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Catlin, John B: Part 3, Section D - Blackfoot City - Carpenter Bar - Montana's Largest Nugget - Calamity Jane - Frontier Woman - Mary Ronan's Amazing Tale - Riding Story's Little Donkeys

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Blackfoot City – Carpenter Bar - Largest Gold Nugget - Calamity Jane

Below is a description of the Blackfoot City mining area available at the Montana Abandoned Mine Lands web site:

Located about 25 miles west-northwest of Helena near the town of Avon is the Ophir District. The district lies in two counties, Powell and Lewis and Clark, with the upper portions of the major drainages in Lewis and Clark County. The Powell County portion of the district and the western half of the district in Lewis and Clark County are accessed by road from Avon. This portion of the district was on the Northern Pacific Railway. The eastern portions of the district is accessed from Helena through Marysville.

Placer mines were active in the district in the 1860s and 1870s and Blackfoot City, later renamed Ophir, was a thriving mining camp. Ophir Gulch was placer mined for eight miles while Carpenter and Snowshoe Gulches were placered several more miles. Among the richest deposits of placer gold were the Prairie Bar and Carpenter Bar. On the McKay Claim in Deadwood Gulch, which is a tributary of Snowshoe Gulch, a miner named Ed Risson found Montana's largest gold nugget. The nugget was reported at the time to be worth $3,280. It is estimated that the placers produced around $3.5 million in gold in the early years (Pardee and Schrader 1933).


Another description of Ophir (Blackfoot City) is found in the Department Of Revenue publication of 1870 cited above: (See Statistics of Mines and Mining in the States and Territories West of the Rocky Mountains, Vol 2, by Rossiter W. Raymond, Washington, Govt. Printing Office, 1870, pp. 271-272)

Ophir Gulch, on a tributary of Little Blackfoot Creek, heads in the main range a short distance north of Mullan’s Pass, and runs south. It is about 12 miles long and is, or has been, mined the entire distance. Several of its eastern branches, such as Tiger, Carpenter, Prairie, Eureka, and other gulches were rich, and there is a large extent of hill and prairie diggings in the vicinity that will last for some years yet. The mines were discovered in the fall of 1864 by Pemberton, Bratton, and Stewart, and others, but no work of any consequence was done, nor was there any excitement about them until March, 1865, when, during a spell of intense cold weather and deep snow, a stampede to these diggings occurred, in which many persons were badly frozen. The town of Blackfoot City was located on Ophir Gulch in May, 1865, and for a couple of years was a place of considerable importance, but the fate of nearly all mining towns overtook it, and it has now dwindled down to a small village, although the mines in its vicinity are far from being exhausted.

Ed. Smith and Co.’s bed-rock flume, three miles below town, in Ophir, was begun in June, 1866; it has a 30-inch bottom; is now one mile in length, and controls the gulch for four miles. Its present cost is $20,000. Thomas E. Pounds & Co.’s bed-rock flume, in Carpenter’s Gulch, was started in September, 1866. It has a 26-inch bottom, and is intended to work the gulch four miles. At present it is one mile long, and has a cost of $14,000. Several other flumes and hydraulic operations are going on, of which I could not get any definite information. The quality of gold here, as well as at gold creek, is excellent, coining from $18 to $19 per ounce. The total yield of Ophir Gulch and vicinity has been about $5,000,000. The vote last August was 290, which would give a population of about 500 souls.

Although Blackfoot City was well known in the mining lore of Montana, it is almost forgotten today. No wonder when it is compared with the fury of hundreds of other discoveries on Montana “gulches.”

In his book, Montana – The Gold Frontier, writer and historian Dan Cushman provided a description of the Blackfoot City area in conjunction with the travels of Bob Stanley and the “three Georgians,” who were returning from a failed trip north to the Kootenai excitement. These men later went on to rediscover the very rich diggings in Prickly Pear Valley, present day Helena:

At least a thousand gold hunters had passed down the Little Blackfoot valley, all going somewhere else, but many had paused to camp and test the stream sides as a matter of course...Prospecting the prairie side was a disheartening prospect. Stanley led his party in that direction and camped on the prairie hills. They didn’t discover anything, but he certainly had the right idea.

