ARMELLS: HOME AT LAST—THE FIRST YEAR: SURVIVAL
James Fergus directed the move to the Fort Maginnis area of central Montana at an age when most men have either retired or dream of a relaxed future. Approaching seventy, he had made and lost considerable money in business, town speculation and mining, yet he approached their future on the plains with optimism. "If we can build up a good place there and secure the hay land it will be worth a good deal some day." He admitted, however, that their task would not be easy, for "I have just been settling with the bank. Our expenses have been very heavy. It is a good thing we did not buy sheep. It will take all we have before we can make anything there." [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, December 16, 1880, Box 14 F. 44, and January 4, 1881, Box 14 F. 44, FP, UM.]
After selling the Prickly Pear property, James sent Pamelia to Helena and helped Andrew move livestock and equipment across the mountains, arriving late in July, "with so little loss and all safety." As with Granville Stuart, one of the few ranchers in the area at the time, Fergus planned to bring his family out in the spring. [S. C. Gilpatrick to James Fergus, August 9, 1880, Box 5 F. 9, FP, UM. James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, November 26, 1880 Box 14 F. 44, FP, UM. Granville Stuart mentioned that Fergus located at Armells the summer of 1881. This is but partially true, for they moved the cattle over in August 1880, and Andrew stayed during the winter; James came the following spring. Paul C. Phillips (ed.), Forty Years on the Frontier As Seen in the Journals and Reminiscences of Granville Stuart (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1925), II, 163. Hereafter cited as Phillips, Forty Years on the Frontier.]
James, Andrew, Eugene Townsend and three other men built a cabin for Andrew and one for the help; they also erected stables and corrals, and fenced the hay meadows, all before cold weather arrived. [Fergus Sketch by Mrs. Allis B. Stuart, B.F. 35, FC, MHSL. James Fergus to unknown newspaper, n.d., Box 21 F. 4, FP, UM.] After helping Andrew prepare to survive that first winter, James returned to Helena, where he purchased and forwarded from 6000 to 8000 pounds of oats to sustain the stock. He also sent a plow with extra share, a keg of nails, hinges, a saw, four ox bows, two bread pans, three revolvers with ammunition and two compasses. Sent by freighter, the transportation cost came to 5¼ cents a pound for the grain and 3 cents for the materials. The explicit instructions James gave Andrew indicate his care with money and willingness to dispense advice, either sought or unsought:
You will hang up your beam weigh the oats one sack at a time set down the weight, add it all up multiply it by 5¼ cts the freight at 3 cts on the other stuff but you must first take out the weight of the rope on every sack, for instance I have furnished him 50 sacks if the rope weighs a pound then you must deduct 50 lbs from the weight before multiplying with 5¼, after all is done deduct the $200 which I paid in advance. [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, November 15, 1880, Box 21 F. 1, FP, UM. How Andrew received such advice is unknown.]
With this assistance rendered, James and Pamelia settled in Helena for the winter, leaving Andrew on the plains and alone for Christmas. While James never seriously considered remaining in the Prickly Pear Valley, he apparently gave it some thought that winter, for he noted "Breck has been offered $11,000 for our old place but every kind of property is too high about Helena now at least for mother and I to buy or build would rather come down there." [Ibid., December 16, 1880, Box 14 F. 44, FP, UM. Luella Gilpatrick to Andrew Fergus, December 1880, Box 15 F. 1, FP, UM.]
James stayed in Helena that first winter but did not like it, even though the relative inactivity and forced rest probably did him good. In mid-December he had been helping on the Mitchell place, where they wintered their thoroughbred horses and cattle with Thomas Shea, when his back began bothering again. James confessed, "I can't do much, my back hurts me so I don't think I will ever be able to do another good days work." James soon tired of doing little around his two daughters' houses in Helena, for they needed only so much wood chopped, there were only so many horses to feed, a limited number of books to read or friends to visit. He soon indicated his desire to be with Andrew, saying, "I wish I was out there, everything is pleasant here, but it is not our own home, and we both feel lost." Though his back had bothered him earlier, and his health remained good, he still did not feel in top mental or physical condition when not working. "All is well with me [but] my; health is not so good as when [I am] out there." [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, December 5 and 16, 1880, January 9 and 13, 1881, Box 14 F. 44, FP, UM.]
