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"Montana Memories" - The Life of Emma Magee in the Rocky Mountain West - 1866 to 1950 by Ida S. Patterson

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Montana Memories

One of the most fascinating accounts of life in early Missoula comes from “Montana Memories,” by Ida S. Patterson. The subtitle is “The Life of Emma Magee in the Rocky Mountain West, 1866 – 1950.”

It was published in 1981 by The Steve Matt, Sr., Memorial Fund – Salish Kootenai Community College, Pablo, Montana, and edited by Robert Bigart and Clarence Woodcock.

The author, Ida S. Patterson, wrote the book after untold hours of taking notes and recording the story as she heard it firsthand from Emma Magee, her great aunt. Raised near her great grandmother and her great aunt Emma, Ida Patterson lived on the west shore of Flathead Lake and attended school in Polson, Montana, in the heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Patterson’s grasp of Western Montana history gave her unusual insight into what pioneer life was like in early Missoula. As unusual as Emma’s story is, the recording of it by Patterson also has special significance in that Patterson was a native Montanan of Native American descent herself.

Emma Magee’s story is unique because it is an account of a “mixedblood lady,” whose ancestry included her mother, Nellie, or Quick –to-See, a product of Shoshone, Salish / Flathead and Spanish heritage. Quick-to-See married one of Missoula’s earliest pioneers, James Minesinger, a “free trader” who left footprints all over Montana history.

Emma’s father, James Minesinger, entered Montana’s Bitter Root Valley in 1856, when he helped Fred Burr and John Powell trail a herd of 400 cattle they had purchased in Salt Lake City.[1] It was one of the first big cattle drives to Montana. Not long afterward, Minesinger helped Granvillle Stuart and others set up their gold placer at Gold Creek, Montana – often (incorrectly) credited as Montana’s first gold discovery.

Not long after Emma’s father arrived in the Bitter Root, he married Nellie Monteray, or ‘Quick-To-See.’ “Their brief courtship resulted in a wedding, solemnized by Reverend Father Anthony Ravalli, S.J. . . She was the daughter of Strong-Old-Woman, a Shoshone Indian, and Carlos Monteray, a Spaniard, who was designated by his red brethren as ‘Big-Eyes’.”

Minesinger’s name can be found, along with Fred Burr again, in Bancroft’s History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, as a footnote – on a short list of men who spent the seminal winter of 1862 in Montana’s Big Hole Valley.[2]

Nearby Bannack, Montana had just been discovered in August of that year. Montana Territory was about to explode, with thousands of hearty miners coming from everywhere. Alder Gulch was discovered not long after, in May of 1863. The following year Burr and Minesinger built a toll bridge across the Big Hole River. Montana’s first Territorial Legislature licensed this bridge in 1864.[3]

For one whose career had thus involved following the trail of mountain men, trappers, and miners, it is surprising that Minesinger stopped in any spot for long. Yet, Emma commented on his decision to finally curb his wanderlust, “. . . for several years they kept on the move – trading, prospecting, and following the gold stampedes. . . Eventually father saw the need of a permanent home for his family. The west was changing, and to cope with the new order his children must be educated. This decision resulted in his homesteading near Hell Gate.”

Minesinger soon put down roots in Missoula, both as a prosperous farmer, trader and merchant, and as a participant in community affairs.

Patterson noted that when Minesinger was elected Missoula County Surveyor in the county’s first election (1865), he also became Montana Territory’s first County Surveyor. He was also the first secretary of Missoula’s Masonic Lodge, chartered in 1868.

Many facets of the tale of the Minesingers, and their daughter, Emma, cannot be found anywhere else in Montana history. We are very lucky that it is preserved.

The Minesinger’s homestead, in 1866, was not far from the Mullan Road where it crossed Grant Creek, “about three miles” from downtown Missoula. Missoula was only a year old at the time, consisting of the Higgins and Worden sawmill and gristmill and a few other buildings. The original Hell Gate village, about five miles west of Missoula, had essentially been abandoned by that time.

