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

Montanans in Conflict

Conflict has been part of the Montana story since prehistoric times. Although much intertribal contact involved peaceful exchange, Native American tribes also vied with each other to control territory and resources. During the Indian Wars era, tribal warriors staunchly defended their homelands against Euro-American encroachment. After Montana joined the Union, when the United States entered the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II, Montanans enlisted at a per capita rate far above the national average and proudly served in all branches of the military. Other Montanans protested against these same wars on ideological grounds. Although non-military conflict has sometimes been marked by violence—the vigilantes of the gold rush and labor strife during World War I—discord has most often been settled without bloodshed in the voting booth or courtroom.


White Swan robe

White Swan's Painted Robe, ca. 1880, MHS 1978.38.105

In a centuries-old tradition, Plains Indians men painted narrative scenes like this one on buffalo robes, hides, and tipis to chronicle their personal feats, memorializing and making public their heroic deeds. White Swan—a young Crow warrior who served as a scout for the US Army during the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn—painted the lower half of this magnificent robe about 1880. A prolific artist, White Swan (c. 1850–1904) often depicted events from the famous battle in his artworks. On this robe, however, he illustrates his exploits in intertribal warfare. Here, among other heroic deeds, he is shown counting coups on his enemy and stealing a gun in hand-to-hand combat. A different artist painted the battle scene on the upper half of this robe and an unidentified female artist beaded the central blanket strip.

Benning & Barsalou Auctioneers Records 1876-1877

Flyer Advertising a Buffalo Robe Sale, 1877, SC 2366

Armed conflict was not the only way in which non-Indians waged war on Montana’s original inhabitants. By 1883, the rampant slaughter of buffalo—at an estimated rate of 1.5 million head per year in the 1870s—brought the once vast herds to the brink of extinction and, with them, the Native Americans’ traditional ways of life. While devastating to Plains Indian culture, the hide trade also played a critical role in Montana’s early economic development. As beaver fur declined in popularity in the late 1830s, bison robes assumed preeminence. This broadside—which was distributed by two of the region’s leading fur companies—illustrates both the scale of the slaughter and the breadth of Montana’s fur trade. The Power  and Baker  companies did not go under as fur markets dwindled in the late 1880s; instead, facilitated by steamboat shipping in and out of Fort Benton, they grew their wholesale operations to meet the needs of expanding settlements on both sides of the US–Canada border.


Canyon Creek Battle map

Map of the Canyon Creek Battle drawn by Andrew Garcia, 1877, MHS 2013.29.04

Andrew Garcia (1856–1943) was an eyewitness to the Canyon Creek Battle, the penultimate skirmish in the 1877 Nez Perce War. After battling the US Army at the Big Hole in southwestern Montana, the Nez Perce fled east, passing through Yellowstone Park in the erroneous belief that they would find refuge among the Crow. The Seventh US Cavalry pursued the fleeing Nez Perce, and the two groups met at Canyon Creek, north of present day Laurel. Garcia—a private citizen working as a freighter for the army—described the Canyon Creek battle as “a running fight at first . . . beginning around 4 o’clock in the afternoon.” He noted that, “using tactics similar to white men’s warfare,” Nez Perce warriors engaged the soldiers, delaying them while the women, children, and elderly escaped. However, the Seventh Cavalry captured many of the Nez Perce horses, thus slowing them down on their flight north to Canada, foreshadowing the final battle at Bears Paw later that month.

Kessler Banner

The Kessler Banner, 1895-1898, MHS X1942.02.01

In 1895 Colonel Harry Kessler (1844–1907)—commander of the state’s National Guard—had this flag made to serve as a traveling trophy to be awarded to the most “exemplary company at the conclusion of the annual summer encampment.” At the onset of the Spanish-American War three years later, the men of the First Montana Volunteers chose this flag (with the inscription added above the state steal) as their regimental colors and carried it with them to the Philippines. Upon their return in 1899, the flag was proudly displayed around the state and when, in 1905, the Montana legislature selected an official state flag, the Kessler Banner (minus the inscription) was an obvious choice to serve as its prototype. The design remained unchanged until 1981 when Rep. Mel Williams of Laurel sponsored a bill to add the word “Montana” above the state seal to help differentiate it from similar-looking state flags.

Red Cross quilt

Red Cross Signature Quilt, 1918, MHS X1982.71.01

The December 1917 issue of Modern Priscilla magazine advised its readers of a campaign designed to raise funds to purchase ambulances, emergency equipment, and yarn for the Red Cross. Supporters were asked to donate between twenty-five cents and one dollar to have their name included on a special quilt; once finished, most of these signature quilts were then raffled, raising even more funds for the cause. This Red Cross quilt in the Society’s collection—which is covered back and front with more than 1,300 names—was made by the Ladies Auxiliary of the United Commercial Travelers (UCT) Council 349, Cascade County, in 1918. At a time when the United States government urged its citizens to “make quilts [and] save blankets for our boys over there,” the ladies of Cascade County took their duty to heart and stitched their patriotism into action, raising over $1,060 for the Red Cross in the process.

Buckley Bomb model

Model of the "Buckley Bomb," ca. 1945, MHS 1997.02.01

James Buckley’s (1920–2001) experience as a tinner for the Anaconda Mining Company served him well when, during World War II, the Psychological Warfare Service decided to develop an aerial “bomb” to distribute leaflets intended to encourage enemy soldiers to surrender. After failing at first, the young Montanan was able to cobble together what became known as the “Buckley bomb” by modifying a four-foot-long gas tank from a British Spitfire fighter plane. According to Buckley, the success of the device—which distributed 30,000 leaflets over a fifteen-mile radius—was its simplicity. When he was discharged from the service, Buckley returned to Montana bringing with him this model made of cracker tins. On May 11, 1946, in a ceremony in Butte, the innovative designer was awarded a Bronze Star for being “responsible for the surrendering of thousands of enemy troops thereby saving the lives of our own troops.”