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The Wolf Point herald. (Wolf Point, Mont.) 1913-1940, January 01, 1920, Image 3

Image and text provided by Montana Historical Society; Helena, MT

Persistent link: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86075272/1920-01-01/ed-1/seq-3/

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Fifty-three years ago, in 18 66, the
principal topic of conversation in
Montana for several months was a
"peace commission," which had been
appointed by the government to end
all Indian disturbances in the north
west, and which became one of the
standing jokes of that period of
western history. It was composed
of four politicians, and one of these
was a clergyman—the Rev. Henry W.
Reed, who so long figured as an In
dian agent on the upper Missouri.
Far from putting an end to any of the
Indian troubles with which the
government was threatened, the com
mission made matters much worse
than they had been before and stirred
up the tribes along the river to such
an extent that much fighting and
bloodshed between whites and reds
Besides the minister-politician,
Reed, the members of the commis
sion were Newton Edmunds, govern
or of the territory of Dakota; Gener
al S. R. Curtis, a well known officer
of the Iowa volunteers in the Civil
war; and Orrin Guernsey. It was
officially known as the Northwestern
Treaty Commission, but was always
referred to as the Peace Commission
of 186 6. General Curtis was chair
man of the commission, and he was
about as well fitted to negotiate
treaties with the plains Indians as a
Sioux brave would be to teach higher
The commission assembled at St.
Louis in the spring of the year and
spent some weeks in lengthy de
liberations, concerning themselves
mostly with the manner of travel
that would be most luxurious in their
western journey, and how best to get
rid of the large appropriation that
had been set aside for them. They
gave out many flamboyant notices to
the newspapers, setting forth with
much confidence how they proposed
to make the troublesome red men of
Dakota and Montana contented and
loyal wards of the government. They
proved very amusing to the veterans
of the plains who read them and who
knew the Indians.
Charter a Steamer.
The commission finally decided to
charter a steamer to take them up the
Missouri to Fort Benton and back,
and they made a deal with Captain
Joseph La Barge, veteran Missouri
river pilot, who knew the Sioux, the
Crows, Gros Ventres, Blackfeet and
other tribes thoroughly. Captain La
Barge agreed to transport the com
missioners for a price of $300 a day
on the fine new steamboat Ben John
son. At the last moment a son of
one of the commissioners put in an
appearance and wished to go. His
father asked Captain La Barge to
hire the boy ini some capacity at a
salary of $5 a day, but the captain
intimated that he would almost be
willing to pay $5 a day not to have
the youth along. The commissioners
insisted, however, so the captain
agreed to pay the lad provided the
contract price was raised to $305 a
day, and this was done. Captain La
Barge was much disgusted with the
arrangement, but the young man en
joyed a sinecure during the trip and
the government paid the freight, as it
Captain La Barge in his memoirs
declared that the whole voyage
seemed more like a pleasure trip—
which it really was intended to be by
the commissioners—than a business
enterprise. The boat moved up
stream by leisurely stages, always
tying up early in the evening and
starting late in the morning, as the
commissioners did not wish to be un
duly fatigued by travel. Long stops
were made at all points of interest,
and between these whist and other
card games served to while away the
Expedition is Ridiculed.
The people along the river looked
upon the expedition as a farce from
the start, and no end of ridicule was
poured upon it wherever the boat
tied up. The Indians were quick to
see that the white men considered it
as a joke, and they acted according
ly. Captain La Barge wrote the fol
lowing account of one incident that
came near ending seriously for the
whole party:
"Some 20 miles below the mouth
of White Earth river I saw two In
dian hunters on the hills. I hailed
them and invited them abroad to
learn whether they were Yankton
Sioux, as I suspected. They proved
to be of this tribe—the most relent
lessly hostile of all the Sioux bands—
and said their camp was 10 miles off,
on White Earth river. General Cur
tis asked them to go to camp and
tell their chiefs to move the whole
village down to the mouth of White
Earth river, and there await the boat
for the purpose of holding a council.
I asked the size of the village and
was told that there were 600 lodges,
which meant not less than 3,000 In
"I remonstrated at this proposi
tion, strongly urging that only the
chiefs be asked to a council. I knew
that should so powerful a band of
these hostile Indians get any advan
tage of us they would certainly use
it. We had no power of resisting
them, having only 30 people in all,
and they were poorly armed. I
feared the Indians would make a rush
and attempt to capture the steamer
as soon as we landed. Our interpret
er, Zephyr Rencontre, who was a
seasoned plainsman, seconded me in
this opinion. I had been in the pow
er of these Yanktons before, and it
was only due to Rencontre that I
now wore my hair.
La Barge Called a Coward.
"General Curtis said he perceived
that I was afraid of the Indians, but
not to be alarmed, as he would
answer for all harm. He said the
Indians would never dare to molest
a government officer.
