Andrew Fergus, Montana Pioneer

By Andrew James Fergus


    Andrew Fergus entered Virginia City, Montana Territory as a youth of 14 years, on August 14, 1864. He had trekked from Little Falls, Minnesota with a party which included his mother Pamelia, sisters Frances Luella and Lillie. A third sister, Mary Agnes, came with her new husband, Robert S. Hamilton. There they had reunion with James Fergus, Pamelia's husband and the children's father, who had arrived two years earlier. The excellent unpublished thesis of James Fergus by Robert M. Horne, JAMES FERGUS: FRONTIER BUSINESSMAN - MINER - RANCHER - FREE THINKER, 1971, University of Montana, was drawn upon for factual information to aid accuracy of the author's and families recollection and verbal information. All would aid in the development of what would one day become the state of Montana.

    Andrew, born July 2, 1850, was the third child and only son. He came by his name through the Scottish tradition of naming the first son Andrew. Through much of the following 38 years, he was a quiet support to his energetic father. This support allowed James additional freedom to devote energies to agricultural improvement, writing, reading, and public service. Andrew, though a close associate of his father, was a man in his own right. Andrew was known throughout his life for his integrity and as a true gentleman.

    The family moved from Moline, Illinois, to Minnesota Territory when Andrew was about 4 years old, first to St. Anthony and then soon to Little Falls. While in Little Falls, especially the last four years there, his father was either much occupied with the business or was in the West seeking livelihood. So it was necessary for Andrew to take on increasing responsibility. Now his activities tended to go from boyish activities, like swimming across the Mississippi River to seeking strayed cows when unfriendly Indians were in the area. As to the cows, instructions were, "Don't come home until you find them." This meant, on at least one occasion, he had to spend the night out in the woods, where he found a woodsman who took him in for the night. Of more delight was being included in a bear hunting party with Little Falls men.


    Andrew enjoyed the trek from Little Falls to Montana, except for the fact that one of the men hired to help the party had ridden his pony so hard, Andrew was afoot. Because of lack of regular school at times, and the timing of the several moves, his elementary schooling was somewhat sketchy. This was contrary to the standards James and Pamelia had desired for their children. James wrote from Montana urging the reading of good books and the girls avoiding novels. While his older sisters had schooling in Moline during 1860, the younger Andrew stayed to help his mother. Little Falls had little to offer. One year there was a three month term for the 20-year old female teacher and her 63 pupils. However, his sister Luella tutored Andrew and his younger sister Lillie. Both Agnes and Luella were offered teaching positions. Luella was only 14 at the time. It is possible he may have had the opportunity to attend classes given by Prof. Thomas J. Dimsdale during 1864 in Virginia City as his sisters did. Andrew's further school attendance in Helena with a school with part-Indian (sic half-breed) boys, is reported in THE HISTORY OF MONTANA.


    After considering several ventures and the poor prospects of mining, in 1865 Andrew's father turned to agriculture, obtaining the place known as the Bradley and Prewitt ranch, near Helena, in 1866. Hay was raised, additional milk cows were obtained in order to produce butter during the winter for sale in Helena. In addition chickens were raised for eggs and meat for the market. The next year vegetables were grown. After five years the family moved on to the Malcolm Clark ranch. Progress, in family fortune at this time, was due, not only to the foresighted industry of James, but to the support and hard work of his wife Pamelia and son Andrew. In Robert Horne's biography of James, Horne writes, "James only son Andrew, twenty years old in 1870, proved to be a great help to his father after they settled in the Prickly Pear Valley. In fact, the prosperity James came to enjoy during the decade of the 1870's and thereafter in Central Montana could be traced, in large part, to the help provided by Andrew, though of course James also contributed a great deal. Though they worked together on the same ranch and then ran two or three more, they apparently had no formal agreement until 1868, when James sold Andrew "one undivided one third (1/3) of all the cattle, or cattle stock now owned by me, whether branded or not ... for one dollar." In 1870 Fergus bought the Prickly Pear ranch of Malcolm Clark, now the Sieben ranch. At this juncture father and son operated two ranches totaling 480 acres. Two years later they owned three ranches, operating two and renting the other. The Valleys of the Prickly Pear, by Floy Synness Peterson, Frances Isham, Synness, V. A. Paladin, and R. F. Morgan, Little Red Schoolhouse, Inc., 1988, mentions two event in Andrew's time in the Prickly Pear area. One illustrates that it was not all work for Andrew, as shown by his participation in the famous foot race of 1874. The contestants were David Hilger, son of Judge Nicholas Hilger, Horace J. Clark, son of Malcolm Clark. Also racing were, William (Billy) Johns, and Andrew. The race took place on the main wagon road between Benton and Helena. The course was one-quarter of mile from John's station to a fence corner by the road and return, a one-half mile total. It was an endurance test. Fifty years later the four contestants had a reunion, and had a group picture taken. At that time there was dispute as to whether Andrew or Horace won the race. David Hilger, commented that because of his weight he was not a serious contender. The second item reported is, Andrew was the original owner of the Gates of the Mountains Ranch, which he sold to Nicolas Hilger, in 1873. This transaction, and J. K. Ralston's mention in The Voice of the Curlew, J. K. Ralston's life story as told to John A. Popovich, J. K. Ralston Studios, Billings, MT, 1986, of Andrew Fergus and Ralston's father making a reconnoiter trip to Judith Basin in 1877, would indicate that the move to Central Montana in 1880 was planned well in advance.