James' lack of constructive, and in his opinion, useful work gave him more time to use his mind, a two-edged sword for a man like Fergus. While he liked mental activity, such as scientific reading and writing to newspapers or friends, he also had more time to worry about things undone. Since he had a fetish for organization and planning he did much of this, but one can only plan to a certain point at which time action must replace thoughts. Fergus was a man of action, but of course he could not act that winter. Then too, he worried much about son Andrew alone, but for a handful of men, on the plains caring for their stock.
Fergus had reason to be concerned about his son's safety that winter, for it proved to be the most extreme since the country had been settled. "On the third of December it begun to snow, and it kept on until the snow lay three feet deep on the level in the Prickly Pear Valley." Helena's streets quickly became impassable, with temperatures dropping to 46° below zero, remaining there for three days. Impassable roads in every direction prevented the Benton stage from arriving for a week at a time; ranchers reported cattle and horses dying in the valley. Stock not fed and sheltered perished, though the Fergus' thoroughbred stock survived quite well under Shea's care. "I think," James wrote Andrew, "as many as 40 or 50 stray cattle are in the streets living as well as they can on horse manure and stealing from hay loads. They probably followed hay wagons from the valley." [Ibid., January 24, 1881, Box 14 F. 44, FP, UM. Fergus Sketch by Mrs. Allis B. Stuart, B.F. 35, FC, MHSL. For Granville Stuart's comments on the winter of 1880-81, see Phillips, Forty Years on the Frontier, pp. 149-50.]
James, witnessing such conditions in the Helena area, worried a great deal about his son, especially when communications halted or slowed to a trickle. For example, late in January, James received a letter from William Fergus, his Scottish half-brother, which had taken only one day longer than the seventeen days needed to send a letter from Andrew near Fort Maginnis. Pamelia must have trembled at the thought of such future isolation! [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, January 24, 1881, Box 14 F. 44, FP, UM.]
Unable to remain idle in Helena with Andrew on the plains, at one point James determined to leave for Benton; only a severe attack of the grippe kept him from starting. Granville Stuart did leave, almost losing his life before arriving at Maginnis. His hired man perished on the journey. [Fergus Sketch by Mrs. Allis B. Stuart, B.F. 35, FC, MHSL.]
In addition to his concern for Andrew, James expressed pessimism about their stock, though he realized losses would have been much more severe if they had remained in the Prickly Pear.
The bad weather still continues. It is the worst winter that has been in this part of the country since the country was settled and is bad all over the East and South. Our cattle are costing us a great deal, but if we had them on the old place we would loose nearly all of them. I expect we will loose the most of the stock cattle and probably some of the steers. [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, January 9, 1881, Box 14 F. 44, FP, UM.]
Andrew had plenty of his own problems on the range that winter. Since their stock did not consist of "Texas rangers" but of "doggies", semi-domestic cattle, they required more attention. Rangers drifted when struck by a storm, trying to locate food while eating rye grass, twigs, hay or whatever available to survive. Doggies tended to huddle in the thick brush, remaining until the sun came out or they smothered. Andrew put it this way:
We have been around getting the cattle to grass so much as we could finding some of them every day drifted in and have to tramp a trail out for them. A great many of them nearly starved to death, the bad weather held out so long and the snow so deep. [Fergus Sketch by Mrs. Allis B. Stuart, B.F. 35, FC, MHSL. Andrew Fergus to James Fergus, January 18, 1881, Box 3 F. 20, FP, UM.]
During the rough weather Andrew and men also spent days in the saddle keeping the cattle from airholes in the streams, for if the doggies ever slipped in they would drown. Later, as it warmed in mid-April, slush formed in the moisture-laden gulches and coolies. Consequently, the cattle had to be kept from these areas or they froze to death. [Ibid.]
During that winter's harsh weather common jobs assumed difficult proportions, mainly because of the deep snow, low temperatures and high winds. The work oxen and horses suffered in temporary shelters; Andrew was also reduced to existing at times for:
We have no wood ahead at either place or hay at the lower place only enough for 2 days. In ones mind it is a small job to get these things but ice flood snow drifts and all hinder so that one is working all the time to such a disadvantage. our hay is getting drifted in so it is hard to get near them it is to the top of the tallest one but not so bad on the little one . . . if it does not get better [soon] we will have lots of hides in the spring.
