Colville Valley (1870s-1880s): A 1928 Memoir by Thomas Graham

  • Posted 11/10/2009
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In 1928, Thomas Graham (1868-1946) wrote a series of articles in the Colville Examiner entitled “50 Years Ago,” recounting his experiences and observations as a teenager in the Colville Valley. The memoirs that follow are excerpted from Colville Collection, Book One, compiled by Patrick J. Graham (Colville: Colville Examiner, 1989), 79-120. They are reprinted with kind permission of Mr. Graham. Material in brackets has been summarized from the text or supplied for clarification by Tom Graham’s memoirs provide a fascinating first-hand glimpse of pioneer life in the Colville Valley.

Background of Thomas Graham and His Memoir

Thomas Graham's family had arrived in Stevens County from County Monaghan in Ireland On October 14, 1878, assisted by James Monaghan (1839-1916), who was a brother of Tom’s mother, Rosanna Graham. Tom’s father, also Thomas Graham, had emigrated from Scotland to Ireland, where he married Rosanna Monaghan. The family of nine sailed from Liverpool to New York, took the Southern Pacific to San Francisco, then a ship to Portland and the riverboat from Portland to The Dalles, where it was always necessary to portage around the cascades before continuing on by steamboat to Wallula. From there, they traveled over the Dr. Baker wood railroad to Walla Walla where James Monoghan met the family with two wagons to transport them over the Colville Road to the Colville area, a distance of more than 200 miles. This trip via Monaghan’s LaPray Bridge over the Spokane River, took seven days, the family camping out all the way.  They spent one night at the Monaghan homestead, now part of Chewelah, before continuing to Pinkney City, the town that grew up adjacent to military Fort Colville, just over three miles north of present Colville. 

Tom was only 10 or 11 when his family arrived in the Colville Valley. He spent that winter attending the Catholic mission boarding school at the location of present Ward. He left school that spring and launched his career as a very young mail carrier working for his uncle, James Monaghan, who had the contract to carry mail three times a week between military Fort Colville and Colfax, a route of about 130 miles. Tom and his slightly older brothers, John and James, interspersed the mail carrying with chores on the Monaghan ranch on land that is now the town of Chewelah.   

Interspersed between Graham’s memories of incidents are long lists of names of settlers and their families and the general locations of their homesteads. Some were former soldiers who had been stationed at Fort Colville; some were French-Canadian former Hudson’s Bay Company employees; and others, like the Monaghan and Graham families, were immigrants from Europe or pioneers from Eastern United States. Many of the families were of mixed blood, the male settlers having taken Indian wives. These lists are invaluable to genealogists but too long for reprinting here.

Historylink has divided the Graham memoir into three parts: The first deals with the Graham brothers’ adventures delivering the mail between Spokane Falls and Fort Colville. The second covers farming, ranching, and freighting in the Colville Valley. The third recounts Tom Graham’s memories of the Indians in the valley.

Part 1: The Arrival and the Mail Route 

... Our first entrance into Pinkney City was on Sunday. There was only one street in the town, and it was lined solidly by Indians and cayuses, together with their riders -- in some cases two and three rides to one horse. As Sunday was market day, everyone came to town, and of course dressed in their Sunday best. The Indians, in their gaudy blankets and headgear, were a surprising sight to a bunch of greenhorns such as we were.

We soon learned how things were done in America. When Sunday came a good-sized congregation, regardless of creed, assembled at the Catholic Church ... . The first priest that we met celebrating mass there was Father Joset, a Swiss who came here in 1844 as one of the attendants at the Mission church near Kettle Falls. Needless to say, Father [Joseph] Joset did not have a very good command of the English language. So after Mass Mr. Monaghan asked my mother how she liked the sermon. Quick as a flash came the answer: “It was fine, but I don’t know yet whether he was blessing us or cussing us.” Services were held at this church once a month, and were attended by the soldiers from the garrison as well as the settlers.

