Brokers of the Frontier:  Indigenous Women and the Fur Trade

Culbertson family portrait, c. 1863: Alexander on left, with arm around young Joe, and Natawista on the right

This picture of Alexander and Natawista Culbertson, and their son Joe, was taken c. 1863. Natawista married the American Fur Company’s powerful manager at Fort Union, in 1840. Visitors to the fort, where the Culbertsons entertained in white-linen European elegance, described Natawista as a beautiful, adventuresome woman and a skilled rider. Natawista briefly accompanied Alexander when he retired to Illinois but returned to Canada to rejoin her Blood family. MHS Photo Archives 941-818

In 1844, influential Piegan warrior Under Bull and his wife, Black Bear, chose American Fur Company clerk Malcolm Clarke to be their teenage daughter Coth-co-co-na’s husband.  During their twenty-five year marriage, Coth-co-co-na bore two boys and two girls, moved briefly with Clarke to Michigan, and helped him establish a ranch near Helena.  She mourned deeply when Clarke sent their two oldest children east for schooling. In 1862, she accepted Clarke’s new mixed-blood wife, Good Singing, into their home. According to her children’s accounts, her husband’s murder in 1869 left Coth-co-co-na a broken woman. She died in 1895.

For two centuries—from the mid-1600s to the 1860s—Indian and Métis women like Coth-co-co-na brokered culture, language, trade goods, and power on the Canadian and American fur-trade frontier. They were partners, liaisons, and wives to the French, Scottish, Canadian, and American men who scoured the West for salable furs. Stereotyped by early historians as victims or heroines (and there were both), indigenous women also wielded significant, traceable power in this era of changing alliances, increasing intertribal conflict, and expanding European presence in the West.

The roles indigenous women played during the fur trade reflected the roles they historically held within their communities. Despite cultural distinctions among tribes, indigenous women generally shared the common responsibilities of procuring and trading food, hides, and clothing. Women also embodied political diplomacy as tribes forged internal and intertribal relationships around family alliances and cemented these social structures through (often polygamous) marriage. These traditional economic and political roles placed indigenous women at the center of trade, and made them desirable and necessary partners for fur traders.

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Drawing on Motherhood: The Cartoons and Illustrations of Fanny Cory Cooney

A gray haired woman sits at a table. An inked cartoon is in front of her.

Fanny Y. Cory Cooney produced most of her cartoons at the dining room table, or in the living room on a drawing board that she perched on her lap. MHS Photo Archives PAc 95-13.2

For thirty years—from 1926 to 1956—newspaper readers across the country shared their morning coffee or evening pipe with “Sonny,” a rambunctious toddler always willing to share his unique take on the world. In all likelihood, few of those readers realized that the mischievous namesake of the internationally syndicated cartoon Sonnysayings was the creation of an unassuming ranch wife working from her rural Montana home located “27 miles from Helena . . . and ‘3 miles from anything.’” Drawing under the pen name F. Y. Cory, Fanny Cory Cooney crafted not only Sonnysayings, her longest-running and most popular effort, but two additional cartoons­—Other People’s Children and Little Miss Muffett—which also relied upon the humorous antics of impish youngsters.

Cartoon shows a girl standing next to a baby knocking down ABC blocks.

The caption to this classic Sonnysaying, written faintly in pencil below the image, reads “I’m letting Baby spoil my block house–But if Christmas wasn’t most here, I’d knock the stuffin’ out ob her.” Click on drawing for larger image. Fanny Cory Cooney, 1926, MHS Museum 2001.45.15

While Cooney’s comics meshed thematically with a number of other cartoons popular during the 1920s and 1930s, the artist herself did not fit the mold of women cartoonists, who were themselves a rarity in a male-dominated profession. Author Trina Robbins begins her book, Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists, 1896–2013, by identifying three notable twentieth-century women cartoonists who started their careers in the late 1890s as illustrators working in New York City. Of the three, Cooney was the only one whose lifestyle Robbins does not describe as “bohemian.” Continue reading

Working to Give Women “Individual Dignity”: Equal Protection of the Laws under Montana’s Constitution

Newspaper Ad : "Elect Anne K. "Pat" Regan. Pat Regan Believes In: Protection of our environment through ORDERLY economic growth. Our New Constitution needs good legilation to best serve all citizens, not special interest groups. Democrat. House of Representatives. Pat Regan for Responsible and Responsive Representation.

