Blackfeet Agency, Montana: December 21, 1883. Unbound. This five-page letter is datelined “United States Indian Service / Blackfeet Agency, Mont. / Dec: 21st, 1884.” It is addressed to Major Allen’s family at Freeport, Ohio. There is no accompanying envelope. In nice shape. Transcript provided.
An exceptional letter from the army major credited with saving most of the Piegan Blackfeet following the departure of Agent John Young, who was unjustly blamed for the “Starvation Winter” of 1883 during which nearly 600 members (a quarter of the Piegan band) died following the failure of their annual buffalo hunt. Young left under a firestorm of vilification by the Blackfeet, local whites, the Indian Bureau, Congress, and the press who accused him of, at best, disinterest, and, at worst criminal malfeasance. Historians followed suit until in 1958, Helen West, discovered an archive of documents at the Museum of the Plains Indians that absolved him of blame. While the story is too long to include, West’s article, “Starvation Winter of the Blackfeet” in the 1958 Winter issue of Montana: the Magazine of History provides the details.
Regardless, Major Reuben Allen arrived to take over in March of 1884. Youthful, energetic, and engaging, he became the darling of the tribe, local whites, and the press. It also didn’t hurt that federal provisions began to simultaneously roll-in, spurred by press reports about “Starvation Winter”. When Allen penned this letter in late December of 1884, the temperature was already at 30 degrees below zero with 20 inches of snow on the ground. However, the crisis was over:
"The terrible condition these poor people were in when I came here made it necessary for me to do everything I possibly could to aleviate their suffering from starvation and I am proud to say I have succeeded. I can now give them plenty to eat."
He then lists the abundance of supplies he has to feed the tribe for the next month including 26,000 pounds of bacon, 272,000 pounds of beef, 295,000 pounds of flour, 36,000 pounds of potatoes, 24,000 pounds of turnips, 8,500 pounds of coffee, as well as blankets, shawls, hats, pants, shirts, shoes scarves, mittens, and much more, noting somewhat smugly:
“The Indians are well satisfied and I have their entire confidence. They will do anything I ask of them. . .. I would not pass through again what I have in the past six months . . . not that I feared any personal danger but to witness the suffering from starvation of these poor creatures and being powerless to help them. But as I am credited by the people and press of Montana of helping them out & am now satisfied.”
Finally, he relates that during a severe snowstorm, 100 head of Agency’s cattle escaped, and
“it became necessary to get them back. . .. I took what force I could spare from here [and] found them scattered [over] 130 miles. . .. I stayed in the saddle for 8 days . . . and during the time I was out . . . I never saw a human being except our own party. . .." Very good. Item #009628 Quite scarce, other than Young’s papers at the Museum of the Plains Indians and Allen’s files at the University of Montana, OCLC reports nothing similar held by institutions. Neither is anything similar for sale in the trade, nor does the Rare Book Hub identify sales of other similar items.
Quite scarce, other than Young’s papers at the Museum of the Plains Indians and Allen’s files at the University of Montana, OCLC reports nothing similar held by institutions. Neither is anything similar for sale in the trade, nor does the Rare Book Hub identify sales of other similar items.