Soon-to-be-named Ophir, Carpenter and Snowshoe gulches, all famous in the annals of mining, came into the valley there and Stanley led his party across all of them. Carpenter Bar, a celebrated discovery of one year hence came out almost to the surface, as shallow as Bill Fairweather’s bar on Alder Gulch – and as rich – but there was little sign of it on the rolling surface. Prairie Bar, another celebrated occurrence, no sign either. Stanley walked over it unsuspecting. The largest nugget (exceptions previously noted) ever found in Montana came a few years later from Deadwood Gulch, a tributary of Snowshoe, also passed by. It was turned up by a miner named Ed Risson while he was running a trench toward a quartz lead on what has become known as ‘the Old McKay Claim.’ It weighed sixteen pounds and reminded one of two fists clasped together in prayer.

The party also camped just below the future site of Blackfoot City, where there was excellent pasture, a small stream, groves, and beaver dams. In two years Blackfoot City would claim 2,000 residents, mostly Saturday night residents, spread out along the bars and streams. At its height it had the usual saloons, stores, and auctions, a Chinatown, a doctor, a lawyer named Asia Brown, a judge, one hotel, and several small boarding houses, an assayer, a brewery, a postmaster, and the historical distinction of having it its sketchily marked cemetery the unmarked grave of Mrs. Robt. Cannary, mother of Calamity Jane.

(Cannary seems to have been a gambler in Virginia City, no record of him coming to Blackfoot, or the Cannary children, three in number, girls 9 to 13, hence old enough by frontier standards to shift for themselves; but Jane by written account specifies Blackfoot City as her mother’s resting place. “A woman of the lowest grade” – said the single known reference in Montana. From such beginnings, Jane went on to fame and notoriety, and to become the consort, her claim, of Wild Bill Hickok, the very highest position open to the frontier demi-monde. Hickok, on the other hand, admitted only to being the squire to Mattie Silks, later queen of the Denver night life, and Mrs. Agnes Thatcher Lake, a circus equestrienne.) (pp. 192-193)

Mary Ronan (Mollie Sheehan) - Riding Story's Little Donkeys

Another celebrated Montana lady who lived at Blackfoot City for a time was Mrs. Peter Ronan, first known as Mollie Sheehan, the daughter of an Irish freighter - James Sheehan from Cork. Her reminiscences were recorded by her daughter, Margaret Ronan, edited by H.G. Merriam of Missoula, and published as Frontier Woman, in 1973 at the University of Montana.  Margaret taught English at Missoula County High School and collaborated with her mother in writing her mother’s memoir at Missoula in 1929. Margaret Ronan gave the finished manuscript (Masters Thesis) to the library at the University of Montana in 1932. Ronan, Montana, is the namesake of Peter Ronan who served as the Flathead Indian Agent. Mrs. Ronan’s reminiscences have since been republished as, Girl from the Gulches:The Story of Mary Ronan, edited by Ellen Baumler.

Born at Louisville, Kentucky, in 1852, Mollie Sheehan’s mother died while Mollie was very young, not long after the birth and death of a second child. Mollie’s memories of her early life focused on traveling with her father as he moved from place to place. “When I think of my childhood, I see a picture of a covered wagon halted on a dim road winding out of sight on a wide prairie that undulates endlessly toward a vast shadowy background of looming mountains.”

First to Illinois, then to Ottumwa, Iowa, then St. Joseph, Missouri, where her father remarried, and then to Colorado where she made the journey alone with her father to meet her new mother, Anne Cleary. At the age of nine Mollie recalled the journey the same way she viewed much of life – as an adventure. Upon the arrival of a new baby brother, she recalled living in Nevada City, Colorado, and playing near the mines in the “tailings from Pat Casey’s mill, delighted with the shining bits of pyrite of iron.”