Montana Women’s Political Caucus member Pat Regan, who served in the legislature from 1973 to 1989, chafed at the unconscious sexism many of her male colleagues exhibited. In response, she bought a small stuffed pig to which she affixed a button that read “Male Chauvinist Pig.” Whenever a senator made a particularly sexist remark, she’d have a page deliver the pig to his desk. Gradually, she said, consciousness was raised. Billings Gazette, October 31, 1972

In 1972 Americans were engaged in a national debate over whether to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. That debate informed discussion during Montana’s 1972 constitutional convention, and convention delegates enshrined equal protection in the “individual dignity” clause of its Declaration of Rights. Backed by this promise of equality, women’s rights advocates and members of the newly formed Montana Women’s Political Caucus, an organization of female state legislators, worked to reform Montana’s laws to erase sex discrimination. Through their efforts, the 1970s saw important steps toward equalization of Montana’s laws; however, the Montana Supreme Court’s conservative application of the individual dignity clause to sex discrimination undercut the potential for radical strides toward legal equality.

The “Declaration of Rights” in Montana’s 1889 Constitution had stated that “all persons are born equally free,” but the new constitution went far beyond that vague provision in its individual dignity clause. Working on the language for the state’s new constitution, delegate Virginia Blend of Great Falls proposed that the actual language of the Equal Rights Amendment be included in the Declaration of Rights. Instead the 1972 Constitution addressed the issue of gender equity in the constitution’s “individual dignity” clause, which guaranteed equal protection of the laws. Notable for its expansiveness, Article II, Section 4, of the 1972 constitution promised that “Neither the state nor any person, firm, corporation, or institution shall discriminate against any person in the exercise of his civil or political rights on account of race, color, sex, culture, social origin or condition, or political or religious ideas.” The clause links equality to human dignity and includes a long list of protected classes, making it, according to scholars Larry Elison and Fritz Snyder, the “most inclusive scheme of ‘equal rights’ of any known constitution.” Continue reading

Expanding Their Sphere: Montana Women in Education Administration and Public Health

McClellan style saddle, c. 1905

Lucile Dyas used this lightweight McClellan style saddle to visit Lewis and Clark County schools during her superintendency in the 1910s. Both county school superintendents and public health nurses traveled great distances on poorly maintained roads. Montana Historical Society Collection, 2013.39.04 Gift of Donald Gunderson in memory of Lucile Dyas Topping

As mothers and homemakers, women have historically presided over child and family welfare. By extension, their purview has included education and healthcare. Before the mid-twentieth century, teaching and nursing were the socially acceptable occupations providing avenues for women to expand their influence in public affairs. Making the most of limited opportunities, many teachers and nurses became school superintendents or public health nurses. Often collaborating to achieve their goals, these leaders in education and community health significantly improved Montanans’ lives.

Montana’s women did not obtain full suffrage until 1914, but they had participated in school elections since the 1880s. In 1882, Helen Clarke and Alice Nichols became the first two women elected to public office in Montana, both of them as county school superintendents. Their duties included visiting schools, recommending necessary improvements to buildings and curricula, and creating teacher licensure exams. They also coordinated teacher institutes to advance teachers’ skills. By 1890, twelve of Montana’s sixteen county superintendents were women. Since that time, the majority of the state’s county superintendents have been women.

A makeshift doctor's office--probably in a school. A woman sits at a table (left.) Back left a female nurse holds a toddler while a male  doctor listens to his lungs with a stethoscope. Another woman holds a baby flat on a table, while a third woman  weights and measures a 3-4 year old on a doctor's scale. Two children sit in a rocking chair waiting.

Public health nurse Margaret Thomas (shown here circa 1925, back left) traveled throughout western Montana organizing well baby clinics, lecturing on nutrition, care of the sick, and sponsoring school health contests. MHS Photo Archives Lot 30 Box 2 Folder 9

Coinciding with the ascendance of women county superintendents was the rise of public health nurses. The Montana State Board of Health, formed in 1901, employed four field nurses in an effort to decrease high infant and maternal mortality rates and to curb the spread of infectious diseases. Serving a population spread across hundreds of square miles, these field nurses traveled extensively to educate the public about disease transmission, hygiene, nutrition, and infant care. “These women supervise the work of all nurses in their districts,” reported the director of the state’s Child Welfare Division. “In conjunction with the county superintendent of schools and women’s organizations, they … hold children’s health conferences in schools . . . and advise prospective mothers concerning the importance of securing medical supervision.” One of these field nurses, Henrietta Crockett, established the first infant health clinic on a Montana Indian reservation in 1925 and engaged tribal members in the public health campaign. Continue reading

Womanhood on Trial: Examining Domestic Violence in Butte, Montana

Newspaper clipping, including photos of both Hazel and Howard Kauf

Hazel Kauf’s murder received press attention, with a large story published in the Montana Standard on February 10, 1946.