Describing it as a “turbulent, spectacular period”, Magee was born at the family’s one room cabin in the middle of a January blizzard in 1866. “I was a small brown baby resembling my mother’s tribe, the Shoshones of the Rocky Mountains.”

Emma was the third child born to this family and twin boys soon followed her.

“Our house, a one roomed log cabin chinked with mud and roofed with sod, sat about fifty yards from the creek. It boasted a whipsawed board floor and two small windows each containing four glass panes. A large stone fireplace extending across one end provided the only heat. . . Buffalo robes and Hudson’s Bay blankets covered us warmly as we reposed on wild goose, or duck feather beds.”

Chapter 4, titled ‘Pioneer Isolation,’ discussed several aspects of Emma’s young Missoula life.

Her first memory of hearing mention of their new stove came before she began attending school. “So scarce were the necessities of life that I vividly recall the first stove I ever saw.”

Their father discussed its arrival with her mother and the children listened in with fascination, “Mother’s description of a stove aroused our eager interest, and, when the day came for Father to bring it, we ran to meet the wagon which bore the object of our curiosity. . . We examined it in wide-eyed wonder and when the fire was built Mary and I ran outside to watch the smoke roll from the pipe protruding from our sod roofed log cabin.”

Noting the lack of toys and playthings, Emma did enjoy gifts that were naturally at hand. She described snow sledding aboard a deerskin hide – riding the hair side up, “holding fast to the forelegs of the skin, we slid smoothly down on the ice or snow encrusted hill.”

One of their joys was a pet beaver. A young Flathead Indian boy arrived one morning with a “furry little animal clasped in his arms,” and asked their mother, “You, maybe, want beaver? He good for children.”

The beaver, soon named Dick, quickly became part of their family.

“He was amazingly intelligent and industrious. He had clean habits and soon became gentle. He was an interesting playmate and a beloved pet. We vied with each other to feed him carrots, apples, and grain. In the yard he labored unceasingly, cutting sticks, and wood with his sharp front teeth. . . Dick had a habit which to us was delightfully amusing. Sitting upright he would make motions with his short forepaws as if he were conversing with us in the sign language.”

Chapter 5 titled ‘Food,’ discussed the preparation and care of one of Missoula’s first gardens. Her parents planted nearly five acres.

“Father employed the Flatheads to help with the gardening. One year there was a grasshopper plague. Locust swarms were so dense that the sun was clouded. Indians using brush brooms patrolled the rows of vegetables and prevented their total destruction. For winter use, some of the vegetables and the apples were stored in a long, dark root cellar. Cabbages and a few of the other roots were kept in trenches covered with straw and earth.”

“Mr. A. J. Urlin and Father owned one of the first nurseries in the Missoula Valley. The fruit trees were purchased from the Payette Nursery at Payette, Idaho, and transported over the Bitter Root Mountains by Jerry Phey’s [Fahey’s] pack train.”

“Meat was kept in a large smokehouse. Ham, bacon, salt pork, smoked beef, elk, and gunnysacks full of jerked venison and buffalo meat hung in rows across the room. Freezing preserved some of the meat in winter.”

This chapter also presented an unusual discussion of Indians gathering and preparing food. The cooperation between her family and the resident Indian population is of special interest to Missoula historians.

“As time passed, hunger began to stalk the Indians and they often stopped at the farm to buy or trade for meat and vegetables. . .

“My mother was exceedingly fond of certain wild fruits and roots. When unable to pick or dig these herself, she sometimes traded garden produce to the Indians for them. Wild gooseberries, currants, strawberries, and plums were not plentiful but were supplemented by huckleberries, chokecherries, elderberries, and service or sarvice berries. Usually mother bargained for fresh fruit. Occasionally it was sun dried, which was the Indian method of preservation. . .

“Her favorite Indian vegetables were kouse, wild onions, wild carrots, camas, and bitterroot. Mother bartered for kouse with Nez Perce Indians. Ordinarily we ate it raw. Once in a while she pounded the roots into flour and made kouse bread. . .”

