A Yellowstone tale 

Five years after the park opened, tourists stumbled into the last great Indian war.

Page 3 of 4

"This felled me to the ground again, falling with my face downward," George said. "I turned my head so that its side rested on the ground and felt the warm blood running from my nose occasioned by its contact with the ground."

Finally, three bullets later, the Nez Perce left George Cowan for dead.

The Nez Perce took Emma and her sister captive along with their brother Frank, who the tribe hoped could guide them up the creek and across the park. In the Nez Perce camp that night near Mary Mountain, Emma wept on a blanket not far from Chief Joseph. She remembered him being "somber and silent, foreseeing in his gloomy meditations possibly the unhappy ending of his campaign." The family story passed down to Hawkins was that the chief was angry with the young men who shot George.

"Chief Joseph wasn't happy with them for doing that," Hawkins remembers hearing her grandmother say. "He said, 'We're not here to do that, we're leaving to Canada.' He didn't want any more problems with the cavalry and settlers."

Hawkins says that Chief Joseph directed a woman in the tribe to give Emma a baby to hold, a gesture meant to cheer her spirit. When Emma took the child she wrote that she saw "the glimmer of a smile" on Chief Joseph's face. The infant's mother asked Emma's brother, "Why cry?" He said it was because Emma believed that her husband had just been killed. The Nez Perce woman replied, "She heartsick."

George Cowan, the Rasputin of early Yellowstone, was not dead.

A Civil War veteran who was raised on the Wisconsin frontier, Cowan moved to Last Chance Gulch in Helena in 1865 to prospect for gold. A lawyer by trade, he was tapped by Montana Territorial Governor Thomas Meagher in 1867 to lead soldiers to fight Native Americans. By the banks of Nez Perce Creek, he crawled on his elbows into a willow thicket and then managed to cross the stream. It took him four days to crawl 10 miles back to his camp in the Lower Geyser Basin. There, two of Gen. Howard's army scouts discovered him. Their first words were, "Who the hell are you?" When George answered they replied, "Why, we expected to bury you."

In a diary of the Nez Perce War, Army scout William Connolly noted that on Aug. 30, 1877, he "found a wounded man shot 3 times by the Nez Perce Indians." The army men attempted to comfort George by building him a campfire. That night the campfire spread into a small forest fire that nearly killed George again. "I crawled through this fire for perhaps 30 yards until I got clear of it," he said. "Burning both my hands and knees in so doing."

Emma woke the morning after her capture to find a Nez Perce woman trying to keep her warm by rebuilding the campfire by her side. The woman "then came and spread a piece of canvas across my shoulders to keep off the dampness," Emma wrote. Her sister Ida slept nearby on buffalo robes prepared by Nez Perce women, who also gave her bread and brewed her tea made from willow bark. The Nez Perce women slept surrounding their frightened charge.

click to enlarge General Oliver Howard
  • General Oliver Howard

The tribe continued east, crossing the Yellowstone River at what is now Nez Perce Ford. On the far side, Nez Perce women offered Emma a lunch of Yellowstone cutthroat trout, giving a clue as to what the tribe ate on part of their journey. Emma declined. She wrote, "From a great string of fish the largest were selected, cut in two, dumped into an immense camp-kettle filled with water and boiled to a pulp. The formality of cleaning had not entered into the formula. While I admit that tastes differ, I prefer having them dressed."

Poker Joe again released Emma and her siblings, and this time he rode with them back across the Yellowstone River and a half-mile downstream until they were well along the trail. He had given Emma and her family their bedding, a waterproof tarp, bread, matches, two old horses and a jacket for young Ida. The chief shook their hands and said, "Ride all night. All day. No sleep."

This time, they took his advice.

George and Emma were reunited days later at the Bottler's Ranch, home of early settlers in the Paradise Valley, south of Livingston. On the way home their story turned slapstick. Seven miles from Bozeman, George and Emma's two-seat wagon flipped over and tossed them out before careening down an embankment and coming to rest upside down in some pine trees above a river. Then, in Bozeman, as George rested in a hotel bed, his doctor sat down beside him and collapsed the bed frame. George went sprawling on the floor and there suggested that someone use artillery on him, since nothing else could finish him off.

Hawkins says that her grandmother was always proud of the fact that her father lived. He was too. "He was lucky to survive and he knew it," Hawkins says. "He was also pretty tough."

Later in his life George confessed to his daughter Ethel that perhaps his well-known bluntness might have escalated the situation, particularly with regard to Red Scout. "I think my great-grandfather realized he could've handed it a little more diplomatically," Hawkins says. "It's one of those incidents where hot-headedness prevailed, both with the young Indians and my great grandfather."

George Cowan was headstrong, literally. From 1877 on he carried around a watch fob made from the bullet that a field surgeon cut out of his skull. The slug was mushroomed from its impact with flesh. The fob is still a family heirloom.

"That's where we get our hard-headedness," Hawkins says.

George and Emma moved from Radersburg to Boulder, Mont., in 1885, then to Spokane, Wash., in 1910. He went to the park three more times in his life, always revisiting the spots where he was so tested. He passed away in 1927 and Emma followed in 1939. Theirs was, by all accounts, a happy ending.

  • Email
  • Print

© 2015 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation