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My People of the Plains

By Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Central Pennsylvania

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1906.

Chapter I. Wyoming and Idaho in 1887

IT was at the General Convention which met in Chicago in October, 1886, that the missionary district of Wyoming and Idaho was created by the House of Bishops, and I was elected as its first bishop. Until that time Wyoming had been placed under the provisional care of the Rt. Rev. John Franklin Spalding, D.D., Bishop of Colorado, while Idaho had formed a part of the extensive field committed to the Rt. Rev. Daniel S. Tuttle, D.D., who had also at one time under his jurisdiction Montana and, more recently, Utah. As Bishop Tuttle had recently been called to be Bishop of Missouri, thus leaving Idaho without episcopal supervision, and as the rapid growth and development of the new State of Colorado demanded the entire time of its own bishop, it was deemed expedient to combine Wyoming and Idaho into one missionary district. When the telegram informing me that I had been elected Bishop of Wyoming and Idaho reached me, I was the rector of St. James's Church, Macon, Missouri, and also head-master of St. James's Military Academy, which I had established in the same town. This was a school for boys which had grown from small beginnings to an institution demanding my entire time, and in which I was deeply interested. Therefore, when the summons came to go west as a bishop, I hesitated, for I had cherished the purpose of devoting my life to the work of Christian education among boys. After considering the matter for about six months, I made up my mind to decline the honor of being a bishop and abide by my chosen work.

This decision having been reached, I had already written to the presiding bishop, and was about to post the letter setting forth the reasons that impelled me to remain with the school, when, unexpectedly, I received a communication from another venerable and much-beloved bishop. This was the Bishop of Springfield, who, it seems, had nominated me in the House of Bishops. He had been my professor and my dean in the General Theological Seminary. He addressed me with great solemnity and plainness of speech. He reminded me that I had been chosen unanimously by the House of Bishops, after a celebration of the Holy Communion, in which the guidance of the Holy Spirit had been invoked. He said he had heard that I was about to disobey the authoritative command of my fathers and refuse to take up the great work to which they had chosen me; that he understood the reason I intended to give was that I had a school to which I was attached; that he had never heard of the school until recently, and that he ventured to believe few persons outside of the State of Missouri knew of its existence; that no doubt the school needed, more than anything else, a new head, and would develop unsuspected strength if it could only be relieved of my presence; that he was amazed that I should hesitate, as a good soldier, to obey when commanded; that, in the great empire to which the Church was sending me, I should have ample opportunity to found schools and Christian institutions and to guide the plastic life of a new country. In conclusion, the bishop pleaded with me to have the courage to do what I had been bidden under the highest and most solemn sanction.

As I thought it over, it gradually dawned upon me that the good bishop was right and I was wrong; that what seemed to me a large thing was, after all, comparatively small; and that it was a vain delusion to imagine myself at all necessary to the life of the school. Succeeding years have borne out the bishop's prophecy so far as the school is concerned. It soon became large and rich and strong, and is now doing a work for the Mississippi Valley which it could never have accomplished with the limited means and poor leadership at my command.

