Drink to the Health of the Pioneers

The formation of the Gallatin County Pioneer Society and the Sons and Daughters of Gallatin County Pioneers

Kelly Hartman

We the undersigned citizens of Gallatin County and State of Montana, for the purpose of forming a closer union and a renewal of formal fraternal associations of the old Settlers, and to perpetuate memories and to do homage to the sturdy men and women who risked their lives, braved dangers and endured the hardships and privations incident to a frontier life that thousands in future generations might possess the fruits of our labor and enjoy the comforts and pleasures of civilization, do ordain and establish this constitution for this Pioneer Society.”

The year was 1893. The population of Gallatin County was around 6,500, and the city of Bozeman was well-established. Only a mere thirty years earlier, these “sturdy men and women” had arrived in the Gallatin Valley, quickly building individual livelihoods that became a community, which became a town. This grouping of pioneers was forward thinking and fiercely proud of the experiences they had encountered to make this Valley their home. On November 25, 1893, the first organizational meeting was held at the Bozeman Opera House. The officers elected were president Walter Cooper, secretary-treasurer J.D. McCamman, and Corresponding secretary W.W. Alderson, with an executive committee consisting of George Thomas, Charles Anceney, James Gallop, W. Morgan and W.F. Sloan.

The establishment of the Gallatin County Pioneer Society came nearly 10 years after the Society of Montana Pioneers was formed in Helena. In fact, Montana was a leader in heritage preservation, creating the Montana Historical Society in 1865. Clearly these early pioneers felt their presence in this land warranted remembering, even while the history was itself still being written. The guidelines for the Gallatin County Pioneer Society were similar to the statewide Montana Pioneers: One had to have arrived in Montana in or prior to 1864, the year Montana had become a Territory. One also had to be a resident of Gallatin County, sign the constitution and pay one dollar in dues. Although it’s been noted that no member was denied membership on account of not paying their dues; they just lost their vote in the elections. Membership could be transferred to the eldest son or daughter upon the original member’s death, and if declined, the next child in line.

Early pioneers came from a variety of backgrounds: from architects, jewelers, lawyers and capitalists to teamsters, farmers, blacksmiths, jailers and merchants. The names read like a who’s who of Gallatin Valley, including O.L. Reese, W.W. Alderson, Mary Doane, W.H. Babcock, W.J. Beall, Walter Cooper, John Mendenhall, and Daniel Rouse. Many members originally came from east of the Mississippi River, most spending time in one of the gold camps like Virginia City, Emigrant Gulch, Alder Gulch or Bannack before arriving in the Gallatin Valley. When first established, the organization consisted of 95 male and 25 female members. The average age of a Pioneer in 1893 was around 60, although ages ranged from early 50s to early 80s.

Membership in the Society was treasured and revered. It symbolically connected those who had struggled together to build a life in the wilderness, and each year the honor was celebrated at an annual gathering. The first Pioneer’s ball and banquet was held on February 22, 1894 on Washington’s birthday. A badge was created to present to the members, all of whom were expected to attend. Seventy-two yards of gold satin ribbon and silver fringe were ordered by Mrs. Black, while Mr. Alderson had a cut of a log cabin made at his newspaper. According to a history of the Society, “the cost of putting on this first ball was $77.15.” First President Walter Cooper spoke:

Our constitution has been so framed that the life of our society may be made perpetual, and as the time passes greater interest will be manifested in the annual meetings, and we will find ourselves looking forward to, and making early preparation for the annual reunion...tender memories will be awakened, old friendships revived, new acquaintances made and when we separate and adjourn to our homes we’ll feel benefited. Each year we shall be called upon to give up loved ones, and meet in their places the older son, or daughter, of deceased members, upon whom thence-forward the honor and responsibility of membership in this society will devolve. I trust, my friends, that your interest as members may never lag; that you will be prompt in your attendance, equally prompt to extend a helping hand to any member who may be so unfortunate as to need your assistance in sickness or in health, and never falter in your duty to the brave men and women, who, with yourselves, have helped to lay the foundation, and contributed so much toward the progress and the greatness of this state.  

Just one year later President J.H. Gallop would state: This constant dissemination of our ranks by death and growing older, will in a few years prove the destruction of our society without leaving anything to trace of memory of the heroic struggle of the early settlers in this section, to perpetuate the noble deeds which you performed in your struggle to plant civilization in the wilderness...reclaiming the wild nature of these beautiful and fertile lands and making them blossom as the rose in the great desert of Northern America.

