Stitching and a Quilt (Part 2)

Bird Creek, Photo by E.L. Kittredge

Part II of VI, “Trading Stitches”

In the stitching of my life, I disdained, as a child, dinosaurs as over-grown reptiles, long dead. Bird Creek’s rattlesnakes were a troublesome enough reminder of the reptilian world. Even the discovery of “baby” dinosaur remains at Egg Mountain elicited no draw for me.

Undoubtedly, the problem lay in the “egg” part. I raised chickens, braving marauding skunks to gather eggs and then scrubbing each egg clean of dried excrement. After which, morning after morning, my mom fried an egg for my breakfast to insure protein intake. Yes, eggs, no matter how outsized, had long ago befouled any drama on Egg Mountain.

Instead, I wanted to feel the touch of a human hand from the past granting me an obsidian arrowhead, its surface dimpled by percussive flaking. But wait, Blue could take me to the buffalo impound. If I braved the rattlesnake guardians, I could climb the gully looking for a telltale piece of obsidian revealed in the hard surface. Almost too obvious.

There was my great-grandfather’s saddle that he rode to hunt bison in the new territory. I had ridden that saddle; but youth, a new horse, a foot tangled in a stirrup and an upside-down ride through yucca marked the end to my riding for a time. Too close.

How about my Wagon Rod brand that hung in the barn? Forged by my great-grandfather for his oxen on his trek West 160 years ago, I saw the brand on my cows-for-college. Too mundane.

Although I grew up on the stories my dad and his brothers spun, the tales were too accessible. I could ride my blue horse to the top of our hill pasture. There I could see the break in the mountains and the expanse of country marked by the escapades of old-timers, like Boone Austin, who regularly frequented the town’s three bars and bet his buddies that he would drop-in on “Coop,” aka Gary Cooper, at his Hollywood home. To recent.

Blue could carry me to Bird Creek’s mouth and the Missouri backwater where Ol’ Bob Chesnut, a crack shot, Civil War Captain, Company A of the 6th Texas Cavalry of Sharp Shooters, Confederate States of America, supposedly spent time. Stories told of the men he killed and threw into those waters. How his name was spelled became a fighting matter to this veteran of Quantrill’s Raiders. “When ya put the ‘t’ in the middle of m’name, ya make a nut outta it, and by God, I’m no damn nut!”

But as the place grew more “civilized,” the town fathers decided to rid themselves of their Ol’ Bob “problem.” They awarded him a one-way train ticket to go home to Kentucky. He accepted it but quickly wrote back for the return fare from his “visit.” The answer was a polite “Pass.” Bob Chesnut was too real. I lived in “his” valley.

I wasn’t searching for a comedy or looking for a tragedy, although I had a sense, even then, that life was more tragic than comic. Still, I had to learn that tragedy reflects a deeper faith in humans because it calls for us to search, learn, gather information, and transform as we reach for our potential. A comedy simply laughs at our human foibles and stumbles, carrying no hint of the possibilities within each of us. It merely mocks.

The touch from the past should be ancient, distant, and even my parents who had lived with horsepower weren’t old enough. I sought a presence of more than a mystery, hinting the unknown and baffling with a trace of the unsolvable. An enigma from any angle. A cliff-hanger, with drama and subterfuge.

I realized that elusive stories lived stitched into our lives, wrapping themselves around an object and becoming a key to the past found in the present. Egypt’s Rosetta Stone unlocked untranslated Egyptian hieroglyphics from a pharaoh’s decree written in three languages. Hieroglyphs used by the priestly class marched across the black stone, followed by the passage written in Demotic (the Egyptian vernacular), and Ancient Greek used by the ruling class after Alexander the Great’s conquest. I needed my own Rosetta Stone.

Possibilities crowded in, and THE story needed a distant, more perfect landscape. Life magazine had documented Lord Carnarvon’s discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, and photos couldn’t be wrong! Angkor Wat’s rediscovery by western adventurers or Hiram Bingham’s finding a lost city on a craggy Peruvian  mountain called Machu Picchu provided more fodder. But there was also Petra, standing guard in a desert far, far away.

A fine line exists between failing to note small detail because of a too-narrow focus and broadening a perspective so wide that the complexity of a pattern becomes one gigantic blob of black. But maybe, I was missing a context that incorporated more pieces, and just maybe, I needed to realize that too often the nearby loses value, while the faraway holds the allure.

A horseback ride away from my back door, an insignificant Bird Creek meets and joins the Missouri River which flows through what has been called “Flyover Country.” That river seam joins half a continent of different topographies, land uses, politics, religions, peoples, and cultures. Those same waters that carried West the makings of an empire also played in loosening the stitches demarking a nation’s North and South.

Nothing about the weakening of that seam was clean or surgical. No civil war “neatly” begins on  any one day. In 2020, we still face rebinding that seam that too hurriedly and haphazardly only was basted back together. We are finally realizing that those failed stitches require decades of mending, ripping, and mending again before the Seamstress Time can sew a seam that is true.

Missouri River waters flowed between Kansas Territory, a Free State, and Missouri, named a slave state when admitted to the Union. The border war between the two began seven years before the Civil War and devolved into gang violence, guerrilla warfare, and what we know today as paramilitary activity. Mass murders and retribution left landscapes burned with only ghostly blackened chimneys rising above piles of smoldering ash. The Civil War cost the nation at least one million people, not counting the decades of those suffering from its wound.

