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1st Blackfoot Float and a Mad Seach for Gold - 150 Years Ago by Henry Buck

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Henry Buck – Montana Pioneer Story

The following story appeared in The Phillipsburg Mail newspaper July 29, 1932. It can also be found in a publication of the Society of Montana Pioneers.


The following story is taken from the official publication of “Society of Montana Pioneers,” who held their forty-first annual meeting in Butte, August 28, 29 and 30, 1924. Mr. Buck was one of the most interesting speakers at this meeting, and he related some of the most exciting experiences he had soon after coming to the Montana territory. – The Editor

At the date of my advent into this world at Bellvue, Ohio, scarcely would it have been prophesied that I was to be particularly lucky, as I was the 13th child of the family, born on the 13th of the month that being on Friday. Superstitions must have been out of joint that day, however, as looking back over my lifetime, I could not conscientiously aver myself as having been generally unfortunate.

When I was about one year of age, my father moved to Vienna, Michigan, and a year later to Monroe in the same state, at which point I grew to manhood. My father died when I was 12 years old, and I then lived with an older brother, who gave me the advantages of common and high schools, followed by a couple of years in a commercial college at Albion. By that time three of my brothers, George, Fred and Amos, were in Montana amongst the gold mines of that territory. Late in the fall of 1867, Fred and Amos came home to spend the winter. They had made some money at mining in Lincoln gulch and the tales they told of men becoming rich over night, as one might say, inspired me with a desire to go west and do likewise. In the spring of 1868 I made my preparations to return with them to Montana. We left Monroe on the 31st of March, going by train to Council Bluffs, thence across to Omaha where it had been our intention to take a boat up the Missouri river to Fort Benton. We changed our plans and continued by railroad train to Sioux City, Iowa, on April 4th at 8:00 o’clock. p. m. We learned that the steamboat “Nile,” Captain Grant Marsh, was on the point of pulling out and we immediately secured passage on the boat which started up river at midnight. It took the Nile 47 days to make the run to Fort Benton.

The trip was enjoyable but not particularly eventful. We crossed the territory line into Montana on May 2nd and reached Fort Benton on the evening of May 21st. We remained on board over night. The next morning we located a man who had a Concord coach and a wagon, each drawn by four horses and a party of eight of us engaged him to take us to Helena, paying his $15.00 each for the trip. When ready to load our belongings into the wagon, we discovered that another party had also engaged the same outfit for a like purpose. After a considerable jangle over the matter, transportation being scarce, a compromise was reached, all going together. The agreement being that the men of the party should walk and ride turn about, there being not room for all to ride at one time. The party then consisted of 17 persons: namely, R. D. Forest, wife and mother, Major Martin Maginnis and wife, J. B. Wright, M. J. Broakway, D. H. Jessee, Jack Monroe, Joan Coakley, Asa Hayward, Sam Dean, E. C. Culver, James Squiers, besides Fred, Amos and myself.

When we started out, while the ladies rode, all of the men walked at first. The view from the plain at the top of the first hill was most inspiring to “tenderfeet.” In the distance to the west, the Rocky mountains; to the south the Girdle range, and to the east the Bear Paws. We had lunch at a ranch house, and reached 28 Mile Springs where we stayed over night. Here there was a log cabin, 8 by 10 feet in size, but large enough to shelter the women. The men took quarters in the open, spreading their blankets on the ground after cooking their own suppers.

This was my first experience in “roughing it.” The night was without particular incident. All being merry thus far. The next day rain began falling and then it rained pretty much all the time until we reached Helena. We plodded along as best we could, walking practically all the way. At night we usually managed to secure permission to lay our blankets on some station house floor. At 6:00 o’clock p.m. on the 27th of May, we made Helena. After tramping around town for some time we were finally permitted to spread our blankets down on the store floor of Gans & Klein.

That evening I saw my first Chinese and to me they were a considerable curiosity. The next morning we engaged a Mr. Clark to take eleven of us in his Concord coach drawn by six horses, to Blackfoot City, 30 miles distant.

It was 2 o’clock p.m. when we bid goodbye to the balance of our party and pulled out. We reached Greenhorn station that night, the horses all jaded out. At that most of us walked all the way. Here on a barroom floor we found a place for our blankets and ourselves that night. Wright, Brockway, Fred, Amos and myself then taking our blankets on our backs and walking to Lincoln gulch, which we reached at 6 p.m., it being the 30th of May.

Here we found Brother George with Milnes engaged in the sawmill business, cutting timbers for the miners. We stayed with them for a few days. While there, Fred and Amos purchased a one-third interest in Claim No. 32 below discovery, paying therefore $2,000. We five set to work at once building a cabin on the ground. An inventory of my assets disclosed $40 in cash. The first work for which I received pay was the sawing of wood for a man named Allen who was the owner of the famous No. 11 below discovery. The “32” company then began to sink a shaft. I worked for them down in the deep channel, without striking water. Finding small pay at that depth, we drifted. After working all summer, we went down to the Blackfoot bottoms, where was a growth of beautiful yellow pine timber.