... In the early part of April ’79, I left school and made my first trip out of Fort Colville, carrying the United States mail. ... On reaching a point opposite the present [1928] Monaghan home, north of Addy, I drove into a mud hole that proved almost bottomless. In their struggles to get out of the mud hole, the horses tore the tongue out of the stagecoach and got out of the mud. Looking over the damage, and seeing no way of repairing it, I just left the rig there, unhitching the horses from the tongue. I took the harness of one horse and put it on the other one, also strapping the two mail sacks on the same horse. I rode the other horse bareback to Chewelah, where I turned the outfit over to my brother John, who made the trip to Walker’s Prairie, in turn giving the mail to the driver between that point and Spokane Falls. It might be well to mention at this time that the driver on the line from Colfax to Spokane Falls was a Mr. Yale ...  one of the best stage drivers I have ever seen.  

... I shall always have a vivid recollection of the hospitality of the [Joseph] LaPray family during the spring of 1883. I was carrying the U.S. mail between Chewelah and Fort Spokane when overtaken by an unusual storm. After leaving the Guy Haines home, the rain, sleet and wind were so severe that I was nearly frozen while crossing Walker’s Prairie. So I went to the LaPray home, at that time a log cabin about a quarter of a mile from the main road.

When I rode up to the door and called out to Mr. LaPray, he came out and helped me to get my left hand open so I could get the bridle reins loose, my clothing being frozen stiff. He helped me into the house, where a blazing fire burned in the large fireplace. Mrs. La Pray got my clothing thawed out while Mr. La Pray was putting my horse in the barn. While having no clothing to fit me, I was put to bed naked while Mrs. LaPray dried my clothes.

Mr. LaPray in the meantime came in and reported he could not get the mail sack untied from the saddle. So for one night, the U.S. mail was left to rest in the stable. When supper was ready, I wrapped a blanket around me and had supper with the family. ...

Guy Haines was postmaster at Walker’s Prairie, a position he held for a long period of years. At his home was one of our stage stations where we usually transferred the U.S. mail to the driver from Spokane Falls. The Haines home was a stopping place for all travelers, where they were always sure of a friendly welcome, a square meal and a good bed. The Haines homestead was located on the same spot where the first Congregational missionaries, [Elkanah] Walker and [Cushing] Eells, commenced their missionary labors among the Indians of Stevens County. ... Father Eells, as he was called, as well known to all the old settlers of Stevens County. He was often a passenger on our stage. The best part of the time he drove his own rig, a sorrel horse and buggy. His kindly ways endeared him to all who met him.   

... It was a standing order from Mr. Monaghan, owner of the stage line, that all priests and ministers, regardless of creed or color, were to be carried at half fare. So an incident that occurred in ’79, while in no way reflecting on the traveling ministers, will bear repeating. A minister and his wife came from Walla Walla, riding on the stage, receiving the benefits of the lower fare rates due to all [those] of his supposed calling. However, on arriving at Fort Colville or Pinkney City, their subsequent actions proved they were imposters, he being a tinhorn gambler, while the wife was just a little lower in the scale of humanity. Having them again for passengers on the return trip, this time they paid full fare with the remark from the woman that they could afford it as following the U.S. paymaster was a paying proposition.

... The next [homestead was that of] James Monaghan, where the greater part of the town site of Chewelah now stands. My parents, brothers and sisters resided on and operated the farm for some years after coming to Stevens County. There in the fall of 1879 my oldest brother, Philip, join the family, coming from Australia. It was here also that my sister Rosanna was born in the same house where my cousin, John Robert Monaghan, the hero of Samoa, was born. [James Monaghan’s son, a Navy ensign and graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, was killed defending a wounded comrade during in a skirmish in Samoa in 1899. In 1906 a large statue of him was erected at Riverside and Monroe streets in Spokane.]   

... It was during our residence at Chewelah that my brothers and I each took our turn in handling Uncle Sam’s mail, as well as operating the farm. In those early days my brother John was the only one of us [legally] old enough to carry the mails, as a carrier had to be 16 years old before Uncle Sam would entrust him with anything so valuable. However, the good nature of the different postmasters throughout Stevens County kept them from inquiring too closely into the age of the drivers.   

