Born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1834, David Polson went overland to the California gold fields in 1849. He worked his way to Carson City, Nevada, and in 1861 he joined Dan Hart and Charley Gladley in running a pack train from Walla Walla, Washington, to Orofino, Idaho, where he met and married Mary Kane, a Nez Perce woman.
The official arrival date of the Polson family in the Flathead Lake area is debatable as accounts vary – 1865, the 1870s and 1884.
When Agnes Hitchcock died in 1936, her obituary included information furnished by pioneer rancher Billy Irvine, who said she and her mother Mary Kane Polson came to the Flathead in 1865.
Irvine said his family was camped near Missoula when Mary and her infant daughter stopped with them for a short time before coming north to join David at the St. Ignatius Mission. Later, the Polsons moved to the south shore of Flathead Lake, settling on what was then the Joseph M. Dixon ranch.
Friends of Mary described her as a capable, resourceful, hardy woman. They told of one time she and her infant daughter went to visit friends and relatives and had to cross the Pend d’Oreille River (now known as the Flathead). They crossed over in a buffalo hide boat, but when they were returning home the boat was gone. Mary simply put the baby’s legs around her neck, tied them with her scarf, swam the river and continued home.
The late Morley Antoine wrote in a July 20, 1978, Flathead Courier column telling of his acquaintance with Mary and her then grown daughter.
He wrote: “Mrs. Polson told us of Blackfeet war parties that used to come over through Hellgate Canyon and ride up through the Flathead to steal horses and look for a fight. When they came, someone would ride ahead of the war party to warn all the ranchers in the valley. Ranchers included the Pablos, the Keelers and the Allards.
“Once when they were warned, Mr. Polson took their boy, George, and went up into the mountains for about three days. Mrs. Polson took Agnes on her back. She ran through the cottonwoods and bushes along the edge of the lake clear to the river where the city is located and swam the river with the baby. She then went up Sunny Slope into the timber and waited until all was clear.”
In an article, the late Les Baldwin told of an interview with Emily Glover Owens, who knew Mary. She told Baldwin:” I will never forget when I was a little girl living at the foot of the lake, I always wanted to go huckleberry picking and ... Mary Kane Polson took me with her on this trip up in the Mission Mountains. She had a big black horse that she bought from Charley Allard Sr.
“She took several blankets and suggins (quilts). Mary folded them and put them in the seat of the saddle for her to ride on and to make us a bed for the night. She had two carrying bags (parafleches) made of tanned elk hides to carry the berries in. I rode on the back of the saddle behind Mary.”
When she was helping Mary pack the horses, she wondered what they would eat. Mary said, ”We Indians never worry too much about eats when we go on trips in the mountains when the fruit is ripe.”
She put dried meat into one of the bags that was mixed with dried chokecherries, pressed into the meat. The Indians called it jerky or pemmican.
Baldwin wrote, “Emily recalled it was late afternoon when we got to where the berries were and Mary gave me one of these bags of jerky with chokecherries thumbed in for my lunch. I don’t think I ever ate anything that I relished more than that pad of pemmican. We spent the night, picked a lot of nice huckleberries and we didn’t see any bears.”
Mary had a large rock along the lake where she’d sit for hours and fish. Emily told Baldwin she went along on many fishing trips with Mary. “She would build a little fire and cook the fish for us.”
Emily said Mary spoke poor English and “there were times I had trouble understanding her, but she was liked and loved by everyone who knew her.”
David was also well-liked and described ”to be of a genial and hospitable nature.” In addition to working on his south shore ranch, he played the fiddle and led a popular orchestra that played for dances as far away as Missoula and Frenchtown.
The community at the south end of Flathead Lake was named Polson when it became a post office on Jan. 22, 1898, with Henry Therriault as postmaster.
The Polsons’ son, George (1877-1892), died of a heart problem. David died in 1902, and daughter Agnes passed away in 1936. Mary died in 1924. The family is buried in the old Missoula cemetery.
Paul Fugleberg is a former editor and co-publisher of the Flathead Courier of Polson and the Ronan Pioneer. His freelance articles and photos have appeared in numerous national and regional magazines and newspapers, and he has written several books. He can be reached at email@example.com.