By 1862 they moved to the “straggling town of Denver and lived on F Street next door to P.S. Pfouts,” who would later become famous as the President of the Executive Committee of Montana’s vigilantes. Raised in the Catholic Church, she was fond of school and enjoyed singing, dancing and “reciting pieces” taught to her by her new mother. “At school my Readers and those of the children below and above me absorbed my attention. I looked through them for the poetry, all of which I read and reread.”

Early in 1863, not long after her first holy communion, she learned there would soon be a new adventure. “My father came home and said that we were soon to set forth again in our wagons to the rich, newly discovered gold diggings at Bannack, Montana.”  As a freighter her father had considerable experience in the traveling business. “My father always had two wagons, drawn by six-mule teams, one loaded heavily and driven by a hired man. The wagon which he himself drove and in which the family rode was loaded with supplies in the bottom; over these were spread mattresses, blankets, and comforters. There we slept. Fastened onto the back of the wagon were a sheet-iron stove, a little rocking chair for my stepmother and a mess box...

“My duty in the mornings was to help gather up the food and pack the mess box. Wood, water and grass were necessary for a good camping site. We watched for these three essentials as soon as the afternoon shadows began to lengthen.”

The route they took to Montana Territory became a question that Mollie was never able to settle, except that she recalled the phrase ‘Bridger’s Cut-Off’.

“Our train of twenty-five or thirty wagons set out from Bridger’s Cut-off about the first of May [1863]. A man named Clark was elected captain. Every one of our train drove horses and mules except one driver, Nelson Story, who, with Mrs. Story, then beautiful and sixteen years of age, had joined us at the Cut-Off; he drove oxen. Though they were slow, he had decided, rather than wait for an ox-train to be made up, to try to keep up with Captain Clark. He did. His wagon was always the last in camp in the evenings, but it always drew into its place in the great circle as darkness fell. I watched for him with childish eagerness each evening, hoping that he would reach camp early enough to give me a ride on one of the little donkeys he had in his outfit.”

Arriving at Bannack “about June 1,” they quickly became aware of the news of the discovery of Alder Gulch. “A party of horsemen with a lean and tell-tale eagerness about them had just come to Bannack from ‘somewhere’s east,’ leading a horse loaded with gold. They were bartering for a grubstake. From all but a few ‘pardners’ they were trying to keep their secret, but someone let it leak out. The discovery men were watching for a chance to slip away, but at every turn a crowd awaited them, camped around them, and when they did start three or four hundred men on foot and on horseback went right along with them.”

Mollie’s father, James Sheehan, also followed these men not long after he arrived at Bannack. Fellow freighter, Nelson Story followed them as well. The stampede was on to Alder Gulch.

“My father pitched a tent for our family on the outskirts of Bannack on Grasshopper Creek where the water near the bank was richly mantled with tender green watercress. He provided us with food and then loaded his wagon of supplies into Alder Gulch. After a few days my father returned, pulled up our tent stakes, loaded our belongings, and we were creaking in the warm sunshine amid a hovering cloud of alkali dust over ground tobacco brown, through endless stretches of parched, gray-green sagebrush... During a smart pull-up the mules kept stopping to rest. At one of these stops I asked to be permitted to ride in the back of the empty wagon driven by the hired hand so that I could play with my black puppy. On a steep slope the wagon turned over. My father saw the accident. He jumped from the wagon he was driving and came running and picked me up. I was not bruised or scratched or even frightened. My only concern was lest the puppy, which I had continued to hold in my arms, had been hurt... At last the mule teams panted into a little valley, green and homey, snuggled among hills. We camped where a large stream, winding intricately among the high wooded hills from under the rim of a great bald crater, was joined by a tiny crossline creek. I jumped down from the wagon in haste and excitement, searched for a stick, whittled a place for my name, scrawled ‘Mollie Sheehan,’ pounded the stick into the ground and announced that I had staked my claim. Father looked on and laughed.”

