A Former Slave, She Married a White Man and Left a Legacy of Peace in the Wild West
In light of all the racial tension boiling in Ferguson, I thought it would be uplifting to remind us that, even in the Wild West, peace among different races has not always been elusive. Mattie Bost Bell Castner is a wonderful example.
Born a slave in Newton, NC in 1848, she and her family moved to St. Louis after the Emancipation Proclamation for a fresh start. Mattie worked as a nanny, domestic servant, and hotel maid. Eager to expand her horizons, though, she moved to Fort Benton, MT and opened a laundry. Her business did quite well and the former slave could have called herself a successful, independent businesswoman. Sharp, wise, well-spoken, and pretty to boot, Mattie caught the eye of John Castner. Castner, too, was a hard-working entrepreneur who ran his own freight business. He had scouted much of the territory and had a particular fascination with Belt Creek. Dreaming of bigger pay offs than the freight company, he had filed several mining claims along the creek’s ford, which is near present day Great Falls.
Recognizing the fact that life in Montana is not for the faint of heart, Castner was taken with Mattie’s grit and determination to succeed in such a tough environment. Defying convention, the white man took as his wife the lovely, dark, former slave. The two were stronger together than they could have ever been apart. They dug in and went to work, building what would become the town of Belt. Castner pursued his interests in freighting and coal mining, and opened a mercantile. Matty opened the Castner Hotel, in the center of the booming little mining town. A place known for good food, exquisite service, and plenty of smiles.
Perhaps because of her background, this former slave was renowned territory-wide for her generosity and compassion. She was always ready to help out new families in town with advice, connections, and donations of supplies and cash. She became known as “the mother of Belt.” In the meantime, her husband served as the town’s mayor.
The mixed race couple had a good thing going and blessed others as much as they could, building a tight community, and living a life together that was envied by most.
When Mattie died in 1920, she left her fortune of $25,000 to charity.
A life begun in slavery could have made this woman dark and twisted. Instead, Mattie became a true Lady in Defiance. She lived in defiance of bitterness, hatred, and racism to leave behind a legacy of peace, love, and unity. Well done, Mattie. Well done.
copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Like a Phoenix, Queen of the Utes Rose from the Ashes … Literally
John had Abigail. Romeo had Juliet. Chief Ouray had Chipeta.
Unless you live in Colorado or are a student of history, you’ve probably never heard of her. She was the second wife of the Ute chief, but she came to be so much more.
Dubbed “Queen of the Utes” by a reporter contemptuous of Indians, a poet turned the slam into an homage. And well-deserved it was.
When Chipeta was only an infant, a band of renegades attacked her Kiowa village. She was the sole survivor. Friendly Utes found her crawling through the smoking remains and adopted her. Many years later, when Chief Ouray’s first wife died, Chipeta became the caretaker for his son. Ouray was impressed with the girl’s keen mind, compassion, and poise. Eventually the two married and were inseparable from then on.
Chipeta traveled everywhere with Ouray, which was highly unusual for Ute culture. But he valued her counsel. She was a true confidante and friend, and one of his biggest supporters as he tried to navigate the treacherous road of negotiations with the US government.
Ouray’s overriding goal was peace with the whites. Just like in all the movies, there were hot-headed braves and opportunistic tribal leaders who hated him for “selling out”. There were some Ute bands that wouldn’t speak with him, but they welcomed his wife. Where Ouray could not go, the soft-spoken, perceptive Chipeta would hold councils and share the information with her husband as he sought to save his people, albeit on smaller and smaller pieces of land.
In 1879, an uprising at the White River Res resulted in the deaths of 11 white men, including the Indian agent, Nathan Meeker. Meeker’s wife and daughter and several others were taken captive at the massacre, enraging the government. Tradition says Chipeta housed and cared for the girls, and then, along with Ouray, negotiated their release.
This event, coupled with another deadly skirmish between Utes and soldiers, resulted in the Ute Removal Act. The entire tribe was relocated to scrub and sand in Utah. Ouray died there in 1880.
Chipeta met tribal leaders and government officials alike. They all honored and respected her. She traveled to Washington, D.C. with Ouray to negotiate a peace treaty with the government. She dined with Kit Carson and his family, and rode in a train with President Taft. Yet, for most of her life she lived confined to a government reservation, subsisting on poverty-level subsidies. Still, she always spoke up for her people, never let her conditions break her, and stubbornly believed in peace.
Chipeta died in Utah in 1924. Upon her death, Colorado petitioned to have her and Chief Ouray exhumed and reinterred in Montrose. Perhaps now the Queen of the Utes finally has her peace.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
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Virginia Taught Her to Smile; Texas Taught Her to Fight
I love the stories of women who, on the verge of losing everything, look defeat squarely in the eye and knock the snot out of it.
When Sarah Cockrell’s husband Alexander died in 1858, he left her with three small children and a few struggling businesses. Oh, and a mountain of debt.
At the time of his death, Alexander owned a sawmill, gristmill, office building, and a ferry business in Dallas. Recognizing Sarah’s business acumen, and since he couldn’t read or write, he let her handle his books, as well as his correspondence. Upon Alexander’s passing, Sarah did not wring her hands and think about running back to Virginia. She jumped in, wrestled his debt to the ground and emerged with a sound company.
Sarah is remembered in Texas, though, for the construction of an iron suspension bridge across the Trinity River. The Texas state legislature OKed her idea for the venture in 1860, but it took her 12 years and the end of the Civil War to bring it about. In 1872, the bridge opened up Dallas to several major roads and ushered in a pretty energetic economic boom. Ironically, while her bridge company did well and the city blossomed, Sarah never sat on the board of the Dallas Bridge Company. It wasn’t customary. She owned the majority of stock and could have sat at the head of the table, but methinks a few men on the board didn’t like the competition.