... The postmaster at Spokane Falls, Sylvester Heath, had some trouble with Mr. Yale, the driver between Colfax and Spokane Falls, with the result that Mr. Yale was ordered out of the post office. Not moving as fast as the postmaster thought he should, Mr. Heath came from behind his counter and ejected Mr. Yale bodily. This was what Mr. Yale was playing for, and as soon as he got Mr. Heath out of the post office, he turned on him and gave him a good thrashing. As soon as he was able to do so, he wrote Mr. Monaghan to discharge the fighting driver. I suppose that was one of the letters that were never answered. So Mr. Heath retaliated by refusing to allow my brother James to take the mail out on the next trip, saying he was not old enough to carry the U.S. mail. Being informed by friends of what was to happen, Jim took a mail sack in each hand, hefted them, saying: “Pshaw! They ain’t heavy. I can carry both of them.” With that he put them into the stage and drove off, leaving Postmaster Heath to make the best of it. There was no more trouble after this because of our age.   

Let me relate an incident that occurred in the summer of 1879. Perhaps there are still [1828] old timers living who will remember the old log bridge that spanned the Colville River at the Reid Montgomery place. Every stick in it was round logs, even to the floor. On the day of this incident a heavily laden U.S. government mule team had crossed on its way to Fort Colville. At the point where the structure crossed the main stream the heavy wagon had broken one of the outside stringers. When a few hours later my brother John crossed with the stage wagon, he drove onto the broken part, innocent of the fact that anything was amiss with the bridge.   

In less time that it takes to tell it, the broken part upset into the river, taking horses, rig and driver with it. The driver escaped by swimming, and on reaching the riverbank, called for help. The neighbors working in the hay fields soon responded to his call, as did also a band of Indians, who were camped nearby. It was found one of the horses was dead. An Indian named Buckskin Jim swam to where the outfit was and unharnessed the dead horse and started the carcass down the river. He then took the live horse and swam down the river perhaps 300 yards to a point where the bank of the river was clear of brush and low enough to get the animal ashore. In the meantime, my brother, who was an excellent swimmer, had rescued the sacks of mail and brought them to our home. When postmaster James O’Neil heard of the accident, he came over there with the keys, opened the mail sacks and dried the contents in the oven over our kitchen stove. In the meantime the rig was gotten out of the river and taken across the bridge by hand. Another horse was brought from our place, and the broken parts mended, and everything was ready to finish the trip to Walker’s Prairie.   

... [Another incident occurred] in the summer of 1882, while we were operating a daily stage from Spokane to Colville. Mr. Monaghan had exchanged three large mules ...  for nine head of horses. The animals were corralled at Wild Goose Bill’s place, where the town of Wilbur now is. Six of them were sold for cavalry horses to the U.S. government to be used at the garrison at Walla Walla. But the other three proved to be outlaws and could not be used for the same purpose, so they were sent to the Monaghan ranch at Chewelah [for my brothers and me to work with them.] We got them quiet enough to drive them on the stage, but had not had the time to break them to ride.

The arrangement of the daily stage was to bring all the passengers in [the mail stage] over the Cottonwood Road. This left the mail for the Walker’s Prairie and Deep Creek post offices to be continued as usual three times a week. There was not much mail to be carried over that route, so it was carried on horseback. ... On one occasion it was found that one small sack of first class mail had been overlooked in the post office at Spokane. This, of course, was an awful breach of regulations. When it was called to my brother Jim’s attention, he undertook to remedy the mistake by taking the mail to Chewelah on horseback over the Cotton Road. But on reaching our first stage station at Peavine Jimmie’s place on the Little Spokane, he found there was nothing to ride but one of the unbroken outlaw horses.