Mollie Sheehan’s memoir is now famous for its unusual perspective of Virginia City life from a child’s viewpoint. Especially from a child whose unquestioning perspective recalled it in a language of sights, sounds, smells, that was vividly descriptive. “Our surroundings I took quite for granted as the way of all places in which little girls lived.” She soon noticed “fancy ladies, because of their gaudy dress, so different from that of the ladies who were our friends.” There were “rough-clad men” who labored over barrows and sluice boxes. “Every foot of earth in the gulches was being turned upside down... Up and down the narrow streets labored bull trains of sixteen- and twenty-horse teams pulling three and four wagons lashed together, and long strings of packhorses, mules, and donkeys..."

“There were great patches of moss-flowers with a scent and blossom like sweet-william. And such forget-me-nots – larger and bluer and glossier than any others I have ever seen. On the tumbled hills among and over which the town straggled the primroses made pink splotches in early spring; there the yellowbells nodded and the bitterroots unfolded close to the ground their perplexity of petals... Robins, meadowlarks, bluebirds, blackbirds, beautiful as flowers and tantalizingly elusive, and camprobbers, bluejays, crows, and magpies lured us from where men were ravishing the gulch.”

She would also be witness to the violence that took place in Virginia City as the rougher crowd poured into the area. Not long after they arrived her parents set up a boarding house. “My family lived in a big log cabin on Wallace Street, the main thorough-fare running up Daylight Gulch. Because my father was a freighter the Sheehans were well provisioned and always set as good a table as was possible in a remote mining town. My stepmother’s and [cousin] Ellen’s dried apple pies and dried peach pies were rare delicacies, much in demand, and so it came about that we began to take in boarders.”

Here she would meet some of the original “discovery men”, including Bill Fairweather, Henry Edgar, and Barney Orr.  She also spoke of meeting several men whose careers were abruptly halted at the end of vigilante ropes. “Among the men who dropped in now and again to a meal was our companion on the journey to Montana, Jack Gallagher. To us he was always courteous and soft-spoken, and yet within the year we came to know that he was one of the most hardened of all the road agents. Another of this gang who came often enough so that I remember him distinctly was George Ives. Childlike, my attention was directed to him because of the long blue soldier’s overcoat which he wore. From admiring that I went on to notice that he stood head and shoulders above most of the men who gathered around our table, that unlike the others he was smooth-shaven, and that he was blond and handsome.”

Vigilantes executed Ives on December 31, 1863.

“Coming from school one winter day, January 14, 1864, I cut across the bottom of the gulch, climbed the steep hill and passed close behind a large cabin which was being built. People were gathered in front on Wallace Street. The air was charged with excitement. I looked. The bodies of five men with ropes around their necks hung limp from a roof beam. I trembled so that I could scarcely run toward home. The realization flashed on me that two forms were familiar – one was Jack Gallagher, the other was Club-Foot George...

“One frosty morning a few weeks later when I opened the back door of our cabin I saw in the gulch below a crowd of men gathered around a scaffold. High above other men and directly beneath the scaffold stood a young man with a rope around his neck. He shook hands with several of the men, then pulled a black cap over his face. I knew the portent. I slammed the door and rushed into the house, but I could not shut out from my memory, then or ever, that awful creaking sound of the hangman’s rope.”

Even this wasn’t the end Mollie's exposure to the terrible work of the Vigilantes. After being sent to the meat market by her mother one day, she was witness to what would be the last violent act performed by the notorious Jack Slade. “I was alarmed by a clatter past me of horse’s hoofs and the crack of pistol shots. A man galloping his horse recklessly down the street was firing a six-shooter in the air and whooping wildly. Suddenly he reared his horse back on its haunches, turned it sharply and forced it through the swinging door of a saloon.”

Not long afterward she recalled his death.

“A day in early spring not long after this incident we children were delayed at school because of a milling crowd of men in Daylight Gulch, directly across the homeward path of most of us, around a corral called ‘The Elephant’s Pen’. Many of the men were armed. From the steep hillside path I looked down into their midst. I recognized Slade, dressed in fringed buckskin, hatless, with a man on either side of him, who forced him to walk under the corral gate. His arms were pinioned, the elbows were bent so as to bring his hands up to his breast. He kept moving his hands back and forth, palms upward, and opening and closing them as he cried, ‘For Gods’s sake, let me see my dear, beloved wife!’ I distinctly heard him say this three times in a piercing, anguished voice.

