|By 1870 the Northern Pacific Railroad
(NP) had surveyed all of its route across the northern plains except
for the stretch between Bismarck and Bozeman. In this area, militant
Lakotas, fearing the destruction of their hunting ground, threatened
to resist the railroad. From Joseph K. Dixon, The Vanishing Race:
The Last Great Indian Council (New York, 1914)m opp. p. 76
To most people
interested in western history, mention of an 1871Yellowstone
expedition brings to mind that of geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden. Yet,
three times during 1871 the Northern Pacific Railroad (NP) sent surveyors
into the Yellowstone Valley to determine the feasibility of its planned
transcontinental route. Though this route traced its antecedents to the
explorations of Isaac I. Stevens and John Mullan in the mid-1850s, the
1871 surveys were the first intensive study of the valley; much rested
on the success of the expeditions and on the skill of W. Milnor Roberts,
the NP's incorruptible and hardworking chief engineer. A prolific writer,
Roberts while in the field penned notes, correspondence, and reports that
offer rich and illuminating portraits of the Yellowstone Valley and of
the surveyors and soldiers who ventured into it. Surprisingly, the 1871
Yellowstone expeditions, despite their far-reaching implications, today
remain unknown to all but a handful of historians.
In 1869 the
Northern Pacific board of director's plan to build a second
transcontinental railroad through virtually unsettled country made little
economic sense. With less than a hundred thousand dollars in capital,
the board planned to build a two-thousand-mile railroad that would require
filling immense swamps, bridging untamed rivers, and crossing high mountain
ranges. Not only was the terrain formidable but the Northern Pacific would
have to raise nearly all of its funds from private investors. Unlike the
Omaha-to-Sacramento road, built by two companies with the wartime impetus
of connecting the country, the NP's transcontinental line seemed unlikely
to receive federal funding because sectional rivalry split Congress on
matters large and small.
Adding to the NP's difficulties was yet another obstacle: the road would
cut directly through the heart of the Lakotas' hunting lands. Indeed,
the ink had barely dried on the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, an agreement
that some Lakotas interpreted as giving them the land west of the Missouri
River, including most of the Yellowstone basin, when in 1869 the Northern
Pacific sponsored a reconnaissance from Portland north to Spokane then
into Montana in search of a feasible route for a railroad. Realizing that
a railroad would destroy their hunting grounds and flood the plains with
settlers, the Lakotas under Sitting Bull threatened to resist it. Building
through the Lakotas' hunting lands was a surefire prescription for trouble
with an Indian nation that was rapidly arming themselves with rifles superior
to those used by the barely fifteen hundred soldiers, mostly infantry,
scattered among thirteen army forts in Montana and Dakota.1
The task of building the railroad seemed impossible until the one man
who could pull it all together-Jay Cooke, whose ironfisted, Old Testament
honesty had raised billions for the Union's war effort-stepped forward
in spring 1869 as the NP's financier. Cooke knew the Northwest, the railroad
industry, Washington politics, and how to raise capital. As historian
Robert E. Riegel wrote, "No one doubted but that if Cooke took hold
of the project its success was assured."2
By September 1871, twenty months after Cooke began working with the NP,
the railroad had spent more than $15 million to construct just over 250
miles of track. With the exception of some twenty-five miles of track
north of Portland, Oregon, the NP's entire construction effort focused
on Minnesota, with track laid from just west of Duluth to within fifty
miles of the Dakota line. Although crews had finished all the surveying
from Duluth to Bismarck and most of it from Bozeman to Tacoma, the NP
had yet to send a man into the Yellowstone Valley for fear of Lakota hostility.
Despite this information and engineering gap of some 585 miles, however,
NP engineers aimed to have the preliminary surveying of the entire line
completed in 1871, track laid to the Missouri River near Bismarck in 1872,
and the line to the Yellowstone River completed in 1873.3
With these goals in mind, the NP board of directors made plans for a preliminary
survey of the Yellowstone Valley in May 1871. Although no Indian threat
had yet materialized, NP president J. Gregory Smith advised: "It
will probably be unsafe to carry on the work between the Missouri River
and Bozeman Pass without a proper military escort."4 Army maNPower
and supply problems made it impossible for two parties to leave from Fort
Ellis and Fort Rice and meet on the Yellowstone, but the board decided
to undertake two less ambitious surveys, each with a military escort.
If both mapped 150 to 200 miles of the valley, much would be learned and
the final surveying work readily completed in 1872.
Throughout summer 1871, army infighting and red tape delayed efforts to
organize the necessary military escorts. Finally, on September 9, 1871,
the largest of the expeditions, a surveying party led by Thomas L. Rosser
accompanied by some 425 infantrymen under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph N.
C. Whistler, left Fort Rice on the Missouri River. They reached the mouth
of Glendive Creek three weeks later without incident and returned to the
Missouri October 16.5 Unfortunately, the other 1871 Yellowstone expeditions
did not progress as smoothly.
The man who would direct these surveys was W. Milnor Roberts. Roberts
was a lanky, full-bearded man with jet-black hair, a Quaker, and, like
so many in his family, a man of exceptional mathematical skills. In 1837
Roberts had married nineteen-year-old Anne Barbara Gibson of Carlisle,
Pennsylvania, the daughter of the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme
Court. She died in 1857, leaving Roberts the single father of six children.
Not until 1868 did Roberts marry again, to Adeline de Beelen, the thirty-one-year-old
daughter of an upper-class Pittsburgh family. As his long letters attest,
for him this second marriage was very much a love match, and if, at fifty-eight,
he was a bit long in the tooth, one must remember that the Civil War had
substantially reduced the pool of eligible bachelors.6
Roberts's career was closely linked to nineteenth-century transportation
and commerce. He built canals before the first locomotive ran in the United
States, and he rode as one of the passengers on the first American "railed"
road, the Mauch Chunk Gravity Road in Pennsylvania, in 1827.7 After the
Civil War, Roberts became the United States engineer in chief for improvements
on the Ohio River, and in 1868 James Eads employed him as his primary
assistant in constructing the first railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi
River at St. Louis. Roberts also served as an early president of the American
Society of Civil Engineers. And not only was Roberts respected in engineering
circles, he had also earned the trust, confidence, and friendship of Jay
Cooke, a man who by 1871 held national financial and political power second
only to President Ulysses S. Grant.