And they had reason to fear this little lady. She was just getting rolling. The bridge deal was good to Sarah and by the 1880’s she was dabbling in real estate, becoming a regular Donald Trump. In 1889 she handled fifty-three separate land deals and in both 1890 and 1891 more than twenty.1 By 1892, the belle from Virginia owned a quarter of downtown Dallas.
There are plaques and charities and buildings named for Sarah. Who remembers the men on the board of the Dallas Bridge Company, hmmm?
1 Texas State Historical Association
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
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A Teenage Girl and a Handsome Bandit. The Stuff of Legends and Regrets.
Do you remember your first boyfriend? Was he, perhaps, a bit of a bad influence? Did you follow him into escapades that now leave you wondering in horror, what was I thinking? Cheer up. He probably never shot it out with US Marshals.
Rose Dunn, youngest of ten, was born in Oklahoma and received a formal education from a convent. In the meantime, two of her brothers went astray of the law and started hanging around some pretty tough characters. Sometime in 1892, they brought George “Bittercreek” Newcomb home. Newcomb was a known outlaw who rode with the likes of Bill Doolin and the Wild Bunch. Perhaps this bandit mystique was part of his charm. Either way, at the impressionable age of 14, Rose was in love.
Happily at the beck-and-call of the 29-year-old Newcomb, Rose rode with him when she could, often fetched supplies and groceries from town for the gang, and, after a particularly violent shoot-out in ‘93, lovingly nursed his wounds. As story-tellers have a practice of doing, she was dubbed Rose of the Cimarron. Legend says she managed to get a gun and two belts of ammo to Newcomb as US Marshals were shooting at him, thus enabling him and companion Charley Pierce to escape. The marshals didn’t mention Rose in their reports, however. Admittedly, it would have been more than a little annoying, arguably embarrassing, to confess a fugitive got away because his fifteen-year-old girlfriend interfered.
Regardless, this shoot-out resulted in the deaths of three lawmen, raising the bounty on Newcomb and Pierce to the serious sum of $5,000 each. A price worthy of Jesse James.
Now, while Rose was traveling her outlaw path, ironically her brothers flipped sides and turned into bounty hunters. They weren’t half-bad either. One might even say they were ruthless.
In 1895, Newcomb, accompanied by Pierce, swung by the Dunn family home in Norman, OK to see Rose. It was a fateful decision. Her brothers happened to be there as well. They shot Newcomb and Pierce as the two men dismounted. Why not? The reward said dead or alive.
Whether Rose set him up, which her brothers denied, or Newcomb’s death broke her wild ways, Rose turned over a new leaf. A few years later, she married Charles Albert Noble, a sober, respected man of the community who held political aspirations. Though she would outlive Albert and marry once more, Rose never again crossed the law.
In fact, she spent the rest of her life trying to prove she was not A Lady in Defiance, only a misguided girl who had a little growing up to do. Still, for years after Newcomb’s death, it was not an uncommon site to see Rose riding her favorite horse hell-bent-for-leather across the sandbars of the Cimarron River.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
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Mollie Fly–The Woman at the OK Corral
By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
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Not much is known about Mollie. You’ve probably never heard of her. But you know her husband. C.S. “Buck” Fly was THE photographer in Tombstone when the shoot-out at the OK Corral went down.
Mary “Mollie” McKie moved with her family to San Francisco sometime in the 1850’s, when she was around 8 or 10. The boisterous town may well be what fostered her desire for adventure, but a good upbringing kept her from falling into vice. In Defiance of the times, she took up the male-dominated hobby of photography. She also took up a husband, Samuel D. Goodrich. Apparently he wasn’t a good fit and, in a day when divorce was rare, Mollie showed him the door after only two years.
Soon, she met the dashing and adventurous Camillus Sidney “Buck” Fly, a young man who had grown up in the Napa Valley. He also loved capturing still life. We don’t know how they met. It’s a shame because they made a lasting impression on each other. We do know they married in Sept. of ‘79 and by December had arrived in the silver boomtown of Tombstone, AZ.
Within a year, they had gone from working in a tent to owning a 12-room boardinghouse that also housed the famous photography studio (the door of which was within spitting distance to the OK Corral). Buck spent a great deal of time riding the range, snapping beautiful photographs of the landscapes, as well as capturing historically valuable pictures of the Indian campaigns. A tiny gal known for her spunk, Mollie accepted the long absences and kept things humming at home. She ran the boardinghouse, took portraits for customers, and raised a daughter. Sometime in the early 1880’s, a young girl by the name of Kitty appeared on the census as a member of their household. It is not known whether she was Fly’s daughter or a simply a child they adopted, but Mollie loved her and took care of her like she was blood.
Part of that care included removing Kitty and herself from a bad situation when Fly’s drinking spiraled out of control. In ’87, Mollie divorced him and the famous photographer left Tombstone. Soldiering on, she kept the studio and boardinghouse running, but there is clear evidence she was nursing a broken heart. Mollie never remarried. She was at Fly’s side in Bisbee, AZ in 1901 when he breathed his last. She then arranged to have him buried in Tombstone, and bought him a nice, well, tombstone.
Mollie was Fly Gallery until 1912. Feeling her age, she retired to Los Angeles and died there in 1925. Prior to her death, she donated all of Fly’s negatives to the Smithsonian, well aware of the contribution her husband had made to history by chronicling the West.