“The stir among the men increased; voices rose louder, gesturing arms pointed to the long winding road down the hill from the east. Down that long hill - rode a woman racing on horseback. Someone shouted, ‘There she comes!’ A man in a black hat standing beside Slade made an abrupt, vigorous movement. I turned and sought the refuge of home. Soon excited neighbors came in to say that the woman galloping so swiftly down the hill was, indeed, Mrs. Slade, on her Kentucky thoroughbred, Billy Boy; that when she was recognized the men of the Vigilance Committee made haste to do their dreadful duty for fear her presence would arouse so much sympathy among bystanders that the hanging would be stayed...

“My heart ached for Mrs. Slade. I slipped away from home, determined to go and tell her how sorry I was for her. I found her sobbing and moaning, bowed over a stark form shrouded in a blanket. I stood beside her for a moment, trembling and choking, then I slipped away unnoticed. So I have always thought.”

Not all life in Virginia City reeked of violence.

“Grasping desperately and by any means for gold, brawling, robbing, shooting and hanging were not all of life in this mining camp. Into our midst came the man of God. He was indeed that, Father Joseph Giorda, S. J., the sweet-faced Italian gentleman whom I came to know so well in later years. He had made the long drive from St. Peter’s Mission and had to leave in two days. When he asked where he might say Mass, two young Irishmen, Peter Ronan and John Caplice, placer-mining in partnership, offered a cabin they were having built. Miners from neighboring claims helped to level the floor and to put the cabin in shape for Mass the next morning. My stepmother was asked to dress the improvised altar. She and I covered the roughhewn boards with sheets and arranged candles. The first Mass in Virginia City was held on the Feast of All Saints, November 1, 1863. It was a simple, reverent congregation that knelt on the dirt floor within the four walls of newhewn logs. By far the majority were bearded miners in worn working clothes. Many received the Holy Eucharist.

“I was distracted from contemplating things spiritual to those human by the tinkling sound in large tin cups that were being passed from one man to another. I saw each pour a trickle of gold dust from his buckskin pouch. Then the dust was poured from all the cups into the new yellow buckskin purse and laid upon the altar by Peter Ronan, whom the miners had chosen to make the presentation to the priest.

“When Father Giordo went to the stable where he had left his team and asked for his bill, he was told that it was forty dollars for the two days. He turned to Mr. Ronan saying that he had not enough money to pay so excessive a price. Mr. Ronan inquired if he knew how much he had in the yellow purse. Unworldly and unconcerned with money, Father Giordo had not thought of weighing its contents. Together, he and Mr. Ronan did so and found that the purse contained several hundred dollars in gold dust.

“Almost every morning the miners cleaned their sluice boxes with a tin contrivance called a scraper, but much fine gold was left in the cracks of the boxes and around the edges. After the miners had gone into their cabins for supper, a little friend and I would take our blowers and hair brushes, which we kept for the purpose, and gather up the fine gold. We took it home dried it in the oven and blew the black sand from it. Sometimes our gold dust weighed to the amount of a dollar or more. It was the only kind of money I ever saw in Virginia City...

“A man would have entered another’s sluice-box at the risk of being shot on sight, but it amused the miners to have us little girls clean up after them. One never-to-be-forgotten evening I busied myself about the property of Peter Ronan. I was wearing my new shaker, a straw poke bonnet, trimmed in pink chambray, which my stepmother had just made. I laid it on a cross-piece of a box while I stopped to brush and blow. Mr. Ronan, not noticing me, lifted a gate above and let muddy water run through his boxes. It splashed on the adored pink chambray ‘valance’. Many times afterward I heard Mr. Ronan tell in his inimitable way how the angry little girl suddenly stood straight, then scrambled from the sluicebox, crying out, ‘I’ll never, never, never again, Mister, take gold from your sluicebox.’ His dark eyes flashed and he laughed gaily as he apologized and begged me to reconsider. This is my first memory of Peter Ronan.