The friendship between Roberts and Cooke developed during the week Roberts
spent at Cooke's home following his 1869 reconnaissance to the West. After
Roberts made his formal report on the feasibility of the project, Cooke
agreed to raise money for the NP by selling bonds, essentially following
the same approaches he had used to financially support the Union war effort
a few years earlier. Although Roberts had only been a consultant for Cooke
on the reconnaissance, when the NP's rapidly aging chief engineer, Edwin
Johnson, proved unequal to the task of building a transcontinental line,
the railroad hired Roberts to replace him in late 1870. For Roberts, becoming
the chief engineer for a transcontinental railroad was a lifetime's dream
Roberts's exemplary character certainly contributed to his winning that
position. Cooke described him as an "honest man," and friend
Sam Wilkeson, the secretary of the NP board of directors and its chief
publicist, lauded Roberts as the "soul of honor. There was not enough
money in the U.S. Treasury to buy him away from his conscience, or make
him surrender a deliberatively formed professional opinion. . . . [His]
patience and sweetness were inexhaustible, except when in his business
he un-covered a thief or a liar." Wilkeson got it nearly right; to
the list of people that Roberts would not tolerate, he might have added
"alcoholic," a type common among military and railroad personnel
of the era.9
Despite his age and slight deafness, Roberts, whose intelligence, fairness,
and gentle humor were so rare, enjoyed great popularity among the younger
engineers. An assistant, William Shunk, recalled his "hilarious good
will [and] laughable, extravagant puns." One evening when the two
had to share a bed in a tavern, Shunk asked which side of the bed Roberts
preferred. "'Well,' said he, 'I generally take the top side and you
can have the other,' and broke into a big smile and laughter at his own
wonderful joke."10 Roberts's common sense, patience, and good humor
were to serve him in good stead during the frequently difficult process
of assessing construction requirements in the Yellowstone Valley.
May 1871 Roberts began preparations to spend the summer in
Montana, where, in addition to the Yellowstone survey, he also would direct
five technically difficult follow-up surveys west of the Yellowstone Valley
in Montana and Idaho. He hired the surveys' key staff, determined the
size of the crews, and, most importantly, established the engineering
goals and parameters of each effort. While he left the specifics of outfitting
the crews to others, Roberts spent considerable time discussing the work
to be done with each leader on the assumption that timely communications
with the survey parties in the field would be difficult at best. The NP's
president J. Gregory Smith entrusted Roberts with another key task. "The
passes through the Rocky Mountains being of special importance,"
Smith wrote, "you will as far as practicable make a personal examination
of these, so as to be able to render a full and complete report on the
subject." Naturally, little was more important than finding the most
cost-effective and direct route over the Rocky Mountains.11
Smith's instructions reflected the inner tensions of the NP board. Thomas
H. Canfield, one of Smith's confidants, was a key, though controversial,
figure in the railroad's affairs during the 1860s, and he had represented
the NP on the 1869 expedition. In Montana Canfield picked up the rumors
of a "lost" Marias Pass, and in his 1870 report, he noted, "The
Marias pass to the north has never been fully examined." While Roberts
appears to have discounted the story, possibly because Canfield was its
source, Smith's instructions with the words "full and complete"
left no room for misunderstanding; Roberts was directed to search for
When Roberts arrived in Helena with his family in July, several hundred
residents and a brass band gathered in front of the International Hotel
to cheer and serenade him. Roberts responded with a brief speech, but
after these festivities he turned to his work.13 The most important
of his five Montana surveys would begin at the Three Forks of the Missouri
and extend to Fort Ellis, an army post three miles east of Bozeman on
the East Gallatin River. At the fort, the survey would pick up a cavalry
escort, cross Bozeman Pass, and follow the Yellowstone downstream as long
as the Lakotas and the weather permitted. Because the Crow Indian Reservation
lay on the south bank of the river, the surveyors would work on the north.
To his personal and professional dismay, however, in late July President
Smith ordered Roberts to Utah to meet a party of European investors and
show them the economic potential of Oregon and Washington. Unable to take
his pregnant wife (she went to live with a sister in Kansas), Roberts
traveled to the West Coast, not to return to Montana until midfall and
to his wife until December.14 This unexpected development,
which occurred when he had been in Helena for less than a month, would
cost him three months' time, effective control of the surveys, and the
opportunity to complete his investigation of Montana's passes, work he
had just begun in the Helena area.15
The surveying party that would carry on in Roberts's absence, like most
of Roberts's larger teams, numbered fourteen: a "chief of party,"
a topographical engineer, a transit or compass man, leveler, and a rodman.
The party also included two flagmen, two chainmen, three axemen (to clear
brush), a cook, and a teamster to look after two wagons and a pack train
of mules.16 Pay ranged from $150 per month for engineers to
$40 a month for the least skilled.
|Soldiers of the Second Cavalry stationed
at Fort Ellis accompanied the Yellowstone Valley survey, though their
service was fraught with delays and undermined by post commander Eugene
M. Baker's heavy drinking. Fort Ellis officers are pictured above
in 1871. Leaning against the porch railing in the center of photograph
stands Colonel Baker. To his right on the porch are Captain Edward
Ball, Lieutenant Lovell H. Jerome, Captain George L. Tyler, and Lieutenant
Edward J. McClernand. MHS Photograph Archives, Helena
With Roberts gone, what the Yellowstone survey lacked, however, was good
leadership. The engineer in charge was Edward D. Muhlenberg, an artillery
officer during the war, whose qualifications appear to have been that
he enjoyed the support of one of Pennsylvania's United States senators,
Simon Cameron, a former Lincoln cabinet member who retained enormous political
clout. What is also known is that Muhlenberg drank heavily.
Beginning in late July Muhlenberg spent almost three weeks surveying the
thirty-one miles between the Three Forks and Fort Ellis. Further delays
followed once he reached the fort. Finally, without waiting for an army
escort, Muhlenberg surveyed over Bozeman Pass, past present-day Livingston,
and stopped at Crow Agency some four miles east of where the Shields River
entered the Yellowstone to wait for his escort.
His escort, however, found itself ensnared by army bureaucracy. In summer
1871 one of Fort Ellis's three cavalry companies was escorting the Hayden
Expedition through what would become Yellowstone National Park, a waste
of men considering the lack of hostile Indians, and another was futilely
chasing Indians who had killed two settlers near Bozeman.17
Equally frustrating, in St. Paul, Minnesota, General Winfield Scott Hancock,
commander of the Department of Dakota, had not written the orders concerning
the surveyors' protection until August 5. Ultimately, Captain Edward Ball
and ninety-one men and five officers from companies H and L, Second Cavalry
did not leave Fort Ellis until September 16.18
Ball, a career soldier, had enlisted in the First Dragoons before the
Mexican-American War and slowly risen through the ranks. He was well respected,
able, and honest-too much for his own good as it would turn out in the
mid-1870s when he apparently would not take a bribe from Montana pioneer
Nelson Story. Without money or influence, however, Ball, seems to have
often drawn the longest or most difficult assignments, such as escorting
the 1871 Yellowstone survey.19
Despite his capabilities, what Ball could not do, of course, was speed
up Muhlenberg's work. From the time the surveyors left Fort Ellis until
they turned back in November, they averaged only two and a half miles
a day. Even though Ball joined Muhlenberg no later than midday on September
17, not until September 22 did the expedition leave Crow Agency. Part
of the problem was Muhlenberg's drinking, but the other part was that
he had orders to survey the Yellowstone's difficult north bank and, with
the inflexibility typical of alcoholics, would not survey the other side.
