ahead of me. All the while, I was wondering how to get rid of him and he seemed to read my thoughts. When we got to the clearing he asked me what I was going to do with him. I told him I was going to blow the top of his head off, but he didn’t believe me. He told me a tale of woe of a mother and some brothers and sisters, of sickness and hunger. He said he had a fever sore on his leg and showed me. He said he hadn’t had anything to eat for two days and he showed that, too. ‘There’s the grub,’ I said. ‘Cook you dinner.’

“He went to work, cooking. While he was getting his meal, I tried to decide what to do with him. I couldn’t have him with me, for he was the limit. While I was thinking it over, I looked down the trail and saw a man coming with three packhorses. I was glad and went to meet him. It was then 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The man coming was a miner – an Irishman – bound for Bear gulch in Montana where he had been the season before. I helped him unpack and led him to where I had made camp. There he saw my horsethief friend and exclaimed, ‘What in hell is this fellow doing here?’ I told him the story and the Irishman suggested that we kill him and throw him into the river.

“I dissuaded him, however, and suggested that we keep the fellow’s gun and give him in exchange one of the miner’s horses which was lame. Finally we did this, giving him an old quilt for a saddle, starting him off down the trail and telling him to keep going. We never saw or heard of him again. The Irishman and I became great friends. I called him ‘Jack’ and that is what he called me. We came up the river together.

“When we got to Spokane falls, we stopped to rest our horses and ourselves. One afternoon we were fishing below the falls, when Jack said to me. ‘This is going to be a great place. We can take up a couple of claims here, build a station and take care of the freighters. Some day there will be a railway through here and this will be a great place. I have twenty-five hundred dollars on me and I’ll furnish all the money that’s necessary.’ That was the first time either of us had ever mentioned money. I had a good deal myself, but I hadn’t said anything about it. I told Jack that probably all he said was true, but it would take a long time and I knew as good a place where there would be things doing right away. So we left Spokane falls. The place where we camped is now almost in the heart of the city. That was one of the chances I missed, but I have also had a good many chances to be dead and I am alive. So I figure I am ahead of the game.”

The two Jacks came on up the river to Missoula. It was on that visit that Major Catlin first met Judge Woody, who was clerk in the postoffice. Catlin wrote a letter home – the first in a year – and went to mail it. He laid down a quarter and got a three-cent stamp. Woody started to give him stamps to make up the quarter, which was the smallest coin there was then, but Catlin told him he didn’t need any stamps and to keep the change.

They went on to Bear gulch, where the Irishman said good-bye to Catlin. The latter went on to Carpenter bar, where he remained until June 1868. Then he came back to Missoula.

[The Irishman may have been Michael McCauley of Missoula’s Target Range. Until 1868 he mined at Blackfoot City where nearby Carpenter bar was located.  McCauley and Catlin had a lot in common. Born in 1824, McCauley was also later addressed as Major, as he had fought in the California Indian wars where he was made Captain of his company.  Both McCauley and Catlin were to become agents at the Blackfoot Indian Reservation - each for a short time. Before that McCauley was the Flathead Indian Agent. McCauley also later had the distinction of being the longest serving Mason in Montana. – See Michael McCauley in Progressive Men of Montana, and in M. A. Leeson’s History of Montana 1739 – 1885.]

Before he came west in 1866, Catlin had heard that some cousins of his, named Elliott, who had come west, had been killed by Indians. When he was in Boise on his way to the coast from Bannack, Catlin met a man who had been in the Bitter Root valley, living with a family named Elliott, whose family names he happened to mention. One was Lynde, not a usual name, and Catlin identified these Elliotts as his cousins. He wrote to them and agreed to visit them. When he returned to Missoula in the summer of 1868 it was for the purpose of keeping this promise.

He went up the valley and found his relatives. In the autumn of 1868 he bought the squatter right to a ranch which has since become known as the Watts ranch, near Hamilton. In 1870, Major Catlin married. His home, after he sold the ranch, was at Stevensville for many years. Ever since 1868, the Bitter Root has been his home and he has no longing for any other. He is of those who have sought widely for a better place and have failed to find it. In his years of residence in the valley, he has had many experiences that are interesting. Reference has been made in these stories of his participation in the battle of the Big Hole, when he commanded the civilian volunteers who marched with General Gibbon after Chief Joseph. That is a story which must some time be told in detail. It was my intent when I started to write this one, to tell of the wanderings of Major Catlin in his survey of the northwest which preceded his decision to settle permanently in the Bitter Root valley. He is a Montanan from choice and he does not regret the choice.
During his years in Stevensville, Major Catlin was the trusted friend of old Chief Charlot. During the dark days of Flathead starvation, before the tribe consented to the change to the Jocko valley, the sullen old chief was fed from the Catlin hotel. Always he retained his affection for Major Catlin.

About 10 years ago, I wanted to get a photograph of Charlot. At that time, he was hostile to the idea of having his picture made and all attempts to get the desired photograph had proved futile. One day I asked Major Catlin to drive with me to the Jocko agency, there to see if he could coax Charlot into consent. It was a delightful trip we made – one of the drives which I shall never forget. The weather was fine and the country was beautiful. Best of all, we got the photograph.

Major Catlin had a heart-to-heart talk with Charlot and the latter let his wife be photographed as an experiment. Then the major talked with him some more and the old chief agreed to pose if Major Catlin would stand with him. This we arranged easily. The major stood far enough away to be cut out, while Charlot posed proudly in the very center of the photographic plate. It was one of the few times I ever saw Charlot smile. He was genuinely glad to see his old friend again and, contrary to his custom, he made no attempt to conceal his delight. There was a long visit – a regular Indian visit, and the major and I were late to dinner when we got back to Missoula that night. But we had some photographs of Charlot in the box under the buggy seat.

I mention this incident to show the sort of man this pioneer is. He has the friendship of a host of people whom he has known and who have known him during the years that have elapsed since he entered Montana in 1866. His has been a busy life. There is something to show for it all. He has written a record in Montana history of which any man might well be proud. And his philosophy is good. He regrets none of the chances which he passed up and which he rejoices in having passed up so many “chances to be dead.” He is very much alive – contented and happy to be a Montanan. And, after all, what better lot than that could befall any man?
January 20, 1912.

Part 3 - Catlin Finds a Home | Part 3, Section B


Last Updated on Monday, 07 November 2011 19:18