“My father objected to my going about where men would speak to me. He did not approve of the expeditions to the sluiceboxes and finally forbade them. From some of my Alder Gulch gold a jeweler later, in Last Chance Gulch, wrought me a ring, which I was later to give Mr. Ronan...

“Near neighbors of ours while we were living on Wallace Street were Granville Stuart and his Indian wife. They had a baby that the mother used to put in a hammock made in Indian fashion with a blanket folded over suspended ropes. I liked to swing the baby and so was a frequent visitor. One day the incongruity of the situation struck me, young as I was. Mr. Stuart, handsome, looking the scholar and the aristocrat, sat at a combination desk and bookcase writing. The Indian wife in moccasined feet was padding about doing her simplified housekeeping. Impulsively I stepped close to his chair and said, ‘Mr. Stuart, why did you marry an Indian woman?’ He turned, smiled, and put his hand on my shoulder and said sweetly, ‘You see, Mollie, I’m such an old fellow – if I married a white woman she might be quarreling with me.’

Mollie’s days in Virginia City came to an end shortly after July 4, 1865. She remembered that day as a special one because she participated in a grand parade that featured her and her friends.

“There I was, proudly riding with thirty-six other little white-clad girls in a triumphal float, a dead-axe wagon bedecked with evergreens and bunting and drawn by eight mules. The tallest and fairest of us, her long blonde hair flowing over her shoulders, dressed in the still-approved Grecian tunic corded in at the waist, stood in the center – Columbia! Sitting in groups at her feet were we, the States of the Union, forming, so the Montana Post stated, ‘the prettiest tableau vivant we have ever seen in a procession.’”

From Virginia City her family moved to Last Chance Gulch at Helena, by then a town of several thousand and where she “grew to young womanhood”. There her father started a store with another man. Not long after she recalled getting “a strange” ride on one of the camels that had arrived in town.  She would also find cause to meet Peter Ronan again. Mr. Ronan was helping run a newspaper as editor and co-owner with Major E. S. Wilkinson. “I must have read the paper diligently, for when my dog was stolen I stopped one morning and asked Mr. Ronan if he could help me find the dog by advertising for it in the paper. The next issue of the Gazette carried among the locals a paragraph demanding that whoever had taken a certain little dog from a certain house on Clore Street should restore it at once to the young lady owner or to feel the heavy hand of justice. With what pride I read the paragraph and showed it to my friends and acquaintances! The dog was never found.”

“We were no sooner settled than my father followed another stampede into Blackfoot country and in Blackfoot City started another little store, which he left in charge of hired help. He returned to Helena, where he built and stocked in the winter of ’65-’66 an ice-house, the first one in the city. In the spring of 1867, when boats came up the Missouri to Fort Benton, he sent his wagons and mules in charge of a man named Moore to freight supplies back to Helena. Moore did not return at the appointed time. Some freighters or some passengers coming in from Fort Benton asked my father why he had sold his mules and wagons. This was the first he knew that Moore had swindled him. He went hastily on horseback to Fort Benton and found that Moore had sold some of his property to people in that vicinity and had gone down the river on the returning boat.”

Her father encountered more problems when he returned to Helena after contracting with the Union Pacific Railroad in Utah. After an absence of a year and a half he returned to find that the man in charge of his store had sold everything and could not repay him. “He found a similar state of affairs at the store at Blackfoot City.”

While her father was absent Mollie Sheehan fell in love with Mr. Ronan and they became engaged “with the approval of my stepmother.” Only sixteen, Mollie was enthralled with Mr. Ronan. “He read poetry to me; we went about together to social affairs; he was my avowed lover.” However, their idyllic courtship ended quickly when her father learned of it.

“When my father returned from Utah in March, 1869, what a storm of wrath broke! His little girl marry? Indeed not! She was too young. She was to go to school and learn something. I was commanded to return the engagement ring to Mr. Ronan and all his other gifts. There was nothing else to do – I never questioned my father’s authority; I never argued; I always obeyed.”

Their courtship would endure the departure of Mollie and her family to San Juan Capistrano, California, where Mollie’s father moved them in frustration in 1869. Here the Sheehan family bought 160 acres and set about farming and building a new home.