In fact, the north bank of the river was so rugged that, as Ball wrote,
"a greater portion of the time the camps had unnecessarily to be
pitched on the opposite side of the river to which the parties were at
work, which made it necessary for the guards to cross twice a day and
many of the crossings [were] quite deep and rocky, and the water [grew]
colder every day." Had Roberts been in Montana he could have quickly
resolved the problem. Instead, Muhlenberg continued to flounder.20
In late October Roberts returned to Montana and likely learned for the
first time of the full extent of Muhlenberg's problems. On October 29
Roberts attended a banquet in Helena as the guest of honor then left for
Fort Ellis the next morning, arriving there thirty-six hours later, on
October 31. Joining Roberts were G. D. Chenoweth, an NP engineer who would
assist Muhlenberg with mapping; Charles A. Broadwater, active in Montana
freighting; and the respected, recently appointed Crow Indian agent, "Major"
Fellows D. Pease, a Montana trapper, scout, prospector and trader since
At Fort Ellis, RobErts met Eugene M. Baker, the post's commandant and
the man who was to lead the military escort for Roberts's party. Described
by a classmate as having "a very strong and vigorous mind, as well
as a marvelously powerful and perfect physique," "Tim"
Baker graduated from West Point in 1859. He did well his plebe year but
something (perhaps alcohol or West Point's switching to a five-year curriculum)
"caused him to neglect study and depend on his natural ability to
keep him up in his class the following years," and he wound up twelfth
out of twenty-two cadets. During the war, Baker earned a solid record
and had attained the rank of major in the regular army when given command
of Fort Ellis on December 1, 1869.22
On his way to Fort Ellis to assume this position, Baker met with General
Philip H. Sheridan, who gave him his first order, to attack a village
of hostile Piegans in north-central Montana. On January 23, 1870, Baker
attacked a friendly Piegan village, one riddled with smallpox, killing
some 173 Piegans, mostly the old and sick, women and children. Baker's
report implied heavy fighting, but the massacre became public knowledge
when the Blackfeet agent released details of the casualties. Although
Sheridan as well as many other military personnel and most frontier settlers,
especially those from Montana, defended Baker in the national outcry that
followed, he became a symbol all that was wrong with the army's treatment
Fort Ellis, photographed by William
Henry Jackson, July 1871 MHS Photograph Archives, Helena
Though little is known about Baker's personality, an enlisted man serving
under him, William H. White, remembered that "Baker was known as
a hardhearted man . . . [and] was a heavy drinker." His drinking
was so widely known that even his obituary in an annual West Point alumni
publication chided "like so many officers of fine physique, believing
that nothing could injure his constitution, [Baker] neglected such precautions
as he might have taken and broke down sooner than he had the slightest
idea he could." These facts notwithstanding, Baker was a popular
officer; "[He] carried his strong body in [an] erect, soldierly manner
. . . [and] his familiar mingling with all subordinates did much toward
bringing them into forgetfulness [concerning] some of the reprehensible
traits of his character."24
Given Roberts's importance, General Hancock likely ordered Baker to accompany
him down the Yellowstone. Thus the two, opposite in so many respects,
found themselves companions for the next two and a half weeks. As Roberts
revealed, it was a bad mix indeed.
At 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, November 2, Roberts, his companions, Baker, and
some twenty-five cavalry left Fort Ellis with a half-dozen wagons and
an ambulance. A compulsive note taker, correspondent, and letter and report
writer, Roberts took with him on his survey maps, books, and reports about
the Yellowstone Valley as well as a barometer, thermometer, compass, and
odometer. Sam Wilkeson, whom Roberts had traveled with in 1869, remembered:
"[He] was the only man I ever saw write continuously in the saddle."
Roberts's field notes offer continual scientific readings, engineering
and construction calculations, and topographic information as well as
numerous other travel-related comments and observations, even the length
of the stops.25
From Fort Ellis, Roberts's party
traveled east across Bozeman Pass and visited Crow Agency at Fort
Parker, east of present-day Livingston. The pass is pictured above
looking east from the Bozeman Tunnel after the railroad's completion.
On an 1869-1871 trip William Henry Jackson photographed Fort Parker,
right. Both photographs, MHS Photograph Archives, Helena
The day was ideal for travel. Despite six inches of snow, the weather
stayed warm. "As soon as we passed the divide, lo! The scene changed-there
was no snow left and the road was dry, looking almost as it did [in 1869],"
Roberts wrote. Reaching the Yellowstone, Roberts, ever inquisitive, measured
its flow, estimating it as "more than double the low water flow of
the Ohio at Pittsburgh." Just before sunset, after crossing to the
south side of the river, the party arrived at Crow Agency. The next day
Roberts visited the agency farm with Pease, where they admired "a
good crop of potatoes, very good turnips and cabbages, and . . . about
two acres of sweet corn." At Pease's suggestion, the expedition hired
two Métis guides, Pierre Shane and Mitch Bouyer (who later died
with Custer at the Little Bighorn), and three Crows, Blackfoot, Wolfbow,
and Pretty Lodge.26
After two nights' stay at the agency, the party headed downriver on November
4, crossing back to the north bank to inspect Muhlenberg's route. Roberts
hoped to determine whether the railroad could be constructed on the north
bank to avoid the Crow reservation on the south, but he quickly realized
it would have to cross the reservation. East of Livingston, he concluded,
"The reservation side is obviously the better." Some bridges
would be necessary, but Roberts saw few problems: "The Yellowstone,
although it has a strong current, does not rise high[. C]heap piers and
short spans will answer."27
On November 4 and 5 the party camped at the confluence of the Yellowstone
and Boulder rivers, just west of the present-day town of Big Timber. The
reason for spending two nights, Roberts noted, was that "Colonel
Baker, not feeling well, concluded not to start till we should see what
kind of weather we are to have." One might safely hazard a guess
that Baker, who arose late, was hungover. Nevertheless, the weather did
look raw, the temperature remained in the low forties, and a heavy snow
began to fall in midafternoon.28
In spite of the weather, the camp pleased Roberts. The large stands of
cottonwoods north of the Yellowstone and the many prairie dog towns impressed
him. The scouts and Crows provided fresh game, and Roberts, with a mattress
and "plenty of blankets," slept well in a tent he shared with
Chenoweth. Baker, Pease, Broadwater, and Lieutenant Charles B. Schofield
bunked together in another tent. The scouts shared an "improvised
wigwam" while the enlisted men and teamsters likely slept in two-man
By November 6, as rich bottomlands and meadows appeared, Roberts observed
large herds of antelope, some deer, elk, coyotes, and other wildlife.
