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James Fergus

Skilled Workman, Frontier Businessman,
Miner, Rancher
1813-1902

by Andrew James Fergus






    James Fergus was the first president of the Montana Pioneers, preceding organization of the Sons and Daughters of Montana Pioneers. Upon assuming the post he said he considered it a greater honor than to be president of the United States.

    Fergus arrived at Fort Benton, Montana Territory September 5, 1862, with the Captain James L. Fisk party seeking to make his way in the gold fields. He continued on through the Prickly Pear and Deer Lodge Valleys, arriving at Bannock October 13, 1862. From then until his death June 25, 1902, the territory and the state of Montana that followed it, benefited from his enterprise, labor and public service. Furthermore, it was exposed, by his utterances and writing to his personal and political views.

    Much has been written about James Fergus. This sketch attempts to very briefly outline his life with some additional family folklore and comment. For a fuller appreciation of James Fergus, the reader is referred to Robert M. Horne's excellent detailed thesis, James Fergus: Frontier Businessman, Miner, Rancher, Free Thinker. Horne drew much information from files James kept of both incoming and outgoing correspondence. The bulk of James' papers are now in the archives of Montana State University. Some additional papers are with the Montana State Historical Society. Unfortunately, some correspondence of the 1884 period and a few scattered letters are in private hands and are not yet available for further study. Access to Horne's work is limited, essentially, to reference only at the University of Montana or Montana State University, Bozeman, the Lewistown public library, or copies for family use. For a brief look at his life, a booklet, James Fergus "The Grand Old Man of Montana" by John R. Foster is more available. This author, acknowledges the aid of both works in this writing. It is hoped this brief sketch of the life of James Fergus will encourage the reader to enjoy his more detailed biographies.

    A help in understanding James Fergus is a look at his early life, the roots of this pioneer. He was born 8 October, 1813, on Shawton Farm, Glassford Parish, Lanarkshire, Scotland. His father was Andrew Fergus, a well-to-do, strict Presbyterian farmer. His first wife, Agnes Bullock, James' mother, died before James left home and his father remarried. James was educated in the parish schools, which served to nourish his inborn thirst for understanding and knowledge of the world. As his knowledge grew, James sought to learn more. He desired to apply it. Both courses were to lead to conflict with his father, who was an unbending man, rigid in his beliefs, both religious and secular. He rejected his son's attempts to improve farming practice, as well as his seeking answers to his questions of religion. James' efforts to find understanding from local religious leaders was unproductive and compounded relations with his father. This and the view that there was little opportunity for him by staying in Scotland, he left in 1833 at age 20. He stated, "I left my father's home in Scotland, willingly and without expulsion." Throughout James' life, he would be affected by the actions of his father to demand his son to conform to his way. This relationship only strengthened James' quest to seek and apply knowledge, and the drive to succeed. Because he had been blocked by what he felt was unrighteous authority in his bid to understand, he matured into his own thinking. Later, he adopted the "Free Thinking" ideas of the time. The actions of his life show that he kept some of the regimens of purpose of his father, but hid what were truly basic Christian principles under an cloak of "Free Thinking." One of his outstanding characteristics was his integrity; he would not believe anything he did not understand. Opportunity for overall growth awaited in North America.

    Soon after his 1833 arrival in Canada, he became associated with the Quaker settlement north of Toronto. The three years he spent there becoming a craftsman (carpenter and millwright), was another step in preparing him for his future role as a pioneer. His recounting of this time is characteristic of his way of life. "I was unfortunate in not going into a trade until I was 20. To catch up with others I had to give it my whole attention ... I studied books, learned to draw and the result was in one year I raised from six to thirteen dollars a month, in two to 75 cents per day and board; the highest wages then paid journeyman millwrights, and finally I went up to $3 per day the highest wages then paid."

    Now equipped with a trade, James headed west for greater opportunity. In addition, he had his education, with attention to detail, coupled with his thirst for knowledge and determination to succeed. That he did, eventually pioneering in Minnesota, Colorado, and Montana. As he continued westward he built sawmills in Illinois and Iowa Territory. At Savanna, Illinois, he built and managed a gun powder mill. In October 1842, he received his highly prized United States citizenship, at Jackson County, Iowa Territory. He would later describe his ten years of working and moving around as, 'fitting himself for the new calling by, becoming adapted to his adopted country.' He said, "... I read, I studied, traveled and mixed with her citizens from all countries, and thus acquired knowledge that could not well be obtained by remaining in one place."