I was consecrated bishop in Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis, on May 27, 1887. In the latter part of the following July I left for Wyoming. My objective point was Cheyenne. I remember that Bishop Whipple, who officiated as my consecrator, said: "My young brother, Cheyenne is the richest town of its size in the whole world to-day." The bishop had a son, Major Charles Whipple, paymaster in the army, whose headquarters were in that city. But even when the bishop spoke, a serious change had taken place in Cheyenne. It had until then been the home of the great cattle kings, and, no doubt, there was much truth in the statement as to its enormous wealth; but the memorable winter of 1886-1887 witnessed an almost complete destruction of the cattle on the plains. It was conservatively estimated that seventy-five out of every one hundred head perished in the blizzards that raged with such merciless severity during that long winter. So profitable had the cattle interest become that those engaged in it had felt justified in investing all they had in that business, and also in mortgaging their credit to the uttermost limit and going heavily in debt. The result was that, when the crisis came, not only were the cattle gone, but large liabilities and no assets wherewith to meet them faced those who had counted their wealth by hundreds of thousands and even millions. It took years for Wyoming to recover from the wide-spread and desolating losses then incurred, and the depression of feeling resting upon the little city of Cheyenne at the time of my first visit was pathetically evident. Still, the people were brave and full of hope under the wise leadership of their beloved rector, the Rev. Dr. George C. Rafter. A substantial stone church had been erected and roof put on, but there was no money to be had wherewith to complete the interior. A loan--long since paid off--was soon negotiated with the Church Building Fund Commission in New York, and the church was finished. The question of the bishop's residence at once confronted me. Cheyenne, Laramie, and Rawlins, in Wyoming, and Boisé in Idaho, were all kind enough to invite me. At last a proposition from Laramie, agreeing to build a suitable house, was accepted. Here the State university had been located, and it was also less remote from the centre of the vast field. While the question was still pending, I remember that the venerable rector of Rawlins pointed out a mansard-roof house of considerable size, which he assured me would be given if only I would make that city my home. He added that, so far as meat was concerned, all I should have to do would be to step out on the hills adjoining the house and, with my Winchester, bring down a fine elk whenever it was needed. At that time there was only one railroad, the Union Pacific, which skirted the southern border of Wyoming, and, under the name of the Oregon Short Line, ran diagonally through the State of Idaho. My diocese comprised a territory larger than all the New England and Middle States combined, with the State of Maryland included; and from Cheyenne in the southwestern corner to the northern end of the Pan-Handle--touching the British possessions--in Idaho, by the course one had to travel, the distance was over fifteen hundred miles.

I soon ascertained that the population was small and scattered in little communities, or grouped in mining-camps far away from the railway. Only ten churches were to be found in Wyoming, and four in Idaho. If the people were to be reached at all, it could only be accomplished by long journeys by stage or buck-board, or by mountain trails, impassable in winter.

My impressions of the people who lived along the line of the railroad was that they were bright, intelligent, and enterprising. While not irreligious, many of them, through lack of regular services, had become careless about attending church. They were glad to welcome the clergyman in their midst, and, whether church-goers or not, would often contribute liberally towards the maintenance of the work. In nearly every instance they had been affiliated in their homes, "back East," with some religious body.

After having visited the places accessible by rail, I began to seek acquaintance with the remote settlements in the interior. Here the scattered population were chiefly engaged in stock-raising, including cattle, horses, and sheep.

The blizzards that destroyed so many herds in Wyoming did not rage so furiously in Idaho, although causing much damage there. The large, open plains, generally without fences, gave ample range to the various herds. Each company or owner had a brand which was duly registered, thus preempting it from use by others. This brand was burned on the new calves at the round-ups, of which there were two every year, in the spring and autumn. These were about the only occasions when the managers of the ranches actually saw their cattle. The herds, which ranged over a certain large district, were corralled and driven by the cow-boys to one place of rendezvous, and then each owner "cut out," or separated, such of his cattle as were ready to be shipped to market, branded the calves, took account of the stock, and made their reports. The cattle were then turned loose until the next round-up.

One great source of loss in the cattle business in those days came from the unscrupulous thieves who, between the round-up periods, would catch and put their own brands on calves following cows belonging to other herds. After the calf was weaned it was impossible to tell to which herd it belonged, and the brand became prima facie evidence of ownership. These cattle, thus practically stolen, were called "mavericks," and so adroitly was the practice carried out that it was next to impossible to prove the crime. When evidence was secured, no mercy was shown the thief. Stealing cattle or horses became a more heinous offence than that of killing a human being, and was frequently punished by the summary process of lynch-law. On one occasion a certain woman who had long been suspected, and who bore an unsavory reputation, when her guilt became unmistakably clear, was taken from her home by a party of men and pitilessly hung. Such was the public sentiment in a matter of so grave moment to the chief business interest of the State that no jury could be found to return a verdict of guilty against the perpetrator of the deed. So well was this understood that frequently no arrests were made. It seemed necessary to strike terror into the minds of the evilly disposed by such heroic measures, unless, indeed, cattle-raising were to be abandoned altogether. One can easily see how great the temptation to steal and what abundant facilities were offered. Hence the deterring influences had to be correspondingly severe.