The lush grass; meandering, "clear as crystal" Yellowstone;
and the box elder, cottonwood, and pine along its banks and on the hills
dazzled him. "This is a beautiful place," he wrote, also noting
that, whenever possible during breaks, the teamsters rushed to the streams
feeding into the Yellowstone and enthusiastically, if unsuccessfully,
panned for gold. Roberts also delighted at the likely low cost of building.
"Thus far down the Yellowstone . . . it will be a cheap line to construct,"
On the seventh, the group spent the evening at a particularly lovely location,
and Roberts's sketch of it gives the feeling of a typical encampment.
The next day Roberts, up at five o'clock to take astronomical observations
of the planet Venus, wrote: "The white light in the east contrasts
charmingly with the clear blue almost black of the west, and the atmosphere
is as pure as a virgin." That night the temperature fell more than
forty degrees, standing at twenty-three degrees at 5:30 a.m. The resulting
frost hardened the ground, resulting in better time for the wagons. By
11:00 a.m. Roberts reached the Muhlenberg-Ball camp, "a splendid
situation [view]," at what Roberts called the Gate of the Valley,
four or five miles west of present-day Park City.31
With no sign of Lakotas, Roberts and Baker decided to "borrow"
some sixty of Ball's cavalry and travel to the confluence of the Bighorn
River, an estimated 115 miles east. They took no tents, only pack horses
with five days of rations, because they assumed, incorrectly as it turned
out, that there would be ample grass for the horses. One of the accompanying
officers was the charming, hard-partying, politically well-placed Lovell
H. Jerome. An 1870 West Point graduate, he was the ne'er-do-well son of
a wealthy playboy, Lawrence Jerome, and the nephew of Leonard Jerome (the
future grandfather of Winston Churchill).32 Others in the party
included Captain George L. Tyler, able Civil War veteran Lieutenant James
G. MacAdams, and Dr. R. M. Whitefoot.
On November 9 the group left Ball and Muhlenberg. Roberts bubbled with
enthusiasm: "[W]e have all been charmed with the beauty of the valley
and its surroundings, while our animals have been reveling in splendid
grass.... For sheep, cattle and horses, this region ... surpasses any
that I have ever seen in North or South America."33
Friday saw a temperature of thirty-seven degrees with light rain and snow.
Game, including buffalo and "several hundred" antelope, became
more abundant. As they rode toward the site of present-day Billings, Roberts
observed: "We have passed through the finest valley by far that I
have seen in Montana ... 175 sq. miles of very superior land."34
They dined on buffalo and wild geese. Roberts also spotted the first veins
of lignite coal that stretch east for three hundred miles.
At midmorning Saturday, Roberts wrote from atop a "100 foot high
flat [plateau], Pryor's Creek opposite." Around 11 a.m.. they found
a ford, likely close to the current Huntley bridge. Only a few minutes
later a horse slipped in the "deep, swift" current, and Roberts
excitedly wrote, "Man overboard [!]" In fact, the horse rolled
over on a trooper named Shavers, pinning him underwater "long enough
to make me feel very uneasy about him," Roberts later wrote his wife.
"Captain Tyler and several soldiers got to [Shavers] after awhile
with a rope and got him back to [a] gravel bar. . . . He was chilled,
frightened nearly to death; but they soon stripped him and gave him different
articles of dry clothing."35
By noon the entire party had crossed to the right bank of the Yellowstone,
and Roberts rode to a bluff overlooking the river, where he recorded being
"about 170 miles from Fort Ellis, whence we had a good view of the
valley for twenty miles farther, to Pompey's Pillar." (He likely
stood seven or eight miles east of the present-day junction of Interstates
90 and 94.) Shortly after, with Roberts and Pease riding in front, they
began sighting small herds of buffalo, which generated some unease because
they feared encountering a Lakota hunting party. Roberts's keen eye brought
the men to a halt: "I was the first to suggest that they did not
move like buffalo and after awhile Major Pease took out his [binoculars.]
... [A]s I had said one of them was a man and a horse." The party
prudently retreated. This was as far downriver as Roberts would reconnoiter.36
Pompey's Pillar from the west.
MHS Photograph Archives, Helena
In fact, Roberts had spotted a group of Crows. They also saw Roberts's
party and feared that pursuing Lakotas had encircled them. Apparently,
a raiding party had stolen a number of horses from a large Lakota camp
near the Bighorn River, and while some of the men took the horses "to
the Musselshell where there is a large Crow camp," the group Roberts
spotted had ridden up the Yellowstone. The Crows "had ridden all
night they said. They were young, good looking, and had on their war paint!
Without any invitation they retraced their steps and followed us into
camp," where they clearly enjoyed the survey's food and protection.37
That evening, after unromantically describing to his wife all the lignite
he had seen, Roberts reported the "immense quantities of game, antelope
and deer, wild geese, rabbits and some buffalo; this being near the upper
boundary of their range this season." Such abundance only added to
the pleasure of camp life. The officers enjoyed the meals of fresh game
(scouts killed a buffalo cow on the eleventh), the cool evenings, and
plenty of sleep. "The Doctor has a sinecure," Roberts wrote.
"Nobody gets sick; rather, they are fattening. Lieutenant Jerome
thinks he has gained thirty pounds. He looks as if he weighed two hundred.
Such days! Such nights! Such game! Such appetites!" Roberts also
appreciated the horse that Captain Ball loaned him. "[T]he best horse
I have ridden for years," he wrote, "so that five minutes after
dismounting, after riding thirty miles, with scarcely a pause, I felt
no fatigue, and my appetite was, as you may believe, good."38
Roberts did not know was that somewhere along the river a group
of Lakotas had seen them. Although Sitting Bull and more than a thousand
warriors were camped hundreds of miles away at the Milk River Indian Agency
near the Missouri, the presence of the surveyors so far down the Yellowstone
sparked concern. However, Sitting Bull made no effort to intercept them,
reassured by the agency's personnel that the surveying expedition would
soon turn back, and undoubtedly aware when it did so.39
Heeding the Crows' report that there were Lakotas hunting on the Bighorn
and short on grass for the horses, Baker and Roberts turned back early
on Sunday, November 12. By late afternoon they rejoined Ball and Muhlenberg
camped near the "Place of Skulls," now Billings's Rimrock area.40
Thus, his reconnaissance all but completed, Roberts focused on returning
to Fort Ellis. The Crows, safe and with full stomachs, departed for the
On the twelfth Roberts noted cryptically, "Colonel Baker had last
night a chill fever." This, the earlier mention, and obligatory thank-yous
at the survey's end were Roberts's only comments about Baker in all his
formal reports and letters. Indeed, nowhere do his notes mention the two
of them riding or eating together in the eleven days they spent alongside
the Yellowstone. This appears to be no accident, for, apparently, Baker
had come to dislike Roberts intensely.41
Before leaving for Fort Ellis with his original escort, Roberts ate "an
excellent breakfast in Captain Ball's tent" and approvingly noted
that "Ball thinks this part of the Yellowstone Valley, say for 25
to 30 miles, is worth as much as all of the Gallatin Valley for farming."