Such conditions makes one thankful for commonplace things, and Andrew closed with, "well, I am thankful I am alive and hope everyone is the [same]." [Andrew Fergus to Pamelia Fergus, January 13, 1881, Box 17 F. 14, FP, UM.]
By late January, with the weather severe and no relief in sight, James came to believe moving the cattle had been correct but selling them would have been even better:
As the winter turned out we would have been ten or twelve thousand dollars better off if we had sold our stock last summer; for besides the great expense you are to there, we will lose all our stock cattle here, some probably of the beef steers, and maybe some of the horses, and I can buy stock cheaper next spring than we could have sold for, but then we did not know all this and now we must do the best we can. [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, January 24, 1881, Box 14 F. 44, FP, UM.]
As events materialized, their losses proved to be relatively low, though losing one-third of a 900-head herd is considered severe in a normal year. When compared to the extreme depletion of herds in the Prickly Pear, however, this seemed slight. [James Fergus to Senator Thomas H. Carter, n.d. (about 1890), Box 21 F. 1, FP, UM.]
Andrew's winter troubles appeared to double when his hired hands proved lazy, save for one, for they worked little unless constantly watched and prodded. "I would get rid of a couple of hands now but may find that I will have to get cattle out of small bottoms. . . ." Earlier, Andrew noted that "I think I will cut down the wages of Mike and the cook and perhaps Bill. They do not do enough when I am not there to tell them everything if they do not like it they can go where they can do better." By March the cook had either quit or been fired, for "I have no cook now, everybody has to cook as it happens." That spring Andrew had only one good man left and he planned to leave. Andrew worried about securing good men because of the isolation. "I donot know how it will be getting men this summer but think it will be hard to get good men here. There is always plenty of sons . . . to hire here but they are bad ones." [Andrew Fergus to James Fergus, January 13, 1881, December 19, 1880, March 12 and 4, 1881, Box 3 F. 20, FP, UM.]
James, noting Andrew's problems with the hired hands, thought some jobs could be contracted, thereby improving the quality of work. However, "the main advantage in having men by the month is that you have more help in case of Indian troubles." A few days later James again expressed his concern about Indians: "I hope you can save the most of those cattle we have there, but if the weather gets bad with you I shall be more afraid of the Indians than of the bad weather." [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, January 8 and 13, 1881, Box 14 F. 44, FP, UM.]
His father had cause for worry. Andrew had more to occupy his energy than labor problems, keeping cattle from the river and survival through severe weather. Throughout the long winter Andrew kept his anxious parents informed about the weather, the hired men and the Indians, who camped nearby and who had not adjusted to the whites on their range. Andrew first mentioned them about Christmas, writing, "I could here the Indians drum last night at 11 oclock. I expect they were having a dance their drum sounds plain here 3 miles distance." [Andrew Fergus to James Fergus, December 23, 1880, Box 3 F. 19, FP, UM.] Thereafter Andrew reported numerous incidents such as the following, involving Townsend, one of his best men:
Townsend has gone below the Indian camp. They are getting hungry and run the cattle about some. Townsend caught one at it and came down a little coulee where he Townsend got down and picked up a club the Indian seen him just then and run T. after him. Indian pony fell in coulee in snow but did not lose much time crawling on again and made for camp.
Andrew apologized for the predicted frequency of his Indian news, for he thought his parents "will be tired of this kind of news [but] we have nothing else to rite. The latest Indian roomer says the small pox is in Sitting Bull's Camp." He continued:
We will get those cattle back on the range if possible so we can work them on account of Indians. The buffalo are laying ways off and these Indians have hardly horses to move a distance this time of year. One wanted to trade robes for a steer and Townsend told them we did not now. We mite trade if we had time. It takes time to do anything with them. [Ibid., January 1, 1881, Box 3 F. 20, FP, UM.]
James knew of the danger, for "Henry Brooks says he is afraid the Indians will kill your cattle when the snow is deep and the weather cold. He did not say much about that last summer when he wanted to get us on Armel Creek." [James Fergus to Andrew Fergus, January 4, 1881, Box 14 F. 44, FP, UM.]
