Stories of Eastern Montana’s Pioneers
BY GLADYS KAUFFMAN
A dugout in a bank, a blanket for a door, a dirty table piled with dirty dishes, and a sullen, uncommunicative squaw—what a reception for a new bride! Such was the reception for Mrs. Theodore Armstrong, mother of Sidney’s Lucy Fisher.
Theodore Armstrong, a cowhand near Woodriver, Nebraska, had long harbored a hankering to go West, and in 1882 his chance came. The Wood Brothers, bankers in Woodriver, had heard about Eastern Montana’s vast ranges with their lush grass, so they bought a bunch of longhorns down in Texas and hired some cowboys, with Armstrong as herd foreman, to drive cattle north to the Montana range.
The drive was long, hot and dry, part of it through hostile Indian territory, so cattle losses could be heavy, but they reached Montana with plenty of beef on the hoof to form a herd nucleus. They chose a location on Hard Scrabble Creek south of the Missouri River in what later became Dawson County, and later Richland County. At that time, Montana wasn’t even a state, so the last thing to concern the Armstrong boys would have been what county might some day be formed there.
Comer Armstrong, Theodore’s brother, also came in 1882, and in 1889 another brother joined them. Since all they had to do then to claim land was to ‘squat’ on it, the brothers chose their locations carefully with the aim of controlling Hard Scrabble Creek from source to mouth.
The devastating winter of 1886 wrought havoc with the Wood Brothers holdings, but they bought more cattle and kept on. In ’84, ’86, and ’88, Armstrong was sent to Texas for more cattle. He would go down on a steamboat in the spring, pick up a bunch of young fellows who wanted to come to Montana, then return, driving the cattle over land. That drive would take all summer. In 1890 or ’91, the Armstrong Brothers bought out the Wood Brothers, so the Pothook became the Armstrong brand, and the Pothook cattle belonged to the Armstrong boys.
Back in Nebraska, the Armstrong Boys had a sister—Nettie. A young widow with a small boy was staying with Nettie, working in a print shop by day and sewing in the evening for Nettie to pay for her room and board.
Theodore Armstrong and Lillian Chamber, the widow, began exchanging messages through Nettie, and in time they began a correspondence of their own. Finally, they decided to get married and in 1889 Mrs. Chamber journeyed by steamboat to Fort Buford where she was met by Theodore and a friend, Walter Kemmis.
When they reached the ranch, the new Mrs. Armstrong looked in vain for a house. Plenty of corrals. Lots of cattle. But where was the house? Her husband pulled up to a dugout in the bank, fronted with logs and a blanket hanging over an opening, and stopped.
“Here we are,” he told her, and let her out of the wagon, then went on down to the barn to put his team away. When he came back, she was still standing outside the dugout where he had left her. He lifted the blanket and ducked through the opening into whatever was inside, but she stood rooted to the spot. When she didn’t follow, he came back and asked her, “Aren’t you coming in?”
She came then, but one look inside made her wonder why she did. Seated at a table stacked with dirty dishes were Comer Armstrong (her husband’s brother) and his wife, Josephine. Comer had married an Indian squaw, and they had been quarreling so Josephine was in anything but a congenial mood.
She offered no greeting, and when Theodore hinted, “We’ve come a long way and would like something to eat,” Josephine merely pulled her blanket a little closer around her head and grunted, “Your squaw [Lillian]. She cook.”
If the two-day wagon trip to the ranch could be called a honeymoon, the honeymoon was over. The city girl had to make some adjustments, and she had to begin right then. Theodore cleared the table and helped her find something to prepare for a meal. The loaf of bread he brought out looked as though it had been made with sand instead of flour, and she found her appetite lagging, but she struggled through.
The bedroom turned out to be another dugout room. Two poles had been driven into the dirt bank to support one end of the bed while the other end was propped up. Willow branches were laid across these poles, and a hay mattress topped it off. Little Ross, the small son she had brought with her, had to have a bed so some more branches were piled in a corner on the dirt floor and covered with her coat.