"To me. who had spent all by life
among the Indians, this gratuitous
Insinuation from a mere novice in
Indian experience cut me to the
quick, and I replied: 'Very well,
will land as you say, but before we
get.through we will see who is afraid
of Indians.'
"This was another instance of the
mistakes made by our government in
the selection, to treat with Indians,
of men without knowledge of the In
dian character. It was a universal
rule that such men would treat with
contempt the cautious bearing of
those who knew the Indians; and
this ignorant bravado many times
led to disastrous consequences. It
w r as very unpleasant to act with such
men, who ridiculed one's honest
knowledge of peril, and who were
powerless to help when they got you
into danger. It was also a common
observation with me that the volun
teer officers of the war were always
more haughty and overbearing than
those bred to the profession.
Warns the General.
"I said to General Curtis on this
occasion: 'This course is contrary
to my judgment, General; and in
order not to be responsible for the
consequences I desire a written order
from you before I adopt it.' He gave
me the order. The Indians arrived
just as we were tying up the boat
at the mouth of the White Earth
"The women immediately began
setting up the lodges and the men be
gan to rush on board. They were
all armed. General Curtis had said,
when I foretold this: 'We will keep
them off, only letting on board those
we want.' I replied: 'You will see.
General, that it will be impossible to
keep them off.'
"Unfortunately, as the Sioux rush
ed aboard, they did not congregate at
any one place but scattered them
selves in every direction. Matters at
once became serious. I was thor
oughly alarmed for the safety of the
boat and her passengers, but remain
ed cool and indifferent to all outward
appearance, and did not permit my
self to resent the actions of the In
dians. An act of that sort might
have precipitated trouble. We were
over a powder mine and a spark was
liable to fall at any moment.
Commissioners Sneak Away.
"The Indians became more and
more insolent, would elbow us
around and sneer at us, displaying
their muscular arms and trying in
every way to provoke us to action,
In the old river boating days it
was customary to find out, soon after
a steamboat left St. Louis for Fort
Union or Fort Benton, who was the
champion with fists among the crew,
and pioneers who saw some of these
battles used to tell of historic fights
that were the talk of the river folk
from Missouri to Montana.
The steamboat captains used to
like to have the point settled beyond
dispute, for if a series of battles were
held, whereby contenders were elim
inated and the superiority of one man
established, much quarreling and
bickering was done away with for the
rest of the trip.
It was the custom, therefore, for
the captain, within a day or two of
the time the steamboat set out on
its voyage, to call for all who claim
ed to be fighters to step forward,
and a series of battles would be held
until one man had proved his right
to be called champion. A ring
would be formed in the forecastle
and each braggart had to meet a
shipmate and conquer or be defeated
in a fight to a finish. The cham
pion, after winning the last fight,
would be awarded a red belt, which
he proudly wore during the remain
der of the trip, but if his supremacy
was challenged, it was up to him to
defend his title at all times and
against all comers. Many were the
savage and bloody battles thus
fought on the decks of the old river
steamboats, much to the delight of
the rough mountain and river men
in the audience.
Captain Joseph La Barge, the most
famous of the old steamboat
tains, used to tell of one champion
who was only known by the name of
"Yankee Jack." It was aboard the
Robert Campbell, bound for Fort
Benton, in 1863, that he won the belt.
Irishmen Were Quarrelsome
It happened that there were a
number of Irishmen in the crew who
made life far from agreeable to the
men of other nationalities aboard,
and who especially delighted to pick
upon this well-built, raw-boned
American who refused to give any
other name than that of Yankee Jack.
He took their gibes and their offen
sive actions good-naturedly for some
time until the captain of the boat
called him into his cabin and asked
him why he did not stand up for him
self. Jack said he was willing to
fight, so the captain called in the two
leaders of the Irishmen and asked
them to select their two best fight
ers. Each of the Hibernians claimed
to be chief of the gang, so a ring was
immediately formed and Jack and
one of his opponents were soon strip
ped for action.
The big Irishman made some in
sulting remarks to Jack and rushed
in with a Celtic battle cry of rage.
Jack met his onslaught with a ter
rific straight-arm jolt to the jaw that
sent the Irishman to the deck, where
he lay unconscious for 15 minutes.
The other Irishman swore that it
was sheer luck on the part of Yankee
Jack, and stepped into the ring with
plenty of confidence. He also rushed
Jack and the latter parried two
or three fierce swings with much
cleverness. Then seeing an opening,
he stepped in and drove his right
like a piledriver to the Irishman's
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Captain Joseph La Barge, Whose Steamboat was Chartered by So-Called
Peace Commission in 1806 to Come up Missouri River to Negotiate
Treaties With Plains Indians; The Rental of the Boat was $305 Per
One Sioux, an ugly fellow and a not
ed villian named Crazy Wolf, follow
ed me everywhere, fully armed. He

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Before the Irishman Could Recover Himself, Jack's Fist Flattened His
Enemy's Nose Against His Face. The Irishman Fell, and Seizing His
Pistol, Jack Tossed It Into the Fire.
wind, and while the latter reeled
back, gasping for breath. Jack liter
ally lifted him off his feet with a ter
rible uppercut and the fight was
defi to any man on the boat to step
forward and meet him, but the belt
was awarded without his challenge
being accepted.
