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Old Agency Program given at Montana History Conference.

On Oct. 20, 2007, Friends President Nancy Thornton presented the History of the Old Agency on the Teton to Montana History Conference participants in Helena. The 30-minute program included details on what was built at the agency, and what the effect of the agency was on the Blackfeet tribe during the years 1868-1876.

Presented was a tiny bit of the history during the years 1868 through 1876 when the second Blackfeet Agency existed. Although glossed over by most Blackfeet history writers, the story of the agency on the Teton river is rich with details of frontier life and of the transition that the Blackfeet experienced from free roaming hunters to life on the reservation.
In 1868, Special Commissioner Cullen writing to his superiors, said, “I am risking my life among a set of desperadoes who live by their wits off the Indians and object to any interference on the part of the government with their mode of living. And with your assistance I can place the Indians out of harms way and prevent a frontier war which a majority of the settlers appear to be in favor of and which is inevitable unless the Indians are cared for at once.”

Cullen's leadership resulted in the creation of the Blackfeet agency on the Teton River.

Eight years later, a frustrated agent, John Wood wrote, “Many of the Piegan tribe dread this place on account of the misfortunes that have attended their presence here during the past few years through the introduction of liquor and contact with immoral, conscienceless, desperate whiskey traders. They point to the graves of their chiefs with tears in their eyes and beg to be removed to a place of safety.

Wood's leadership resulted in the end of the agency on the Teton River and a new agency, the Running Crane Agency, on Badger Creek.

The cross-cultural relationship between the Blackfeet tribe and whites, as well as with the government at the old agency on the Teton is an opportunity to explore many of life's lessons and to understand how the past shapes attitudes today. The historical site deserves long term protection and the Friends of Old Agency on the Teton are working toward that goal.


Key Dates in the operation of the Old Agency on the Teton. Click here for the pdf.

Agency employees. The Friends are looking for the descendants of the agency employees. Here is a list for 1872. If you would like to share what you know about these individuals, Please email us.

H. Raymond, Blacksmth Penn, started 2-6-1872
E.H. Keeler, Farmer, Vermont, 1-1, 1872, ended 7-17, 1872
H.P. Grinnell, Farmer, Rhode Island, 4-15-1872 and 7-18-1972 commenced as farmer on 7-18, as laborer up to that time.
Jos Armitage, Carpenter, England, 4-1-1872,
H. Robare, Interpreter, Missouri, 7-1-1871,
Mrs. M.N. Armitage, cook, Illinois, 7-1-1871,
H.D. Upham, Laborer, New York, 4-1-1871,
G.M. Seaton, laborer, Penn, 6-1-1871
J. Kossuth, laborer, Mexico, 4-1-1871,
W.G. Phillips, laborer, Illinois, 4-15-1872.
G.P. Pepion, laborer, Missouri, 7-1-1872
A. Falloes, laborer, Iowa, 7-1-1872
N. Peiffer, laborer, Germany, 7-1-1872
P. Bakker, laborer, Holland, 7-1-1872
B.W. Sanders, Teacher, New York, 7-1-1872,
J.W.W. Walker, laborer, Missouri, 7-1-1872

All except Keeler, discharged 9-15-1872.

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Teton County Genealogy Web site

Learn more about Teton County, Montana at this Web page.

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Typical Activity at the Old Agency, distribution of goods in 1872.