For many months Josephine maintained an unrelenting antagonism toward the new Mrs. Armstrong, and eventually the latter learned the real reason for the hostility. Josephine had two other sisters, one of them, Sarah, married to a cousin of the Armstrongs, the other still single. The three Indian sisters wanted Theodore to marry this third sister, so when he, instead, brought a city girl to the ranch, they determined to drive her away.
They tried all sorts of stunts, but Mrs. Armstrong held out against all their efforts. Once Sarah invited her and Ross for a ride in a buckboard, and as they followed a lonely trail through the badlands (all the trails were lonely then) two mounted wild Indians suddenly burst upon them.
They were a fearsome sight in their war paint and headdresses, yelling and firing their six-shooters. Little wonder that the horse pulling the buckboard started to run. Sarah pretended to be scared, and Mrs. Armstrong pretended not to be. She put little Ross between her knees and held on for dear life as the buckboard careened through the coulees and over the hills, the Indians in hot pursuit.
Mrs. Armstrong grimly hid the terror she felt, and finally the Indians gave up the chase. Only later did she discover that, though the Indians were genuine enough, the wild warrior demonstration was a fake; Josephine and her youngest sister had dressed up like warriors and the chase had been rigged in an effort to drive out the unwelcome white woman.
The Armstrongs were married in October, and by late November they had a floorless log shack ready to move into on the Lone Butte Ranch. Mrs. Armstrong was in no way reluctant to leave the dugout they had shared with Comer and Josephine, even though their new dwelling left much to be desired.
They had no seasoned lumber with which to build, so they had used green logs, and the cold weather that fall added complications. The plaster, which they used for chinking between the logs, would freeze before it could dry, so there were gaps in the walls, but at least the gaps were private!
They just about froze that winter—a pan of water four feet from the little low stove would freeze—but they endured it, and the next summer they, too, built a dugout.
The dugout was built into the front of a bank, a long, drawn-out affair. It had twelve rooms, all in a single line so they could share the front, which was faced with logs. The dugout proved warm in winter and cool in the summer.
Although Mrs. Armstrong’s background in no way prepared her for ranch life, she helped with the cattle and horses and soon became a proficient ranch hand. The Armstrongs first and only child was born in 1892—the first white child to be born in what later became McCone County. They didn’t plan that she should be born in what was to become McCone County, but plans sometimes go awry.
Mrs. Armstrong planned to go to Poplar where the Fort doctor would deliver the baby, and to be on the safe side, she was going to stay the preceding month in Wolf Point with Miss Cogswell, a spinster who kept house for her brother, a Wolf Point trader. They started for Wolf Point a month before the baby was due, but Mrs. Armstrong began getting sick on the way, and by the time they reached the Missouri River she was too sick to go any farther.
There was no bridge across the Missouri then—no ferry, nothing. The only means of crossing was by canoe, and crossing by canoe was out of the question. An old woodcutter lived in a shack near the river—he cut wood for the steamboats that came up the Missouri. So they managed to get to his shack, and there Lucy (now Mrs. Fisher of Sidney) was born. And that’s why she was born on the south side of the river, the first white child born in what is now McCone County.
As told to Gladys Kauffman (who now lives in Bozeman) by Lucy Fisher, October 30, 1966. From As I Remember: Stories of Eastern Montana’s Pioneers.
Editor’s note: In this account, recorded in 1966 and recounted from long ago, the word squaw is used for a Native American woman or wife. In the present, the word is viewed as a pejorative. In the context of this article, though, it is historically accurate, having been used by both whites and Indians, including the Indian woman quoted (Josephine Armstrong). Accordingly, the New Oxford American Dictionary provides the following etymology.
Usage: Until relatively recently, the word squaw (derived from an Algonquian language, mid 17th century; from Narragansett) was used neutrally in anthropological and other contexts to mean ‘an American Indian woman or wife.’ With changes in the political climate in the second half of the 20th century, however, the derogatory attitudes of the past…have meant that, in modern American English, the word cannot be used in any sense without being offensive.