The Watchers: Montana Women Care for the Sick and Dying

Open Mitchell Car with seven passengers

Daniel Slayton’s family—and especially the women of his family—cared for him during his illness and final days. Pictured here in a happier time are Daniel and Son Ernest (front seat), sons Bert and Daniel (middle seat), and daughter Lydia, wife Lizzie, and daughter Ruth (back seat.) MHS Photo Archives PAc 88-75

In late August and early September of 1927, Daniel Slayton, a Lavina, Montana, businessman and farmer, lay dying of bone cancer. During the final three weeks of his life, he spent no moment alone. Daughters, daughters-in-law, his cousin Mary, the community midwife, a nurse hired from Billings, and Slayton’s wife, Lizzie, cared for him and kept vigil. Though Slayton’s adult sons had earlier helped him seek treatment and, in the end, came to say their goodbyes, the women in his life mostly watched over him in his final hours.

In serving as family caregivers, Montana women have joined a legion of women across time. Before 1900, hospitals typically cared for soldiers, the poor, and the homeless. On Montana’s frontier, where single men far outnumbered women, churches underwrote Montana’s earliest hospitals. Soon self-supporting matrons converted boardinghouses into private hospitals. In the first half of the twentieth century, Montana pest houses, poor farms, and finally, state institutions such as the Montana State Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Galen provided some long-term care for Montanans without families. Nevertheless, a family’s women—its mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, daughters, and cousins—typically assumed responsibility for the care of relatives. Into the 1960s, and beyond, women performed this work out of necessity, longstanding tradition, and often love. Continue reading

Contributions of a Mother and Daughter

Members of Pleasant Hour Club, including  the club's founder Mamie Bridgewater (third from right) and her daughter Octavia (far right) picnic in Colorado Gulch west of Helena, ca. 1926. Octavia, who graduated from Helena High School in 1925 and then attended the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York, served as an army nurse during World War II. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2002-36.11

Members of Pleasant Hour Club, including the club’s founder Mamie Bridgewater (third from right) and her daughter Octavia (far right) picnic in Colorado Gulch west of Helena, ca. 1926. Octavia, who graduated from Helena High School in 1925 and then attended the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York, served as an army nurse during World War II. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2002-36.11

Mamie Anderson Bridgewater and her daughter, Octavia, were strong African American women who lived under the veil of racism in Helena during the first half of the twentieth century. Each earned the respect of the Helena community, and each helped to make a difference in the lives of other African Americans.

Mamie was born at Gallatin, Tennessee, in September 1872, one of eight children. In 1892, she married a career “buffalo soldier,” Samuel Bridgewater, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona Territory. In 1903 she followed her husband to Fort Harrison, Montana, where he was stationed after the Spanish-American War. There she raised five children and worked as a matron at the veterans hospital. All the while, she cared for Samuel during his frequent bouts of illness from wounds received at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898.

After her husband’s death in 1912, Mamie Bridgewater worked as a domestic in private homes, always scraping together enough to care for her children and grandchildren whenever they needed her assistance. She was a leader of Helena’s black Baptist congregation and was heavily involved in fund-raising for Helena’s Second Baptist Church, completed circa 1914. She was also a founder of the local Pleasant Hour Club, which organized in 1916 and became the Helena chapter of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. At her death in 1950 at age seventy-seven, she was serving as chaplain of the Pleasant Hour Club. Continue reading

Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail: “Our Bright Morning Star”

In 1927 Susie Walking Bear (seen here, back row, center, with her graduating class from the Boston  City Hospital's School of Nursing) became the first member of the Crow Nation and one of the first Indians in the country, to become a registered nurse.

In 1927 Susie Walking Bear (seen here, back row, center, with her graduating class from the Boston City Hospital’s School of Nursing) became the first member of the Crow Nation and one of the first Indians in the country, to become a registered nurse. MHS PAc 87-70

Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail was among the first Apsáalooke (Crow) people to achieve a higher education. Like many Native children of her generation, she attended mission boarding schools where students were expected to give up their indigenous languages, beliefs, and cultural ways. Instead, Yellowtail maintained her Apsáalooke identity and, guided by her cultural heritage, used her education to improve the lives of American Indian people.

Born in 1903 and orphaned as a child, Susie grew up in Pryor and attended a boarding school on the Crow Reservation. As the only child who spoke English, Susie translated for the other students. With her missionary foster parents, Susie soon left the reservation for Oklahoma, where she briefly attended a Baptist school. Her guardian, Mrs. C. A. Field, then sent Susie to Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts. Mrs. Field paid Susie’s tuition, but Susie earned her room and board by working as a housemaid and babysitter.

After graduation, Susie continued her education by enrolling at Boston City Hospital’s School of Nursing. She graduated with honors in 1923 and finished her training at Franklin County Public Hospital in Greenfield, Massachusetts. In 1927, Susie Walking Bear became the first registered nurse of Crow descent and one of the first degreed registered nurses of American Indian ancestry in the United States. Continue reading

Faith Inspired Early Health Care

Beginning with the arrival of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1869, women religious played a vital role in providing health care for Montanans. Here Sister Camille (near instrument stand) and Sister St. Charles assist Doctors (left to right) Thomas H. Pleasants, Fred Attix, and Joseph Brice with a 1909 surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lewistown. MHS Photo Archives 949-002

Beginning with the arrival of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1869, women religious played a vital role in providing health care for Montanans. Here Sister Camille (near instrument stand) and Sister St. Charles assist Doctors (left to right) Thomas H. Pleasants, Fred Attix, and Joseph Brice with a 1909 surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lewistown. MHS Photo Archives 949-002

Catholic sisters and Protestant deaconesses established and refined health care in Montana. These dedicated women brought better medical care to the sick and played important roles in the evolution of nursing in the state.

The first five Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas came by stagecoach to Helena in 1869. Within a year, they established St. John’s Hospital, the first Catholic hospital in the territory. These sisters were Montana’s first trained nurses.

The sisters began canvassing Montana’s remote camps on horseback, begging funds to establish a hospital in Deer Lodge. St. Joseph’s saw its first patients in 1873 and went on to serve Deer Lodge for ninety years. Among other acts of service, the sisters tended the wounded after the Battle of the Big Hole in 1877. They cared for casualties among both soldiers and Nez Perce at the battlefield before returning to Deer Lodge with their patients under terrible conditions; once at the hospital, the sisters found maggots infesting the combatants’ wounds.

Three more sisters traveled from Leavenworth in 1875 to Virginia City to open St. Mary’s Hospital. One of them, Sister Irene McGrath, was a young novice barely eighteen. By 1879, the mining camp had dwindled and patients were few. The sisters were never meant to be ornamental, and so they moved on.  Continue reading