Here we cut mining timber for the following season. The following season I bought from Albert Egnell an interest in the claim (No. 1). I bought it on what was known as “bed rock.” I gave him what money I had, agreeing that whenever I should take out anything over and above expenses, I would turn it over to him on account. I might say here that the debt was never cancelled, the claim proving of little value. We would take out just enough gold to keep us digging away with the miner’s hope that every coming day we would strike the rich pay streak which would bring us our fortunes. In the fall of 1869 the far famed Cedar creek was struck and news of its rich deposits quickly reached all over the various mining camps in the northwest; and a mighty stampede followed. We boys of our company felt that we were tied to our claims even though it had been thus far unprofitable, and contented ourselves with remaining where we were though we took only enough from the claim to make just about our board.

First Navigation on the Big Blackfoot

In the spring tales of the New Eldorado came pouring into Lincoln, causing great excitement. About every man who could rustle a horse strapped his blankets behind his saddle and away he went to the fields where he was absolutely certain that fortune awaited him. Of course the excitement had caught us, but as we were all down to bed rock, we did not have the money with which to even buy a horse between us; we had to figure out some other method of transportation, as we considered the distance rather too great to think of packing our belongings on our backs if there might be any way to get around it. We learned that the waters of the Blackfoot flowed into Hell Gate, which in turn at the mouth of the Bitter Root became the Missoula river, and that the Cedar river was a tributary of the Missoula. We concluded that there was no reason why we might not construct boats and float down to the mouth of Cedar. While we made many inquiries concerning the rivers, we learned almost nothing as what falls or rapids we might encounter on such a trip.

Finally, with six besides three members of our company, making nine in all, we concluded to make the venture. We found that it would take three boats to carry us all and our belongings, three men to a boat. The party then consisted of the following named persons: William Weller, Charles Kelstrop, Charles Fletcher, “Fat Mack” McCune, John Johns, Enoch Johns, Fred, Amos and myself. We set about building the boats, all alike, scow shaped, three feet wide and 12 feet long. The seams had to be filled with something that would prevent the boats from leaking. We tried a drug store for tar, but as the price was 25 cents per ounce, we had to figure out some other scheme.

As “necessity is the mother of invention” we hit upon a plan. At a restaurant we found a five gallon iron kettle, which we borrowed. We then went down into the timber and selected a lot of very rich pitch pine wood and hauled it to our cabin, where we split it up into fine kindling. With this we filled the kettle, wedging it in tight. Then we inverted the kettle, placing it on a wide plank we had prepared for the purpose. We then placed the plank and kettle on rocks in position somewhat slanting, made a “spoutway” which we covered with some iron. We then covered the plank with dirt and built a slow fire on top of the inverted kettle, with another kettle under the spoutway to catch the pitch running from the heated wood, and we soon had a sufficient quantity for our purpose. Boiling the pitch until it reached a proper consistency, after we had caulked the seams of the boats with old rags, we pitched them over very satisfactorily.

The weather had been warm and spring-like, but on March 16 when we were all ready for the start, a strong north wind came up and we waited for the result. It was well we waited, as there was a sudden change to extreme cold, the mercury congealing on the 18th. On the 22nd the storm was over and the weather grew warm again as suddenly as the storm had arisen.

On the 24th we concluded to make a start. After loading all our belongings into the boats, we hauled them down over the snow to the river, where we launched them just below the old bridge.

The crew of boat No. 1 was William Weller, Amos and myself; of boat No. 2 was Charles Fletcher, Charles Kelstrop and Brother Fred, and of boat No. 3, John Johns, Enoch Johns and “Fat Mack.” The boats were handled with the aid of 10-foot lodge pole pine poles. The river at the starting place is small and at that time of year carried insufficient water in many places to float the boats, consequently there were many places where we had to drag them over gravel bars. As we proceeded we found many fallen trees and drifts which had to be cut out. The first fifteen miles down to Nevada creek the stream is quite swift. Each little stream flowing into the river, of course, added to our depth of water. At the mouth of Nevada creek, where the current slows down, we found the channel still covered with ice, a result of the recent extreme cold. We were compelled to lay by for a full week until the ice broke up and the channel cleared.

Albert Egnell and John B. Wright were ranching on Nevada creek about a mile above its mouth. They had been raising vegetables for the nearby mining camps. While waiting, we spent some of our time visiting their ranch. We also did some hunting for ducks which were very numerous in the vicinity. We also did some hunting for large game, Brother Fred succeeding in killing a cow elk. This was a life saver, giving us plenty of fresh meat. In the evenings we would fill a large camp kettle with meat, boil it over our camp fire until it was well done, then pour off the water and let it stand until morning when we would slice it and fry it in lard. Man, oh man! But that was great.