The weather seemed more winterlike. "It snowed a little last night....
[I]ce is running in the river today and stands along the edges, and [is]
1/4 inch thick in our tent." With growing concern about the conditions,
the party's leaders agreed that Ball would determine the surveying party's
date for the return. Other than being slowed down by again crossing the
Yellowstone and losing a linchpin from a wagon wheel, the remainder of
the thirteenth passed uneventfully for Roberts's party, although the weather
The next morning, Tuesday, November 14, the men made a 6:45 a.m. start.
Roberts kept taking notes. "Some thousands of Pine," he wrote
at 2:12 p.m., "cross-ties can be had in this vicinity on both sides
of the river." Just after three o'clock, the party camped for the
evening near a ford. Then, an hour later, an event occurred that was so
bizarre that Roberts told it only to his wife, never mentioning it to
another person or even in his field notes. To his wife he wrote:
Directly opposite the camp, on the same side of the river, is a pretty
Mount . . . and soon after we stopped I took my pistol, barometer and
thermometer and started across the beautiful natural meadow to its foot,
and ascended to the top, which I figured to be 400´ above the plain.
. . . I had a fine view of the valley for many miles up and like distance
down-the windings of the river and its islands opened out like a map before
me. As soon as I reached [the top] I fired my pistol, while standing on
the highest peak of rock. Soon after I heard a ball whiz and strike the
rock about 20 feet below me, and a little while after another ball whizzed
and struck the rocks not far below me. I called out to the party to stop
firing at me. It was, as I learned when I returned, [they thought] their
rifles would not carry that far; while it is very clear to me that they
did [know]. Colonel Baker had fired the first shot, but none of them had
believed that the balls had struck so high up.43
Why did Baker fire at Roberts? No one can know the reasons for Baker's
animosity, but perhaps it reflected Roberts's compulsive work habits or
Baker's resentment at having to drink furtively. Possibly, no matter how
hard he tried, the normally civil Roberts could not hide the fact that
he found Baker abhorrent. Nevertheless, shooting at the NP's chief engineer
speaks volumes about Baker's state of mind. Having described the incident
to his wife, Roberts clearly wanted to put it behind him and quickly changed
the subject: "We had an elegant supper this evening; oyster stew,
buffalo meat, antelope and breakfast bacon, with excellent potatoes, grown
[at the Crow] Valley Agency, and canned tomatoes."44
On the fifteenth the men started before 7:00 a.m. and made good time.
Just after nine o'clock, Roberts passed the place where "Rev. Thomas
and his son were killed by the Indians." A part of Bozeman Trail
lore, the incident occurred in 1866 when Thomas, a man of great faith,
decided to place his safety in the hands of the Almighty. Roberts failed
to mention that Thomas hailed from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and that
he may have known the family. Just before 3:00 p.m. the ambulance turned
over, possibly from a gust of wind, but fortunately the upset occurred
in a flat, grassy area. Shortly after passing the Boulder River, the party
made camp "on a small island in the Yellowstone."45
Meanwhile, the weather grew progressively colder. The next morning Roberts
recorded a temperature of only sixteen degrees. Despite four inches of
snow, the party made good time, reaching the Crow agency by 1:00 p.m.
and spent the night there. The next morning they slept late, crested Bozeman
Pass by 3:30 p.m., and, notwithstanding darkness and a foot of snow on
the western slope, arrived at Fort Ellis three hours later.
|Montana Blizzard, by Frederic Remington,
from Personal Recollections of General Nelson A. Miles (Chicago, 1897),
Three days later Roberts headed back to Helena, scribbling notes until
he arrived at the International Hotel at 5:45 p.m. During the next two
weeks he caught up on his mail, wrote reports, thank-you notes (including
one publicly via the Helena Daily Herald), met with other survey team
leaders, and made arrangements to meet his wife and new child in Kansas.
Finally, on December 5 he began the 450-mile stage ride to Corrine, the
Union Pacific, and home.
For those still in the Yellowstone Valley, the "summer's work"
was not quite over. While the surveying continued for a few days after
Roberts left, on November 15 Ball, concerned about the weather, determined
to begin the return to Fort Ellis the following morning. However, that
same evening a "severe snow storm" developed and it lasted until
Friday morning, when Ball was finally able to break camp. For the next
nine days, until they reached Crow Agency 110 miles away, the men would
travel uphill through snow, usually with a biting wind from the west and
a wind chill factor seldom above freezing. Making matters worse, the six
to ten inches of snow on the ground made it difficult for the animals
to forage for grass and impossible for the men to cut hay. As the horses
began to give out, more and more men had to walk, delaying the column
further. A shortage of blankets and tents, never fully replaced after
a fire on October 10, added to the men's hardships.46
By November 20 Ball felt nervous about the condition of the horses and
determined that a large number would be lost unless he could obtain grain.
"I accordingly turned the command over to Captain Tyler," Ball
wrote, "and with a detachment of seven men started for Fort Ellis."
The men marched through the night and reached the Crow agency at 8 p.m.
Tuesday. The next morning, with little sleep, horrible weather, and two
to four feet of snow on Bozeman Pass, Ball left for Fort Ellis, finally
reaching the post at three o'clock Thursday afternoon. A rescue party
was hurriedly assembled at Fort Ellis and prepared to leave Friday morning,
but another blizzard blew in from the west and paralyzed all movement.47
|A blinding snowstorm overtook the
Yellowstone surveyors during their return to Fort Ellis in mid-November.
In the spirit of Frederic Remington's bugler at right, trumpeter Sergeant
Edward Page sounded "Rally" again and again to lead the
men to the shelter provided by stands of willows and cottonwoods.