Shortly before eleven on February 8, 1946, as Hazel Kauf stepped off the Aero Club’s dance floor, she was confronted by her ex-husband, Howard Kauf, who had entered the club a few minutes earlier. Grabbing Hazel by the arm, Howard “spun her around . . .  and in the spin just . . . blasted that first one [shot].”As Hazel lay on the floor, Howard, standing over her, fired a second shot into her chest. According to the Montana Standard, the horrific event quickly drew a crowd and “within a few minutes traffic at Park and Main [just outside the club] was virtually at a standstill.”

This was not an isolated incident. Following World War II, rates of violence increased nationally, and rising rates of wife assault and wife homicide, like other forms of violence, peaked in postwar Butte. Hazel’s case, however, represents more than a historically persistent crime, often addressed only in whispers. It demonstrates that even as social constraints on women lifted, cultural beliefs that dictated women’s and wives’ behaviors remained firmly intact. These beliefs perpetuated the narrative that assault on wives can, in some situations, be justified.

The lives of Hazel and Howard Kauf, in many ways, resembled the lives of couples across Montana and the United States during World War II. Philipsburg native Hazel Alda Henri married Howard Kauf, a local manganese miner, in 1936. Howard spent the early war years laboring in a strategic industry, mining. In 1945, however, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, joining fifty-seven thousand other Montanans in the armed services. Shortly after Howard’s deployment, Hazel and the couple’s four-year-old son moved to Butte, where Hazel, like over a million other military wives nationwide, entered the workforce. Continue reading

“A Man in the Mountains Cannot Keep His Wife”: Divorce in Montana in the Late Nineteenth Century

Newspaper clipping. Headline reads "How to Get a Divorce. States in Which a Decree Can Be Obtained with Little Trouble." Includes clip art of a man holding a crying baby in front of a sign reading "Home Sweet Home."

On May 15, 1892, the Helena Independent ran an article comparing state divorce laws. It also compared divorce rates in Europe and the U.S. explaining that one reason the U.S. had more divorces was that “women are here more independent and able to make their way in the world.” Read the full article here.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a series of economic and social changes culminated in a nationwide increase both in divorce rates and in the liberalization of divorce laws. This pattern played out in Montana on an even larger scale. Based on her extensive study of Montana divorces in the late nineteenth century, historian Paula Petrik found that frontier conditions in mining cities like Helena and Butte created a climate in which divorces were common. Petrik also argued that, over the course of the late nineteenth century, women seeking to divorce ushered in changes to Montana law that made divorces easier to obtain and on terms more favorable to women. In doing so, they confirmed the ideal of “companionate marriage”—or marriage based on mutual affection and reciprocal duties. This ideal would come to define the institution in the early twentieth century.

For Montanans facing the frontier conditions of social upheaval, an unbalanced ratio of men to women, and rising and falling fortunes, divorces were common. Indeed, in 1868, Helenan Elizabeth Chester Fisk remarked, “Divorces are common here, and it is a common comment that a man in the mountains cannot keep his wife.” Fisk’s observation was based in fact, as Lewis and Clark County had an unusually high divorce rate in that era. In 1867, the number of divorces actually exceeded the number of marriages.

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Merle Egan Anderson: Montana’s “Hello Girl”

A row of women sitting at a switchboard. One woman supervisor is standing behind them.

Initially the Signal Corps only accepted women fluent in French. Merle Egan joined after the military lifted the language requirement. Pictured here are some of Egan’s Signal Corps colleagues, operating a switchboard in Chaumont, France. Photo from Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, p. 171

The story of women’s military service during World War II is relatively well known; less familiar is the story of the women who served during World War I, sometimes on or near the front lines. During World War I, over twenty-five thousand women worked for American forces or support organizations in Europe. These women performed integral work and helped chip away at gender stereotypes, paving the way for the more famous WACs and WAVEs of World War II.

Among those serving during World War I was Merle Egan of Helena, a telephone switchboard operator for the Army Signal Corps. A vitally important technology to U.S. military operations, telephones allowed officers to communicate across battlefields, between dispersed units, and with other allied forces. Unfortunately, war had devastated the French telephone system, so in 1917, when the U.S. Army was building up its forces in France, Gen. John Pershing ordered the construction of an American telephone system throughout the country.

The creation of a military telephone system opened up new opportunity for female service since civilian telephone operators were almost exclusively female. As Col. Parker Hitt, chief signal officer of the U.S. First Army, explained: “[A]n Army telephone central would have to have American women operators to be a success. Our experience in Paris with the untrained and undisciplined English-speaking French women operators, and experience elsewhere with the willing but untrained men operators was almost disastrous.” Thus, in November 1917, General Pershing requested that the War Department deploy one hundred French-speaking American women with telephone operating experience. Thousands of women applied and the first of these “Hello Girls” traveled overseas in the spring of 1918. Continue reading

Theresa Walker Lamebull Kept Her Language Alive

Born near Hays on the Fort Belknap Reservation in 1896, Theresa Chandler Walker Lamebull dedicated much of her later years to language preservation. She taught until shortly before her death in 2007.

