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"His heart he left behind" - Chief Charlo's removal from the Bitter Root by Washington J. McCormick

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“It was a solemn business... his heart he left behind” – Washington J. McCormick’s account of Chief Charlot’s removal from the Bitter Root


Washington Jay McCormick II was one of Missoula’s most interesting chroniclers. While living the majority of his life in the Missoula area he wrote about some of his experiences, which were compiled in a book titled “Colors From An Old Montana Sluice Box,” published in 1979. The book presents a series of stories, poems, and vignettes that make fascinating reading for those interested in Missoula and Montana history. The stories range from a wild tale of how his father, Indian agent Washington McCormick Sr., placed the Flathead Indian reservation “in hock”, to Baron O’Keefe for a loan of $1,500, as well as light-hearted poems like - “Hop In, Lieutenant” - about becoming lost in Montana. One of the book’s longer stories gives a lively account of the meeting of the Montana Legislature in 1911, when the delegates elected a Montana Senator for the last time. A compelling eyewitness account of the removal of Chief Charlo from the Bitter Root also appears in this book and is included below.


Born in Missoula in 1884, Washington J. McCormick II was the son of Washington J. McCormick Sr., a founder of Missoula and a dynamic Montana citizen. McCormick Sr. arrived in Montana in 1863 with a law degree from DePauw University in Indiana, and quickly became involved in the political life of the Montana Territory. After arriving in Virginia City he served in the first Territorial Legislature and as secretary of the Constitutional Convention in 1866, which had the dubious distinction of producing a constitution that disappeared before citizens could vote on it. This convention’s convoluted story still keeps historians awake at night in attempting to understand what really happened. McCormick Sr. later served several more terms as Missoula’s delegate to the Montana Territorial House of Representatives with the unusual designation as an independent.


From Virginia City McCormick Sr. moved to Deer Lodge briefly, and then to Missoula in 1868 where he married Kate Higgins, sister of Missoula co-founder C. P. Higgins. His influence on early Missoula was substantial and is a remarkable story in itself. He is credited with establishing the original 100-acre Missoula town site along with C. P. Higgins and Francis Worden. Another very visible remnant of McCormick Sr.’s hand is today’s St. Patrick Hospital, and the nearby catholic school facilities. Father L. B. Palladino purchased the land for these from McCormick Sr. in 1873, paying $1,500. McCormick Park on the bank of the Clark Fork River is perhaps the crown of the McCormick legacy. Along with the Silver family, the McCormick family donated the land that became this beautiful Missoula park. At one point McCormick Sr. also published the newspaper that would eventually become the Missoulian. In 1872 he purchased Fort Owen after it was seized from owner John Owen and sold at a sheriff’s sale. McCormick Sr. was killed at Fort Owen in 1889 when he fell while trying to repair a roof during a violent storm.


The following obituary for Washington J. McCormick II is from ancestry.com – rootsweb – Ravalli County Obituaries:




January 4, 1884 - March 7, 1949

    Funeral services at the Elks Lodge were held at Missoula yesterday afternoon in tribute to Washington Jay McCormick, prominent native western Montanan, who passed away at St. Patricks Hospital, Missoula, Monday following a long illness. Pallbearers were Wellington D. Rankin, J.D. Taylor, Fred W. Schilling, Jack Sterling, Ed Thomas, and Grant Higgins. Burial was made in Missoula Cemetery. Representatives of the Sons and Daughters of Montana Pioneers and the Western Montana Bar Association, as well as numerous friends of the deceased attorney attended the rites.
    W.J. McCormick was a man of extraordinary intellectual attainments. He was educated in the schools of Missoula, at Montana State University in Missoula, and at Notre Dame. He graduated from Harvard University in 1906 and later studied at Columbia where he received his L.L.B.
   Born January 4, 1884, W.J. McCormick was a son of W.J. and Kate McCormick, Montana pioneers. His father, one of the first attorneys in Montana, purchased Fort Owen at Missoula in 1871 from Major John Owen, and it was there that the father was killed during a wind storm.
    McCormick was a veteran of World War I and during World War II, engaged in war work in the San Francisco region. He was widely traveled, served in the Montana legislature from Missoula County, and was elected to the Congress from the western district of Montana in 1920, serving one term. He was a brilliant conversationalist, a loyal friend, and was possessed of a most engaging personality.
    In 1915, Mr. McCormick was married to Edna Theresa Fox. A son, Washington J., Jr, died 18 years ago and the daughters are Angela of Missoula, and Mrs. John Vance, Chevy Chase, Maryland. In recent years, McCormick had resided at Stevensville with he present wife, the former Cora Quast. A sister, Mrs. William Fitzgerald, resides in Missoula.
The Western News, March 10, 1949
Contributed by Karolyn Simpson.


The following is an excerpt from an article in Washington J. McCormick II’s  “Colors From An Old Montana Sluice Box.” The specific article appears on page 12, titled “Historical Monuments In The Bitter Root Valley, Montana.”