Immediately the ice broke up, we resumed our journey. We now had plenty of water to float the boats. The method of handling them was, for instance, in our boat I stood up in the bow, and with a pole warded the boat off the rocks, while Weller in the stern kept the boat running straight in the stream, while Amos rode in the center, ready as helper in such emergency cases as presented themselves. In this manner all went well for some distance until we came to a narrow canyon like place where the river was full of boulders, the water being very swift through the gorge for the distance of a mile or more.

After entering the canyon, looking ahead only a short distance, we appeared to be on a level with the tops of the trees below us, and we realized that we were in for it with a run for our lives.

We nerved ourselves for what might come to us, after entering the rapid there was no such thing as turning back or stopping. Boat No. 1 was in the lead. At one point there was a large rock in midstream, nearly flat on top, and partially covered with water, but with a slope upstream. We were going at such a rapid rate that we failed in our efforts to avoid the rock, but instead the boat climbed up nearly high and dry on the boulder. We all jumped out on the rock, swung the boat loose and jumped in again and went on milling and swinging until we finally reached the lower end of the gorge where at a quiet spot we hauled up to the bank for a rest.

Boat No. 2 followed right side up, also landing beside us. At that time boat No. 3 was in sight, whirling down the rapids. At the very last bad rapid it capsized, spilling crew and duffle into the river. The Johns boys got out without difficulty, but we had considerable trouble saving “Fat Mack” from drowning. Such things from the boat which floated were gathered in and saved, but all heavy articles went to the bottom and were lost.

We made camp, built up a big fire, dried out the wet clothes and blankets, and incidentally rested up after the strenuous exertions through the canyon. Having been raised along the banks of a river, I was pretty nearly as much at home in the water as out, but after the experience I have always been somewhat afraid of the swift running mountain streams. We decided that in the future, on the trip, in case of noting any suspicious appearing places ahead, we would haul up to the bank and investigate.

The next day we were on our way again, but worked more cautiously. However, we met with no more accidents, although at one place in a box canyon where the water ran very quiet and deep, there is a sharp turn in the river where we were fearful of falls and were extremely careful. No falls or bad rapids were encountered. At length we came to the junction of the Blackfoot and Hell Gate rivers, where we felt our worst navigation troubles were over. We were soon alongside the little town of Missoula, where we drew our boats ashore and stopped over for several days. We found a population of somewhere around 100 people, mostly men. The business houses I remember were Worden and Higgins store, Bonner and Welch store, Billy Stevens hotel; William McWhirk, saloon, Chris Martin, blacksmith; Charles Hayden, livery stable; another livery barn, afterward run by John Hayes (Mulligan), and the grist mill and saw mill of Worden and company. Worden and Higgins each had quite good homes and there were a number of log cabins scattered about. There was a bridge across the river just below town. On the river bank immediately above the bridge Worden and company had an ice house in which we were given the privilege of camping during our stay.

In Missoula we learned that some 25 miles or more down the river there was a canyon through which we could not take our boats. It did not take much argument, after our experience on the Blackfoot, to convince us that we would not attempt to run the canyon referred to.

There appearing no reason to prevent, we went on down the river to a point opposite Frenchtown. Here we landed and went into town. We met a man named James Bonticue, who was running a small pack train. We contracted with him to take our belongings to Cedar. After helping him pack up, we concluded to ride down the river so far as it appeared safe to do so. At the first rapids, we landed and took the trail on foot. The last I saw of the boats they were going round and round in a whirlpool. At a little stopover place across the Missoula river from the mouth of Cedar, we met a man who was looking for a partner to go in with him whip-sawing lumber. Fred accepted the proposition and went to work there. The rest of us crossed the river on a ferry and walked up Cedar creek to Louisville, the principal town. Arriving there we began looking for work. We found the camp swarming with men in the same kind of fix we were in. Weller had whip-sawed lumber on Frazier river in British Columbia, therefore was acquainted with that sort of work. He picked me for a partner as it takes two men to operate a whip-sawmill, one to stand on top of the log being sawed and the other underneath, in the pit.

Whip-sawing is a game of “draw” where each man alternately endeavors to pull the saw away from the other fellow. We found a man by the name of Leopold Baer who desired to build a store building. We entered into a contract to cut and deliver lumber at $150 per 1000 feet. We procured a whipsaw, went up Town gulch a short distance above Louisville, established a camp, built a “pit” and started work the day following our arrival. Amos helped to get the logs ready for the saw, then with a rope snaked the lumber to the site for building.

This venture proved quite successful, yielding to us from $5 to $20 per day of our labor.

This ends the chapter of Mr. Buck’s experiences on the Montana frontier, when practically every man was making a mad search for gold.

Henry and his brothers were very successful at Cedar Creek, allegedly earning a $200,000 profit, after working there for 4 years. Along with his brothers, he settled in the Stevensville, Montana area and founded several important businesses.

Last Updated on Saturday, 09 December 2017 13:11