July 4, 1884, was the first Independence Day that a small Judith Basin community celebrated under the name of Lewistown.
With the establishment of the community’s first post office not long before, Lewistown looked toward a promising future.
Residents planned a parade — complete with local resident Bob Jackson dressed up like Uncle Sam — horse races and a ball in the evening, said Margaret Seilstad, a longtime Lewistown resident.
Before the day was over, two ne’er-do-wells had been killed in a hail of bullets and Lewistown had a wild West legend.
A skull that may be the remains of one of the outlaws is now on display in the Central Montana Historical Association Museum in Lewistown.
Seilstad has a personal interest in the story. Her father, George Jackson, was 12 when he witnessed that wild Fourth of July.
Granville Stuart, the Montana pioneer who ranched in the Judith Basin was worried about the celebration. Stuart knew horse thieves and cattle rustlers were about, and he’d heard that a particularly nasty pair — Charles Fallon and Charles Owen — had been seen locally. He warned ranchers that their livestock might be spirited away while they were in town celebrating, Seilstad said.
Instead, Fallon and Owen came into town for the Fourth.
There are many versions about what happened, with “no two eyewitnesses giving the same account,” a reporter for the Mineral Argus newspaper in the nearby town of Maiden wrote.
Inconsistency has dogged the story for 126 years.
The earliest accounts say that Owen, also referred to as Owens at times, went by the nickname of Rattlesnake Jake. By the 1930s, that nickname was attached to Fallon.
This article will use the earlier identification.
Rattlesnake Jake Owen got his nickname because he had shifty eyes that reminded people of a snake, Seilstad said.
According to what Seilstad has pieced together, Owen and Fallon began drinking early and probably were drunk by the time they spotted Jackson, still in his Uncle Sam outfit, at the horse races.
Jackson was a Métis of French and American Indian descent.
A group of Métis came to what would become Lewistown in 1879. In 1884, three-quarters of the population of the town still was Métis, Seilstad said.
At the horse races, Jackson, who also may have been drinking, got into an argument with another local resident, but it faded without a fistfight.
Fallon and Owen saw the dispute and approached. Words were exchanged, and Owen, who didn’t like Indians, hit Jackson across the mouth with his gun, sending him to the ground.
When Jackson got up, Owen held a gun on him and forced him to lie face down on the ground.
Another Métis, Joe Doney (also called John Doane in some accounts), spoke up against the pair’s treatment of Jackson.
Fallon and Owen either owned a horse that lost a race or bet on losing horses that day, Seilstad said.
In any event, they mounted their horses and left the races disgruntled.
Riding back to Main Street, they went into Crowley’s and Kemp’s Saloon for a few more drinks. When they left the saloon, they were seriously drunk and in a foul mood.
Spotting Doney, Owen shot at him with a long-barreled .45-caliber pistol but missed. Doney drew a revolver and shot back, hitting Owen in the trigger finger. Owen tossed the gun into his other hand and continued to shoot.
Seeing Owen humiliate Jackson at the horse races had angered townspeople. After Fallon and Owen left the races, residents converged on what is now Main Street and stocked up on rifles and ammunition at the T.C. Power & Brothers Store.
After Owen shot at Doney, residents opened fire on Fallon and Owen.
Although it’s not clear exactly how the gunfight progressed, one version has a wounded Owen riding out of town in an escape attempt, only to notice Fallon kneeling in the street “making his last stand, you might say,” Seilstad said.
Owen turned his horse back into town and died along with Fallon near a photographer’s tent.
Even though everything Seilstad has heard about Owen portrayed him as an evil man, he at least was a loyal friend to the death.
Many shots were fired; one of the dead men was said to have been riddled with at least nine bullets and the other with five.
Both men were wearing two or three layers of coats, which is “why they could take so much lead,” Seilstad said.
Seilstad’s father, George Jackson — no relation to Bob Jackson — was camped at one end of town where the Methodist Church now stands at Broadway Street and Fifth Avenue.
The night before, George and his family had arrived after six weeks moving by ox-drawn covered wagons from the Gallatin Valley.
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On July 4, a group of men from the camp decided to go into town. Accompanying them were George, his teenage half-brother and Ben Smith, a bullwhacker who kept the oxen in line on the trip from Bozeman.
As soon as the shooting started, the men ran back to the camp to get their guns, but not before George’s half-brother was grazed in the cheek by a bullet.
Smith was killed when Owen shot him in the head during the melee.
George’s 8-year-old sister, Mercy, was playing in a yard and had to take cover in a ditch as Owen rode by shooting.
Before the Independence Day ball began that night, citizens convened a coroner’s inquest and decided that the residents killed Fallon and Owen in self-defense after Owen had shot first.
Although it would have been hard to determine just whose bullets killed Fallon and Owen, over the years “half the town claimed firing the fatal bullets,” Seilstad said.
The bodies of Fallon, Owen and Smith were placed in an ice house while a carpenter built three wooden coffins.
The next day Fallon and Owen’s remains were stiff enough to stand up against a wall, where a photographer took a picture.
Mercy begged her mother for a quarter to buy a photo, but her mother didn’t want a photo of the man who had killed Smith.
Neither Seilstad nor the Central Montana Museum in Lewistown has a copy of that photo.
Smith was buried near an area that became the town’s cemetery.
Fallon and Owen were buried on what is known as hospital hill, where the local hospital operated until it was converted into Fountain Terrace condos.
When a man who owned land nearby objected to their burial place, the pair was dug up a few days later.
The bodies were lassoed and dragged to a coulee out of town and buried with only some dirt thrown over them.
George tagged along on his horse behind the gruesome burial detail and saw that bits of hair and skin from the decomposing bodies had snagged on the brush.
“He almost lost his lunch,” Seilstad said.
Two skulls later were found in the area where the men were buried.
One wound up with a Lewistown businessman, whose family eventually gave to the museum.
Although widely thought to be the skull of Rattlesnake Jake, a forensics examination in 2005 by a University of Montana graduate student indicates it may not be.
Susan Craun, who now lives in Florence, wrote her master’s thesis about the skull after studying it in Missoula.
Rattlesnake Jake Owen was described in historical records as a white male between the age of 35 and 40. Accounts said that during the gunfight in Lewistown, he was shot in the head by a Sharps .50-caliber buffalo rifle.
The skull Craun looked at is more likely that of a person 30 to 35 years of age and of European and African-American ancestry.
Although the skull has a mark of blunt force trauma that healed long before its owner died, it has no damage that could have been inflicted by a buffalo rifle.
Trying to determine the race of a person with just a skull that is missing its lower jaw is difficult, Craun said, adding that having a full skeleton to examine would make her findings more conclusive.
If the skull didn’t belong to Rattlesnake Jake, but might be Fallon’s, she said.
The skull, which developed a dark brown patina over time, continues to look out from a locked glass-fronted display case at the museum in Lewistown.
Because Seilstad was born when her father was in his 50s, she is just one generation removed from the actual events. While she was growing up, she heard first-person accounts of Lewistown’s 1884 Fourth of July many times from her father and his friends.
George Jackson continued to live in Lewistown until he died in 1951.
Mercy, who taught school in the area for more than four decades, described her adventures that day in a recording.
Seilstad, 87, taught history at Fergus High School for many years.
Several re-enactments were staged over the years, although it has been at least five years since the last one that Seilstad knows about.
Shirley Barrick, president of the Central Montana Historical Association, said that younger residents aren’t aware of what happened that day in 1884 and may not know of the museum’s display about Fallon and Owen.
“It’s time to do a re-enactment,” Seilstad said.