    In the spring of 1844 James moved to Moline, Illinois, to work with D. B. Sears in building and operating a flour mill. This led to his partnership in a foundry. Christmas 1844 he was invited to the home of George Stephens, with whom he was working. There he met Pamelia Dillin, who became his bride March 16, 1845. He was now financially successful, but by 1853 the foundry work affected his health. In 1854 he moved 300 miles from Moline, to St. Anthony, Minnesota Territory, and soon to Little Falls. There as a partner in, and resident manager of the Little Falls Manufacturing Co. The company established a town and mill. It was powered by water from the dam they built on the Mississippi River. By this time there were three children in the family, all born in Moline, Illinois. They were Mary Agnes, April 11, 1846, Frances Luella, November 23, 1848, and Andrew July 2, 1850. A fourth child, Lillie B. was born in Little Falls, December 28, 1857.

    In 1857 disaster struck, coupled with the poor crop conditions of the frontier, there was a national economic depression. For James this was compounded by a river flood which damaged the dam and mill and caused loss of the supply of logs. Further troubles with other members of the Little Falls Manufacturing Co., who questioned his ability and integrity, James replied to these charges openly. Then with little prospect for a livelihood in Little Falls, James looked to other ventures.

    As the Civil War approached, the patriotic anti-slavery minded Fergus attempted to join the 5th Minnesota company for the Union, but he was rejected for service as being too old (47). In 1860 he went to the gold fields of Pikes Peak, leaving Pamelia in Little Falls to look after their property and family. For more of Pamelia, see Gold Rush Widows of Little Falls, by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, 1990, Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul. Colorado proved to be unprofitable, except the hard work in the mountain air improved his health. James wrote that he had never worked so hard for so long for so little return. He returned to Little Falls, to family and the problems there, but also with an eye to other ventures.

    With the need to seek support for his family in desperate times, he looked further west to newer gold fields. He took the opportunity to join the Captain Fisk expedition. The size and makeup of the party was insurance for safety. It was a group of 117 men and 18 women. They left Fort Abercrombie on July 7, 1862. After 61 days they arrived at Fort Benton on September 5, 1862. From there James traveled through the Prickly Pear and Deer Lodge Valleys, and on to the Bannock diggings. Here he did all right, but in the spring of 1863 went on to Alder Gulch, 75 miles away. Here, again he hit pay dirt. However, news of Sioux uprisings in the Minnesota country worried him, and he was concerned about safety of his family. Though Pamelia would have preferred to stay in the more civilized Iowa area, James felt he could do best in Montana.

    He decided to have his family come to join him. In the spring of 1864, arrangements were made with one of his partners to go to Minnesota and help them make the trip. The family arrived in what is now called Virginia City, on August 14th, according to Luella F. Gilpatrick in a written tribute to her mother, Pamelia. However, James' settlement with Rockwell gives the impression that it was August 15, 1864. Perhaps the family went ahead of the wagons.

    In the spring of 1865, James moved, with his family, to Last Chance Gulch, now known as Helena. Though he obtained a claim and other holdings in the immediate area, these were left to move further from the settlement and start in agriculture. Hay was raised, cows and chickens acquired. Produce was sold to the miners and those in the town. He continued to expand his holdings, acquiring the Malcolm Clark ranch in the Prickly Pear Valley. Horses and cattle were raised, as well as garden crops. A stage station was also maintained to serve traffic on the Benton Road, which went by the ranch. There he remained and prospered until the move to Central Montana in 1880. By this time his son, Andrew, was a partner with him. With the marriage of his youngest daughter Lillie to Frank Maury, September 2, 1876, all of his daughters were married. Mary Agnes to Robert S. Hamilton, March 23, 1864, before leaving Minnesota for Montana, and Frances Luella to S. F. Gilpatrick January 1, 1867, near Helena.

