Exhibit: Appropriate, Curious, & Rare: Montana History Object by Object

Coming to Montana

The first non-Indian explorers and independent trappers who ventured into Montana had little lasting impact on the landscape. The same cannot be said for those who followed. In the early 1800s, fur trade companies began building posts at strategic points along the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, and the first Christian missionaries arrived in the Bitterroot Valley in 1842. However, it was the discovery of gold in the 1860s that brought non-Indians to the region in large numbers. Booming gold camps—populated by men from around the globe—sprang up seemingly overnight in places like Bannack, Virginia City, and Last Chance Gulch. The camps themselves did not always last, but the changes wrought by the newcomers were only just beginning.

 

Pierre Menard Letter

Letter written at Three Forks, Montana, 1810, MHS MC4-1-1

This letter—written in French by Pierre Menard and dated April 21, 1810—was sent from Montana to Pierre Choteau at the St. Louis Fur Co. in Missouri. It details the difficulties that Menard and his companions faced in trying to establish a fur trading post at the Three Forks of the Missouri River only a few years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition had passed through the area. It is the earliest document in the Montana Historical Society’s collection describing the American attempt to open Montana for business. Menard’s dispatch is compelling, but most amazing is the way the letter traveled—first from the hand of Pierre Menard to its intended audience in St. Louis in 1810 and then into the holdings of the Montana Historical Society ninety-two years later.

 

Ft. Benton weather vane

Fort Benton Weather Vane, ca. 1854, MHS 1995.46.01 

Somewhat worse for wear, this sheet iron weathervane once topped the cupola of the blockhouse at Fort Benton, the uppermost fur trade post on the Missouri River. The company blacksmith likely crafted it about 1854. It outlasted the cupola on which it sat to become a symbol of Montana’s early frontier. It can be seen in Granville Stuart’s 1866 sketch of Fort Benton and, although battered by sharp shooters who used the weathervane for target practice, it served as a sign that “civilization” was encroaching.  In 1995 the Montana Historical Society acquired the weathervane from Greg Chastain of Georgia, who traced its provenance back to a former agent at the fort, Julius Falk. 

Skull and Crossbones

Carved Skull and Crossbones, ca. 1870, MHS X1904.01.02

Father Anthony Ravalli (1812–1884) carved this wooden sculpture of a human skull and crossed femur bones. The beloved priest ministered to both Indians and non-Indians alike, from the time of his arrival in the Bitterroot Valley in 1845 until his death in 1884. An accomplished sculptor, Father Ravalli created this carving as a memento mori—a convention in art dating to the Middle Ages—to remind viewers that death was inevitable but adherence to Christian principals in this life ensured Paradise in the next. Father Ravalli—whom one biographer termed a “pioneer-architect-sculptor-craftsman-physician-priest”—was born in Italy and schooled there in theology, medicine, mathematics, chemistry, philosophy, mechanics, architecture, and art before Father Pierre-Jean De Smet enlisted him to work among the Indians of the Rocky Mountains. 

Wooden grave marker

Wooden Grave Marker, 1867, MHS X1928.27.01

Some who came to Montana stayed whether they intended to or not. One such man was Irish-born immigrant Langford Peel (c. 1831–1867). A gambler and gunslinger, Peel was known equally for his generosity toward those who had fallen on hard times and for his hair-trigger temper. In July 1867 Peel slapped his friend and business partner John Bull across the face (the exact cause of Peel’s ire is unknown—some said it resulted from a card dispute; others attributed it to money wasted on a worthless mine). Bull retaliated by shooting, and fatally wounding, Peel outside of a Helena saloon. Despite the fact that the murdered gunslinger had been responsible for the death of more than eight men, he was beloved by his friends, one of whom commissioned this marker for his grave.

Embroidered pouch

Embroidered Chinese Pouch, ca. 1880, MHS X1968.15.01

Thousands of Chinese laborers were among the workers laying the railroad tracks connecting Montana to the rest of the nation in the early 1880s. The railroad could not have been built without them, but for the workers it was a harsh existence beset by blasting accidents, falls, train wrecks, and other hazards. This finely embroidered pouch was carried from China by a man named Ah Hei who was, assumedly, one such railroad laborer. The pouch, or purse, has three pockets and has survived with its contents including—a flint case and comb—intact. Although most Chinese who came to work on the railroad did not intend to stay in America, many, like Ah Hei, never returned to their homeland.