Fort Shaw MT March 19, 1872
To the Adjutant General U.S. Army Washington DC
Sir I have the honor to report that in obedience to special Order No. 32, Headquarters Fort Shaw, March 13, 1872, copy enclosed,
I proceeded on the 14th instant to the Blackfeet Indian Agency in the Teton River, distant about 40 miles, and on March 18th I witnessed the turning over by Mr. Armitage to Heavy Shield, Little Wolf, Little Feather, Four Bears, Big Lake and Tenderloin, Chiefs of the Piegan Indians, the following goods for distribution among their bands, and I also witnessed and assisted at the request of the Chiefs, in the distribution of these articles among themselves:
2451 yard C.C.A.Ticking
45 dozen Butcher knives
50 pairs 3 point scarlet blankets
100 pairs 2-1/2 point scarlet blankets
100 pairs 3 point Indigo blue blankets
100 pairs 2-1/2 point Indigo blue blankets
215 yards List Blue Cloth
500 pounds plug tobacco
438 yards blue flannel
48 pounds Linnen thread
242 yards scarlet cloth
10 dozen collins axes
200 retrimed kettles
50 dozen iron spoons
10,000 needles
150 red flannel shirts
491-1/4 yards red flannel
4197 yards Stark A. Brown muslin
8890 yards prints (spragues)

It will be seen that the above list comprises all the goods called for by the invoices furnished me by Mr. Armitage, with the following exceptions:
541 3/4 yards C.C.A Ticking
5 dozen butcher knives
50 pairs 3 point scarlet blankets
90 yards List Blue cloth
500 pounds plug tobacco
55 yards blue flannel
59-2/3 yards scarlet cloth
150 red flannel shirts
827 yards Stark A. Brown muslin
1110-1/4 yards Prints (Spragues)
I was informed by Mr. Armitage that he retained these articles for Indians who had failed to be present, and were expected to be at the Agency in the course of a week or so.
The number of Indians present at the distribution was estimated at from 1500 to 1800. I think the estimate is in excess of the number actually present, but so far as I was able to understand from the Chiefs, through an interpreter, they were pleased with the goods, and judging from the Indians after the distribution was completed, I should say they were satisfied both with reference to the quantity and quality.
I omitted to state, that previous to the turning over of the goods to the Chiefs, I examined, and compared them with the invoices, and found the quantity and quality as stated in the invoices, and gave the Agent the necessary receipts in quadruplicate.
I am Sir Very respectfully Your obedt servant
Signed J. M.J. Sanno, Captain 7th Infantry.
1st endorsement
Headquarters Fort Shaw MT March 21, 1872
Respectfully forwarded to the Adjutant General of the Army (thru Headquarters Dept of Dakota)
Signed John Gibbon
Colonel 7th Infantry Commanding

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Old Agency Structures

Copyright Nancy Thornton 2007.

Prior to 1868, the Blackfeet agency was in Fort Benton, but the location in the town was downright dangerous. The agent begged that the agency be moved because the sheriff was in league with the merchants to sell whiskey to men who then sold it to the Indians who came to Benton for their annuity goods.
Special Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Cullen called a council and concluded a treaty, which was never ratified, that made the Teton River the reservation boundary and provided for a new agency, about 70 miles west of Fort Benton in the Teton river valley. The Piegans picked the spot, chosen for the memories of successfully fighting an enemy, translated as “Four Persons.”
POSTER: The agency was to be a square stockade with eight log buildings inside; and six chiefs' houses and 24 houses for other tribesmen outside, all with dirt roofs. The surrounding land was to serve as agricultural plots.
The contractor finished the construction in March 1869 but the workmanship was inferior, because he used green cottonwood logs cut from the banks of the Teton river. He morticed instead of notched the logs and as they dried, they warped and pulled away from the joints. Agency employees had to prop up the east walls to keep them from falling down.

During the next two years, the buildings deteriorated and successive agents continually repaired them or replaced them as funds became available. Two agents, however, made firewood out of several of the tribe's cabins, leaving only the stone chimneys standing.

The agency farmer's job was to grow grain and plant a vegetable garden inside a fence, protected from the tribe's grazing horses. The government wanted the Blackfeet to learn how to farm and this was done with the help of an irrigation ditch to bring water from the Teton river a half mile away.

However, grasshoppers and early frosts damaged the crops and garden every year and the fence posts disappeared one by one as the Blackfeet families put them to use as firewood.

In1872, the agent built a hay barn and a wood shed and in November, a school building was finished and opened with 42 children.

