By Marianne Lincoln, with notes from Steve Anderson
Balallan, a small community on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides islands of Scotland was the birth place of John Montgomery in 1819. His family were farmers. He grew up among sheep, cattle and crops with plenty of room to play, but no education to make him literate. Siblings included at least three sisters which has been determined by letters written to him and left in archives.
At age 21, John left his family and joined the Hudson’s Bay Company as a laborer, making the 2,000 journey to Fort Vancouver. When he arrives, there were thousands of Mexican and California sheep and cattle grazing on the plains along the Columbia, waiting to be driven to Fort Nisqually, 120 miles away.
Fort Nisqually had outgrown the fur trade and was becoming an agro-business called the Puget Sound Agricultural Company (PSAC). The animals were to be driven north to the Fort. Montgomery drove the cattle up the Cowlitz Portage and trained with an agriculturalist named James Steel. By mid-October 1841, John had taken up residence at the first site of Fort Nisqually.
By 1842, Mongomery had taken an Indian maiden as a wife and added a son Alex. In the Fall of 1843, Dr. William Tolmie, in charge of the Fort, dismantled the first fort site and moved it west, closer to Sequalitchew Creek, a mile inland, where there was a good source of fresh water and better soil. At the same times, Dr. Tolmie decided to disperse the livestock further east onto the expansive prairies, creating larger “sheep parks” and cattle “outstations.”
One of those new stations was ten miles due east on the southeast edge of Spanaway Lake. Local Indians referred to the area as “spáduwe,” where roots are plentiful, a reference to the camas, wapato and fern in the area. To the north, at Clover Creek, was a large Indian Village, where two of Montgomery’s Indian laborers lived.
The site was initially referred to as “Montgomery’s Place” and quickly evolved into a bustling horse and cattle industry. By July of 1845, John had signed a new contract with the Company and his family joined him at the new cattle station. This was announced in a letter sending his bonus to his widowed mother back in Balallan, Scotland.
Fondness for whiskey was not an unusual habit of the time. Montgomery and his closest friends John McLeod, John Edgar and Joseph Heath apparently often consumed copious amounts, as documented by Edward Huggins at Fort Nisqually. However, Montgomery, as head wrangler, spent most of his waking hours breeding, milking, driving, branding, feeding, training, castrating and butchering stock for PSAC. Breaking longhorns for the wagon yoke was another challenging and dangerous task. During shearing season, John helped with the sheep as well.
During his direction, Fort Nisqually’s cattle herds doubled in size between 1842 and 1846. A letter exists from Dr. Tolmie commending his work and proposing a raise. About this time, a second son, Danile was born.
The name “Spanueh Station” superseded the name “Montgonery’s Place” in about 1947, when it was the Company’s primary livestock farm. Oats and wheat were soon being planted nearby. Demand for beef was extremely high, so Montgomery was frequently slaughtering and butchering animals for weeks on end. In 1848, John signed a third contract that extended into 1851.
But news of the California Gold Rush in 1848-49 was more than he and John McLeod could resist. A staged strike help the laborers break contracts and off they went to seek their fortunes. In mid-1850, he returned, moderately successful, with about $1400 in his pockets. (about $35,000 in today’s dollars) Dr. Tolmie let him return to his old job on his former terms. Another son, John Jr. had been born in his absence. Montgomery continued to work, but desired to acquire a piece of land of his own.
In the treaty of 1846, the Nisqually plain became part of America, but the Hudson Bay Company retained ownership of the land until a purchase price was agreed to in court in 1869. Many of the Company laborers took up “squatter’s claims” along Muck Creek and Clover Creek. Dr. Tolmie frequently left violation notices, but they were largely ignored. New settlers, trespassers, pioneers and others often shot the cattle and they became wild and reclusive. Sometimes Company horses were found stabbed or shot.
The American setters were not fond of the remaining vestiges of the British Company. Squabbles broke out between them. Many of the PSAC men decided to become American and take advantage of the opportunities in the area for land and settlement.
Pioneer Ezra Meeker wrote of the Mongomery farm in his book Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound, Meeker wrote: “[we] emerged from the forests skirting the Puyallup Valley, and came out on the open at Montgomery’s . . . the experience was almost as if one had come in to a noonday sun from a dungeon prison so marked was the contrast. Hundreds of cattle, sheep and horses were quietly grazing, scattered over the landscape, as far as one could see, fat and content. Montgomery had already begun clandestinely building a cabin on a small prairie just north of Stony Lake. Within two miles of Spanueh Station, the cabin was just west of Clover Creek, which provided John with fresh water. Though his claim was comprised mostly of flat, glacial-till prairieland, John no doubt banked his future on a depression of fertile soil that ran north to south through its center.
By the fall of 1853, Mongtomery’s cabin was ready for guests, including The Canoe and the Saddle author, Theodore Winthrop, who wrote, “. . . presently, in a pretty little prairie, we reached the spot where a certain Montgomery, wedded to a squaw, had squatted, and he should be our host. His name, too articulate for Indian lips, they had softened to Comcomli. Mr. Comcomli was absent, but his comely ‘mild-eyed, melancholy’ squaw received us hospitably. Her Squallyamish proportions were oddly involved in limp robes of calico, such as her sisters from Pike County wear. She gave us a supper of fried pork, bread, and tea. We encamped upon her floor, and were somewhat trodden under foot by little half-breed Comcomlis, patrolling about during the night-watches.”
Up next, the Military comes to town. [To be continued]