No word yet on beard-growing contests or sesquicentennial wagon trains for Montana Territory’s 150th birthday bash next year.
But Ken Robison is doing his part to help us get in an 1860s state of mind. A leading historian on Montana’s frontier era, Robison recently edited and released “Life and Death on the Upper Missouri: The Frontier Sketches of Johnny Healy.“
It’s based on some 50 reminiscences of life in the 1860s and ’70s that Healy wrote for the Benton Record of Fort Benton from 1878 to 1880. Robison is amazed they weren’t compiled in book form long ago.
Healy probably should be better known than he is. He was in the party that discovered the Florence mines in what’s now Idaho, served in the territorial legislature when Montana was formed, and spent eight eventful years as sheriff of Chouteau County after settling in Fort Benton.
His decade and a half within the boundaries of modern-day Montana were sandwiched around several years in Canada, where he took on the powerful Hudson’s Bay Co. by building Fort Hamilton, better-known as the notorious Fort Whoop-up, near Lethbridge, Alberta.
An immigrant from Ireland, Healy came to the West with the Army during the Mormon Campaign of 1858. His thirst for adventure led him to a wide assortment of callings, but for our 21st century purposes, he was a master storyteller.
Robison calls Healy’s “Frontier Sketches” “pure literary gold, worth far more today than any flakes or nuggets he found during his gold mining days.“
For sure, Healey took an unblinking look at a time that’s difficult to regard as romantic.
“I think it’s pretty darn distinctive,” Robison said last week. “He honestly felt that history would take care of the big guys, but nobody would remember the little guys. So he set out on a mission in his writing to record their names, if nothing else, but stories that included them so they would not be forgotten.“
Good news for researchers – Robison made sure to include all the names in an index at the back. Robison, who lives in Great Falls, is historian at the Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton and a trustee of the River and Plains Society and Museum Complex.
If nothing else, he said, Healy’s writings portrayed to his contemporaries – and now us – a sophisticated understanding of the complex relationships between a wide assortment of tribes and their diverse reactions as whites, including Healy, flooded into their homelands.
“He treated each of the Indian tribes differently, I think as a direct result of experiences he had,” Robison said. “He had nothing but trouble with the Snakes, or Shoshones, but he was much softer, gentler and more objective in his discussion of the Nez Perce during that gold rush period.“
When Healy went into the robe trading business at Sun River Crossing, Fort Benton and Fort Whoop-Up, his hole card was his friendship with some of the more hostile bands of Blackfeet. Indeed, he had a Blackfoot wife for a time.
“Frankly I think one of his big contributions was this firsthand recording of what he was doing in that whole period from 1865-70, during the so-called Blackfoot War,” Robison said.
Healy properly pointed out that most of the Blackfoot Nation above and below the Canadian border wasn’t at war.
“It was renegades in a couple of bands causing trouble, and they caused serious trouble,” said Robison.
Healy described the atrocities and events that led up to the tragic Marias Massacre in early 1870.
“Nobody wrote more detailed and I think was more balanced, even though he uses terminology that whites used then,” said Robison.
It wasn’t Robison’s intention to write Healy’s biography. That’s been done – Mountain Press of Missoula published Alaska historian William Hunt’s “Whiskey Peddler: Johnny Healy, North Frontier Trader,” in the 1990s. That account included Healy’s entrepreneurial adventures and misadventures in Alaska after he left Montana – he was at one time known as “King of the Klondike” – and his death in Los Angeles in 1908.
Healy didn’t include in his “Frontier Sketches” tales of Fort Whoop-Up. Whiskey fueled his trade success there until the Canadian government outlawed it and, at the urging of a rival Hudson’s Bay Co. that was doing its own rum-running, formed the North-West Mounted Police (the “Mounties”) to address problems like Healy.
“Later in life, he was absolutely determined to give his side of the story,” Robison said.
That’s why the book includes a couple of addenda beyond Healy’s “Frontier Sketches.” One’s a Los Angeles newspaper’s account of an interview with the “history maker of the Northwest” in 1891, when Healy was in California visiting his daughter. The other is from 1903, one of several stories written by Forrest Crissey as “Told by Capt. John J. Healy” that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.
“Healy was such an adventurer. He never bogged down into one business or one pattern, and so his slice of history ... I’m not sure there was anybody like him,” Robison said.
“As you go through what he did, he was living the doggone history of the formation of not just Montana Territory but that slice of the Northwest that included Idaho and Montana. And then he wrote about it. And he didn’t write 50 years after the fact.”