    After a decade on the Prickly Pear, James had started looking to the range country opening up. Earlier, in 1873, his son Andrew sold one of the three ranches they operated. In 1877 Andrew made a trip looking for range. He traveled through the Judith Basin in Central Montana. Granville Stuart going through the same country, may have reinforced thinking in the direction of that area.

    It was decided to go there to a location on Box Elder and Armells Creeks on the north side of the Judith Mountains. During July 1880 the move was made. James took part in moving the stock, 900 head of cattle and 100 horses. After some preparation, James returned to Helena in the fall. Andrew remained to do what he could to establish the ranch and care for the stock. This proved to be a task. The winter of 1880-1881 was the coldest settlers had known. James counted about 300 head of cattle lost to the weather and the Indians. The latter were plentiful, and the buffalo scarce. The Indians suffered much due to loss of horses to the cold weather and deep snow. Over all, James considered their losses less than if they had remained in the Prickly Pear.

    With spring, James returned to the ranch at Armells. There he directed, and helped build, the log home and ranch headquarters, in addition, he did all of the critical carpentry, cutting out the doors and windows and making frames for them. James noted he made posts for Andrew's fencing. This required considerable labor. The all wood fencing consisted of three legged "jack posts" setting on the ground. The largest leaned and supported rails to form a barrier fence. It was still in use 50 years later. Father and son continued to work together as 'James Fergus and Son' until near the end of 1884, as a partnership. James was president. Andrew continued to take a greater part in the operation, with James doing the bookkeeping and otherwise maintaining the headquarters. This allowed James to devote more time to writing and public service.

    James' good friend from the Virginia City days, Granville Stuart, was running a cattle ranch on the south side of the Judith Mountains about 15 miles away. James and Granville enjoyed the opportunity for renewed association. James often made the weekly mail and supply trip to the new Fort Maginnis near Granville's home. Both men were well read and had similar religious views. They had further association, "for the good of the range."

    James wrote letters complaining about the cost of taking suspects, or possibly those caught red-handed, the 90 miles or so to the county seat of Meagher County, White Sulphur Springs. There, to be turned loose. James noted this apparent lack of justice, and that he was left holding the bag for the expense of capture, feeding and sending escort.

    In the eighties the range of the Fergus brand, the F Bar, was from the Judith River on the west to the Musselshell River on the east, and from the Judith Mountains on the south to the Missouri River on the north. This Moccasin and Cone Butte Association range covered about 2,400 square miles. The DHS ranch on the south side of the of the Judiths, the Maginnis Range, was of similar size. These wide ranges looked inviting to the criminal element that had taken over the badlands of the Missouri. Most of these were tough men, drifting to their ways by the decline of buffalo-hide hunting, and reduced need for steamboat wood. Neither the county sheriff or the military, based at nearby Fort Maginnis could or would act to prevent this growing lawlessness. Ranchers tired of having their herds preyed upon, took action.

    James and Granville consulted on action to be taken. Granville was the mastermind of the operation. He was an effective leader. He gathered information of the locations and identified the individuals involved in the crimes. Ranchers lead by Granville Stuart, and accompanied by a US Marshal, raided badlands haunts, and "took care of the problem."

    This was done in secrecy for several reasons. One was to effect the element of surprise, another was because it was an extra-legal action. Soon after, James, a Republican on his way to a legislative session, was approached by a newsman, for information. James' replied, that there wasn't much he could say about it beyond that there were several less Democrats in the county. Some considered this a breech of secrecy.

    In 1887, James' wife, a sturdy, patient support through the years, died. James kept on acquiring books to study, and periodicals to read, and to send his opinion to. In addition he continued his correspondence and public service. As a member of the Montana Legislature, he sponsored a bill for a new county. One of the reasons cited was the distance to the Meagher county seat at White Sulphur Springs. For some residents in the northeastern section of the county it could mean a trip of as much as 200 miles. Fergus proposed Judith as the name for the new county. The bill was amended to name it Fergus County. The only dissenting vote for the bill was James. He also was farsighted enough to see the value of moving the county seat from Maiden, the most populous town in the county to Lewistown, a central location with growth potential. The change came about by his influence.