Jack then issued a general
Wins Against a Gun
The Irishmen let Jack alone un
til the boat pulled up to the levee
at Fort Union, but the unloading of
freight bound for that point had no
more than been unloaded before the
first man he had knocked out, whose
anger had been smouldering for sev
eral weeks, threatened to "get" Jack
before they left port. Jack laughed
and told him he could have a fight
any time he wanted it, but he did not
take the Irishman's threat seriously.
That evening the crew all drank
lot of fighting whisky around the
fort, where a dance was in progress,
the men dancing with a number of
Sioux women, some of whom were
living as wives of employes of the
fort. The Irishman who had threat
ened Jack was particularly boister
ous and repeated his boast that he
would get the Yankee. Jack, despite
his prowess with his fists, was not
quarrelsome, and toward morning he
decided to go aboard the boat and
go to bed to avoid trouble that he
saw was imminent. He started for
the gate of the stockade around the
fort, but the big Irishman stepped
forward and blocked his way. The
enclosure was lit up with the glare
from a bonfire, and a crowd of ex
cited faces quickly formed a ring j
tried in every way to make me notice
him and to provoke me. I finally
went to Zephyr Rencontre and told
about the pair. Jack stepped back
and prepared to defend himself, when
the Irishman drew from his shirt a
pistol and fired point-blank at his
foe. As luck would have it, the bul
let just grazed Jack's right ear, and
before the Irishman could recover.
Jack's fist flattened his enemy's nose
against his face. The Irishman fell
and, seizing his pistol. Jack tossed It
into the fire. The Irishman was on
his feet in a second with a bellow of
rage, but the now thoroughly infu
riated Jack tore into him and nearly
killed him with his fists before he
finished with him. That was the last
trouble Jack encountered on the river
steamers, for his reputation as a
fighter was secure and none cared to
try conclusions with him.
The battle was watched by a number
of Blackfeet chiefs, who made much
of Jack after the encounter,
flattered by their praise and stimu
lated, too, by plenty of whisky, told
the head chief that he would fight
any four men in the town. A couple
Wins Admiration of Blackfeet
Yankee Jack, it appears, became a
noted figure at most of the forts of
the American Fur Company, for the
admiration he was sure to win by
his fighting prowess made him un
duly fond of taking parts in encoun
ters of this kind, and when he could
not get a single man to face him, he
would offer to take on two at a time
and whip both of them.
Benton one 4th of July in the late
60's, he won a fight with a huge
negro from Texas who had come up
the river and who considered him
self Invincible in the game of fists.
At Fort
him I feared trouble was brewing.
He thought so too and said I had
better prepare for prompt measures.
I had kept steam up. Pilot and
engineer remained at their posts and
the mate was kept forward. He had
been instructed to cut the line at a
signal of one tap of the bell.
"Meanwhile the commissioners had
been attempting negotiations with
the Indians, but to little purpose.
In front, on the boiler deck, there
were a table and seats for the prin
cipal Indians. Curtis tried to call
them to order, but without success.
He then summoned Rencontre and
tried to talk to them. He told them
he was about to roll some bales of
goods on shore and asked them to
withdraw and distribute them. The
Sioux chiefs answered that he could
roll them ashore; the women would
take care of them; as for them, they
would remain on the boat.
"Nothing whatever could be done.
The situation looked worse as the
Sioux became more insolent. One by
one the commissioners slipped away
and locked themselves in their state
rooms. General Curtis was finally
left alone, and after awhile he also
withdrew, telling me to get out of the
scrape as best I could. He fully
realized the gravity of the blunder
he had made and his own inability to
cope with the situation.
Sioux Are Outwitted.
"The Indians as yet had made no
attempt to enter the staterooms, but
they were angry at the withdrawal
of the commissioners and might do
so at any minute. Rencontre said
to me, 'The Indians don't like this
and will give us trouble. We had
better do something right away.'
" 'Is it time to cut loose?' I
" 'I think so, 'he replied. I gave
the signal and the line was cut, the
wheels began to turn backw-ard and
the boat slid quickly from the bank.
