Mary Jane Wadams, with her husband Wilson and their young family, came to Bannack, Montana, during the gold rush days of the 1860s. She was the first white woman to settle in the little mining town and she made it her home when Montana was a very raw country.
Pioneer life did something to its women. Either they broke under its hard work, hardships and privations and died young or they gained the strength and resourcefulness to cope with the many situations and emergencies where wit and endurance were the qualities that counted, sometimes making the difference between life and death. Mary grew strong. She learned to handle a gun and ride a horse as well as any of the men and she developed a courage that put theirs to shame.
Mary owned a small saddle horse she called Ives. He was just a little range-bred cayuse that loped along over the sagebrush hills and swales like an oversized jackrabbit, but when it came to stamina the pony didn’t have to step aside for any blooded piece of horse flesh. Mary made a pet of Ives, feeding him oats which were high priced and often hard to come by while most other animals had to get by on native grass. She was especially fond of him for, with her, he was gentle and obedient but it was claimed that he would suffer no other to stay on his back longer than it took to throw him off – and Ives was good at sending a rider off at first buck.
In the summer of 1877, the Wadams boys, Dick seventeen and Duncan eleven, took jobs working in the cattle country around Medicine Lodge, near Horse Prairie about seventy-five miles from Bannack. The older lad was employed as cowboy and the younger helped around camp. Although the records do not state, it would seem from what followed that Mr. Wadams must also have been away from home.
That was the summer of the Nez Perce Indian War when the non-treaty Indians made their tragic and futile attempt to reach what they believed to be safety and freedom in Canada. Much has been written about the Nez Perce War but little has been offered to explain that brief period of terror known as the Horse Prairie Raid.
In June 1877, young Wahlitits, whose father Eagle Robe had been killed by Larry Ott, a white man, persuaded two friends to go with him up the Salmon River in Idaho to say goodbye to their homeland from which they were being driven onto a reservation. When well away from camp Wahlitits let it be known he intended to kill Ott. Ott escaped, but the embittered young Indians killed three other white men, all of whom had mistreated them. Other whites living in the same area, who had dealt fairly with the Nez Perce, were not molested. None of the other tribesmen was involved in the wrong and foolish action but it precipitated a war.
Yet from that day until the Battle of the Big Hole which was fought in western Montana on August 8 and 9, no settler was harmed by the Indians as it was the belief of the chiefs and older men that their only white enemies were General Howard and his soldiers. In the Battle of the Big Hole, however, where Howard’s troops were reinforced by civilians, who, as well as the soldiers opened fire on the sleeping Nez Perce village and killed fifty-three women and children, the Indians came to see all whites as their foes. They were filled with hate and rage.
Up until then the Nez Perce had paid both storekeepers and ranchers for everything they acquired. After the battle, as they made their way across Horse Prairie, they drove off range and ranch horses, stealing the best not only to replace their own severe losses but to keep General Howard from securing fresh mounts which would give him an advantage.
Even then, the chiefs counseled against harming the settlers but some of the angry young warriors got out of hand and went on a binge of destruction, burning and looting. In the raid several white men were killed, two of whom were named Myers and Flynn. Names of the others have been forgotten.
Among the first white men to see the smoke of burning buildings and to sight the Indians were the Winter brothers and Mike Herr. While some others rode hard and fast to alert the scattered settlers, Herr and the Winters are credited with carrying the terrifying news to Bannack which lay in the path the Indians were expected to take.
One story had it that those three men knew if they attempted to ride horses they would be seen, overtaken and butchered by the Indians; so they walked the entire distance, several times having to get down and crawl through the sagebrush to avoid capture. Supposedly they arrived in Bannack in a state of exhaustion with hands and knees raw and bleeding.
Whatever their true identity or their means of locomotion, messengers did get to Bannack and the townspeople were warned that thousands of bloodthirsty Indians were on the warpath, headed that way and killing and laying waste to everything as they came. That was scarcely the truth but it was believed, which was natural under the circumstances for without doubt the messengers believed it.
Actually, the Nez Perces, under the new leadership of Chief Hototo, with Chief Joseph looking after the women and children, were striving to outdistance General Howard’s troops and had no time to spare on attacking a town.
In Bannack the worst was feared. Terror brought quick action. In a remarkable short time, logs were brought and piled around the hotel which was the town’s largest and finest building. Timbers were nailed over the windows. The well was also barricaded with logs, and food was stored in the hotel. There all the women and children were housed. Work horses, unaccustomed to running, came dashing into town, sweat and foam flying from their heaving sides as they brought wagonload after wagonload of ranch families, the women white-faced and shaking, the children frightened and bewildered, clinging to their mothers.
These families were received by the townspeople with true western hospitality. Room was made for them in the hotel; food was shared. Every man loaded his gun and kept it within reach, determined to sell out dearly.