Despite the rather negative overtone to Gallop’s address, the Society would go on to enjoy nearly sixty years of membership, most celebrated quite elaborately with an annual gathering.

Formed almost concurrently with the Pioneers (1894), the Society of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneers of Gallatin County followed much the same calling. Membership was limited to Sons and Daughters of Pioneers who had arrived in Montana in or prior to 1864. The society was created to fill the gap between the Senior society (which included Pioneers and the eldest child only) and those children that remained unrecognized. The first elected officials were president George Pease, vice-president O.P. Morgan, recording secretary Walter Davis, corresponding secretary Hattie Street and treasurer O.L. Reese. On average, they were in their 20s and 30s at the time of the organization’s formation.

The two societies quickly formed a bond that often saw the Sons and Daughters lending a hand to the Pioneer Society at their annual gatherings, which became concurrent celebrations. The Pioneers were designated by gold ribbons, the Sons and Daughters by blue. In 1903 it was noted that “ these annual re-unions are anticipated with a great deal of pleasure every year, not only by the pioneers who are thus enabled to greet old-time friends but by the sons and daughters, who enjoy this opportunity of greeting those who braved so much...building up a state of which all generations should be proud. May the “old-timers” and their children live to attend many more of these annual gatherings.” However, by 1912 it was stated that the annual reunion was an “enjoyable affair... in spite of the fact that the death toll during the past year has been long.”  It was the duty of secretary to keep a Death Record up to date, and those lost were acknowledged at the annual meetings. Throughout the years the number of Pioneers in attendance lessened as they either passed away, moved away or were not able to physically attend.

While at their height, each gathering included a short meeting, reminiscences, a program which usually included a biographical sketch of a Pioneering family, a dinner and dancing. The 1918 reunion was a grand affair as it marked the 25th annual gathering. President Mrs. Beall addressed the group:

Over half a century has passed since we left our homes and friends in the east and south to make this in the far west our homes. Together we have undergone hardships, privations and sorrows, but with it all I doubt if we have any regrets when we realize what potent factors we have been in the making of this our loved state of Montana. We love its mountains, its valleys and its people. Let us be happy in this thought.

There were also annual summer picnics, the most memorable taking place at Gowan’s Grove on August 7, 1897. The Avant Courier noted that “it was a perfect Montana day, without a cloud or a gust of wind, and just warm enough to make it feel comfortable in the beautiful shady grove.” It was estimated that 1,000 people were in attendance, which would have included Pioneers, Sons and Daughters, and each of their combined guests. This number is even more extraordinary when one finds that there were only 6,000 people living in the county at that time.

In 1926, a grand ball was given by the Sons and Daughters that lasted from eight-o’clock through to midnight, accompanied by a five-piece orchestra. It was noted “this time being given mainly to the modern dances, exclusive of the Charleston, which is not permitted in this hall because of the damage to the building [probably the Elks].”  It was during this time, as the Pioneers were reaching an advanced age, that the dancing was split up between “old-time dancing” and “modern dancing” of which both parties took great amusement in observing.

In 1932, both organizations altered the eligibility date to 1868. The newspaper articles that followed each gathering contained more individual names as the Pioneer Society’s original members list shortened. Few were left who had actually signed the original constitution, and most present at the events had been children at the time of eligibility. In 1953, the Gallatin County Pioneers Society was dissolved without a president physically able to serve. The records and memberships were transferred over to the Sons and Daughters. By 1958, only two pioneers remained, Mrs. Emma Shepherd and Frank L. “Doc” Nelson.

The Sons and Daughters have continued the tradition of an annual meeting. This year (2018) will be their 125th Reunion. In 2017, the group donated its collection of artifacts to the Gallatin History Museum where they are currently being catalogued and readied for display as part of the Museum’s mission to tell the story of the Gallatin Valley.

As noted by Miss Edna Lewis, president of the Sons and Daughters in 1912:

“I wish I had a barrel of rum

And sugar three hundred pounds,

A College bell to mix it in

A clapper to stir it ‘round;

I’d drink to the health of the Pioneers

Both gathered far and near,

For they are the men who made the West,

The West we hold so dear.”

This was made by