Nobody really knows how and when Missoula was “born.”
The best histories we have tell us C.P. Higgins, Frank Worden and David Pattee probably formed the Missoula Mills Co. in November 1864. Pattee, an experienced carpenter, probably headed a crew that began construction of a sawmill somewhere below the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek, probably that same month 150 years ago. Worden and Higgins probably moved their store and homes into town from Hell Gate, four miles to the west, the following year.
That’s a lot of “probablys.”
Those three men and apparently the dozens of other whites who populated the valley by late 1864 left no firsthand accounts.
“They weren’t writers, were they?” Ken Egan Jr., author of the newly published “Montana 1864,” pondered last week. “They just were not record keepers in that sense. They were businessmen and men of action, I suppose. They probably saw themselves as pragmatic, as doers, not thinkers or writers.
“But it is frustrating.”
It didn’t help that, according to the late historian Albert Partoll, fire in 1894 destroyed most of the records and properties of the Higgins-Worden business partnership.
So much of Montana Territory’s birth year is a matter of record these days. Egan pointed out the increasingly vast amount of material made available online. With a few clicks you can find yourself mesmerized by any of dozens of editions from Virginia City’s earliest newspaper, the Montana Post.
“It really is like entering 1864,” Egan said.
Executive director of Humanities Montana on the University of Montana campus, Egan spent two years digging into it all to produce a thoroughly researched and highly readable account in time for at least the closing months of Montana’s sesquicentennial.
“Montana 1864,” published by Riverbend Publishing of Helena, came out in mid-September. Egan is preparing for a Christmas rush of readings and book signings around the state.
He organized the book by months, and hit on the better-known topics from 1864 – the Vigilante rampage and hanging of Sheriff Henry Plummer in January, the establishment of Montana Territory in May, the discovery of gold at Last Chance Gulch in July and the opening of the first territorial legislative session in Bannack in December.
Interspersed are more obscure stories, clearly Egan’s favorites: the failed mission of Sun River Indian Farm, the angry letter a stressed-out James Fergus sent to his wife in August, and a glimpse of trader/rancher Malcolm Clarke through the eyes of his Piegan wife Coth-co-co-na. Molly Sheehan, who would become Mary Ronan, lent what Egan calls a powerful glimpse of “a female child’s perspective with strong southern leanings” in early Virginia City.
Missoula researcher Sally Thompson’s rhapsodic rendition of the coming of spring through the eyes of the Kootenai Culture Committee is presented in the April chapter. “Towards morning, before the light showed ...” begins an account written in the 1940s by James Long about summer coming to the Assiniboine.
Each month’s chapter is introduced by the late Percy Bullchild of Browning from the 1985 book “The Sun Came Down.”
“November is the moon to knock bullberries off of their thornie bushes, cold and frost really turns them on for their sweetness,” Bullchild wrote. “All animal hair is prime in November, trapping begins for those early ancestors of ours. The eagle goes on its southern migration.”
The beginnings of Missoula Mills is but one anecdote Egan shared in his seven-page November chapter. In the same month that President Abraham Lincoln was re-elected and Union Gen. William Sherman began his March to the Sea in Georgia, another Union commander, Col. John Chivington of the Colorado militia, orchestrated the brutal Sand Creek Massacre of Black Kettle’s Cheyenne in eastern Colorado on Nov. 29.
If Higgins and Worden and Pattee had knowledge of Sand Creek, Egan isn’t aware of it.
“It certainly isn’t something that would have been foremost or predominant in their minds,” he said. “They’re simply pursuing their business interests. They make a calculation that with the mines exploding and the white population exploding, now is the moment to take that leap of faith, to build the sawmill, to build a gristmill, to really capitalize this region and put some serious money on the table.”
Egan said he organized the book by months as a way to point out juxtapositions in history.
“We tend to tell history in this kind of clean, storytelling fashion, where one event leads to another leads to another,” he said. “What really hit me researching 1864 is that there were all these events going forward that don’t necessarily directly connect with each other; there’s no cause and effect going on, but they indicate all these different trajectories that are moving forward through this space and time.”
Even as Pattee built the first sawmill of commercial proportions, probably on the riverbank above what’s now A Carousel for Missoula at Caras Park, a “gambler, his prostitute wife, and their six children” arrived from Iowa in Nevada City, a couple hundred miles to the southeast, Egan wrote.
To his delight, he found mention in the Dec. 31 Montana Post of three Canary girls knocking on the door of James Fergus in Virginia City seeking “charity” and receiving food and clothing from Mrs. Fergus and two other women. The oldest was 8-year-old Martha Jane, who after being orphaned a few years later, grew to become one of the iconic, enigmatic symbols of the West.
“Calamity has arrived in Montana,” Egan wrote in introducing the vignette.
The Sand Creek Massacre was an overreaction to Indian pushback to gold seekers and settlers crossing through Cheyenne country in Kansas and Colorado. It was the same type of pressure tribes in Montana were forced to deal with. It’s perhaps a credit to both cultures that they fared better up here.
One nugget Egan unearthed was a note from Victor to Gov. Sidney Edgerton – “The chief of the Flatheads to the chief of the whites, Virginia, Montana.” It’s dated April 25, 1865, 10 days after Lincoln’s assassination and 16 after Lee’s s surrender at Appomattox signaled the end of the Civil War.
“Some of the big men among the white settlers in this our land, spoke to drive us away from our country,” an excerpt reads. “This thing vexed a great deal me, and all the other Chiefs, and all my children. I, Victor, therefore do send you the horse above mentioned to pray you to take pity on us, and to put an end to such talkings, and to stop the whites from building themselves houses in our land guaranteed to us by Treaty. We are almost given to despondency seeing every day new houses started up, and farms taken by whites in our land.”
Victor’s letter wasn’t written in 1864, but “to me that’s one of the most moving documents in the whole book,” Egan said. “Victor is not someone who is prone to disrupt, to cause direct conflict. He seemed like someone who was interested in negotiation and accommodation, and he’s reached a point where he can no longer tolerate this.
“It’s so poignant because he offers Edgerton a horse as a sign of his respect and honoring, and these white settlers will not stop coming into their homeland. And Victor so carefully negotiated the Council Grove (Hellgate) treaty in 1855 so that was not allowable. Yet it’s happening.”
It was happening in the Bitterroot and it was happening in the Missoula Valley. Egan relays a recollection by Frank Woody, a key partner of Higgins and Worden and the future first mayor of Missoula, that referred to the hundreds of men passing through the village of Hell Gate flocking to “the Kootenai mines” that had been discovered in early 1864.
“While Hell Gate ... has proven lucrative,” Egan wrote, “the partners realize that to maximize profit, to take advantage of the demand to the east and the burgeoning farms in the five valleys converging near their post, they must have the means to convert wheat to flour.”
Flour riots in Virginia City the following spring pointed to the dire need of a local supply.
“Mills have become the bedrock, the foundation of towns created by emigrants throughout the United States,” Egan wrote.
And so, in the maelstrom of history, in a turbulent year for the nation and the new territory of Montana, the town first known as Missoula Mills was born.