*****PHOTO OF ANDREW*****circa 1890


    Moving to Armells, while difficult, proved to be well timed, for the winter of 1880, proved to be the harshest, and coldest since settlement started in Montana. The loss of 300 head of cattle, from a herd of 900 was less than if they had remained in the Helena area. Loss in the 100 horse herd were kept to a smaller amount by care in sheltering from the weather and the Indians. One Indian was found attempting to remove horses from the barn near the house.

    After the move and building the two base camps before winter sent in, came Andrew's challenge of weather, inefficient help and hungry Indians. Though there were still some buffalo in the general area, the Indian's horses were in poor condition, and many died. At an economic loss, Andrew traded beef for robes, but considered it better than otherwise. He considered that in addition to the cattle that died and available to the Indians, that a portion of their losses were due to Indians killing cows. At times as many as 600 Indians were in the area. Andrew reports hearing the Indian drums at night from a camp three miles away. Andrew attempted to keep good relations with them. 1880 was a tough winter for everyone.

    One incident involved a large band of hungry Indians and his hired men. He came to the ranch to find that his crew were preparing for a fight. Contrary to Andrew's instructions, the men had rebuffed the Indians requests for food. Andrew immediately ordered hams, sacks of flour, and other food to be put in his rig and drove into the Indian camp. The band traveled on soon after.

    During the first year at Armells, before winter set in, Andrew had started cooking his supper. He had had a hard day's ride and put his gun belt on the bed and his Winchester was behind the door of the small cabin. An off-the-reservation Indian slipped into Andrew's dwelling, and positioned himself between Andrew and his weapons. Andrew continued cooking his supper as he was being jostled by his larger uninvited visitor. Two of the "visitor's" companions watched through the opened door. About the time that Andrew had had enough his jostler found himself suddenly being thrown out, with the door slammed behind him. When Andrew armed himself and opened the door he saw three "braves" whipping their ponies for maximum speed. Afterward he related, "I was laughing so hard I couldn't have shot if I had wanted to."

    Andrew's "homestead" was in the northern foothills of the Judith Mountains, on Box Elder Creek, a short distance south of where William Fergus would 'locate' three years later. What was to be known as the Armells home ranch location was about 5 miles northwest at the confluence of the east and west forks of Armells Creek and on the Carroll Trail. Fort Maginnis was about 15 miles distant, on the south side of the Judith Mountains.

    The headquarters house at Armells was built somewhat as a stockade with security as well as utility in mind. A stone monument was erected to mark the building site by the efforts of Ellen (Nellie) Fergus Romundstad, William Fergus's daughter. Tom Hamilton, Andrew's nephew, contributed the commentary plaque. It reads:


(Photo) Armells Ranch House, built 1881, (photo ca 1914)

    While his father was occupied with actual building of the ranch headquarters, Andrew was involved in fencing as well as continuing to take care of other range work. By the fall of 1881, Andrew's mother, Pamelia, came to grace the new headquarters, and in the next year the arrival of William Fergus and his family contributed further to temper the initial sense of isolation.

    In the summer of 1883, Andrew took wagons to Carroll Landing, meeting the steamboat that brought his Scottish immigrant uncle and cousins to their new location. William Fergus' wife was fearful of wild animals when staying in a tent on the trip. Though wolves were in the area she came through safely. Now Andrew had association with a group of young people nearer his age. This was to be a lifelong influence on him, and may have been one factor in his marrying later in life. When the initial land surveys were made, it was done by private contract, and not in detail. Andrew was involved in some of the later more detailed survey of lands of interest to their ranch, later, he was often called upon to locate survey corners.