There was one woman in the crowd who did not seek protection. If she went to the hotel at all, she did not stay there. She was as fearful as any of the others but not for herself. Her concern was for her boys out on the cattle range, seventy-five miles away. That they were in danger of an awful death of the hands of savages, she never doubted. Someone must try to save them.
Mary was not the kind to ask another to do what she would not do herself but she felt the need of support. Quickly she went from one to another of the men she knew, those she knew were her friends, with her plea: “I’ll go if just one man will go with me.”
Every man was sorry. Not one liked to think of what would happen to those two young boys if they were caught by the “cussed Indians,” but in spite of sympathy, each man shook his head in turn.
“Taint no use, Mrs. Wadams, them red devils would have us scalped ‘for we got across the Grasshopper,” one man told her. Some added hopefully that most likely her sons would be all right and that they would probably hide out somewhere.
“Then,” said Mary, “I’ll go alone.” Women begged her not to go. Men tried to reason with her, reiterating that it would be suicide and she would not live to see her boys. Mary paid no attention. Instead, she threw a saddle on her little pony and in less than a quarter-hour was on her way.
Mary traveled light for she knew every added pound of weight the small horse had to carry would slow him down, but she did to take a large umbrella. That was a precaution which proved her ability to think of practical measures in a time of emotional stress and great anxiety. The August day was hot, with seldom a cloud to afford a moment’s respite from the burning sun. And on the trail she traveled, there was mile after mile where a tree for shade was, in the expression of that times, “as scarce as hen’s teeth.” Without the umbrella Mary might easily have suffered sunstroke and died on the prairie.
Urgent as the need was to contact her sons, Mary Wadams was much too good a horsewoman to kill her mount by running him to death at the start of the trip. Whenever Ives broke his steady lope and showed signs of fatigue, she let him stop to rest. She then slid to the ground, opened her umbrella and relaxed in its small but merciful shade. Ives, too, knew how to take advantage of a few moments of ease. He would shift his weight onto three feet, lifting the fourth so that the tip of the hoof barely touched the ground, drop his head low, close his eyes and doze. But at a word from Mary up would come his head, his weight back on all four feet and ready for another stretch. Mary never closed her eyes for fear of being surprised by Indians, although she saw no signs of them.
Sundown brought relief from the intense heat and in spite of the weariness of both horse and rider they pushed on all night. By morning they were about sixty miles from Bannack. Suddenly there appeared on the ridge of a not too distant hill a horseman silhouetted against the sky. Just a glimpse and he had dropped from sight. An Indian? Mary wasn’t sure and couldn’t know if he had seen her or not. She left the trail and tried to keep out of sight by riding along in a ravine, but as she rounded a hill she came face to face with the horseman. To her immense relief he was not an Indian at all but her own son Dick, who was as much surprised at seeing his mother so far from home as she was at meeting him on the trail. Dick had heard nothing of the Indian trouble and was on his way to Bannack simply because the outfit he was working for was fresh out of tobacco.
Dick had left Duncan alone at the cow camp but when he and his mother arrived there they found an old man had come to stay with the little fellow until his brother could return. Upon hearing Mary’s story the old man offered to stay with her and Duncan while Dick, on a fresh horse, just touched the high places as he raced from one camp to another giving the alarm that the Indians were on the warpath.
Shortly after Dick got back to camp after his exciting mission, Mary and her sons started on the return trip to Bannack. The boys had fresh horses, Mary her sturdy little cayuse. It is claimed that the three made that seventy-five-mile ride in thirteen hours, never stopping more than momentarily along the way so fearful were they of being caught by the Indians. They did not see any but several times in the night their horses spooked, and cold chills ran over them.
When Mary Wadams and her sons rode into Bannack the town turned out to do them honor. Women, shedding happy tears, embraced them; men praised Mary for her bravery. That she had confronted no Indians did not detract from her heroism. Had she been attacked by a savage without time to draw her revolver she would have poke him in the eyes with her umbrella. She was that kind.
One fellow noticed the condition of her little pony and remarked that he looked like he was about done in. Mary answered in somewhat earthy language to the effect that if the man had gone through what that little horse had, he’d look a darn sight worse.
The Nez Perces did not come to Bannack but took a more southerly route east. General Howard did march through the town with his forces, relieving the citizens by assuring them that the Indians had passed on and were well on their way to the buffalo country.
Mary and her family continued to live in Bannack for some time, then moved to Wyoming. In 1920 she came back to the area and spent the last years of her life with her daughter. The brave lady died in Dillon, Montana, and was buried in Mountain View cemetery where a small headstone bears the simple inscription: “Mary Wadams, died May 5, 1921, age 91 years and 249 days.”
Her long life covered much of the pioneer era, and some of her “days” were memorable indeed.