“Besides toil and sweat, all this had meant an outlay of money until scarcely a dollar was left of the $600 which was in my father’s roll of greenbacks when he decided to pitch our tent and remain. Six hundred dollars, five mules and a wagon were his working capital after all he had dared venture and wrought with his hardihood of brawn, brain, and spirit along the frontiers of Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Colorado, Montana, and Utah. At the age of forty-six he had reached his last frontier on the very shores of the westward flowing sea ‘on the shadowy line between the advance of civilization and the setting of the sun.’”

When an American public school opened in San Juan Capistrano her little sister, Kate, began to attend. One of the priests near there made a suggestion that she should become a teacher at the school. In order to teach she first needed to take the teacher’s examination to qualify. Preparing herself for this she attended a convent school in Los Angeles; the Academy of the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, for one year. In June 1872, she graduated from the Academy and informed her father that she still planned to marry Mr. Ronan, despite four years of separation. With his consent they were married in Capistrano in January 1873. Traveling through San Francisco and then to Corrine, Utah, the newly married couple arrived back in Helena, Montana, in February.

One year later Peter Ronan suffered the loss of his newspaper business in the great Helena fire of January 9, 1874. This was the second Helena fire that had burned his businesses, the other occurring in 1872. “In all the fire had consumed a million dollars worth of property, burning about a hundred business houses and twenty residences."

Although others encouraged Mr. Ronan to rebuild his newspaper, offering him loans and a partnership, he refused to enter that business again. Years later he wrote, “I had had enough of journalism or it had had enough of me.” By late spring he made an investment in a hydraulic placer mine on Nelson Hill, near Blackfoot City. Molllie remained in Helena where she gave birth to their first child, Vincent Rankin. Peter had just sent her an optimistic letter, “Everything looks prosperous for my mining interests and I will soon be taking out plenty of money.” At the end of May she too moved to their new home near Blackfoot City, a four room log cabin, built on the side of a mountain a mile from their mine.

“We were thankful for the four miles that intervened between our home and Blackfoot City, a shabby mining camp that had seen its boom days. The ‘city’ was built where Ophir Gulch opens into meadow land and rolling hills. It consisted of two rows of weather-beaten log cabins, about thirty of forty rods in length, with a street between them. More of the cabins were saloons, gambling dens and houses of ill-fame than homes of families. Mr. Quigley, Mr. Ronan’s partner, was proprietor of a general merchandise store. The one hotel consisted of a bar and restaurant on the first floor and on the second floor a few dark, evil-looking little cubbyholes of rooms for lodgers. There may have been another store or two and a couple of butcher shops.

“For us the days of summer and autumn passed like incidents in a happy pastoral. While Mr. Ronan was busy at the mine I was occupied with my baby and with my house work. It never occurred to me to be lonely or frightened. Once a week, when a meat wagon from Blackfoot City came down to the mine, I carried my baby out to the wagon to have him weighed... Friends discovered the delights of our mountain retreat and drove out from Helena to visit us. Except for these visitors I seldom saw a woman...

“My husband and I spent the winter in complete seclusion. I was conscious of no hardship, of no monotony. Outside was the endless variety of hills, glistening with the drifted snow or somber with black forest patches and dark notches of canyons. Ragged lines of pines marched endlessly along the skyline. On clear days far to the south a jagged white peak could be seen stabbing the blue...

“Freezing weather put a stop to all work at the mine, so that Mr. Ronan was home with me most of the time... We had papers and magazines, for once a week Mr. Ronan would tramp out on snowshoes to Blackfoot City for the mail. We had horses and a sleigh, which he drove when he went for supplies. As early in the spring as the ice broke, operations at the mine reopened. During the latter part of June my husband started with Vincent and me for Helena, for I was to have another child. At Blackfoot City, where we stayed overnight before starting on the journey, we met Father Ravalli, who was also on his way to Helena. He was in ill health and was glad to accept our invitation to travel with us and to have advantage of the superior comfort and speed of our spring wagon for his convenience. It renewed our confidence to have him with us, for we did not know exactly how soon I might require the assistance of a physician...

