John Mason Brown's 1862 Journal of His Second Trip to The Rocky Mountains

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By James J. Holmberg
Curator of Special Collections

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Photo of Maj. John Mason Brown of the 10th Kentucky Cavalry.  Upon returning home to Kentucky in Nov. 1862 from his western travels, Brown immediately joined Union forces and provided distinguished service through the rest of the war. John Mason Brown (1837-1890) – member of the famous Brown family of Kentucky history and Liberty Hall in Frankfort – is best known for his service in the Union Army during the Civil War, as a leading member of the Louisville Bar, and as one of the founders of The Filson Historical Society. What many people don’t know is that prior to the Civil War, Brown made two trips, in 1861 and 1862, to the American West. Brown was a well-educated, well-read young man and kept a daily journal on both trips. 

Brown’s 1861 journal was published in two 1950 issues of The Filson Club History Quarterly. It was donated to The Filson that same year by Brown’s grandson, the drama critic and writer John Mason Brown. In late 2006, Meredith Mason Brown, son of the critic and donor of the 1861 journal, presented the journal of his great grandfather’s 1862 trip to the Rocky Mountains. Needless to say, the 1862 journal is a most welcome addition to The Filson’s collection. 

On his 1861 trip, Brown left St. Louis on May 1. He journeyed by boat, wagon, horse, railroad and foot all the way to Portland, OR, then south to San Francisco, and then east back to St. Louis, arriving on Nov. 4. In a 1939 biographical profile in The Filson Club History Quarterly, Brown’s son, Gen. Preston Brown, stated that his father, as a young lawyer in St. Louis, had made the acquaintance of officials of the American Fur Company and the famous missionary Father Pierre De Smet (1801-1873). Their tales of the West, as well as the opportunity to go on a big game hunt, so intrigued the young Kentuckian, that he undertook his 1861 adventure. He was gone six months and covered some 8,000 miles. Though the trip was sometimes difficult and dangerous, Brown was so taken with the West that he returned the next year. 

When he headed up the Missouri River on May 13, 1862, Brown again kept a journal, faithfully recording daily events. This time the trip was shorter. Brown ascended the Missouri to Fort Benton, MT, (as he had the year before) and then went overland to the Canadian Rockies and present Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks. He returned by essentially the same route. He was gone five months and traveled some 5,000 miles. 

The journal doesn’t state if Brown had a specific purpose for the trip. He seems to have had a connection to the American Fur Company. He participated in the distribution of annuities to Native Americans on reservations as well as in occasional councils with them. He commanded what apparently was an unofficial military unit organized for the defense of the party. This proved useful during threatened and actual Indian hostilities. Brown also engaged in a little bit of gold prospecting. In his 1939 article, Preston Brown stated the main purpose of the trip was gold mining. If so, little mining was done. Perhaps Brown wanted to visit his friends among the Blackfoot Indians. Conversations with Father De Smet and his 1861 trip had given him an interest in the Blackfoot people and their language and culture. Perhaps his trip had no real purpose other than to have another grand western adventure before returning home to Kentucky to fight in the Civil War. That terrible conflict was on his and his fellow travelers’ minds. It was discussed, debated and even bet on by some members of the party. Upon arriving back in St. Louis in mid-Oct. 1862, Brown promptly wrapped up his affairs and returned to Kentucky. Brown was commissioned a major in the Tenth Kentucky Cavalry and later served as colonel of the 45th Kentucky Mounted Infantry. He served with distinction through the rest of the war.

But before the bugles called, John Mason Brown went on his second trip in as many years westward.  His journal provides a wonderful chronicle of the day-to-day activities, hardships, pleasures and dangers of western travel in the mid-19th century.  Brown recorded his experiences at a time when the nature of the West and its native peoples were changing.  The days of immense herds of buffalo and non-reservation life of the American Indian were drawing to a close.  The following excerpts from Brown's journal reflect that West and chronicle some of his 1862 adventures.