From Century Magazine, 43 (January 1892), p. 384
The same storm engulfed Tyler and Muhlenberg's men as they marched alongside
the now-frozen Yellowstone. Visibility fell to a few feet, the "blinding
snow coming in [like] a hurricane, drifting to the depth of many feet
in the line of march." Officers took turns leading, often on foot,
only to discover that they marched in a circle. The temperature dropped
and, as the light faded, men moaned to be allowed to go to sleep. The
Bozeman Avant Courier later reported that the soldiers "would tumble
off of their horses perfectly benumbed, and it required the greatest exertion
of those not so badly affected to arouse them from the stupor that was
fast coming on." Pack animals began stumbling under the weight of
accumulating snow and ice. The men gave up on the animals but kicked and
pushed fellow soldiers forward. Hours after the storm hit, the first men
reached a clump of willows and cottonwoods that offered fuel and some
shelter. Trumpeter Sergeant Edward Page, his lips sticking to his brass
trumpet, sounded "Rally" again and again, leading the men to
the woods. One surveyor who became lost survived the night by himself,
although his feet were frozen badly.48
On Saturday the Fort Ellis rescue party, joined by virtually every able-bodied
soldier, began to clear a path though the snow. Although their efforts
made nine miles passable, the men did not reach the summit of Bozeman
Pass, and they returned to the fort rather than spend the night in the
open at 5,800 feet. On Sunday Ball, likely with the large force that had
assisted him the day before, finished cutting a path across the pass,
and Ball's rescue party continued on, probably stopping just west of Livingston.49
The next day the soldiers and survey
crew staggered into Crow Agency where Major Fellows Pease (left)
gave them what supplies he could spare. Pushing on again on foot,
the men soon met a rescue party from Fort Ellis.Sarony's Imperial
Portraits, photographer, MHS Photograph Archives, Helena
What the rescuers did not know was that two days before Tyler and Muhlenberg's
bedraggled men had staggered into Crow Agency. Major Pease gave them as
much as his limited supplies permitted. On Monday, November 27, with Pease's
grain all but used up, Tyler left wagons, mules, and equipment at the
agency, and the men marched west as best they could but made little ground.
At dusk Ball and Tyler spotted each other near the Shields River, where
the rescuers and rescued camped for the night. On Tuesday they climbed
the steeper, eastern side of the Bozeman Pass and arrived at Fort Ellis
by 3:00 p.m.50
Ball reported that fifty-seven soldiers-he made no mention of the surveyors-"had
their faces, hands, feet, ears and noses painfully frozen," though
they required no amputations. A hundred miles north the same storm caught
a company of sixty-five men from the Seventh Infantry in the open, resulting
in twenty-two amputations.51
"All of the party highly commend the action of the commanding officer,
Captain Ball," the Bozeman Avant Courier reported, "for his
humanity, courage and foresight, under circumstances of the most trying
nature." Unfortunately the officers felt less positive about Muhlenberg;
during the return the surveyors discarded over a dozen borrowed carbines
and revolvers, and when Muhlenberg refused to take any responsibility,
the officers paid their cost.52
1871 Yellowstone surveying expeditions might best be remembered
not for what was accomplished, but for historically tantalizing "what
ifs" in Montana and Northern Pacific Railroad history.
Roberts never explored the Rocky Mountain passes, and no one "discovered"
Marias Pass until December 1889. The pass led to a shorter, easier route
from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound, but the Great Northern Railroad,
not the NP, benefitted. Whether or not Roberts might have discovered it
in 1871 and, if he had, what the railroad would have done with the information
is, of course, speculative.53
Roberts apparently did not tell Cooke that Baker shot at him. Although
they evidently discussed Baker's drinking, Cooke, who had the clout to
remove Baker from future expeditions, never asked this favor from President
Grant. Within a year Roberts's reticence came back to haunt the railroad.
In 1872 Baker and "chief of party" John A. Haydon led a surveying
expedition that planned to meet another army-NP column (under Colonel
David S. Stanley and Thomas L. Rosser) at the confluence of the Yellowstone
and Powder rivers. However, on August 14 at Pryor's Creek, hundreds of
Lakotas attacked Baker's camp. While the fighting proved inconclusive,
Baker was dead drunk during much of it. A few days later the "battle"
became a strategic defeat: Baker left the Yellowstone and never linked
up with the second surveying party. (He blamed the decision to leave on
the surveyors.) The publicity generated by Pryor's Creek resulted in loss
of investor confidence in the NP, which made it far more difficult for
Cooke to sell NP bonds and materially contributed to the financial collapse
of Jay Cooke & Co. in 1873.
The 1871 surveying expeditions represented, in themselves, neither successes
nor failures. Even if Roberts or Muhlenberg had reached the Bighorn River,
two other surveys would have been required in 1872. Like any initial survey,
1871's represented a first step; it established the feasibility of construction
through the valley while also determining that the railroad had to be
constructed on both sides of the Yellowstone, which meant cutting through
the Crow reservation. However, the financial failure of the NP and Jay
Cooke in 1873 made most of the survey party's work useless and their physical
Roberts continued to work for the NP, but he lost most of his assets,
held by Cooke's firm, in the Panic of 1873.54 In 1876 his son-in-law,
Captain George W. Yates, died with Custer, and Roberts shouldered the
financial responsibility for his daughter and her three children.55
Short of cash, he accepted a lucrative consultancy in Brazil in 1879 and
two years later died of typhoid on the Amazon River.
|Despite their limited scope, the
1871 surveying expeditions established the feasibility of railroad
construction through the Yellowstone Valley. However, the NP's financial
collapse in 1873 made most of the work useless and the men's physical
sacrifices unnecessary. Thirty-nine years later L. A. Huffman photographed
the Yellowstone River from the top of Pompey's Pillar looking west.
MHS Photograph Archives, Helena
Muhlenberg, the hard-drinking surveyor with good political connections
continued to work for the NP until at least 1876, but nothing else is
known other than that he died in 1883. The army promoted the able Ball
to major in the Seventh Cavalry in 1880, but he resigned from the army,
for disability, shortly before his death in October 1884. Baker's career
was badly damaged by the Pryor's Creek incident, with drinking causing
his death in December 1884. Pease stayed in Montana, lived until 1920,
and is buried near the Yellowstone. Jerome managed to be captured by Chief
Joseph's men in 1877 and the army all but cashiered him, but he lived
long and well on his inheritance, likely meeting his grandnephew Winston
Churchill before his 1935 death.
The Northern Pacific Railroad, under the leadership of Frederick Billings,
followed Roberts's general plans for construction along the upper Yellowstone
Valley.56 On September 8, 1883, Henry Villard, who had seized
control of the Northern Pacific from Billings in June 1881, oversaw the
driving of the "last" spike.
