“Montana 1864: Indians, Emigrants and Gold in the Territorial Year”
By Ken Egan Jr.
Time travel may never be feasible, sci-fi stories to the contrary. However, reading Ken Egan Jr.’s book, “Montana 1864: Indians, Emigrants and Gold in the Territorial Year,” is the next best thing to revving up a time machine. For those who have wondered what life in the Last Best Place was like in the year of its birth as a territory of the United States, this verbal tour de force gives a pretty good idea.
A writer and English teacher by trade, Egan does not present history as a smooth narrative traveling logically from causes to effects. Rather, he has chosen a palette of characters, voices, approaches and locations with which to illuminate the themes that have run through Montana history from the beginning. The sometimes uncertain and sometimes violent meeting of diverse cultures, the opportunities for accumulation of great wealth, and the disasters and despair when hopes literally do not pan out are incarnated in the persons of mountain men, miners, vision seekers, outlaws, husbands, wives, and revered social and religious leaders.
Montana 1864 reads like the glorious almanac of a pivotal year, each month featuring its own events and characters. Unlike many writers on the topic of Western settlement, Egan grants equal time to men and women. Nor is the Euro-American perspective favored. Narrative point of view itself varies from vignette to vignette. Such a shifting approach can sometimes seem dizzying, even confusing — it is probably not designed for the reader new to Montana or its history.
Yet somehow, this well-researched book of fewer than 250 pages manages to explore the Sand Creek Massacre as well as introduce us to Charlie Russell in the year of his birth. It moves from tragedy to comedy to romance. In the August chapter, Plenty Coups admires his Lakota enemies and their “fine show” at the battle of East Pryor Creek. By December, “Calamity Jane has arrived,” an 8-year-old street urchin.
Born during the Civil War, Montana Territory is not just an abstract outcome of the Union’s desire to halt the spread of slavery as it might seem in a more conventional treatment. Instead, it embodies the conflict. The war is fought Montana-style at Fort Benton on July 4. Here, Egan quotes contemporary observer William Gladstone: “With feelings of mutual hate, informed by bad whiskey, the men of the North and South were only too eager to come to blows. It was hell on earth for a time.”
Other conflicts involve Indian nations; whites and indigenous peoples at odds over the Bozeman Trail; and Henry Plummer’s vigilantes who terrorize and rob the people of Bannack and its surroundings.
Not all conflicts are writ large, of course. Virginia City pioneer James Fergus castigates his spouse for both salty language and salty culinary skills. Later, Malcolm Clarke’s Piegan wife, Coth-co-co-na, secretly worries that he has lost his edge and with it his humility. A child of Virginia City, Mollie Sheehan recalls how her classmates responded to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln: “The Southern Girls, by far the majority, picked up their ankle-length skirts to their knees and jigged and hippity-hopped around and around the room.” In retrospect, Sheehan would take issue with her earlier self and her “prejudices.”
“Montana 1864” is in many ways itself a jig through a historic year, but it is also haunting in its portrayal of the territory’s many personalities. Particularly engrossing is the story of Aubonnie, a Shoshone woman married to Granville Stuart of the Beaverhead Valley. In the black-and-white photo, one of many scattered throughout the book, Aubonnie’s poise and grace are apparent, her face expressive, wistful and childlike.
Though it is possible to finish the book in rapid order — it is something of a page turner — most readers will want to revisit often and in more leisurely fashion these compelling, real-life characters and the graceful writing that delineates them.