John Mason Brown's 1862 journal of his second trip west.  Knowing he might meet with an accident or death in the vast wilderness into which he was preparing to venture from Fort Benton, MT, young Brown recorded his request that his journal be sent to his father in Frankfort, KY, if something should happen to him.May 28 - Wednesday - Landed the Company freight and Annuities for the Minne Kanjous, Brules, Unk Pa-Pas, Schaspas, Yanktonaise and Blackfoot Sioux tribes. Latta, the new agent held a council. The chiefs of 5 bands refused the Annuities and “Bear Rib” grand chief of all demanded that the Arricara Annuities should be give up the Sioux being at war with that tribe. I have never seen a more humiliating sight than the terror of Latta when the Chiefs declared they would detain us and the boat until the Arricara goods were given up. He turned pale and shook with fear as if an ague were on him. A fight seemed imminent. Chouteau requested me to take care of the defense of the boat and I and Bailey [captain of the steamboat Spread Eagle on which they were traveling up the Missouri] had posted 20 picked men and loaded all arms so well as to feel certain of getting the best of the fight, when the Agent ignominiously acceded to the demand and surrendered the Ree annuities. He came on board and retreated to his State room. The boat was cast loose at 5 P. M. amid the curses of the passengers & the huzzas of the Sioux. 

Jun 6 - Friday - Started early. The Emilie in attempting to pass us ran across our bows and got her sides somewhat crushed. LaBarge [captain of the Emilie] aimed his rifle at Bailey but did not fire. Great excitement, our passengers rallying with Rifles & pistols to Baileys assistance. No firing fortunately. In afternoon immense numbers of Buffalo blackening the Prairies to the Westward.

June 20 - Friday - Ran rapidly up to the rapids just below Fort Benton and after hanging on them for half an hour attempted to land a cordel. In doing so one yawl was upset and of seven men 4 were drowned. Jake our mate was only saved by his own prodigious strength and the noble efforts of his brother Phil. With the exception of this most melancholy accident our voyage has been most uninterruptedly pleasant. The rescue of my old friend Jake was hailed with shouts and cheers by the whole boats company. At 12 o’clock we landed at Fort Benton our flag at half mast for the poor fellows whom we had just lost. 

July 16 - Wednesday - Last night very cold and cold winds blowing all day from the West where much snow is still laying in the Mountains. Crossed the Maria [Marias River] at our camp by a beautiful ford. Crossed in the forenoon a succession of valleys trending NE. The dividing ridges covered with boulders and fragments of metamorphic rock, very severe upon our stock’s feet. After 9 A.M. having gained the highest ridge, made directly for Chief Mountain now in full view to the West. Stopped to rest near a small lake in a valley. Since crossing the Maria’s lakes abound. Gunn killed a fine buck antelope and Carroll a wolf with his whip handle... Grass & water very fine and abundant. Plenty of bois des Vaches [dried buffalo dung]. More handsome flowers on the prarie to day than I have ever before seen. The lakes we passed to day are all slightly alkaline. Made 23 miles. Oxens feet quite sore. 

July 21 - Monday - Fished. Our cattle & horses picking up rapidly on the good grass. Day hot but a good wind blowing that keeps off the flies and musquitoes. Explored the Lake [St. Mary in present Glacier National Park] in part... Some Kootenays camped near us and at night their dogs, half or more wild, stampeded out horses. Day after tomorrow we will move from this, all being anxious to change camp. 

July 27 - Sunday - 8 men under my command left camp at 8 o’clock, leaving Carroll in charge of things. Our general course, heading the bends of the River along the Western bank was about NNE. Saw numerous fresh Indian war party signs and travelled cautiously. Rested at 18 m at the mouth of the “Riviere qu’il jouait” or as the Indians call it “The River where the Old Man (i.e. God) played bowls.” The stream, putting in from the Westward, is quite as large as Belly River and very rapid. Found recent offerings to the Sun hanging in the trees. Kept on after a rest, crossing the Riviere qu’il jouait, and diverging to the Eastward. Camped on a slough of Belly River away from probable haunts of Indians. Found here the first service berries I have seen this year. Recent sign of Indians - fresh chopped wood & recent ashes. Picketed the horses close. Kindled a very small fire in a hole and slept with one eye open. 25 m. 

The progress of the war was one of great interest to Brown and his traveling companions - so much so that some bet (wrongly as it turned out) on specific results. July 29 - Tuesday - Examined the country about the Creek. Found Gold in the creek bed and bars, also in Coulees pulling down from N. 

Aug 6 - Wednesday - The oxen missing. I followed a very blind trail all the forenoon and found them a long distance from camp... Last night a heavy snow whitened the Mts. Old Munro came in with the Lance-man, the Bull Head and Dawsons Comrade. Their camp under the Rising Head will follow tomorrow. Old M has spent 46 years in the Indian Country. He gave us some specimens of his Medicine. His Indian name is “The Wolf’s Word.” He lay awake all night under the influence as he firmly believes of his familiar spirit.