Two years later, in April 1874, the government by executive order changed the reservation boundary to the Birch Creek and Marias River, putting the agency outside the shrunken reservation.

It took the agent another year before he gets approval to build a new agency within the new reservation boundaries and an additional 18 months to build it and move there.

The agent selected a new site 10 miles from the mountains, on the south side of Badger Creek, and about 14 miles north of Birch Creek.

The old agency on the Teton was finally vacated in September 1876. All the flooring, doors, windows, and material of any value were removed and nothing remained but the logs, which were rotten and useless. The whites and mixed blood settlers carried off portions of it for firewood, but the legend in Choteau is that the earliest settlers used some of the logs in building their homes.

What remains is a burial ground containing at least 38 graves. The dead include victims of melees and fights that occurred while the Blackfeet were inebriated: Mountain Chief and his son, Sitting in the Middle, Big Lake, Under the Bull, Cut Hand, Black Eagle, and Lodge Pole Woman. One account says that Chief Bulls Head is buried there, after he was killed in a battle with the Pend O'reille tribe in 1869.

Also, a Blackfeet, with the name, “The Man who took the Gun,” who was killed by William Lillard on April 12, 1875.

There is good evidence that the other dead include a child of Francois Monroe from cholera, “The one that flies” from lung fever, “The one that stabs a man” from syphilis, and victims of a flu epidemic in the spring of 1875.

Their names were Big Road, Running Antelope, Running Wolf, the new clean robe, the one who drives on her enemy without knowing it, a child of the One Who Calls The Sun, and a child of The one that is lost.

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Effects of the Agency on the Blackfeet

Copyright Nancy Thornton 2007.

Time does not permit me to describe the successive agents who ranged from outright crooks to honest men who wanted the Blackfeet to get a fair shake from the government. Nor does it permit me to name the successive Blackfeet chiefs who led the tribe through this significant era of their history.

I cannot go into the story of Green Clay Smith, the governor of Montana Territory, who used the funds meant for the Blackfeet agency for mining speculations in the Gallatin valley and who partially paid back the agent with gambling winnings.

But I can touch on how the agency on the Teton affected the Blackfeet.

The agency existed during a time when the Blackfeet ended their hostilities. They did that to survive.

In 1868, the settled regions in Fort Benton and south of Sun River were already in a state of fear and turmoil about raids on stock and horses. Then in the fall of 1869 five members of Mountain Chief's band were indicted for the murder of a white man named Malcolm Clark near Helena

Lieut. General Sheridan labeled the band “Indian marauders.” He said, “let me find out exactly where these Indians are going to spend the winter, and about the time of a good heavy snow I will send out a party and try and strike them. About the 15th of January they will be very helpless and if where they live is not too far from Fort Shaw or Ellis we might be able to give them a good hard blow which will make peace a desirable object.”

The agency had a minor, but significant role, in the events leading up to Sheridan's plan, to what would become known as the Massacre on the Marias.

On New Year's Day 1870, at the agency on the Teton, General Alfred Sully met with Piegan Chiefs, Heavy Runner, Little Wolf and Calf Shirt, and Blood Chief Grey Eyes, who said they would go north and recover the stolen stock and bring back Clark's murderers. As most of you know, that did not happen.

On Jan. 23, the. Army attacked Heavy Runner's band and killed at least 173 men, woman and children, and left the 140 survivors without horses, tents or food in below-zero weather miles from help.

The agency helped to suppress the whiskey trade.

The early 1870s were a terrible time for the Blackfeet. To obtain the diluted alcohol they called firewater, the Blackfeet traded their annuity goods, their buffalo robes and their horses that were the only means they had of hunting.

The agent hired several detectives including the colorful Frenchman, Andrew Dusold, who had some success in hunting down and arresting the whiskey traders. In 1875, the agent organizes a tribal police force to patrol for whisky selling.

The agency introduced farming to the Blackfeet with limited success.