It was not the custom at that time to feed the cattle during the winter, and they were left entirely at the mercy of the elements, which sometimes proved fatal. A new era has now dawned in this respect, and, through the increased area of irrigated lands, much hay is cut, and the large, open ranges have given place to fenced enclosures where the stock is carefully protected. This change is at once in the interest of mercy and. thrift. Since it has been adopted, the percentage of loss from the severe winters has been greatly reduced; and, while the herds have become smaller, the business has been more reliable and yielded better profits. It has, however, practically eliminated the cow-boy, who once figured so picturesquely in the life of the West.

Horse-raising assumed at one time a large commercial importance and assured good returns. The horse was a better "rustler," as it was termed, than the steer, and could make his way through the snow and find his provender, while the unfortunate cattle would starve. Hence, the losses in horse-raising were comparatively small, and, when the market was brisk, there was a large marginal profit. That industry has been seriously affected by the modern methods of locomotion, such as the trolley, bicycle, and automobile. On the other hand, there has been, from time to time, a greatly increased demand, on account of the war with Spain and the South African struggle, which called for large consignments of horses. The quality of the Western bronco--the product of the hard conditions under which he has grown--has made him famous for toughness of fibre and a certain kind of villany when his temper is aroused.

Perhaps one of the most profitable industries in that western land in 1887 was sheep-growing. The high plateaus, foot-hills, and mountain lands, where the grass is very nutritious, furnished excellent pasturage for sheep, which, by instinct, can dig down through the snow and get their food, and thus survive the winter. One man often owns a herd numbering many thousand. A notable sheepman of my acquaintance possessed as many as eighty thousand head. The flock assigned to one sheep-herder numbers from two to three thousand, rarely more. The life of a sheep-herder is a peculiarly lonely one. Often months pass without giving him the opportunity of seeing a human being. His faithful dog is his only companion. He generally has a team and a covered wagon in which he sleeps at night during the winter, and wherein he stores the necessary provisions for his daily food. It is his duty to seek the best available pasturage, and, when the grass in one neighborhood has been exhausted, to drive the flock to a new and fresh supply. It is not to be wondered at that such a life often ends in insanity. It is said that the asylums are repleted year by year by a large contingent of these unfortunates. Indeed, their lot is a most pathetic one, and they sometimes even lose the power of speech and forget their own names. Their condition is often rendered more pitiable from the fact that between the cattle and sheepmen a most bitter antagonism exists. This has been caused by dissensions arising from the occupation of pasture-land. Where a flock of sheep has long run no food is left for cattle, for they eat the grass so closely and trample the ground in such a manner as to destroy it for other stock. Where the land all belongs to the government, one has, technically, as much right as another. The advent of a large flock of sheep is always resented by the cow-boy, and many have been the deadly feuds that have arisen. In the interests of peace, a sort of distribution is sometimes made, allotting large areas to the sheepmen with the understanding that they do not invade the territory reserved for other stock.

In addition to the population engaged in the above vocations should be mentioned those living in the valleys where farming is practicable by reason of the facilities there found for water from irrigating ditches. Through the large government appropriations made during President Roosevelt's administration, this farming element is rapidly increasing, and is destined to become influential. Mr. Roosevelt's personal knowledge of the Far West has led him to see that the government could not possibly make a wiser investment than thus to redeem by water the millions of acres now practically desert land. The soil is very rich and produces enormously when supplied by water. I believe it was Senator Stewart, of Nevada, who, on the floor of the Senate many years ago, was pleading in vain for such an appropriation. In the course of his remarks, he is quoted as saying,

"Gentlemen, I do not hesitate to declare that only two things are necessary to make that country one of the fairest and most attractive on the face of the earth. Those two things are plenty of water and good society."

At this point one of his colleagues, who was opposing the appropriation and who was somewhat of a wag, rose and said:

"Mr. Chairman, with your permission, may I ask the Senator from Nevada a question?"

"Certainly," said the chairman.

"Did I understand the Senator from Nevada to say that plenty of water and good society are the only two things that his country needs?"

"That is just precisely what I said," replied the Senator.

"Then, may I venture to remind the Senator from Nevada that there is another region of which the Good Book speaks, where the only two things necessary are plenty of water and good society. I do not mean, of course, that, in other respects, Nevada is at all like that place."

