Prairie Lights: Author sifts gems from Montana history

robison-bookIn 1881, Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann, the daughter of Montana’s first territorial governor, made her way down the Missouri River from Fort Benton aboard the steamboat Far West.

In a detailed account of the journey, she wrote of the alarm she and other passengers felt when they learned that the Far West was to stop at Fort Buford, near present-day Williston, to pick up Sitting Bull and his band of Sioux Indians and transport them to Standing Rock Agency, south of Bismarck.

In spite of her fears, she paid close, sensitive attention to the Indian passengers, as in this description of a gathering at sunset:

“They swayed gently side to side, now and then half turning round, and meanwhile chanting what sounded like ‘Hi-yi-yi,’ repeated again and again. Their voices were good, and I discovered that there was a real melody to what they sang. … There they stood, their splendid, almost naked forms outlined against the glowing sunset. As they sang, shrill boys’ voices from the lower deck took up the burden of the song in another key, but with similar intervals. It was a concert never to be forgotten, on a stage impossible of reproduction, and hung with curtains of celestial hue.”

Plassmann’s recollections take up 11 full pages of Ken Robison’s new book, “Yankees & Rebels on the Upper Missouri,” published this month by the History Press. Turning to the notes and then the bibliography, I found that the passage came from Plassmann’s “Memories of a Long Life,” an unpublished manuscript in Robison’s possession.

Ole Ed

Ed Kemmick

That is the great value of Robison’s growing collection of books about Fort Benton and the Upper Missouri River: His tireless research continues to unearth buried nuggets of unknown or forgotten Montana history, much of it concerning people traditionally ignored by historians.

As in his other two books dealing with Civil War-era Montana Territory, Robison is particularly good at finding and telling the stories of African-Americans. In this book, their ranks include Mary and Maria Adams, sisters who served the family of George A. and Elizabeth Custer as, respectively, cook and housemaid.

Possibly the toughest person in the book is Millie Ringgold, who was born a slave in 1845 and accompanied the family of Gen. Nelson B. Sweitzer when he was sent out to command Fort Ellis, near Bozeman. She would remain in Montana the rest of her life, first as the proprietor of a boardinghouse in Fort Benton and then of a restaurant, saloon and small hotel in Yogo City, in the Little Belt Mountains.

There is also the fascinating story of another ex-slave, Mattie Bell Bost, who ended up marrying a white man, John K. Castner, a freighter and coal mine operator in Helena. They later moved to Little Pittsburg and built the first log cabin there. It would become a well-known traveler’s inn and Little Pittsburg would become the town of Belt.

A few chapters earlier, Robison tells a sad little tale related to the Castner family. It seems that a woman by the name of Florence B. Franklin once had plans to publish a book called “Cradled in Dixie,” partly about the life of Mattie Bell Bost Castner, whom Franklin had known as a child in Belt.

“The mystery of why ‘Cradled in Dixie’ was never published was answered,” Robison writes, “when this author discovered an article on the proposed book in the vertical files of the Great Falls Public Library. Written on the article in the handwriting of legendary African American librarian Alma Jacobs was the following explanation:

‘This book has not been published. Mrs. Franklin told me in June 1970 that Castner heirs threatened her with a lawsuit if she published because the descendants did not want to be earmarked as having Negro blood.’”

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One can only imagine the thrill, and the disappointment, Robison must have felt when he stumbled upon that evocative fragment of Montana history.

Other, better known people also make their appearance here. In a chapter on Grant Marsh, whose exploits as a steamboat captain on the Yellowstone and Upper Missouri rivers were unrivaled, Robison presents a useful year-by-year look at his steamboats, itineraries and accomplishments.

John C. Lilly, an ex-Confederate whose post-war adventures on the Upper Missouri were detailed in Robison’s “Confederates in Montana Territory,” enters this book in his own words—a previously unpublished account of how he and other men riding with the Rebel cavalry officer Nathan Bedford Forrest attempted to capture a Union gunboat during the war.

The chapter on William Bent serves as a reminder of how fluid frontier society was, and how eagerly people jumped at new opportunities. In Montana, Bent, another Confederate veteran, worked as a newspaper compositor, Pony Express rider, rancher, gold prospector, wolf hunter and Indian interpreter who married two Assiniboine women.

And don’t miss the intriguing chapter in which Robison explores the persistent rumors that the notorious outlaws Jesse and Frank James spent time in Montana, possibly one whole winter in the Deer Lodge Valley.

Robison, who retired from a career in Naval Intelligence in 2001, is a native of Geraldine who lives in Great Falls and does research several days a week in the Overholzer Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

In addition to his books on Montana history, he wrote a series of columns about Montanans involved in the Civil War for the Great Falls Tribune and the River Press in Fort Benton.

His love of history and of Montana is evident in everything he does, and in 2010 he was given a well-deserved “Heritage Keeper Award” by the Montana Historical Society.

Author on the road

Ken Robison will be making presentations and signing copies of his new book in October and November, including these appearances:

♦ Oct. 6: Cassiopeia Books, Great Falls, 7-8 p.m., talk and signing.

♦ Oct. 13: Montana Historical Society, Helena, 6-8 p.m., presentation and signing.

♦ Oct. 22: Montana Book & Toy Company, Helena, noon-2 p.m., signing.

♦ Nov. 9: Yellowstone Corral of the Westerners, Elks Club, Billings, 6-9 p.m., talking and signing.

♦ Nov. 10: On “Voices of Montana” (radio) with Jon Arneson, 9-10 a.m.

♦ Nov. 10: Barnes & Noble, Billings, 1-3 p.m., signing.

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