Our Historic Neighbors The McDonald Family Let’s Get to Know Them

Crystal Alegria

Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, speaks about the importance of humanizing history and recognizing historical figures as our neighbors. I love this idea and think it would go a long way to help us in these divisive times. In that spirit, I would like to introduce you to your historic neighbors, the McDonald family, who built a small cabin in the late 1860s on what became South Tracy Street in Bozeman, Montana. A second story was eventually added to this small cabin, and the rough log sides were covered with clapboard. The house still stands today at 308 S. Tracy.

In 1861, Richard McDonald and Mary Harris Robinson were married in Missouri. They married just a few months before the start of the Civil War that decided their fate, because they were not free Americans but enslaved. Just two years later, in 1863, the young couple along with infant son, Robert, headed west, leaving behind a life of enslavement. They were leaving the United States, which was in turmoil with the Civil War raging over the question of slavery. They traveled west into the Territories with six oxen pulling a covered wagon.

Richard and Mary were freed before most enslaved people. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was declared by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, most enslaved people were not freed until the end of the Civil War in 1865. We will never know why the McDonald’s were freed prior, but they came west immediately upon release. As they left the United States and traveled west, you could call them pioneers, but that word is not correct. The definition of pioneer is “one of the first to settle in a territory.” There were many indigenous people already living in the West, so pioneer is not the appropriate word. Other words come to mind: migrant, immigrant. When speaking to colleague Jill Makin, we came up with the word “refugee.” The definition of refugee is, “one that flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution,” and that felt right for what many freed people were experiencing. The McDonalds were fleeing a system and a place that was in turmoil and was dangerous to them.  

Upon arriving in Montana, Richard and Mary tried living in Virginia City, but Mary determined the young gold-rush town was too “rough and ready” for her. She preferred the slower pace of Bozeman, which they had passed through along the way. They settled in Bozeman City, south of Main Street. Richard hauled freight throughout the territory while Mary stayed home and tended to the house and children. Over the years, four boys and three girls were born in the small cabin. The boys - Edward, Louis, Arthur, and an unnamed infant son all died before reaching adulthood. The three girls born to Richard and Mary all survived until adulthood. Mollie was the oldest, born in 1873, Belle was born in 1874 and Melissa was born in 1878. The girls grew up in Bozeman, helping their mother to cook and keep house in the log cabin that Richard built. The girls attended school in Bozeman, which was not always looked upon favorably by their fellow Bozeman citizens. In April of 1878, there was discussion about admitting “colored” children to the new school. The local newspaper, the Bozeman Avant Courier states, “On the opening of the Graded Public School, some sensation and considerable talk was created by the attendance of a few colored children. Their number being too small to justify a separate school for them, the trustees were somewhat at a loss how to provide suitable means for their education at present, and only consented to this as a temporary arrangement. The three colored children will be taken out immediately, as we are informed, in deference to the feelings of the entire community, and separate provisions will be made for them.” A week later and after much discussion, it was decided that “until further notice . . . the colored children in this district may attend the public school and be admitted to the rooms and classes with the other children of the district.”

Richard McDonald died when Mollie, Belle, and Melissa were 26, 25, and 20 years old respectively. After their father passed, the three young sisters became the primary wage earners for their family as their mother did not work outside of the home.  

Mollie, being the oldest, felt the weight of that responsibility. She married Charles Ward in March of 1900 but was still living at home in June of that year when the census taker knocked on the McDonalds’ door. The marriage did not last long; Mollie and Charles Ward divorced in 1904. Mollie and Charles had two children, Richard and Belle. Mollie married again in 1918 to a barber, Charles Gross. Mr. Gross lived and worked at various jobs around Montana, but after the marriage to Mollie, he opened a shoe shining parlor in Bozeman, which was located just off Main Street on South Black Avenue. Mollie and Charles lived at Hamilton Hall on the Montana State College, later Montana State University, campus which was Mollie’s place of work at the time.  In 1910, Mollie became the head cook for Hamilton Hall, a job she had for twenty years.  By 1940, Charles was out of the picture. The couple either divorced or Charles died, but Mollie was back living in the family house on Tracy Street. Mollie died of a heart attack in 1958 at the age of 84.

The second oldest daughter Belle was a strong supporter of the Bozeman community. She was a member of Bozeman’s Methodist church and involved in the Montana State Federation of Negro (later Colored) Women’s Club and the local chapter, the Sweet Pea Study Club. Belle never married and lived much of her life in the family home located on South Tracy Street. For her living, she worked as a housekeeper in people’s homes. From 1918 to about 1932, she worked for Mrs. Ettie M. Fielding who lived at 420 South Willson Avenue in Bozeman. Fred and Ettie Fielding were a prominent family in Bozeman. Ettie was a Bozeman socialite, hosting parties and supporting causes in Bozeman. Ettie and Fred never had children of their own. Fred passed away suddenly in 1915, leaving Ettie to manage a large home by herself. As many families did in the early 20th century, Ettie decided she needed help with the household duties, so she hired Belle McDonald to assist. Belle lived in the large house with Ettie providing domestic service for Ettie’s parties and social gatherings. Belle and Ettie Fielding must have built a relationship, because when Ettie died in 1932, she left 1/3 of her sizable estate to Belle McDonald.

Belle was actively involved in the Montana State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in Montana and traveled to their yearly conventions around the state giving presentations, winning prizes for exhibits, serving on committees, and in 1935 serving as the Chairman for the “Negros in History” committee.  The Federation was founded in Montana on August 5th, 1921, to promote social uplift for the African American community. Belle was also active in the local Bozeman chapter, The Sweet Pea Study Club, which was organized by Eva Robinson on January 5, 1921, with eight members.

Melissa grew up in the house on Tracy Street and lived there her entire life. Like Belle, she was also involved in the Montana State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. She took an active role in the annual state conventions and participated in the local Sweet Pea Study Club. She took care of her mother, Mary McDonald, until her death at the age of 100 in 1941. She then took care of her sisters as they became older and eventually both passed. Melissa was the last remaining McDonald sister when she died in 1967. After Melissa’s death, the house passed to Mollie’s daughter, Belle Fisher. Belle lived the last part of her life in the McDonald house. She died in 2000, the last descendant of Richard and Mary McDonald in Bozeman. Before she died, Belle transferred the property to long-time family friends Bob and Joanna Nute. The Nutes have lovingly maintained the memory and the residence of the McDonald family.

The McDonalds, our historic neighbors, came to Montana Territory and to Bozeman to escape the shadow of slavery and provide a better life for their family. I encourage you to find out more about your neighbors, both historic and current, as they may have an interesting story, just like the McDonald family.   

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