In addition to wild onions and wild carrots, Emma discussed the preparation of two famous food staples that are frequently mentioned in any discussion of northwest Native American diet; camas and bitterroots.

“Camas was ripe in June, about the same time the plant began to flower. The bulbs, when boiled, produced a syrup which took the place of sugar. The best results, though, were obtained from the following Indian method of roasting. A pit, the size depending upon the quantity of camas to be cooked, was scooped out of the ground. Into this we threw a layer of hot rocks, which we covered with alternate layers of mud, grass, and camas, until the hole was filled. Over this a fire was kept burning for about twenty-four hours. The process of roasting preserved the camas indefinitely.

“The Shoshones called the bitterroot, Montana’s state flower, kant. When Mother couldn’t get the roots of this plant from the Flatheads, she, Mary, and I dug them ourselves. In late springtime the rocky benchland in back of the outhouse was a rose-starred carpet of these nearly stemless, flat, exquisite flowers. We dug the roots and peeled the brown skin just before the bitterroot bloomed. After blooming, the skin is tough and not easily removed. Sun drying preserves them. Mary and I disliked their taste, but Mother thought that steamed or boiled bitterroot, served with sugar and cream, was a dish fit for a king.

“The Flathead Indian name for the bitterroot was ‘spatleum.’ The four mile flat, between the city of Missoula and the old military fort, was a favorite digging ground. Each spring, mounted on horseback or conveyed in buggies and wagons, came the women, children, and a few old men. The men slept or lolled in the shade, while the women and girls unearthed, peeled, and threw the roots on blankets to dry.”

In chapter 6 titled ‘Travelers,’ Emma discussed the proximity of their cabin to the ancient trail that led out of the Hell Gate Canyon. For hundreds of years a constant stream of humanity had passed nearby. With the completion of the Mullan Road, and the discovery of gold in Montana, the volume of traffic increased wildly.

Showing hospitality to visitors was done without question. Visitors included “Black Robes,” miners, packers, and freighters.

One of the more famous visitors, “Calamity Jane,” left a lasting impression.

“Astride a dun colored mule, she was conspicuous in buckskin shirt and trousers in a day when women seldom appeared in masculine garb. How frightened I was when she teasingly offered Father her mule in exchange for me. Hauling freight to the mines, it was said that she sat her wheel horse and handled her jerkline as skillfully as any teamster.”

Chinese gold seekers were also of interest as they moved through the Missoula valley past her cabin.

“Mary and I heard the yellow men of little stature described so often that one afternoon when ten coolies came trotting toward the house in single file, we immediately recognized them as Chinamen. Childishly curious, we ran outdoors. The line halted as one man, smilingly broadly, pointed toward Missoula and inquired, ‘Missoulee’”?

Patterson’s writing talent was on full display with the following paragraph:

“What a picture the small orientals presented upon the wild western landscape: bulging packs; long black queues topped by skull caps; trouser legs stuffed into cowhide boots; and shining gold pans hanging from belted coolie coats. They hurried into the west seeking their fortunes in the wild, reckless era of placer mining in Montana. These ten Chinamen had walked over the Mullan Road from Walla Walla, Washington.”

Chapter 7 titled ‘Fireside Recollections,’ gives voice to the stories of their mother’s past. Recounting the traditions of the Shoshone tribe, Quick-to-See explained to the children the relationship between their tribe and the nearby Flatheads and Nez Perces.

“The Shoshones were once a great nation extending eastward beyond the Rocky Mountains, and westward across the Bitter Root Range. During the course of time, a great many were killed by their frequent wars with the fierce Sioux and the treacherous Blackfeet. Afraid of their relentless and more powerful enemies, they sought refuge in the foothill country of the Rockies. At least once a year they left their mountain retreat and made a cautious trip to the eastern buffalo range. On these dangerous ventures, they were usually reinforced by their friendly neighbors, the Flatheads and Nez Perces.”

Two fascinating Indian legends were also presented in this chapter – ‘The Medicine-bear,’ and ‘The Rolling Medicine Stone.’