Aug 7 - Thursday - Rising Head with his band of 24 or 5 lodges camped near us. We determined to move to morrow. Old M will accompany Paul and Carroll to a spot on Bow River and I will take the Wagon back to the Lake. The entire band of Indians will scour the Country for Gunn [a missing companion] stimulated by a promise of handsome reward if he is brought in. Became brother and Comrade with En-es-layp’-o-ka, “The Little White Calf” a really fine fellow & Dawson’s particular friend. Old Munro began the story of the Cosmogony of the Blackfeet but we were interrupted. Several horses were give me by Enestaypoka, Bull Head, Oliver and Rising Head, but I was forced to decline them having nothing adequate to give in return. 

Aug 22 - Friday - To-day, just as I was mounting my horse to hunt, saw a party approaching with what appeared to be a flag. Rode out to meet them and found them to be 8 Piegans under Kayo-Siecunum The “Black Bear.” In the center of the party rode “Tu-wi’-ber” or “The Man who Rushes” Head Chief of all the North Piegans who carried, with all due gravity a U.S. flag, about as large as a handkerchief, upon the end of a fishing pole. They had been informed by Istumaka of my whereabout and dignity and came over to see me. Feasted them in the Lodge and they opened their presents - a bale of tongues and a parcel of dressed skins. In evening a heavy blow with some rain. Spent the evening smoking and talking with my new friends. 

Brown's entries in Sept. 1862 record one of several unfriendly encounters with Native Americans living along the upper Missouri River. Sep 17 - Wednesday - A fair sun shiny day and for the first time a fair blowing wind. Got up our sail and were making fine time when we were hailed from the bank by a War Party. We at first thought to keep on but they leveled their guns and hailed in Blackfoot “Nappa’ pok-sa-pote” and we pulled in. To our dismay we found them Assinaboins. More than half our guns were useless from rain but we had them all capped and made a good show or they would have plundered us of everything as they did Neil who landed just below us. For half an hour we were in great danger. Mc[McCullogh] and I who took charge of matters had several arrows pointed at us and guns cocked at our heads. Finally ordering the men to cock their guns Mc gave presents of Tobacco & flour and I and Howard jumped in the water and pulled the boat out of the Indians hands. We had not gone 15 miles when 2 Indians (Crows probably) hailed us from the S bank and as we did not land they fired - the balls striking the water and ricocheting over the boat. No damage done and the men all perfectly cool. 20 m on met a Crow war party 30 strong. 2 of whom swam over and received the small present we had to give them. But the remainder, angry that we did not come in and surrender unconditionally took dead aim at us at about 80 yds. The office of pilot, I now found a most unenviable one. Standing on an elevated bench, the better to manage the great steering oar, he offers a most conspicuous mark. Eight bullets whistled (as it seemed to me) within a foot of my head and one grazed the oar near my hand. One man of Neil’s party whom we had taken in above was pulling the bow oar and skulked. The rest all showed true grit. We did not return the fire, from motives of policy. Got out of this, our 3rd scrape to-day, all right. Concluded at their urgent request to take Neil and his 3 men aboard. Scuttled their skiff and prepared to run all night as the country is eminently hazardous. Had gone on well till 9 o’clock when we ran in the dark with our bow upon a snag and the rapidity of the current swung the stern round upon another. Nothing but God’s mercy prevented the instant destruction of our boat and the death by drowning of all aboard. Made some ineffectual efforts to get off. Thinking that the violence of the water would inevitably cause her to go to pieces, I caused those who could not swim to “coon out” upon the snags and the rest of us waited cold and wet and terribly anxious for daylight. 

Oct 7 - Tuesday - Was so uneasy at the news I read yesterday [about events in Kentucky] that I could not sleep last night. Roused Camp very early to push on. fortunately the wind favored us. Ran past Bonhomme Island and to Yankton by 5 o’clock. found here Maj Hoffman who is en route for the States. I concluded upon his representations to accompany him by Stage to Sioux City & on to St. Louis as that method will save me a weeks delay. Camped my last camp on the river bank sitting up late talking with the boys, all of us regretting our separation and talking over the incidents of our voyage - very pleasant indeed in the retrospect.


Volume 7, Number 3

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