A dugout in a bank - a
blanket for a door - a dirty table piled with dirty dishes - a sullen,
uncommunicative squaw - what a reception for a new bride! Such was the
reception for Mrs. Theodore Armstrong, mother of Sidney's Lucy Fisher.
Theodore Armstrong, a
cowhand near Woodriver, Nebraska, had long harbored a hankering to go West,
and in 1882 his chance came. The Wood Brothers, bankers in Woodriver, had
heard about Eastern Montana's vast ranges with their lush grass so they bought
a bunch of long horns down in Texas and hired some cowboys, with Armstrong as
herd foreman, to drive the cattle north to the Montana range.
The drive was long and
hot and dry, part of it through hostile Indian territory, so cattle losses
could be heavy, but they reached Montana with plenty of beef on the hoof to
form a herd nucleus. They chose a location on Hard Scrabble Creek south of the
Missouri River in what later became Dawson County and still later Richland
County. At that time, however, Montana wasn't even a state so the last thing
to concern the Armstrong boys would have been what county might some day be
brother of Theodore, also came in 1882, and in 1889 another brother joined
them. Since all they had to do then to claim land was to 'squat' on it, the
brothers chose their locations carefully with the aim of controlling Hard
Scrabble Creek from source to mouth.
The devastating winter of
1886 wrought havoc with the Wood Brothers holdings, but they bought more
cattle and kept on. In '84, '86, and '88 Armstrong was sent to Texas for more
cattle. He would go down on a steamboat in the spring, pick up a bunch of
young fellows who wanted to come to Montana, then return, driving the cattle
over land. That drive would take all summer. In 1890 or '91 the Armstrong Brothers bought out the Wood
Brothers so the Pothook became the Armstrong brand, and the Pothook cattle
belonged to the Armstrong boys.
Back in Nebraska the
Armstrong Boys had a sister, Nettie. A young widow with a small boy was
staying with Nettie, working in a print shop by day and sewing in the evening
for Nettie to pay for her board and room and that of the little boy.
Theodore Armstrong and
Lillian Chamber, the widow, began exchanging messages through Nettie, and in
time they began a correspondence of their own. Finally they decided to get
married and in 1889 Mrs. Chamber journeyed by steamboat to Fort Buford where
she was met by Theodore and a friend, Walter Kemmis.
When they reached the ranch, the new Mrs. Armstrong
looked in vain for a house. Plenty of corrals. Lots of cattle. But where was
the house? Her husband pulled up to a dugout in the bank, fronted with logs
and a blanket hanging over an opening, and stopped.
"Here we are," he told her
and let her out of the wagon, then went on down to the barn to put his team
away. When he came back, she was still standing outside the dugout where he
had left her. He lifted the blanket and ducked through the opening into
whatever was inside, but she stood rooted to the spot. When she didn't follow,
he came back and asked her, "Aren't you coming in?"
She came then, but one look
inside made her wonder why she did. Seated at a table stacked with dirty
dishes were Comer Armstrong (her husband's brother) and his wife, Josephine.
Comer had married an Indian squaw, and they had been quarreling so Josephine
was in anything but a congenial mood.
She offered no greeting, and
when Theodore hinted, "We've come a long way and would like something to eat,"
Josephine merely pulled her squaw blanket a little closer around her head and
grunted, "Your squaw. She cook."
If the two-day wagon trip to
the ranch could be called a honeymoon, the honeymoon was over. The city girl
had to make some adjustments, and she had to begin right then. Theodore cleared the table and helped her find
something to prepare for a meal. The loaf of bread he brought out looked as
though it had been made with sand instead of flour, and she found her appetite
lagging, but she struggled through.
The bedroom turned out to be
another dugout room. Two poles had been driven into the dirt bank to support
one end of the bed while the other end was propped up. Willow branches were
laid across these poles, and a hay mattress topped it off. Little Ross, the
small son she had brought with her, had to have a bed so some more branches
were piled in a corner on the dirt floor and covered with her coat.
For many months Josephine
maintained an unrelenting antagonism toward the new Mrs. Armstrong, and
eventually the latter learned the real reason for the hostility. Josephine had
two other sisters, one of them, Sarah, married to a cousin of the Armstrongs,
the other still single. The three Indian sisters wanted Theodore to marry this
third sister so when he, instead, brought a city girl to the ranch, they
determined to drive her away.
They tried all sorts of
stunts, but Mrs. Armstrong held out against all their efforts. Once Sarah
invited her and Ross for a ride in a buckboard, and as they followed a lonely
trail through the badlands (all the trails were lonely then) two mounted wild
Indians suddenly burst upon them.
They were a fearsome sight in their war paint and
headdress buckboard, yelling and firing their six-shooters. Little wonder that
the horse pulling the buckboard started to run. Sarah pretended to be scared,
and Mrs. Armstrong pretended not to be. She put little Ross between her knees
and held on for dear life as the buckboard careened through the coulees and
over the hills, the Indians in hot pursuit.
Mrs. Armstrong grimly hid
the terror she felt, and finally the Indians gave up the chase. Only later did
she discover that, though the Indians were genuine enough, the wild warrior
demonstration was a fake; Josephine and her youngest sister had dressed up
like warriors and the chase had been rigged in an effort to drive out the
unwelcome white woman.
The Armstrongs were married
in October, and by the latter part of November they had a floorless log shack
ready to move into on the Lone Butte Ranch. Mrs. Armstrong was in no way
reluctant to leave the dugout they had shared with Comer and Josephine, even
though their new dwelling left much to be desired.
They had no seasoned lumber
with which to build so they had used green logs, and the cold weather that
fall added complications. The plaster, which they used for chinking between
the logs, would freeze before it could dry so there were gaps in the walls,
but at least the gaps were private!
They just about froze that winter - a pan of water
four feet from the little low stove would freeze - but they endured it, and
the next summer they, too, built a dugout.
The dugout was built into the
front of a bank, a long, drawn-out affair. It had twelve rooms, all in a single
line so they could share the front, which was faced with logs. The dugout
proved warm in winter and cool in the summer.
Although Mrs. Armstrong's
background in no way prepared her for ranch life, she helped with the cattle
and horses and soon became a proficient ranch hand. The Armstrongs first and
only child was born in 1892 - the first white child to be born in what later
became McCone County. They didn't plan that she should be born in what was to
become McCone County, but plans sometimes go awry.
Mrs. Armstrong planned to go
to Poplar where the Fort doctor would deliver the baby, and to be on the safe
side, she was going to stay the preceding month in Wolf Point with Miss
Cogswell, a spinster who kept house for her brother, a Wolf Point trader. They
started for Wolf Point a month before the baby was due, they thought, but Mrs.
Armstrong began getting sick on the way, and by the time they reached the
Missouri River she was too sick to go any farther.
There was no bridge across
the Missouri then - no ferry - nothing. The only means of crossing was by
canoe, and crossing by canoe was out of the question. An old woodcutter lived
in a shack near the river - he cut wood for the steam-boats that came up the
Missouri - so they managed to get to his shack, and there Lucy (now Mrs. Fisher
of Sidney) was born. And that's why she was born on the south side of the
river, the first white child born in what is now McCone County.
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