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A Former Slave, She Married a White Man and Left a Legacy of Peace in the Wild West

Mattie and John

Mattie and John

 

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

Evelyn Cameron’s Disasters Led Her to a Life Most Worthy…

By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton

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“Manual labour . . . is all I care about, and, after all, is what will really make a strong woman. I like to break colts, brand calves, cut down trees, ride and work in a garden.” Evelyn Cameron

“Manual labour . . . is all I care about, and, after all, is what will really make a strong woman. I like to break colts, brand calves, cut down trees, ride and work in a garden.” Evelyn Cameron

Born in England in 1868, Evelyn Flower was the daughter of a wealthy East Indian merchant. She was born to a life of leisure and comfort. But not for it.

In 1889, Evelyn decided to walk away from the feather beds and army of servants. She married Ewen Cameron, a man who preferred the stars above to a roof over his head. He and Evelyn honeymooned in the Bad Lands of eastern Montana and fell in love with the area. They both lived to ride, hunt, and explore, and the chance to determine their own destinies was a siren’s song.

Full of hope, they bought a ranch and commenced to raising horses. The venture turned out to be beyond their experience, however, so they down-sized and attempted to breed polo ponies for the boys back in England. If the first ranching effort was a failure, this second idea was a complete disaster. Shipping horses all the way to England wasn’t exactly easy. Horses died in rail road cars, on the docks, on the ships. Adding insult to injury, the bank where the Cameron’s kept their money failed. Evelyn contacted the cousin in charge of her trust fund to request money…her money. Much to her dismay, the gentleman said no.

Plan B. Evelyn started taking in wealthy borders…who made more work for her and often didn’t pay their bills. Even better, Ewen couldn’t step into help, due to poor health. Broke, dispirited, sickly, he had had enough of the Land of Opportunity and suggested they head home.

Evelyn wouldn’t do it. The wide open spaces and seas of grass still held her heart.

So she tried farming. She grew vegetables, harvested them, and carried them all over the range, selling them to everyone from chuck wagon cooks to housewives to cowboys. Again, without any help from Ewen. Her days were long, often lonely, always exhausting. Still, she didn’t want to leave Montana.

One day, a border offered to teach her photography. With the first click of the lens, Evelyn knew she had found her purpose in life. After so much trial and error, it seemed the missteps had been leading her to the wonderful world of Kodak. And in the years to come, sometimes this new passion would even pay the bills!

With natural skill, she photographed friends, families and wildlife. She wrote articles for magazines and submitted them with her photos. She took publicity shots for the rail roads. From 1894 to 1928, Evelyn snapped thousands of pictures and chronicled life in Montana. She also covered with extraordinary honesty the contributions of women on the rugged ranches.

When Evelyn died in 1928, her worldly goods were stored at a friend’s home, tucked away in the basement. Thankfully, a writer, Donna Lucey, discovered the stash in 1978 and brought Evelyn back to life with her book Photographing Montana, 1894–1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron.

Trepidatious about the move to Montana, Evelyn once wrote in her diary, “I wish I would lead a life worthy to look back upon. I am far out of the path now.”

No, she was just taking the long way to it…

She’s Black, She’s a Woman and She’s Old! Are You Blind? Yep…

by Heather Frey Blanton
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Mary Fields -- All six feet of her!

Mary Fields — All six feet of her!

Being a woman out west at the turn-of-the-century would have been hard enough. Can you imagine being a black woman? Well, for Mary Fields, it was all in a day’s work.

“Stagecoach” Mary Fields was a black slave born in TN probably around 1832 or so. She was taken into Judge Dunn’s family and served as a nanny and house maid, and remained with the family, even after emancipation. During her growing up years, she became friends with Dunn’s daughter Dolly. Dolly, a gentle soul, joined a nunnery and shortly after transferred to Saint Peter’s Mission in Cascade, MT. She quickly discovered that the mission, a school for Native American girls, was in a magnificent state of disrepair.

Sister Amadeus (or, the daughter formerly known as Dolly) just about killed herself trying to get the place cleaned up, to the point she contracted pneumonia and fell deathly ill. She contacted Mary at this point and asked if she would like to come west and help out for a bit. Mary must have been a sight to behold walking around the school. Over six feet tall, weighing in at a lean two hundred pounds, wearing pistols on both hips, this woman was big and very black. And she liked to work. She nursed her friend back to health and then took on the mission, literally. An indomitable attitude coupled with her skill with a hammer and Mary was promoted to foreman of the place in pretty short order.

Not all the men on the grounds crew were OK with this and one mouthy gentleman started a fight. Not only did a bullet windup tearing daylight through the bishop’s drawers (on the wash line), some folks just didn’t care for Mary’s less than ladylike language and her fondness of alcohol. The bishop forced Sister Amadeus to fire her old friend.

After a short-lived attempt at running a restaurant, Mary applied for a job with the US Postal Service delivering mail at the age of 60. The USPS was looking for one qualification: the fastest time in hitching up a team of horses. Consequently, Mary became the first black woman hired by the USPS and only the second female in general.

God love her, Mary’s belligerent attitude, never-say-die determination, and willingness to fight at a drop of hat served her well in this job. She gained an unequalled reputation for delivering the mail. Literally, sleet, snow, ice, blizzards, bandits, it didn’t matter. If the horses couldn’t make the trek, she strapped on snowshoes and kept on trucking. In between, she spent a lot of time at the local saloon and developed quite the reputation for fisticuffs. And what girl doesn’t enjoy a pinch of Copenhagen between the cheek and gum after a tough fight?

Mary retired from the post office at the age of 70 and the nuns at the mission helped her open a laundry, which she ran until her death in 1914. This woman was so loved by the folks of Cascade, they closed the schools to celebrate her birthdays.

Race, gender, age, all barriers Mary busted wide open and the citizens of Cascade were smart enough to look past. Now that’s what I call “respecting the lace.”

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