Born near Hays on the Fort Belknap Reservation in 1896, Theresa Chandler Walker Lamebull dedicated much of her later years to language preservation. She taught until shortly before her death in 2007. Photo courtesy Terry Brockie.

Theresa Chandler Walker Lamebull was still teaching when she died in 2007 at 111 years of age. Her subject was A’aniiih, or White Clay, the language of the A’aninin (Gros Ventre) people and one of the world’s most endangered languages. By the 1990s, Theresa Lamebull was one of only a dozen people to speak the language fluently. Her willingness to share her knowledge of the White Clay language became the foundation for its recovery.

Theresa Elizabeth Chandler, or Kills At Night, was born to Kills In The Brush and Al Chandler in 1896 in a tipi near Hays on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Raised by her grandmother, Sharp Nose, for the first few years of her life, young Kills At Night was fully immersed in White Clay culture. She then lived with her mother and stepfather, White Weasel, until she was twelve and the federal government mandated she go to school. Without the option of a day school, Theresa attended St. Paul’s Catholic boarding school in Harlem, Montana. She long remembered the fences that surrounded the mission school to keep children from running away and returning to their families.

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Montana’s Postwar Women Politicians

It's hard to spot State Senator Ellenore Bridenstine (third row back, on the right) amidst her mail colleagues. When this photo was taken, in 1945, Bridenstine was the first woman to serve in the Montana state senate. MHS Photo Archives PAc 89-59 Senate of the 29th Legislative Assembly

It’s hard to spot State Senator Ellenore Bridenstine (third row back, on the right) amidst her male colleagues. When this photo was taken, in 1945, Bridenstine was the first woman to serve in the Montana state senate. Click image to enlarge. MHS Photo Archives PAc 89-59 Senate of the 29th Legislative Assembly

According to one common narrative, the post-World War II period marked a “return” to traditional gender roles, including breadwinner husbands and homemaker wives. But contrary to this stereotype, in the 1940s and 1950s married women entered the paid workforce in greater numbers than ever before. Women also volunteered with community organizations and were actively involved in both political parties. In Montana, a small but significant number of women even ventured into—and achieved success in—the traditionally masculine world of electoral politics. These postwar politicians achieved a number of important “firsts” and gained political experience that would be invaluable in the push for equal rights in the 1960s and 1970s.

Among these postwar women politicians was Ellenore Bridenstine of Terry, who in 1945 became the first woman elected to the state senate. An active participant in the local Republican Party and the wife of the only physician in Prairie County, Bridenstine recalled her decision to run for office: “Many of my women friends felt that I was crazy to try for it. But I decided to try for it anyway just to see what would happen. The man holding the office had never campaigned, and I am sure that he felt he would not need to against a woman.” Bridenstine won her seat by a mere six votes but was reelected in the next cycle. Continue reading

The Lifelong Quest of Frieda Fligelman and Belle Fligelman Winestine

Wearing the same costume she wore when she addressed the Wisconsin legislature on women’s suffrage, Belle Fligelman poses in front of Belle Chabourne Hall at the University of Wisconsin. MHS Photo Archives PAc 85-31

Wearing the same costume she wore when she addressed the Wisconsin legislature on women’s suffrage, Belle Fligelman poses in front of Belle Chabourne Hall at the University of Wisconsin. MHS Photo Archives PAc 85-31

Frieda and Belle Fligelman were born in Helena in 1890 and 1891, respectively. Their parents taught them the value of education, the importance of civic engagement, and the necessity of being reasonable. In the Fligelmans’ Jewish household, “God was the idea of goodness,” and being reasonable was inextricably linked to being a good person. On that premise, the Fligelman sisters became dedicated global citizens, actively participating in important twentieth-century social movements as part of their lifelong commitment “to do something good for the world.”

That quest began in 1907, when Frieda persuaded her father to send her, and later Belle, to college rather than finishing school. Articulate, bright, and principled, both sisters excelled at the University of Wisconsin, coming of age during the Progressive Era’s struggles for political, economic, and social equality. After graduating in 1910, Frieda joined the activists marching for women’s suffrage in New York. Back on campus, Belle was elected president of the Women’s Student Government Association and, as an editor for the student newspaper, championed progressive causes. During her senior year, she lobbied the Wisconsin legislature in favor of granting women the vote. Continue reading