Still, the Senator was right, after all, and when the water is supplied, as it soon will be, that wilderness must inevitably blossom as the rose.

Before closing this description of the constituent elements that made up my diversified diocese, I must mention the Indians. Those on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming were allotted ecclesiastically by General Grant to the care of the Episcopal Church. Their first missionary was the Reverend John Roberts, who went to that reservation about twenty-five years ago. He was a Welshman and a university graduate. He was ordained by the great Bishop Selwyn, who had recently been translated from the South Sea Islands, where he had done such heroic service. After his ordination, Mr. Roberts asked his bishop's blessing and permission to leave his native country and cross the Atlantic and devote his life to the service of the North American Indian in the Far West. The bishop had a very high opinion of the young priest, and had already determined to place him in an important position, but his own missionary heart beat in loving sympathy with the cause, and, as much as he loved Roberts, he could not hesitate to wish him Godspeed. The young clergyman, therefore, left for New York, where he offered himself to our Board of Missions for work among the Indians. At that time the Rev. Dr. Twing was our general secretary. It happened that the Bishop of Colorado, who had charge of Wyoming, was looking for a good man to send to the Wind River Reservation, where the Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes had just been settled. The Rev. Mr. Roberts's arrival was most opportune, and he proceeded immediately to the field of his labors. It was in December, and the journey involved the long stage-ride from Rawlins to Fort Washakie. The party was overtaken by a blizzard on their way, and narrowly escaped freezing to death. Upon reaching the Indian reservation, the new missionary was welcomed by the government agent and made at home by the officers and soldiers recently stationed at Fort Washakie. It was not long before he had established cordial relations between himself and the two tribes. He so far overcame the difficulties of the two Indian dialects that, aided by the sign-language, he could make himself understood. His disinterested devotion to their welfare has been so evident that he has won his way to their hearts, and his influence over them has been most wholesome. They call him their "big brother," and trust him implicitly. He is said to be the only white man who has ever been permitted to see the sacred pipe of the Arapahoes. His position has not always been an easy one. There have been times when, had he been a man of less discretion, good-sense, and humility, he might easily have lost their confidence on the one hand, or incurred the invidious criticism of the government officials on the other.

I once said to Mr. Roberts, thinking that perhaps, with a growing family, he might wish a more comfortable work, "My dear fellow, whenever you wish to leave your present position, I am ready to give you the best parish at my disposal."

He looked at me with a sad expression, and replied, "Thank you, Bishop, but I hope you will never take me away from my Indians. If you will allow me, I prefer to spend my life here among my adopted people." It is not strange that they should love a man with such a spirit.

For some years Mr. Roberts has had associated with him in his work the Reverend Sherman Coolidge, a full-blooded Arapahoe priest. Mr. Coolidge was the son of a warrior who had been slain in a battle with the whites. His mother committed him to the care of an officer, and he was later adopted into the family of Captain and Mrs. Coolidge, of the army, who brought him up as a member of their own family. Having early expressed a desire to study for holy orders, and to return and preach the Gospel to his own people, he was sent to Shattuck School, Faribault, where Bishop Whipple took a warm personal interest in him. After being graduated at Shattuck, he entered the Seabury Divinity School, and finished the course in theology. Subsequently he pursued a post-graduate course at Hobart College. The case of the Rev. Mr. Coolidge furnishes an excellent illustration of what education and the refining influences of a Christian home may accomplish for the red-man. This worthy clergyman is, in every respect, an honor to his race. He is a cultivated, Christian gentleman. In physical form and feature he is a fine specimen of the Arapahoe tribe, tall, erect, broad-shouldered, and full-chested. His presence is at once commanding and dignified. For more than twenty years he has faithfully served his people. Recently Mr. Coolidge had the good fortune to marry a devout and accomplished young woman from New York. Miss Wetherbee had taken a course of study in the deaconess house in that city, and then went to the Wind River agency to assist the Rev. Mr. Roberts in his missionary work. She brings to the discharge of her duties intelligence and great enthusiasm, and her marriage to the Rev. Mr. Coolidge will mean much in the way of advancing the spiritual and social condition of the Indian women and children.

Such, in 1887, were the conditions, economic and religious, of the people to whom I was sent as the first missionary bishop of Wyoming and Idaho.

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