It so happened that L. W. Meyers was there at the time with a load of freight for his own store that he operated at his home near the Colville mission. ... Telling his troubles to Mr. Meyers, who himself was a splendid horseman and a great lover of horses, he assisted Jim to get the animal saddled and the sack of mail tied behind the saddle. But from the caper that the outlaw horse was cutting up, it was decided to lead the animal across the bridge spanning the Little Spokane River before mounting him, because of the fact that the land there was level and [there were] no fences or other obstructions to contend with except a stand of open timber. For a time, Mr. Meyers enjoyed the sight of a real bucking match, with horse and rider each striving for mastery. The animal finally plunged between two trees literally tearing both rider and saddle off. In spite of the shock he sustained, [Jim] held onto the lariat, so the horse did not get away from him. Mr. Meyers tried to persuade [him] to let the whole thing go to the devil, but the boy had his Irish up and would not be dissuaded, so the whole performance was gone through again.

This time the rider had proved the master, and the outlaw was ridden to Chewelah that day, and from there to Spokane by way of Walker’s Prairie and Deep Creek. On the return trip, needless to say, that horse was broken before he reached Spokane again. Mr. Meyers never forgot that incident, and when we realized there was not a single settler to be met with between the Little Spokane and the Joe Morrrell ranch near Chewelah, except our stage station three miles east of Loon Lake, it was a strenuous job for anyone to undertake.   

Part 2: Farming and ranching in the Colville Valley, freighting on the Colville Road.



... Let us remember that even at that early day, that part of the Colville Valley now known as Chewelah was on the map. That point was a natural stopping place for all travelers, where they could be sure of finding all accommodations necessary to make traveling as comfortable as could be expected. If some of the people of today [1928, during the agricultural depression of the 1920s that preceded the Great Depression of the 1930s] think it impossible to eke out any existence at the time of which I write, I wonder what they would have done had they come into the valley of the Colville when those old settlers did. For instance, John Inkster came to this valley in 1848, Thomas Brown in 1854, Guy Haines in 1859, Peter King in 1851. Many others came into the Colville Valley in the early ‘60s and resided here until their deaths. How did they make a living for themselves and their families? ... They were all engaged in farming, producing an abundance of all farm crops, hay, oats, wheat potatoes and other vegetables ... [as well as large bands of cattle, horses, sheep, and sometimes hogs].  

... In those days every settler, as well as most of the Indians, raised a great number of horses. We never thought about feeding them -- except the ones we were using. The other ones ran on the open range, and were taken up when it was necessary to break some of them to work or ride. We were all handy with a lariat; in fact it was seldom necessary to throw a second time at the animal you wanted. Every boy caught and broke his own riding horse. The animal was usually ridden bareback for the simple reason that we did not have a saddle to ride.   

... On the James Monaghan ranch was a large band of cattle, purchased around Colville during the time he was engaged in the mercantile business there. They were driven to Chewelah every fall and fed there during the winter. It fell to the lot of my brothers and myself to round up these cattle during the fall of 1879. Usually all range cattle would come from the range into the valley as soon as the weather commenced getting stormy, so the work of gathering them began during the last of December. We started at the John Wynne farm, where the town of Colville is now, picking them up at the different farms on the way. ...

Mr. Heller had a large band of cattle. He always fed them in an open timber lot outside of his field, where a branch of Heller Creek ran through his feedlot. It took considerable hard driving to cut the cattle out from his band. In running after a large steer the animal jumped across the creek, but my horse stopped at the edge of the water so suddenly that I went over his head, but fortunately landed on the opposite bank, pretty well shaken up, but no bones broken. ... Joe LaPray was probably the largest cattle raiser in the county, grazing a great many of them on the breaks of the Spokane River during the entire year.

... There was always a good market for our livestock. The hogs were used for home consumption, every settler curing his own bacon, and all extra dressed pork found a ready market at the Oppenheimer mill. ... The cattle were always in demand, not only in the home market, but buyers from outside points came here to purchase them.   