Years later James insisted nearly two thousand Indians and almost as many buffalo wintered in the area, though Andrew never mentioned those amounts. By January 11, Andrew reported:
Our Indian village has dwindled down to 7 or 8 lodges of Bloods. The Pegans have started for home in preference to having the soldiers come after them as they did last year and horzed [probably harassed] them so that their poneys most all died. The Bloods and Black Feet have not gone out of this part as they talked of but scattered out north and east towards Flat Willow where Indians are as thick as the grass and the buffalo is some thinner. [Andrew Fergus to Pamelia Fergus, January 11, 1881, Box 17 F. 14, FP, UM.]
As indicated, the Indians did not move far, compelling Andrew to "traid the Pegans some beef steers for robes not a profatable traid for us directly but better than having them kill them enyway as they had to have meet. The snow was too deep for them to get out." Andrew had enough "savvy" to trade them robes for beef in an attempt to keep the starving Indians from stealing cattle. Though he showed traces of compassion for the Indians, there were too many of them to feed. The incidents continued, and Andrew expressed concern: "We are almost sure to loose our horses this spring as they the Ind. will have to have horses to get buffalo when the snow goes off." [Andrew Fergus to James Fergus, January 18, 1881, Box 3 F. 20, FP, UM.]
Brushes with his hungry neighbors continued, which must have caused Pamelia to worry about her son's safety:
I came here today and found that someone had been after the horses and the dogs made such a fuss Townsend got up and looked out. Saw an Indian at the stable door. The Indian heard him and ran he firing two shots he stubbed his tow on the bars and fell but got up and run. They got up in the morning but could not find any blood. Now we get along with the Indians all rite and I donot rite these things to excite you and would not say anything about such things but you may be better posted and have some influence in getting these Blackfoot and Bloods moved and with a force that will make it tolorable safe for man and horses on the roundup. I have considerable fears that this horse stealing will bring blood before troops will be able to get here should they get such an order. [Ibid., February 5, 1881, Box 3 F. 20, FP, UM.]
By early March horse stealing increased as the Indians scavenged the needed mounts for their spring and summer actions. Andrew talked with five men from the Musselshell trailing horses stolen by Blackfeet and Bloods, who had just passed Armells. These men reported two hundred horses stolen from whites and Pend d'Oreilles. Andrew noted "there are between 30 and 60 tepees of Bloods camped near here yet but they expect to go immediately." With losses rising, Andrew and hired hands gave more attention to their horses, turning them out three or four hours in the afternoon.
I watch them and then get them in after the Indians all get by. I will keep them up all the time the way it looks now it would not due to bring the mares here but if these Indians are kept out of here it may due by building extra good corrals and stables. [Ibid., March 6, 1881, Box 3 F. 20, FP, UM.]
Thievery continued, moving several area ranchers to file complaints with the military at Fort Maginnis. "We three [Granville Stuart, Andrew and another] went and saw Maj. Parker who was slow to do anything but finaly agreed to send an officer with four soldiers." Little improvement could be seen. Therefore, Stuart, six of his men, Andrew and another, Sam Ficiale, the scout, plus an interpreter, planned to visit the Indian camp, and "simply to demand horses belonging to white men and if refused not to fite simply to demand and threaten . . . and tell them the consequences."
Andrew did not go, however, for he had lost only one horse. In addition, the ranch was thrown into confusion as the night before leaving for the Indian camp Andrew discovered the upper cabin had been vandalized, with about $40 in goods stolen. He suspected Indians.
While suffering occurred that winter in the Indian camps, on the whole Andrew thought they had come through the severe weather quite well.
The Indians in these parts as a whole are very fortunate this hard winter but many small parties have no buffalo and they have lost so many ponys that they can't move and only four ded cattle and of corse some lives ones they wood starve to death they starve as it looks thinner it is easily seen in these few camps that are here. [[Ibid., March 9, 1881, Box 3 F. 20, FP, UM.]