"The sudden move astonished the
Indians. Those on shore seized the
line and began pulling before they
discovered that it was cut. I knew
they would not dare to fire for fear
of shooting their own people. Those
on the boat were panic-stricken and
of gamblers heard this boast and they
gathered together four of the husk
iest river men to be found there and
faced Jack with them. Jack agreed
should be a strictly rough and tum
ble fight with nothing barred except
ing guns, clubs, rocks or other weap
ons. This being understood, Jack
I went to the trading post and bought
I a pair of heavy boots, with which he
replaced the moccasins that he usual
ly wore.
It was decided to hold the battle in
a small corral adjoining the fort, and
around this gathered the 4th of July
celebrators, including fifteen Black
feet chiefs and head men. Jack's op
ponents were burly river men, and
the fight opened with a rush of the
four at Jack. Agile and quick as
cat, Jack side-stepped the leader and
caught the second man witn a right
swing to the jaw that knocked him
cold. In an instant Jack's right foot
had caught another a terrific kick in
the stomach that put him out of the
fight. The other two were on Jack
like a pair of wolves and fists and
feet were going like flails. Sudden
ly one of Jack's opponents, leaning
forward with his head down, looking
for a chance to get past Jack's guard,
caught the latter's knee under his
chin with such force that it broke his
jaw and nearly dislocated his neck.
The fourth man, seeing himself left
alone, leaped over the corral fence
and ran away, while Jack, victorious
but bloody, received the plaudits of
the crowd.
The Blackfeet were so impressed
with Jack's prowess that they offered
to make him a war chief of the tribe
if he would come to live with them,
but he declined the offer and shortly
after went back down the river, not
to return to Montana.
No race with
Coffee prices!
is still selling at
the same fair price,
and is better for you.
Try it!
JWo size's, usualprice 15# and 25$
Made hy
Postum Cereal Co. Battle Creek, Mich.
began to leap overboard. I caused
the nose of the boat to be held close
to shore so that they could get to
land without drowning, and in a few
minutes we were clear of them.
Then, reversing the engines, -we steer
ed for the opposite bank and made
the boat fast.
"The danger being over, I went to
General Curtis' room and told him it
was safe to come out. I said:
"Who is afraid of Indians now.
General Curtis?"
"His only reply was: 'Who would
have thought the rascals would dare
to molest a government officer?'
"The Sioux cared a lot about a
government officer! His remark
showed how little he knew about
the Indian character.
"No further attempt was made to
treat with these Indians and we went
on up the river. As on a previous
occasion, the Indians followed us.
Durfee & Peck at this time had a
trading post on the site where Fort
Buford later stood. The Indians
made a signal from the opposite
side of the river that they had robes
to trade, and the agent at the post
wanted to borrow our yawl to go
across and get them. I consented,
but advised against it. The traders
crossed and actually bought several
hundred robes, but just as the boat
was about to put back the Indians
jumped on the crew', killed one, badly
wounded another and would have
killed all had I not promptly crossed
the river with the steamboat to their
"The commissioners then went on
to old Fort Union, at the mouth of
the Yellowstone river, where they re
mained for a time treating with the
Assinniboines, Crows and Gros Ven
tres. The Crows and Gros Ventres
came down by the steamboat Miner
under promise that they should be
taken back to their camp on the
Musselshell by boat. The river be
ing to low to take so large a boat as
the Ben Johnson farther, the com
mission seized a small boat, the
Amanda, employed by the war de
partment. The Amanda was headed
up the river to meet Colonel Reeve,
who was on his way back from the
Judith river, where he had estab
lished a post. The Crows and Gros
Ventres, with their presents, got on
board and started up the river. The
agent for the Blackfeet, George B.
Wright, was also on board on his way
to Fort Benton.
"At the mouth of the Milk river
the Amanda met Colonel Reeve, who
promptly took the boat, put the In
dians ashore and left them to walk
home. The anger of the Crows was
fired to a desperate pitch by this
action. They refused to take their
presents, tore up the treaties and
swore that they would fire on every
boat going up the river. Wright was
afraid to return overland to Benton,
so he went back with the boat and
went all the way around by Omaha
and Salt Lake to reach Fort Benton.
"The commissioners and Wright
had a wordy battle before they de
cided to get together and send in re
ports of the incidents of the Crow
and Gros Ventres treaties that would
"The commissioners were afraid to
go further up the river and the prow
of the Ben Johnson was turned down
stream again and pursued her way
leisurely. The property bought by
the commission as treaty presents
was put off, partly at Sioux City and
partly at Omaha."
There is no doubt but that the
property referred to was stolen by
the commissioners and sold by them
at Omaha and Sioux City. The cost
of the boat hire for nearly 100 days
was about $30,000.
The peace commission of 1866
cost the government upward of $50,
000 and not only accomplished noth
ing of good, but did no end of harm
in inflaming the Indians along the
Missouri against the whites.
Asiatic Russia has 168 rivers with
a navigable length of 13,558 miles.

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