A sure-shot way of landing a niche in the Hall of Fame of Owen’s journals was by the presentation of a demijohn, a bottle, or as he mostly calls it, a “flagon” of something stronger than spring-water. The good Father Ravalli, who frequently manufactured his own medicines, scored once in this manner, though he figures often in other ways. I have a filial interest in Owen’s entry of September 12, 1867, which reads, “Compliments of Mr. McCormick, the newly installed Indian Agent – a flagon of old Bourbon. Very acceptable and duly discussed. May it be frequently renewed.” But on what was evidently a severe January day in 1868 occurs this entry, “Mr. McCormick, Indian gent, and Mr. Smith of Missoula reached here last evening, passed the night and left for Three Mile Creek on a visit to Mr. Harris.... It as quite late when Agent McCormick left and I am apprehensive about his finding his way. I fortified him with some matches in case he might be way-bound, but they would amount to little in the absence of wood.” Fort Owen was in the heart of Indian country, but as the statue of limitations has long since run on the transportation of the “flagon” to Major Owen, I revive the entry without trepidation. As to the luxury of sulphur matches on a winter night without wood, the storm-bound wayfarer might have preferred personal incineration to freezing to death. I leave the judgment to Dude Ranchers.

The writer of this article came a generation too late to gain entry to the Owen Journals, which ceased in 1871, by the introduction of a “flagon” or otherwise. He did, however, after arriving at that uncertain period of childhood which the law denominates the “age of reason,” witness from the then storm-battered enclosure of Fort Owen an event in the life of the Selish Indians that would have taxed the pen of even the faithful chronicler himself. In the ‘70’s Major Owen, suffering from dementia, had been transported by the Territory of Montana, whose pioneer facilities were limited, to live and die among his surviving relatives in Philadelphia. He expired in 1889, the year that witnessed the death of the writer’s father, who had come into possession of the Fort Owen property by mesne process.

Comes now the fall of 1891. Head Chief Charlot, still living with a section of his tribe in the Bitter Root Valley, which he had sworn never to leave, had at last been starved out by the government under the terms of the Garfield Treaty of 1872. Charlot averred that he had never signed it, but most of the tribe under sub-Chief Arlee had moved years before to what is now known as the Flathead Reservation. But Charlot, son of Victor, son of Big Face – the Chief who had greeted Lewis and Clark – loved the eternal snow of St. Mary’s peak where his ancestors had made tribal medicine, the waters of St Mary’s River where they had snared fish. He was born amid the purple hills and rolling acres where they had plucked the bitter root, now the state flower of Montana, for food, and impaled the wild game for nourishment and clothing.

The day of exodus arrived. For hour after hour past the north gate of Fort Owen streamed that picturesque procession of mounted braves, squaws, Indian youth of both sexes – many riding double – whinnying colts and wolfish dogs – a people on the march. The writer has seen Buffalo Bill in his glamorous days under canvas, but Old Bill never directed a Wild West parade the equal of this. There were scores of the originals “mountain jeeps,” the long two-sapling travois with natural springs, the upper ends lashed to a horse and the lower ends dragging in the road. Bouncing in the middle were folded tepees, camp utensils, blankets, human freight – the infirm and the unassigned papooses. There was no yelling or shooting or thumping of tom-toms – it was a solemn business. In over-all command rode Chief Charlot, not heading the procession but directing the rear guard. He was the last to leave, but his heart he left behind.

General Henry Carrington had been assigned by the War Department to effectuate in a humane way this evacuation of the Flatheads from their ancestral mountain-walled valley. This he did smoothly and without blood-letting. But Carrington was more than a soldier – he was a poet.

After the event he left some lines in an old-fashioned autograph album of a member of my family which struck my eyes some years later. The poem has probably been lost, but the opening lines tuck in my youthful memory and I shall pass them on to you adventurous Dude “Rancheros.” Should the love of the Lewis and Clark trail urge you to spur your foaming broncs into the Bitter Root (and I’m probably sitting on said trail right now); if Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn,” caroming from St. Mary’s glaciers to the Mission Church in the valley and thence to old Fort Owen, rouse a song in you; don’t strike up “Home on the Range.” Instead, try this out your yodeler – it’s from Carrington:


“Under the shadow of St. Mary’s peak,

By the margin of St. Mary’s river,

There the Red Man dwelt in the days gone by

And welcomed his pale-faced guest as brother-

Now the hills and vales catch his parting sigh

Ere his father’s home be left forever.*


The complete poem was included as a footnote following this article. It is included below:


          Under the shadows of St. Mary’s peak,

           On the margin of St. Mary’s river,

          Where nature’s clear tones do forever


          Of the Lord, our God, Almighty


          Where the red man dwelt, in the times

                gone by,

           And welcomed his pale-faced guest

             as brother,

          Where the hill and vale catch his fad-

               ing sigh

             Ere his father’s homes be left, for-


          In the long-drawn halls of the adobe


             When the block-house train, with its

               loop hole still,

          Only hints the tale of the battle fought,

             And the way of peace hath her own

              sweet will;

          There father a group by the bright


            To mingle their joys with memories


          As the gates of the vale thrown open wide,

            Make “the white” and “the red,”

              alike, be glad?

          The chief and his tribe have exchanged

                their home,

          No longer the haunt of the moose

               and the deer,

          For the white man’s gift, the land of

                the chase,

           Where their hearts shall glow with a

              fresh-born cheer;

          and the white man delves for silver or


          And turns up the soil for return in


          While each, in his way, shall his life


          Nor conflict shall man their firm

                friendship again.

                      -Henry E. Carrington,

          Stevensville, Mont., November 21, 1889.








Last Updated on Monday, 16 September 2013 20:58