The last 'frontier' of Montana history

2014-05-04T00:00:00Z The last 'frontier' of Montana historyBy DARRELL EHRLICK dehrlick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

“Adventure Tales of Montana’s Last Frontier”

By Gary A. Wilson

Riverbend

^pIt’s probably fitting that Montana’s last frontier might also be its last frontier of history, too.

The Hi-Line — the rugged and windswept area along the Canadian border including places like Chinook, Havre and Glasgow — was the state’s last frontier.

Rugged yet sparsely populated, the stories along the Milk River might be lost if not for folks like Gary A. Wilson.

Wilson’s latest book, “Adventure Tales of Montana’s Last Frontier” chronicles folks who may not be household names even among the state’s historians, but whose colorful stories are worth preserving if for nothing other than their contributions to settling a place that still seems determined to remain unchanged by civilization.

There are folks like Thora Flemming Phalen, a turn-of-the-20th-century nurse who except for a train accident might also have passed through the Hi-Line on a train.

Some of the chapters chronicle people whose lives should be preserved, like Gros Ventre warrior Red Whip’s stories, and whose lives are almost legendary, like notable circuit-riding Methodist preacher William Wesley Van Orsdel.

Wilson didn’t set out with a mission of collecting stories from this more remote region of the state. Instead, as he poked around researching other areas, he would come across interesting historical items, often taking note of them and filing them away. “Adventure Tales of Montana’s Last Frontier” are a collection of some of those stories.

“These were in many respects regular people who came to where the last frontier was,” Wilson said.

Many of these stories might have otherwise been on the verge of disappearing, Wilson explained. Some of the chapters in the 206-page book do not necessarily highlight leaders or politicians. Many were not the subject of journals, articles or full-length books. Many of their stories only existed through family members who could just barely remember them, if at all. But through some genealogical sleuthing, he was able to find information and, in some cases, diaries and letters.

A cursory glance through the chapters shows plenty of stories about women from those serving as nurses, ranchers and rodeo trick riders.

“I was sick of books on women who were prostitutes,” Wilson said. “Sure, there was that and it was a part of the West, but it wasn’t a big part. And there were women who made contributions. I wanted to preserve those stories.”

One woman whose story is preserved is that of rancher Ellen Thompson, whose husband left the family to run a freighting operation for part of the year. She stayed behind, raising the kids and at times trading with the Native Americans.

Though the Hi-Line communities may be considered as “Western” as some other places, the harrowing stories of the settlers and their steadfast determination to make these remote places into home is probably more Western than any fancy stories of gunfights and gamblers.

The 14 chapters are accessible and easily read. Wilson has done the important work of helping not only to preserve some of this important history, but also to make it approachable to interested readers.

Wilson’s other works include “The Life and Death of Harvey ‘Kid Curry’ Logan,” “Long George Francis: Gentlemen Outlaw of Montana” and “Honky-Tonk Town: Havre, Montana’s Lawless Era.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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