The late D. M. [Daniel] Drumheller of Spokane never missed a year without coming to the Colville Valley and purchasing a large band of cattle. I also remember in the summer of 1881, a young man named Thomas McKenzie came here from Montana and purchased about 700 head of steers and dry cows, at an average price of $14 a head. He drove these cattle over the old Mullan Road through Idaho, and when swimming them across the Coeur d’Alene River, near the old mission, in trying to keep them together, he was drowned in the river at that point. The cattle were held on the range at that point until his sister came and took charge of them.

Again I remember in the summer of 1894, D. M. Drumheller and associates from Wyoming purchased all the cattle available throughout Stevens County. I sold several head to this outfit and helped to deliver them to the shipping point at Spokane. We arrived in Spokane with 1,200 head of cattle just a few days after the strike on the Northern Pacific Railroad. We were unable to ship them, as there was not a wheel turning on that road. We held them on the prairie east of Spokane for three weeks, finally shipping them over the Great Northern road to Miles City [Montana], this being the nearest point at which they could be unloaded and driven to the range where they were to be kept. The average price paid for these cattle was about $22.   

There was always a ready market for all grain raised in the valley. The wheat was sold to the Oppenheimer Bros. And delivered to their flourmill on the Little Pend Oreille River. The oats were delivered at the garrison of Fort Colville, being purchased by whomever had the contract to furnish such supplies to the U.S. government at that point. The wheat usually sold for $1 per bushel and oats at 50 cents per bushel. Potatoes also brought 50 cents per bushel to the grower. Hay brought $12 per ton, delivered loose at the garrison, where about 400 tons were consumed. In those days every farmer absolutely owned his livestock and farm products. There were no mortgages on their farms or livestock or crops, so the prices received were their own to do with as they pleased.

The Oppenheimer gristmill was owned by the three Oppenheimer brothers, Samuel, Joseph, and Marcus. Here the greater part of the wheat grown in the Colville Valley was manufactured into flour and other mill products. ...

There were two grades of flour made at the mill. Their best brand was known as the XXX and this brand was equal to any manufactured in any part of the Northwest. The flour was shipped as far south as Walla Walla, and also to all the mining camps operating on both sides of the international line on the north. On the mill farm there was produced a large band of hogs, numbering about 200 head. These hogs were fattened, dressed and cured into the finest hams, shoulders and bacon. ...

The main road to Fort Colville passed by the mill. So I was a frequent visitor there carrying their mail to and from the post office, as well as any express matter that might be shipped to the mill. The kitchen latchstring was always out, a nice slice of well cooked ham to be found in the cupboard.

... Besides their regular farm operations, every farmer had one or more four-horse teams on the road to haul freight from Walla Walla during the slack season, between the time of planting and harvesting of their crops. The prices paid for such hauling during the summer months was about 3 cents per pound. This brought to the team owner a nice sum of money on the side. The cost of the trip was small, as there was plenty of bunch grass to be found at all points along the road. There was very little grain fed on these trips, and it usually took 12 days to make the round trip. Of course the trip was not pleasant during the early spring months, when the roads were soft. In fact, I have seen the road through the Chewelah valley so bad that it took four good horses to pull an empty wagon through it. During this time it was necessary to [use Cottonwood Road rather than the main road for this portion of the trip].   

Freighting during the late fall was not very pleasant, as it was no unusual thing to get caught in a snowstorm. I remember one such instance, when John Morrell got caught in a storm. He unhitched his four-horse team and tied them to the wagon to wait until the storm had passed. Taking his blankets, he got under the wagon for shelter, but during the night the horses broke loose and drifted with the storm with their harness on them. One of the horses was a bay stallion owned by his father. Not being able to get any trace horses, he struck out on foot and reached Lyons Ferry on the Snake River. When spring opened up only one of the horses could be found, that was the stallion, and he had lost all his harness but the collar, which was still on his neck.