(**** from) Brand Book, Montana Stock Growers Association for 1886, James Fergus and Son


    Andrew was involved in the vigilante action of 1884, organized by neighbor Granville Stuart, and supported by James Fergus. At the time of this writing little is known of Andrew's involvement, except stories Andrew told the author and in Granville's letter of June 24, 1884 to James, stating, "... Andrew and Stuart are with them and well and hearty ..." Andrew related this incident. He was a guard to some of those 'held for further action.' One of Andrew's assignments was to hold a woodcutter who had been living with his family on the Missouri riverbank. While some in the vigilante group considered everyone along the river as being guilty of range crime, Andrew took a different view. Upon talking with the woodcutter he was certain that he was innocent. As the woodcutter was in danger of being hung when the main party returned, Andrew had this conversation with him, "Can you swim across the river?" "No! I can't swim well." "Then you'd better go down and get a log and kick like Hell. If you get across the river and go, you will be safe. Your family can find you later."

    It is told that when Andrew returned to the ranch he told James that he would not condone the actions of a representative James had appointed to represent them. At this time Andrew was 34 years old, not a youth as reported elsewhere.

    So the decade of the 1880's brought more change. During this time James was involved with politics of the Territory, and absent, as well as making a trip with Pamelia to the Pacific Coast and California. In 1886 Andrew's mother developed cancer and died in October of 1887 while Andrew was with a cattle shipment to Chicago. More land had been acquired and responsibilities increased as James' physical activity decreased.

****PHOTO Andrew Fergus about 1895**

    Through Andrew's adult years he wore a full beard in the Van Dyke style. It may have been, in part, due to a childhood facial burn scar. During the final 30 years of his life it was snow white, free from stains of tobacco use.


    The 1890's saw the peaking of the cowboy era, along with continued improvement of the ranches. A telephone line was installed to connect the Armells home ranch with both the outside world and several ranches. Ditches and roads were developed or improved and fences built. Yet all was not serene, England's 'turn of the century' Boer War increased demand for horses in Canada. This resulted in increased border running of stolen horses. Determined thieves would attempt in daylight to run off whole herds of horses.

    The expansion of the 1890's gave Andrew more freedom to see the world and to consider romance. Before this time, in his 20's and 30's, although enjoying social activities, his opportunities for serious romance were limited. Now with business trips East, Ada, entered his life. She was the socialite daughter of Andrew's father's old friend and business associate, George Stephens of Moline, Illinois. Their correspondence shows a romantic connection. Andrew encouraged a visit by Ada and her father. They did not come, though Andrew offered to take her, "to the top of a mountain where she could see forever." And, "With a light rig and a change of horses, the trip from the railroad at Benton could be easily made in two days." Even though letters were exchanged for a number of years, distance and differences in their ways of life would prevent the romance to "come to full bloom." One example of the these differences is in a letter Andrew received after a hard ride to the ranch during the roundup. She tells of the fun she and her friends had horseback riding and playing tennis. Then she asked, "Do cowboys like to play tennis?" The Ada connection, the attention of his several younger near-by female cousins, coupled with his closeness and duty to his parents were to be factors in Andrew not marrying until several years after his father's death.


    By 1909 Andrew was a well-to-do business man, well liked and active in community affairs. He was a member of the Elks and the Odd Fellows Lodges. Several years earlier he been attracted to Hazel, the daughter of one of the family friends, Freeman Akeley. Andrew and Hazel were married August 1, 1909. His female cousins were much involved and helped arrange the wedding at Steilacoom, Washington. From this union three children were born: Agnes Abbie, June 22, 1910, Pamelia June, June 2, 1914, and Andrew James, September 2, 1916. On rare occasions the poet in Andrew surfaced. One was about the loss of the children's pet dog run over by a passing car. Another, to his wife, was found written as a draft on an old envelope. It most probably was written while Hazel visited her parents in California about 1918:

    Hello, sweetheart, precious thing,
    You are my angel without wings,
    And to my heart comfort brings,
    And if you have a lingering thought,
    Cherish my love and lose it not!