The agents never gave up on the government's goal to turn the Blackfeet into farmers, even in country that lacked water and had a short growing season. An inspector in 1875 happily reported that Chief Little Plume and many others were anxious to commence farm operations at the new agency on Badger Creek and to go into the business of raising stock.

Government subsistence began at the agency on the Teton.

Gift giving of blankets, knives and tinware, for example, was a provision of government treaties, and soon a ration system developed, although the buffalo were still plentiful.

The Blackfeet who came to the agency received a weekly ration of coffee, soap, salt, flour, bacon, beef, brown sugar, and tobacco.

By April 1874, the sympathetic agent complained of the quality of the food bought for the Blackfeet. He said the contractor won't supply the beef on time, the tobacco is trash, black damp stuff, not fit for the meanest Indian. The sugar is of the lowest grade of clayey stuff, the flour is branded XX but no merchant would call it that, as it is dank and lifeless.

Having become dependent on the annuities and rations, the goods often did not arrive on schedule. Agent John Wood investigated and found in September 1875 that the annuities for the last year were stored in a warehouse in Corrine, Utah, and his budget did not allow for paying their freight to Montana.
This, of course, was an ominous portent of what was to come, when the Blackfeet suffered the starvation winter in 1883-84 when the food supplies didn't arrive and their only other food source, the buffalo, were so reduced in numbers as to be nearly extinct.

After the agency was built, the government placed restrictions on the tribe's freedom to roam off the reservation, but whites were permitted to pass through it.

The agency started the first public school in November 1872 that served white, mixed blood and Blackfeet children. But in their misguided zeal, the agents during this period repeatedly urged the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to open a boarding school.

Agent Wood thought that the children could attend more regularly and would acquire our language much sooner if removed from the lodge and its sights and associations. He said, “So long as the children are allowed to remain in the lodge listening to the superstitious performances of the medicine man, their advancement in civilization will be slow and difficult and their manners barbarous and indecent.”

The first effective medical treatment for the Blackfeet started at the agency.

Before the first physician arrived at the agency, hundreds of native Americans on the northern plains died of smallpox during the winter of 1869-70. The cottonwood trees along the Teton River had wrapped corpses placed on their limbs.

The agent was successful in getting a physician on the payroll in 1872. During an influenza outbreak in April 1875 the physician counted 800 males and 1,085 females who were sick, but less than 10 died. Dr. Hill proudly reported that the Blackfeet were slowly turning away from medicine men.

One last event should be noted. The agency was the place where the Blackfeet adopted a written code of laws and held an election that installed Little Plume as head chief and White Calf and Generous Woman, as subordinate head chiefs.

The agent changed the tribe's burial practices.

Under Agent Wood's guidance, the remains were coffined, followed to the grave by a procession formed of the entire camp, and a burial service held with uncovered heads at interment.

The agent took the first Blackfeet census in August 1874, albeit to determine those Blackfeet who were entitled to draw rations. The agent said many were averse to giving their names, and in many cases they had not named their younger children. But interpreter Henry Robare helped in assisting parents in naming them.

I have been unable to find the 1874 ration list in the National Archives, but two sets of ration lists exist for 1875. They list the names of heads of families and number of family members.

The agent investigated abuses at trading posts and he administered a permit system when the government began restricting gun and ammunition sales to the Blackfeet. They depended on Colt and Remington revolvers to hunt buffalo.

The agency was the catalyst for a dubious cultural exchange.

Agency Detective Daniel Buck reported in 1873 that the neighborhood of the agency is - quote - thoroughly overrun with half breeds, Mexicans and worthless whites, married to, or living with Indian women, a class of men that are whiskey traders.

The agent introduced Protestant religious tenets to the Blackfeet.

After the Massacre of Heavy Runner's band, the government changed policies. To get a job as a Blackfeet agent, one had to be recommended by the head of the Methodist Episcopal Church in New York.

The policy extended to the agency's school where the teacher taught lessons from the Bible and Christian hymns as well as reading and arithmetic.

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Last Updated   6/26/18 Copyright 2004-present Friends of Old Agency
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