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
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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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