“Father Palladino baptized Mary Ellen, whose name had been chosen in advance of her coming. She was healthy, happy, ‘good, good’ and beautiful, with red hair and dark, starry eyes. She bore and still bears a strong resemblance to her father. On the day Mary was born a terrible storm raged at Blackfoot. The flume that brought water to the mine was blown over, a bolt of lightning struck the tool shop where Mr. Ronan and a hired man were working. They were both knocked over and stunned, the man permanently crippled. Mr. Ronan used to tell with relish how a friend, hearing of the circumstance, said mournfully and in all seriousness, ‘Pete, you are the most unfortunate man. Think of it – flume blown down, struck by lightning, and a baby girl all on the same day.”

“Every six weeks or so the sluice boxes would be scraped of their treasure. Always there was a fair cleanup. Late in the autumn every indication pointed to a last big cleanup of several thousand dollars worth of gold dust. Early in the morning of the last day the men went to the boxes and found that thieves had emptied them in the night and made away with all the precious dust. In that remote place stationing a guard at night had never even been considered. At breakfast that morning my husband had said, ‘We will have lots of gold today.’ I was surprised when I saw him coming home before noon. To my questioning he had replied, trying not to look too dejected, ‘Well, Mollie, we’re not going to have so much gold after all. The boxes have been robbed.’”

“The theft had been so carefully planned and carried out that scarcely a clue could be discovered...

“Before the winter closed down upon us we moved, household furniture and all, back to Helena. With that last big cleanup the vein of ore in the mine had pinched out.”

In 1877 Peter Ronan was appointed “out of the blue” as Superintendent of the Confederated Tribes on the Flathead Indian Reservation, where he would serve until his death in 1893.

Appendix A of, Frontier Woman, provided by the editor, H. G. Merriam, gave a short account of Mr. Ronan’s life and career:

The Flathead Reservation when Peter Ronan became its Agent had been established only five years. Little progress toward “civilizing” the Indians had been made. Upon arrival he immediately undertook that monumental task of turning a people habituated to free roaming, to existence by hunting, to inter-tribal warfare to toiling for existence in a settled habitation and living peacefully with one another. Gaining their respect, he urged his charges to ranch and farm. He never let up on such encouragement...

The many difficulties the Indian agent faced sprang not only from tradition and custom. The mixture of tribes on the Reservation fostered jealousies and feuds, as Peter Ronan noted more than once in his reports. The building of the Northern Pacific Railroad across the southern end of the Reservation brought serious trouble. “A fierce spirit of opposition,” he reported in 1881-1882, “prevails among many Indians,” they, not mistakenly, regarding the railroad as “fatal to their interests and the sure precursor of the abandonment of their homes and lands to the whites...

... A most nagging worry was the moving, at long last, of Chief Charlot and his Bitter Root band in October, 1891. The Major had been patient with Charlot and continued his sympathy—“... the last arrangement with this unfortunate and the delay in its consummation has entirely discouraged the Indians,” he reported in August, 1890. “... they are now helpless and poverty-stricken... some means should be adopted to furnish them with provisions, or they will certainly suffer from starvation.” But once upon the Reservation Charlot steadily complained of promises broken by the Government and disapproved of the Indian adoption of the white man’s ways of life. “Chief Charlot,” Ronan reported in 1891-1892, “is a non-progressive Indian with a grievance,” frowning upon Indian agriculture and looking back to the good old days. The long delays in action by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and of the Government, especially by Congress, impossible to explain or justify to the Indian, still a pretty primitive person, were not only vexatious but, at times, approaching disaster.

These and countless other difficulties and disturbances challenged the wisdom and drained the energy of Peter Ronan... Given the difficulties in changing a people’s long-established way of life, Major Ronan was, as contemporary comment about his handling of the Indians reveals, a most successful agent, abundantly deserving of the praise of his wife in her autobiography noted and herself offered.

Part 2 - Catlin Goes West  << back

Last Updated on Sunday, 08 January 2012 16:49