"Looking through the trees across the neck that connects this mound or hillock with the main land, the pine-built walls of Pend d’Oreille city fairly glittered in the sunshine – such jewelry did the magic of the day extract from or impart to the plainest things that delightful morning.” — Thomas Francis Meagher, under the pen name Col. Corneliius O’Keefe, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, October 1867
Ah, the enigmatic general.
Thomas Meagher (say ‘Marr’) will be called nicer things, and maybe some harsher, upon the 150th anniversary of his mysterious death in the Missouri River on July 1, 1867.
Helena is headquarters for MeagherFest ’17 on Saturday. Preliminary activities on Friday will include a bus trip to Fort Benton, where Meagher died five weeks before his 44th birthday. Friday night, back in Helena, biographer Paul Wylie of Bozeman restages his mock coroner’s inquest at the old Supreme Court chambers, leaving it to the audience jury/to decide if Meagher fell or was pushed off the G.A. Thompson that long ago night, never to be seen again.
Saturday’s opening ceremonies at 11:30 a.m. are in the shadow of Meagher’s sword-drawn mounted statue on the Capitol steps. From noon to 10 p.m. there’ll be panel discussions and dancing, bagpipes and hurling, kids’ activities and lots of Irish music.
Meagher, the daring Irish nationalist and American Civil War general, came to Montana in September 1865. He was appointed the first territorial secretary after the war and was serving his second stint as acting governor at the time of his death 21 months later.
Three months after that, Harper’s Monthly published what was meant to be the first installment of Meagher’s “Rides Through Montana.”
The article described a trip by steamboat from Lake Pend d’Oreille in Idaho to the Cabinet Rapids at the Montana border, then by horseback up the Clark Fork River past Thompson Falls to the mission at St. Ignatius and the Flathead Agency on the Jocko.
Meagher wrote the article in the name of his friend and fellow Irishman Cornelius “Baron” O’Keefe, who farmed at the base of Evaro Hill west of Missoula.
“The nom de plume which he adopted was not intended to disguise the authorship of the papers,” noted the Harper’s editor on the opening page, “but merely to enable him to speak with a freedom which would hardly comport with the official dignity which would have seemed proper had he written directly in his own name.”
So it was either Meagher or O’Keefe who was “delighted to find several farms under the handsomest cultivation” at Frenchtown, by a Mr. Tipton of Kentucky, Mr. Spencer of Tennessee, Mr. Miller of Pennsylvania and “some fifty gentlemen of French extraction, from whom the settlement is named, who have each from twenty to one hundred acres under the choicest and ripest cultivation.”
The author left his readers at Missoula Mills, which, he said, “turns out flour as well as lumber, owned by Messrs. Worden and Higgins, which cost $30,000, and the machinery of which came all the way from St. Louis.”
He called it a “very stately and patriotic Mill, the National Flag flying proudly and prosperously from it with sixteen bushels of wheat flying from it every hour into the finest and snowiest dust, miles of lumber sliding out of it every month, and one of the handsomest stores close by, under the same proprietorship, doing a brisk and hearty business all the year round …”
The last of 15 sketches that accompanied “Rides Through Montana” is captioned the Missoula Flour and Saw Mills. Laborers and horses work with giant logs under two imposing wood-framed structures. It could be anywhere but for the familiar mountains behind them, dead-on replicas of Mount Sentinel and University Mountain in the Hellgate Canyon.
Montana won’t be celebrating TofftFest any time soon, and certainly the name Peter Peterson Tofft doesn’t pack the international allure that Meagher’s does.
But the 40-year-old Danish artist (1825-1901) had an indispensable role in Meagher’s “Rides Through Montana,” and probably not just for the 15 rare sketches he produced to accompany the article.
Meagher researchers agree the Irish general arrived in Montana from Utah, not via Lake Pend d’Oreille and western Montana as chronicled in the article. Indeed, there’s little chance he ever made it farther west on the Clark Fork than the Missoula Valley.
Yet Tofft illustrated in admirable detail the Idaho lake and the historic steamboat Mary Moody, not to mention Cabinet Landing and Thompson Falls. Contrary to the Harper’s editor’s note, it’s clear Tofft and Meagher didn’t travel together to those places.