In the disorder of this pivotal U.S. period, the 85-year-old nation’s stitching weakened further as its patchwork extended westward. Lawmakers named and renamed the upper Louisiana Purchase and land ceded by Britain. When the Civil War began in 1861, Dakota and Washington territories included what became Montana. In 1862, Grasshopper Creek’s gold strike fell in Dakota Territory, but by March 1863, Congress restitched the northwest, forming Washington State and Idaho Territory, which included the goldfields.

The governing capitol for the territory lay on Idaho’s western border, two mountain ranges and days away from Montana’s raucous gold camps. The isolated camps fed on the chaos and rumor of a raging Civil War, divided loyalties, hidden agendas, and distrust that rode in with each new traveler. In the chaos, adoption of laws was left hanging, along with over 50 lynching victims.

The 1863 Alder Gulch strike drew thousands more to the goldfields, making the old patchwork obsolete. So, lawmakers redrew the territorial map in 1864, and part of Idaho Territory was restitched into the U.S. map as Montana Territory. Before the Civil War ended in 1865, Montana had another big gold strike. Last Chance Gulch yielded $3.6 billion of gold in today’s money and became home to nearly 50 millionaires, more per capita than any city worldwide, until they left.

Before the nouveau riche left the territory, toting their gold back to “The States,” boats had delivered beaver skins downriver for London top hats. Later, besides passengers and gold, steamboats carried cargo downstream to supply thousands of pounds of beef hides, wool, and cattle for a nation’s needs.

Once in motion, the flow of raw resources from the frontier continued, patching the territory to the nation. The gold augmented the national treasury and filled pockets to overflowing, allowing prestigious donor gifts that established symphonies and museums in the “civilized” parts of the nation. Some contend that Montana’s gold whipstitched the new area far into the future to “the end of a colonial whip.”

It was about more than gold. Before mapmakers redrew their patterns of borders or distant forces jumped at economic opportunity, before telegraph lines looped the horizon line and railroad steel stitched the region to the rest of the continent, steamboats had hauled freight, military troops, and fortune hunters upriver to the opening West. In three decades, over 600 steamboats landed at Fort Benton, the “World’s Innermost Port” which lay 3,400 river miles inland from the Gulf. Over 40,000 passengers disembarked there, and thousands of tons of cargo were unloaded over the wooden gangways – all the ingredients for buying and selling.

The Missouri River’s flow limited a steamboat to one roundtrip per season. The potential profit drove a toxic race between the packets, the name for these boats carrying mail, cargo, and passengers. One firm, I.G. Baker, shipped $2.5 million in goods through Fort Benton in one year. Counting passenger fares, high upstream cargo rates, and down-river freight of people and cargo, a small packet could earn in a season nearly $50,000. That equals about $1,565,700 now.

The packets carried the needs for empire building: household goods, furniture, farm supplies, livestock, lumber, windows, printing presses, whiskey to trade with tribes and to sell in saloons (over 115 in Virginia City alone), clothing, food staples, heavy mining machinery, and tribal supply allotments. As more forts opened in the Indian Wars, steamboats moved troops and their provisions, equipment, and armament upstream. Credible accusations tell of a far deadlier cargo in the hold of some packets – that small-pox-infected blankets for trade with the Indians lay under the military supplies for waging war on the tribes.

Once unloaded, the goods required the sewing that trade brings. The most reliable way to move  material and people from Fort Benton lay in the trails radiating out. Westward, a wagon trail, the Mullan Road, led to Walla Walla and the Columbia River, “highway” to the Pacific. To the north, routes like the Whoop-Up Trail crossed into Canada; and eastward, the Montana-Minneapolis Trail stretched across the Northern Plains back to Minnesota. The southwesterly trails became the thoroughfare to the gold camps and hope.  

We wouldn’t judge these routes as thoroughfares but instead mere trails with sharp drop-off cliffs to negotiate, ice-patched rivers to cross, and miles and miles of mud through which to slog. Freight wagons became the vehicles for delivery job, many bearing the Studebaker name. All could haul tons of goods and withstand daily, abusive travel.

As demand increased, freight wagons grew larger, weighing nearly 6400 pounds and able to carry nine to ten tons of cargo. They were up to 16 feet long with rear wheels over seven feet high. Two or three of these wagons could be hitched together and positioned with other ladened wagons in a long parade of goods inching away from the river to far-flung customers.

Before reliable steam power, animals supplied the energy to move these tremendous loads for endless miles over the network of trails. Before demands for quicker deliveries brought faster mule trains, oxen provided the most reliable service for pulling through the worst conditions, even though they only covered 15 miles a day. Whether the way was muddy or sandy, oxen were the “go-to” diesel engine of the time. With the teamster beside his lead ox, six to seven spans (pairs) of oxen (12-14 animals) could pull a single wagon with a ten-ton load. However, if three wagons were hitched together, the same number of animals could pull an increased load of 15 tons distributed over the three wagons.

Still, stitching the seam of trade required more than a transportation system. It depended on people.

(Six-part excerpt from “Stitching a Crazy Quilt”, in Crossing Bird Creek, a collection of essays by E.L. Kittredge. To read more about our places and how they impact our ways of learning, knowing, being and thriving, visit )

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