Chapter 8 titled ‘Trading Days,’ discussed Emma’s father and his experiences, trading and traveling over the area. Known to his Indian customers as ‘The Bear’, Minesinger was not of a trusting nature: “I held my six gun in one hand while exchanging goods with the other.”

Minesinger’s encounter with one of the west’s most famous miscreants, Boone Helm, is told in some detail. Minesinger’s trading party (evidently including John Powell) was enroute to Ft. Hall Idaho when they received a visit by a desperate, freezing Boone Helm.

“Even accustomed as we were to the rough wilderness, the appearance of the outlaw was striking, to say the least. His long and unkempt hair fell over his face and shoulders like a shaggy mane. Frightfully emaciated, his wild, sunken eyes and distended nostrils seemed the only visible features in his grimy, bewhiskered countenance. He looked more beast than man. Filthy rags hung from his gaunt frame. Wary and suspicious, he appeared the fugitive that he was.”

Helm’s reputation as a serial killer and cannibal is the subject of reams of articles and books about the lawless west. He died at the hands of Montana Vigilantes in Virginia City, Montana, an incident that Minesinger and Emma witnessed.[4]

In chapter 9, titled ‘A Western Education,’ Emma described her introduction to formal education. The closest public school, Hell Gate School, consisted of a one-room log cabin with only “two or three small glass-paned windows.” The school house was located on ground donated by Missoula pioneer, Abner G. England.

“Miss Lydia Catlin, our first teacher, came on horseback from Missoula.

“Our schoolmates were Belle Austin; Thomas James; Nellie, Phillip, Barnard, and James Flynn; Alfred, Anthony, and Thomas Miles; and Lillian, Rose, George, William (Chick) and Richard White.

“An amusing reminiscence of our noon hour occurs to me. All of the scholars of the Hell Gate School were white children except for us three Minesingers. Consequently we were the only pupils whose lunch consisted of jerked buffalo meat. At first we shyly and hungrily ate it in the seclusion of the schoolroom. It wasn’t long, though, before our privacy was invaded by the other youngsters requesting a taste. We gladly shared with them. They relished it so, that it was soon evident we must demand some return if we wanted to satisfy our hunger. Our buffalo meat, thereafter, became ‘stock-in-trade’ for cake, cookies, or pie. For the rest of the summer term we looked forward to our noon hour with mouth watering anticipation.”

Emma also discussed a Missoula teacher whose career has only recently drawn the attention that it deserves in Missoula’s, as well as Montana’s history. Emma remembered Charles Schafft not only for his disability (he was a double amputee), but also for his humor and warmth.

“Another tutor who gave us his time was Charles Schafft. A native of Berlin, Germany, he came to Montana from Walla Walla, Washington, in the fall of 1861, as clerk on Captain John Mullan’s United States military road expedition. During the winter at a road camp near Missoula, he had a disagreement with a subordinate clerk and walked to another camp. On the way both feet were frozen. Dr. George Hammond, Assistant United States Army Surgeon, amputated both his legs just below the knees.

“My memories of Mr. Schafft are pleasant ones. Tall, blonde, with blue eyes twinkling, he was always cheerful. I think he loved children. On cold days, he never wearied of our thoughtless questions. ‘Charles, are your feet cold?’ If we forgot to ask, he humorously reminded us by stamping his wooden stumps and telling us his feet were frozen.

“Charles Schafft served as Missoula County’s first Clerk and Recorder.”

Chapter 10 titled ‘Incidents of the Nez Perce Uprising,’ gave us a view of the alarm that occurred in Missoula when news arrived that the warring Nez Perces were approaching from Idaho.

The ensuing Battle of the Big Hole marked the second most bloody battle in Montana’s history, behind the Battle of the Big Horn. In retrospect it can be seen that the alarm was well founded, even though Missoula was not attacked.

“Reports that the hostile Nez Perces were on their way across the Bitter Root Range found us Missoulians speculating as to our fate. Momentarily, we feared that hundreds of painted warriors might enter the valley, massacre us, and pillage or burn our homes. The alarm spread, and throughout the valley settlers took precautions against the Indians by moving into town.