Meagher, or someone, described the Thompson Falls area:
“To the left (of the falls), standing well apart in park-like grounds, tall trees come down to the river’s edge from the slope of huge and hazy mountains – the outer tier of the great range of the Coeur d’Alene. Immediately below the Falls, on the same side with these park-like grounds, the river, rounding into the graceful woods, forms a warm and sparkling little cove ...”
It didn’t make much sense to Wylie, a Bozeman attorney and history writer who published “The Irish General” in 2007.
“The way I figured it out, Tofft was an artist, he had come in from the west, maybe on the Mullan Trail, and he was all the time making sketches,” Wylie said last week. “He wound up in Virginia City, and he was actually a friend of Meagher’s. I think they just got their heads together and somehow a deal was made: Here’s the illustrations, and even though Meagher hadn’t come that way, he’ll say he did.”
A hard-luck miner, Tofft spent the winter of 1866-67 selling his paintings in Virginia City for $5 each. He gained a following and met and befriended Meagher.
As young researchers on the Flathead Indian Reservation in the 1970s, Robert Bigart and the late Clarence Woodcock documented Tofft’s story. The result was "Peter Tofft: Painting in the Wilderness," published in the Autumn 1975 edition of Montana: The Magazine of Western History.
Bigart and Woodcock reported that in December 1866, Meagher, Tofft and a Bannack mine owner named A.K. Eaton discussed devoting the following summer to “an artistic tour of the territory” for the Harper’s series. It never happened, but Meagher made a deal to use some of Tofft’s illustrations from earlier travels.
Meagher’s documented trip to Western Montana began in late summer 1866. He was between stints as acting territorial governor for Sidney Edgerton and Green Clay Smith, and his wife Elizabeth went along for the ride.
In “The Irish General,” Wylie said the Meaghers met Father Anthony Ravalli at Stevensville, though it was probably at Hellgate on the Mullan Road at Grant Creek. On Oct. 1, 1866, they sponsored the baptism into Catholicism of Mrs. John Simms at St. Michael Church. A century and a half later the same church is restored and on display at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.
Meagher's description of the St. Ignatius Mission was glowing and no doubt from first-hand experience. And his observation of the valley’s predominant inhabitants reflect the prevailing and oppressive attitude of many non-Natives at the time.
The fathers at the Mission, Meagher opined, “have done more to reconcile the Indians to our Government and progress than all the Agents, Superintendents, Traders, and Interpreters that ever drew pay from Pennsylvania Avenue.”
To be sure, the truculent Meagher wasn’t in Montana to make friends with the Native tribes. Even as he was putting the final touches on his magazine article, he was leading a volunteer militia to put down an Indian uprising that wasn’t.
“A literate, ebullient Irish patriot, Meagher swaggered about Montana in Edgerton’s absence, visiting Indian reservations and declaiming in the villages," the late historian John Fahey of Spokane wrote in a 1974 history of the Flathead tribe.
"The Flathead Agency, (Meagher) declared, was ‘a preposterous establishment … very mischievously established and perverted. Two-thirds of this superb tract of country … ought, surely, to be thrown open to the whites by a modification of the treaty which makes it an exclusive estate for the Indians.’ ”
Despite its incongruities and shortcomings, “Rides Through Montana” offered an essential slice of 1867 Montana pie.
“The article ... reflected Meagher’s love of the outdoors and confirms his 1865 statement about the beauty of the territory,” historian Jon Axline wrote in 2006. “The Harper’s articles and the militia offered him a way out of the territory’s ugly politics and allowed him to do what he wanted to do all along, enjoy a frontier adventure and perhaps reclaim his faded glory.”
The Harper's editor noted that on June 17, 1867 — two weeks to the day before his death — Meagher sent what he called “positively the last notes for the First Ride Through Montana.”
“This letter, we think, contains the last words ever written by the author for transmission Eastward,” the editor said. “This, he also wrote, ‘will be the first illustrated paper ever published upon Montana;' and more than once he requested that special mention should be made of the fact that the sketches ... should be credited to Mr. Peter Toffts.”