M. JOHN LUBETKIN is a retired cable television executive residing in
McLean, Virginia. He is currently writing a book about the Yellowstone
surveying expeditions with the working title, "Surveyor, Sioux and
Soldier: The Yellowstone Expeditions of 1871-72-73, the Northern Pacific
Railroad, and George Armstrong Custer."
1. Robert M. Utley, The Lance and the Shield: The Life
and Times of Sitting Bull (New York, 1993), 106; report of Major General
Winfield Scott Hancock, October 20, 1869, in the Annual Report of the
Secretary of War for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1869 (Washington,
D.C., 1869), 56.
2. Robert E. Riegel, The Story of Western Railroads (1926; reprint, Lincoln,
3. The Great Northwest, A Guidebook and Itinerary for the Use of Tourists
and Travelers over the Lines of the Northern Pacific Railroad (St. Paul,
Minn., 1886), 150, 248.
4. J. Gregory Smith to W. Milnor Roberts, June 20, 1871, microfilm M459,
Secretary's Department: Unregistered Letters Received and Related Records,
1864-1876 (hereafter Unregistered Letters, 1864-1876), Northern Pacific
Railway Company Records, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul (hereafter
5. See Joseph N. G. Whistler, Report of the Expedition Accompanying the
Engineers of the [NPRR] from Fort Rice, D.T. to the Yellowstone River
and Return during . . . September and October, 1871, microfilm 751 MDM,
1871, Record Group 98, Records of the United States Army Commands, National
Archives and Record Administration, Washington, D.C. (hereafter NARA).
6. The Dictionary of American Biography, 22 vols. (New York, 1928-1958),
vol. 8, pt. 2:18; and the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol.
29 (Clifton, N.J., 1926), 182, contain profiles of Roberts, as well as
family members, including Roberts's military in-laws Lieutenant General
Richard H. Anderson, Colonel George Gibson, and Brigadier General James
Oakes. See also Thomas P. Roberts's biography of his grandfather, Memoirs
of John Bannister Gibson, Late Chief Justice of Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh,
1890), 92-124; and Gibson's profile, in Dictionary of American Biography,
7. Roberts, then in his teens, was likely an apprentice engineer on the
1826-1827 project, which is described in Roberts's obituary, in Minutes
of Proceedings of the Institution of [British] Civil Engineers, vol. 1xviii
[sic] (London, 1881-1882), pt. 2:2, copy in box 10, series 6, Collection
783, William Milnor Roberts Papers, 1828-1959, Merrill G. Burlingame Special
Collections, Montana State University Libraries, Bozeman (hereafter Roberts
8. In late June 1871 Roberts attended the wedding of one of Cooke's nephews
in Sandusky, Ohio, and then was Cooke's guest on Gibraltar, a small island
in Lake Erie owned by Cooke. James E. Pollard, The Journal of Jay Cooke
or the Gibraltar Records (Columbus, Ohio, 1935), 237.
9. Jay Cooke to Milnor Roberts, October 13, 1870, file 4, box 2, series
2, Roberts Papers, MSU; "William Milnor Roberts," Northwest
Magazine, January 1884.
10. William F. Shunk, "William Milnor Roberts, Civil Engineer,"
Engineering News, July 30, 1881, 301, copy in box 9, series 6, Roberts
11. J. Gregory Smith to W. Milnor Roberts, June 20, 1871, Unregistered
Letters, 1864-1876, Minnesota HS.
12. M. John Lubetkin, letter to the editor, North Dakota History, 69,
no. 1 (2002), 25-28; Thomas H. Canfield, Partial Report to the Board of
Directors of a Portion of a Reconnaissance Made in the Summer of 1869.
. . . (n.p. 1870), 5, copy in Montana Historical Society Library, Helena
13. Helena (Mont.) Daily Herald, July 22, 1871. Roberts's wife and his
grown son, Thomas (an engineer in charge of one of the surveys), and Thomas's
family accompanied Roberts to Helena.
14. Milnora de Beelen Roberts (1871-1959) was born in Kansas.
15. There are two sources that describe this trip: the second draft of
Roberts's autobiography, written in summer 1874, in file 415, box 1, series
1, Roberts Papers, MSU; and W. Milnor Roberts, Preliminary Report of Engineer-in-Chief
on Montana Surveys, Made in December, 1871 (n.p., 1871-1872), copy in
box 10, series 6, Roberts Papers, MSU. Roberts's 1871 orders to accompany
the European bankers proved to be a total waste of time. Having spent
$25,000 of the NP's money visiting the Northwest, the bankers returned
to Europe and wrote a report firmly recommending against investment.
16. Helena (Mont.) Daily Herald, August 1, 1871. See also Roberts to [J.
W. Flenniken?], July 20, 1871, Unregistered Letters, 1864-1876, Minnesota
17. Some accounts indicate that there were four companies of cavalry stationed
at Fort Ellis, but there were only three, F, G, and H, as well as an infantry
company, A of the Seventh Regiment. Army and Navy Journal, December 16,
18. This paragraph is drawn from Captain Edward Ball's untitled elevenpage
handwritten report of the expedition dated December 10, 1871. Reel 1,
microfilm MF339, Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office,
NARA, copy in MHS (hereafter Ball report). Major Baker approved the report
and forwarded it to Department of Dakota headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Ten six-mule wagons, two four-horse wagons, and a two-horse wagon carried
the escort's food, tents, clothing, ammunition, grain, and scythes (to
cut the anticipated high grass). Ibid.
19. For Ball's dispute with Story, see Mark H. Brown, The Plainsmen of
the Yellowstone (New York, 1961), 436-38.
20. Ball report.
21. Sioux City (Iowa) Daily Journal, November 17, 1871; Jim Annin, They
Gazed on the Beartooths, vol. 2 (Columbus, Mont., 1964), 66-68.
22. Baker's obituary, in Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates
of the U. S. Military Academy, June 12, 1885, 58-63.
23. The reason Baker attacked the camp will never be known. Baker's defenders
a century ago blamed his scout, Joe Kipp. Today, the general feeling is
that Baker was exhausted and/or drunk and attacked the first village he
24. William H. White, Custer, Cavalry and Crows: The Story of William
White as told to Thomas Marquis (Bellevue, Nebr., 1975), 32. See also
Annin, They Gazed on the Beartooths, 2:63-65, 116; Annual Reunion of the
Association of the Graduates, 62-63; White, Custer, Cavalry and Crows,
25. W. Milnor Roberts, Down the Valley of the Yellowstone: Extracts from
the Letters of Chief Engineer W. Milnor Roberts . . . (New York, 1871-1872),
2, 4, copy in box 10, series 6, Roberts Papers, MSU. Roberts's field notes
are "Reconnaissance from Helena to near Pompey's Pillar in the Yellowstone
Valley and Return, Oct. 30th to Nov. 20th, 1871," 1871, files 1-4,
box 4, series 3, Roberts Papers, MSU (hereafter
"Reconnaissance"). Ambulances were light wagons and not necessarily
used for medical purposes.