After visiting neighbor ranchers Henry Brooks and Granville Stuart, Andrew considered his losses due to weather tolerable, though he suspected Indians got their share of his cattle:
Our lose as far as those we were able to keep on the range is not heavy and we have found nearly every one of them but I think now that something like 200 head got away they have been on as good range as could be found but I am very suspicious that the Ind. have killed a good many. They hide everything but the dung so it is impossible to tell or ketch them. These cattle were near where they, the Ind. were in the last days of January.
Andrew had made several multi-day trips searching for missing cattle and planned to make more. Indian presence caused other problems too, for "The Ind. going thru the center of our range has scattered the cattle good deal here and it will take a day or two to get ready and straightened out." [Ibid., March 10, 1881, Box 3 F. 20, FP, UM.]
Plains Indians did not confine their horse stealing to whites, for it was both necessity and sport to increase the number of one's horses via other tribes. Thus Andrew noted that "the Indians that were camping here had 28 head of their horses stolen night before last and they moved yesterday on to Dog Creek. I expect the Crows go them." After losing their horses, the Indian band reacted fairly typically, for Andrew observed the "Indians were most all drunk . . . I came through at dark and they were going then for whisky. I called at several tepees and was no young men." [Ibid., March 12, 1881, Box 3 F. 20, FP, UM. In January James mentioned that Capt. Parker of Ft. Maginnis feared an outbreak. The Helena marshal considered appointing Andrew his U.S. Deputy Marshal but both James and Andrew considered it best if he did not accept. Also, the legislature, then in session, heard the Governor speak "about the whiskey trade with the Indians in the neighborhood of Maginnis in his message, and ask the Legislature to make better laws to stop it." James to Andrew, January 13, 1881, Box 14 F. 44, FP, UM.]
It must be pointed out, however, that at least one Indian did at least some work for Andrew that winter. During the big storm Andrew and hands struggled to reduce starvation by driving cattle from the gulches to prevent bunching and smothering. Andrew noted that "Townsend had gone with an Indian to shovel snow on the hill this side of the big gulch was to haul some hay by keeping on the prarie all the way from their the road will not be so very hard." Unfortunately, nothing is known of this Indian. He may have been a half breed and rejected by those camped nearby. [Andrew Fergus to James Fergus, January 22, 1881, Box 3 F. 20, FP, UM. It would seem that Andrew and the long suffering Indians could have worked out a mutually satisfactory agreement. They could have helped him keep more cattle alive in exchange for enough beef to relieve suffering. Neither probably trusted the other enough. The Indians, in their pride, probably balked at "squaws work" while Andrew may not have wanted to start a practice which might have gone beyond his control. There were probably too many Indians to even consider the idea.]
Despite the fact that "We had to carry guns on our mowing machines hay wagons and everywhere we went" the following spring, the Ferguses, father and son, managed to accomplish the necessary work to keep the ranch going. James returned to help with branding and to plant small grain and a garden. He also built a ranch home for Pamelia, who came from Helena after its September completion. [James Fergus to Senator Thomas H. Carter, n.d. (about 1890), Box 21 F. 1, FP, UM. Fergus Sketch by Mrs. Allis B. Stuart, B.F. 35, FC, MHSL.]
The Fergus family had survived that first trying winter at Armells, both physically and emotionally, in many ways the most difficult they endured, especially during the following six years. Their choice of range proved good, with stock losses relatively light when compared to those of their old range in the Prickly Pear—the move had been well timed in that respect. The Indians proved to be more of a threat than an actual danger, though none knew that, as the frayed nerves of James and Pamelia would testify.
On the whole, despite the problems Andrew experienced that first winter, the ranch moved into the future from a good base. In fact, the difficult winter, coupled with Andrew's success at managing the situation, greatly enhanced his self confidence. Up to that time the thirty year old son had, for the most part, labored in his father's shadow. Tested by hostile climate and Indians, he emerged much more his own man with the ability to assume more of an equal position as his father's partner in the operation. Andrew's performance that winter also pleased James, for with increasing age and decreasing physical stamina, he needed Andrew to manage the ranch, while he kept books and helped organize.
With Pamelia back caring for her men that September, the three member family unit once again joined. Together they carved Armells from the stubborn plains, increasing its size and their prosperity through much hard work laced with determination. The next six years at Armells proved to be their best, for they had finally sunk roots and declared this home.