“I remember the day we went to Missoula. It was the latter part of July and a hot afternoon. We were attending the Hell Gate School which was still in session. The teacher was nervous; we children were unable to concentrate on the work before us. Excited whispers of ‘Nez Perces! Warpath! Scalping!’ could be heard all over the room. . .

“About mid-afternoon, Matthew Coleman, a neighbor of ours, drove up to the schoolhouse and asked for the Minesinger children. School was dismissed. Eagerly we climbed into the conveyance and Mr. Coleman took us to town where Father had a house rented for us on Front Street.”

Emma relates an incident that found her father attempting to negotiate with the approaching Nez Perces singlehandedly. His long experience, trading with Indians throughout Montana and Idaho, no doubt gave Minesinger a sense of confidence in dealing with the advancing Nez Perces.

He was among the group of about 100 local citizens who volunteered to join Captain C. C. Rawn and his soldiers at what is now known as Fort Fizzle in the Lolo canyon. Their task was to try to stop hundreds of Nez Perces as they came down the Lolo trail into the Bitter Root valley.

Minesinger quietly walked up the canyon and met alone with Red-Fox (an acquaintance) and a small band of armed warriors. Answering Minesinger’s inquiry as to their destination, Red-Fox then questioned Minesinger about the status of army troops and their positions. Minesinger wisely gave answers and then, as the Nez Perces moved on, Minesinger rejoined the group of men barricaded at Fort Fizzle. No mention is made of her father participating in the Battle of Big Hole.

This incident, along with many other well documented encounters, illustrates the dilemma facing the local citizens. Was it their fight?

Even more important was the Nez Perces’ attempt to enlist Chief Charlo and his band of local warriors to join in their cause. Charlo’s refusal is one of the water marks of Indian / white relations in Montana’s history. Not all of Charlo’s followers agreed with his decision. The story of the Nez Perces’ flight across Montana and their subsequent capture became a world-wide topic of interest. It still is.

Chapter12 titled ‘Two Weddings,’ follows Emma and her elder sister, Mary, as they reached maturity. Mary became a housemaid in the John Rankin home, while Emma did the same at the C. P. Higgins home.

“A pretentious house and eight children kept Mrs. Higgins and myself occupied most of the time. . .

“As I review my nearly two years’ service in the Higgins home, my outstanding memories are Mrs. Higgins’ motherly kindness and the Captain’s stern, but nevertheless just, family discipline. From the children he tolerated no disobedience. A buggy whip was kept in a convenient place, and when deserved the rod was not spared.”

Emma and Mary also soon found that their lives became much more complicated. Emma related an incident that surely caused trouble with her parents.

“Because of illness, I left the Higgins’ and went home. My brother Charles, who was an employee at the Rankin Saw Mill, contracted acute Bright’s disease and quickly succumbed to it. Soon after Charles’ untimely death, Mary came home also.

“Mary was sixteen, tall, olive skinned, and pretty. She was betrothed to Albert Miles, our Hell Gate schoolmate and they were happily absorbed with their wedding plans.

“Fond of dancing, a group of us sometimes drove to the Frenchtown hall. The gay and informal western crowd came from far and near. Buggies, wagons and saddle horses brought the merrymakers to the old log hall. Dawn found us still in the merry whirl; the old fiddler tirelessly applying the resined bow while he beat the time with a booted foot.

“As Father and Mother were opposed to Mary’s marriage, she and Alfred made up their minds to elope. Father had driven a band of horses to Canada, and during his absence Alfred’s brother, Anthony, and I helped them carry out their wedding arrangements.

“Alfred sent his pinto pony to our home with his brother who tied the horse to the hitching rack in front of our house. Going around to the kitchen where Mother was working, Anthony interested her in conversation. Meanwhile, Mary ran to the hitchrack and untied the horse. She mounted him and rode to the bedroom window where I was waiting with her clothes in a bag. I crawled out the window and got on behind her. The fleet-footed pony bore us to the Miles’ ranch about a mile distant where Alfred was nervously waiting with a team and wagon. Katherine Pelky, a friend of ours, and I assisted Mary in dressing, and the wedding party was soon on its way to Missoula. Reverend Joseph Menetery, S. J., one of the early missionaries of the west, united them in holy matrimony.”