    Andrew, loved his wife and enjoyed his children, however, it must have been challenging to become a father at 60 years old, and husband of an active, vivacious, young wife, and for him to own his first car, a 1910 Franklin, costing $3,000 (windshield was $30 extra). Hazel soon displaced the chauffeur. She became the first woman in that area to drive a car, no mean feat in those days of cleaning spark plugs and changing tires on the way. Andrew did love and enjoy his children, as they grew, so did his responsibility. In 1916, the eldest, Agnes, was ready for the first grade. Andrew hired a school teacher, from the East, to teach Agnes and the several neighborhood children. The school was held in rooms in a dance hall building at the town site of the Armells railway station, a short mile from the ranch house.

    Further change came with the in-rush of homesteaders. As the ranch was on the main road, which followed the old Carroll Trail, many homesteaders came by and most expected, or hoped for, free meals and animal care. It is reported by one such traveler, that he encountered a charge at the Armells Ranch. With the increased flow of homesteaders, Andrew may have posted a charge, contrary to the usual ranch hospitality to friends and the usual casual visitors. Indeed with much less traffic, James Fergus had posted a charge for these services. Andrew was more generous that his father. It is said during the winter, when the dinner bell rang that men sprouted from all the bunkhouses and barns! One related incident, showing Andrew's character was reported by Robert J. Fink in Homestead Shacks Over Buffalo Tracks, a History of Northeastern Fergus County. Fink related, that in the spring of 1916, his father and two uncles arrived at the Armells Ranch in midmorning after walking most of the night from the Roy area. They were a sorry sight, tired, shoes bound with rawhide, and of course, hungry. Andrew asked the three what they wanted. They replied that they were looking for work. Andrew then said, "Work we got. Have you had breakfast?" The answer was, "No." Andrew turned and hollered to the cook, "Put on breakfast for nine men!"

    By the end of the second decade of the 20th Century, many of the homesteaders trickled their way out. Both James and Andrew had vision of the need and value of conserving the spring runoff with reservoirs, both for crops and for increasing the utility of the range. Andrew would delight to fly today over the ranges he knew and see the many man-made lakes and ponds.

    The period of 1910-1920 was one of prosperity and change. While both sheep and cattle were raised, some properties were leased for crops, a steam tractor was purchased to increase crop production during the labor-short World War One years. Andrew, also, became a shareholder in local State banks, which were organized to serve the rapidly expanding homesteader population. In the depressed period following the war, these investments proved to be a financial millstone. The tractor became uneconomic, the banks failed, with shareholders not only losing their initial share cost, but were liable for an equal additional amount. The coming of the railroad in 1914 was no real blessing. Freight was cheaper, but the railroad right of way came through the ranch on some of the best land. Furthermore, it was a serious fire threat. During the dry season a constant fire watch was necessary. In 1921, locomotive sparks set off a fire which burned the barns and the original log headquarters. These factors and falling prices placed a financial strain on the ranch resources. Andrew weathered these changes as well as other private challenges. The scale of operations was reduced, and Andrew did much of the work, with the assistance of his wife, one associate, and in the summers, of his children.

*PHOTO Andrew Fergus * ca 1924


    Coping with these changes, Andrew continued. In his last year he prepared the irrigation dams and managed the irrigation of the hay meadows. At 78 he was able to ride horseback and to do necessary ranch chores. July 18, 1928 he died of complications of, what today, is a relative simple operation (surgery for prostate cancer). He was buried in the Lewistown Cemetery after Presbyterian and Odd Fellow services.


    The several times that he was described in print, the same picture is portrayed, a gentleman of the old style, honest, generous and civil. One observer said, "In spite of having spent most of his life on the range he gives the appearance of a business man when met on the street." He had a fine sense of morality. Andrew was noted throughout the country for his integrity and courage. These qualities held whether in business or personal relationships, hunting cows as a boy, handling potential Indian problems, or confronting and disarming a drunk crazed cook, wielding a meat cleaver. One somewhat less exciting example occurred while attempting to drain a reservoir dam at a remote location to prevent winter damage. Due to a broken part it was necessary to open the drain inside of the dam under several feet of water. Appraising the situation, Andrew declared to his companions, "Get the fire going!" He stripped down, taking the hand wrench and a rock for ballast, jumped in through the skim ice and opened the valve.


    Pioneering and early development of Montana took many stalwart men, Andrew was there and took his place in the process.

March 15, 2000

Go to this directory for images of the final pages 169-180 as published in Dreams Across the Divide.

James R. Dangel
1504 Sawmill Creek Road
Sitka, Alaska 99835 USA

Phone:    907-747-3348


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