    After Pamelia died, his health reduced his physical activities. However, he did thirst to go to a new frontier, to Alaska with the Klondike gold seekers. He did give one of his grandsons support for the young man's Alaska venture. His decline in physical activity did not slow up his stream of letters to friends and the press. In 1895, they joined in a family organization, Fergus Land and Livestock Co. James kept pushing on the frontiers until his health and eyes failing, he had to slow up. For an avid reader to see his library and anticipate the usual flow of reading materials, it was for James, like a starving man restrained from a banquet. The end came at Armells June 25, 1902.

    It is well to note some facts about James in addition to his determined pioneer spirit. He neither used tobacco, drank, or swore. There is no record that he used a gun. While much of his life was spent on the frontier he was well read in books and current news. He was a craftsman, but willing to make his way in other endeavors. He was a "Free Thinker" with high principles, a restless pioneer. Above all was a determined man with integrity. From the time James obtained his citizenship in October, 1842, he was involved in public service and politics. Reasons for this were his desire to see public office serve the public need, his desire to voice an opinion, and act. Also he was willing and capable to do the clerical side as necessary. He was known for his judgment and fairness in all matters.

    While in the Montana gold fields in the early 1860's, James became aware of the wonders of what is now Yellowstone Park. Characteristically, James wrote to his friend, Ignatius Donnelly, a Minnesota Congressman, of the wonders of the area. Of course, it contained suggestions for its use. In 1872, much upon his suggestions, Congress created Yellowstone National Park as the nations first park. In Foster's James Fergus, he notes mention in the Fergus County Argus, that James "was one of the most consistent members of the first miner's court, and was chosen as the first judge and won honor by his rulings and decisions."

    He has been described as a 'liberal Republican.' His anti-slavery views drew him to the New Republican Party, in Little Falls. There, in 1856, he was elected 'Judge of Probate' for Morrison County, Minnesota Territory. Two years later, he served a two year term as County Treasurer for the same county.

    He was respected for his character, but also, because he kept a course. An event in the Montana gold field is an indication of what he expected, and received. One day a fellow miner hailed him from across the stream with, "Hey, Jim," with no answer, he repeated. Again, no answer. Finally he went around and crossed over to where James was, and asked, "Couldn't you hear me!" James answered, "My name is James." In 1869 Fergus was appointed to fill a vacancy as county commissioner of Lewis and Clark County. In 1878 he was reelected to the same position. He also served terms as Republican precinct chairman. In 1878 he was elected to a seat in the Territorial House of Representatives for Lewis and Clark county. James also served in this body representing Meagher and Fergus counties. One time there was a question about having a chaplain to open the legislative session. James said he would serve, but instead of a prayer he would read an appropriate selection from Shakespeare!

    From his 60's, James used a cane. This was due to an injury that came about years before. He was challenged for a contest of strength with a larger Irishman. Contestants would sit with feet together and grasp a rod with both hands. The object was to pull the other over. James held his own until his back snapped.

    James reaction to his bachelor brothers' offer of a significant legacy has appeared in print more than once, often with a little different slant. The author feel that he should report the story as he heard it from James' grandson, S. F. Gilpatrick in 1933. The condition was, if James, the infidel, would just acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Son of God, James would be given their wealth. Otherwise it would go to the Presbyterian Church. This was a difficult time for James, but his reply, in essence, was, "Not for all of Scotland will I subscribe to something I do not believe." The rest of the story is that a woman who had cared for them during their dottering old age was left nothing. When a letter came requesting James give money for her support he sent enough to keep her. At this point, I was asked, "You tell me who the Christian was?" Things are not always what they seem.

    James was aware of the support his wife Pamelia was through two-thirds of his life, and his son Andrew the last 35 years. While a strict parent, he loved his children and both enjoyed their association in their adult years.

    After retiring from state public politics, James continued to write for the public, and to his associates. These associates of the Bannock and Virginia City days were stalwart pioneers. They played important parts in the development of the State of Montana.


Go to this directory for images of the final pages 180-189 as published in Dreams Across the Divide.



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

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Hiding my address underneath to avoid getting spam and unsolicited viruses has not worked very well. You will have to type in my email address from the picture file above. Perhaps you will also have to verify that you are a real person and not a robot if you are not in my mailing list. I apologize, but I know of no other good way to limit the junk mail.


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