... [I always remember] the homestead of Antoine Gendron, a former employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, [who came to] the post about 1846. He was married to a native [Indian] woman. They were the parents of a large family. ... Besides the regular farm crops, there was also raised a large band of both cattle and horses. The latchstring was always out at the Antoine Gendron home, as it was with all the old pioneers. The honesty of the settlers was never questioned in those days. Let me illustrate a few incidents in proof of this. During the time James Monaghan was in the mercantile business at old Colville he carried charge accounts, as was the custom of the period. Some years after closing his business, in looking over his old accounts, he found some of his old customers still indebted to him. Apparently he had never sent them a statement of how their accounts stood. So, during the winter of 1884, he sent a memorandum of a few of those whose names appeared on his books, asking me to see what I could do about collecting them.   

The first one I approached was Mr. Gendron, who not only acknowledged the indebtedness, but also offered to deliver two tons of oats at the Monaghan ranch at Chewelah in payment of the account. I also visited Michael La Fleur on the same mission. He took me out to his horse corral and told me to pick out any horse there and give him a receipted bill, which I did. I picked out a beautiful sorrel mare, and while I was in the house writing the receipt, his boys roped the animal and helped me take her to the Chewelah ranch.

Another thing that would also illustrate the honesty of the community of those days is worth telling here. During such times as Mr. Monaghan was away from his place of business, Antoine Paradis was placed in charge of the store. When the day’s business was over, Mr. Paradis pocketed the day’s receipts and returned to his home on the west side of the Colville Valley several miles distant, always making the trip on horseback, with no thought of ever meeting a holdup man.

Part 3: Memories of Indians

... That winter, ’78-’79, I was a pupil at the Catholic Sisters’ school at the Colville Mission, now Ward. This was an Indian school with about 250 children -- all Indians and half breeds except Miss Lizzie Labrie and my sister Mary Ann -- the only white  girls, and myself -- the only white boy. ... I will never forget one occasion when, with an Indian boy named Edward, I played hooky from school. We roamed over the hills east of the mission. When hunger overtook us I wanted to return to school. But hunger had no terror for the Indian boy. He made out a good dinner by eating the stalks of the wild sunflowers that grew luxuriantly all over the hills. [This was probably balsamroot, which the Indians of the Northwest used as a survival food.] However, when evening came, we returned to school and took our punishment, which was going to bed without any supper.

...  [In the Colville Valley, Indians and whites] did plenty of hunting, fishing, horseracing, also foot racing. I do not think any people love a horserace more than the Indians did, and they would bet the last thing they had on their favorite horse. With them it was strictly a question of the best horse winning. There was no trickery of any kind. If a race was not satisfactory, they would insist it would be run over again until it was satisfactorily settled.

I will illustrate this to show their inherent honesty. The rider [myself] with his own horse was matched against an Indian horse and the rider in a three-mile race ... Just north of the present magnesite plant [at Chewelah], for the first two miles it was nip and tuck between the two horses, but toward the finish the Indian boy left me so far behind that there was no question as to who had the best horse. But unfortunately the Indian boy did not ride through the gate. I took advantage of his mistake and rode through the gate, of course winning the race. However, it was decided that the other fellow had the best horse. So all bets were paid to the Indian without any kick from anyone. 

While the Indians were horseracing every day during the week, it was only on Sunday afternoon that the settlers had time to indulge in the sport. On one occasion, after an afternoon of this sport, we boys had a bay stallion that had cleaned up everything that was pitted against him. We put him in the barn for the night, but on Monday morning he was nowhere to be found. After more than a month had elapsed, the horse was found in the barn, he had been returned as quietly as he had been taken away. It transpired that the Indians had taken him ... [to] use for breeding purposes. He was returned in good condition, so no questions were ever asked. This was the only thing that ever occurred between us and the Indians that might be considered unfriendly. We used to employ the Indians during the haying and harvesting season, and most of them were good workers.

Whatever failings the Indians or half-breeds might have, dishonesty was not one of them. It often happened that a freighter would break down his wagon or have some other trouble that would compel him to leave his wagon and load of freight on the road for a considerable length of time, but I have never heard of a single instance where any article on the wagon was stolen. We never thought of locking a door. The latchstring was always out. Someone might come in, eat a lunch, but nothing was ever stolen.  

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum. 

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