26. Roberts, Down the Valley, 1-2; Roberts, "Reconnaissance,"
November 5, 1871; Roberts to his wife, November 11-15, 1871, p. 1, file
5, box 2, series 1, Roberts Papers, MSU.
27. Roberts, Down the Valley, 2.
28. Roberts, "Reconnaissance," November 4, 5, 1871.
29. Ibid. A symptom of Baker's heavy drinking was his inability to be
easily wakened, illustrated during the 1872 battle at Pryor's Creek and
by his sleeping late.
30. Roberts, "Reconnaissance," November 6, 4, 1871.
31. Ibid., November 8, 9, 1871; Roberts, Down the Valley, 4-6. Officers
in the military detachment accompanying the survey party lied to Roberts,
telling him that "since they left Ellis [Muhlenberg] has been entirely
abstinent." On this recommendation, Roberts assured the NP board
that "Mr. Muhlenberg has worked most industrially and faithfully
since leaving the fort." In March 1872, upon discovering the lie,
Roberts was livid and adamantly refused to rehire Muhlenberg "nor
any man or boy who is in the habit of drinking. . . . I will not [be used
as] a school for the care of inebriates; they can't go." Roberts
to his wife, November 11-15, 1871, p. 7; Roberts, Down the Valley, 8;
W. Milnor Roberts to [J. W. Flenniken?], March 19, 1872, Unregistered
Letters, 1864-1876 Minnesota HS.
32. Dan L. Thrapp, Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, 3 vols. (1988;
reprint, Lincoln, 1991), 2:725; and Jerome's New York Times obituary,
January 18, 1935. For his role in the 1877 Nez Perce campaign, see Alvin
M. Josephy, Jr., The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest
(1965; reprint, Boston, Mass., 1997), 623-25.
33. Roberts, Down the Valley, 5.
35. Roberts, "Reconnaissance," November 11, 1871; Roberts to
his wife, November 11-15, 1871, p. 5.
36. Roberts, Down the Valley, 7.
38. Roberts to his wife, November 11-15, 1871, p. 2; Roberts, Down the
39. A. J. Simmons to J. A. Vialle, December 5, 1871, roll 492, microfilm
M234, Letters Received by Office of Indian Affairs, 1824-1880, Record
Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, NARA, copy provided
by Dave Eckroth, Billings, Montana.
40. James H. Bradley, The March of the Montana Column: A Prelude to the
Custer Disaster (1896; reprint, Norman, 1991), 57; An Illustrated History
of the Yellowstone Valley (Spokane, Wash., [ca. 1907?]), 256.
41. Roberts to his wife, November 11-15, p. 5.
42. Roberts, "Reconnaissance," November 13, 1871; Roberts to
his wife, November 11-15, 1871, p. 10.
43. Roberts, "Reconnaissance," November 14, 1871; Roberts to
his wife, November 11-15, 1871, p. 10. Although he had his notebook with
him on the climb, he did not include the incident in it.
44. Roberts to his wife, November 11-15, 1871, p. 10.
45. Roberts, "Reconnaissance," November 15, 1871. Roberts lived
in Chambersburg in the late 1830s, and he and his first wife possibly
lived there when first married. For Thomas's story, see Dorothy M. Johnson,
The Bloody Bozeman (1971; reprint, Missoula, Mont., 1992), 209-12.
46. Ball's report; Bozeman (Mont.) Avant Courier, November 30, 1871. On
October 10 a fire raged through camp, destroying "the entire line
of Company H's tents, burning up clothing, bedding, arms, camp equipage,
rations and ammunition." Attempts to extinguish the fire failed when
some eight hundred rounds of carbine and pistol ammunition began exploding.
Happily, there were no injuries nor was surveying time lost. Ibid.
48. Edward J. McClernand, On Time for Disaster: The Rescue of Custer's
Command (1969; reprint, Lincoln, 1989), 25; Bozeman (Mont.) Avant Courier,
November 30, 1870.
49. Some fifty years later, with nearly all the participants long dead,
Lieutenant Edward J. McClernand, who in 1871 had been a lieutenant under
Ball's command during the latter phase of the rescue operations, described
the same series of events in his memoirs, but his account stands in dramatic
contrast, as he names himself, not Ball, as the leader of the rescue party.
According to his account, McClernand led a rescue force that left on Thursday,
spent a freezing night atop Bozeman Pass, rode some thirty miles, and
reached Tyler in the Yellowstone Valley early Friday afternoon, just before
the blizzard arrived. McClernand's
chronology (and other parts of his story) do not ring true. If the storm
was sufficiently obvious early Friday morning that Ball was unable to
leave Fort Ellis, it could not have slowed enough for McClernand to ride
through thirty miles of snow to reach Tyler and Muhlenberg, who were at
least fifteen miles east of the Crow agency. Edward J. McClernand, "With
the Indian and Buffalo in Montana," The Cavalry Journal, 35 (October
1926), 500-11. McClernand's memoir was published as On Time for Disaster:
The Rescue of Custer's Command (1969; reprint, Lincoln, 1989), and the
description of this event occur on pp. 24-26. It should be noted that
the description in Merrill G. Burlingame's The Montana Frontier (1942;
reprint, Bozeman Mont., 1980), 210, closely follows McClernand's account.
50. Ball report; Bozeman (Mont.) Avant Courier, November 30, 1870.
51. Ball report; McClernand, On Time for Disaster, 26.
52. Bozeman (Mont.) Avant Courier, November 30, 1870; George L. Tyler
to [J. W. Flenniken?], December 5, 1871, Unregistered Letters, 1864-1876,
53. A strong case can be made that if had Roberts had discovered the Marias
Pass, the NP would have been built roughly following the Missouri River
in Montana. This would have minimized problems with the Lakotas, perhaps
made it possible for Cooke to fully finance the NP, and certainly have
altered the Custer story.
54. Roberts never held Cooke responsible for his financial losses. The
two continued a sporadic, though friendly correspondence until just before
55. Roberts's daughter lived in Carlisle for a number of years, taught
music at the Indian school, and moved to New York in the late 1890s. On
December 10, 1914, a front-page New York Times story headlined: "Colonel
Yates' Widow Killed in Subway: Elderly Woman Whose Husband Fought with
Custer Crushed at 14th Street Station."
56. In 1881 the Crows received $25,000 for the "right of way through
their reservation, fronting on the Yellowstone River, for a distance of
over 200 miles." Eugene V. Smalley, History of the Northern Pacific
Railroad (1883; reprint, New York, 1975), 244.