Alfred and Mary soon settled with Alfred’s parents in Evaro, not far from Missoula. There Mary helped run a boarding house, while Alfred packed the mail to Plains, Mt. and back.

Emma gave an unusual description of the times and the place.

“Evaro was a tie camp and a lively one. It supplied ties and timbers for the Northern Pacific Railroad which was reaching out across the continent to unite the east and west. . . A general store and two saloons were also supported by the tie-hacks.”

Emma soon embarked on what would become the next part of her busy life.

“After Mary left home, I went to work as a housekeeper for Mr. and Mrs. J. R. Latimer of Grass Valley. Ruben Latimer came to the Missoula Valley when a young man and one of his first jobs was splitting rails for my father. Their acquaintance resulted in a lifelong friendship.

“Mr. Latimer and Miss Elizabeth Bills were married in our home one cold November evening. I recall the festive supper served in front of our fireplace piled high with blazing logs.

“One day in mid-winter I received from Mary an invitation to spend a fortnight with them. I accepted it, and while at Evaro I met Thomas Waymack. He was a bartender in one of the Evaro saloons, and a steady boarder at the Miles’ place. Tall and blonde with a flowing mustache, he was ten years my senior and addicted to the use of alcohol.

“Born and educated in Baltimore, Maryland, he enlisted in the United States Infantry and was sent to a western military fort. During the Nez Perce War he served under the command of General O. O. Howard, in Idaho Territory.

“The old adage reads, ‘Mary in haste, and repent at leisure.’ I did both. Six weeks after meeting Mr. Waymack, I was his bride. Our wedding vows were solomized by Reverend George Stewart, an Episcopal minister, at the Miles’ home in March 1881. As the sixteen year old wife of this arrogant ex-soldier I was to find the complexities of life increased four-fold.”

The remainder of “Montana Memories” is not so happy. Emma’s story found her the subject of abuse and bad luck, but her spirit was never broken. Moving to the Flathead reservation in her final years she finally found peace. She described reservation life at St. Ignatius in the final pages of the book.

“After nearly a hundred years, the population of St. Ignatius, including Indians and whites, is still not more than a thousand souls. The village scene, however, is quite different. The Indian encampment has vanished, the campfires died out, and the last village crier has long since passed on to his ‘shadowland.’

“It is true the descendants of the red race walk the village street. They have little knowledge, however, of the ancient traditions of their forefathers. Their efforts are directed towards fashioning their lives to fit the pattern designed for them by their white brethren.

“Yes, the village picture is changing, and likewise the entire Treasure State presents a shifting scene. Most of the old blanket Indians have trailed the shaggy brown herds and made their moccasined exit from the Montana stage. The trapper, trader, missionary, and prospector have all disappeared behind the scene. Horse thieves, road agents, and vigilantes have shot out their dramatic roles. Back stage also is the spectacular show of the cowboy riding in the dusty wake of the longhorn trail herds.

“Across Montana’s vast expanse, where once wound dusty trails flanked by tall bunch grass, the motorist drives over smooth highways. Scenery unsurpassed anywhere in the world, prosperous ranches, busy towns, and thriving cities make up the ever changing vista. Frequently a place name, historical trail marker, or historical monument will tell the traveler a bit about the romantic history of this beautiful land. . .

“Sitting beside my window, I often look up to the changeless Mission Mountains. At this southern extremity the loftiest peaks of the range rise boldly against the blue. Here within the shadow of these colossal stone monuments of immortality, I am content to spend the sunset of my life.”

[1] Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, Vol. 2

[2] The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft: History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana (1890).

[3] Newsline – Montana Dept. of Transportation, Sept. 2005

[4] For more on Helm see “Story of the Outlaw, A Study of the Western Desperado”, by Emerson Hough.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 25 March 2015 22:46