Tip: Read historical nonfiction books!

Over the last few years, since I “retired” and have more time for reading, I’ve learned that historical nonfiction books are a great way to help fill in the blanks of our ancestor stories.

Let me give you a few examples.

The Conquest of the Missouri by Joseph Mills Hanson

My great great grandmother Eva (Specht) Rumping and her one year old daughter Mary Rumping (my great grandmother) travelled from St. Louis, Missouri, to Ft. Benton in the Montana Territory in 1879 aboard the steamer Rosebud. While doing a bit of research on steamboat travel during that time period, I came across this book – The Conquest of of the Missouri by Joseph Mills Hanson.

The steamer Rosebud, on the cover of The Conquest of the Missouri by Joseph Mills Hanson

The book is primarily the story of the life of Captain Grant Marsh, who was at one time captain of the Rosebud. Although my great grandmother Mary wrote about their 3-month-long journey aboard a steamboat (click here for a blog post about her journal entry), this book certainly gave me so much more detail about the challenges they most likely encountered on that trip. I wrote more about what I learned from this book in an earlier blog post – click here.

Pioneer Doctor: The Story of a Woman’s Work by Mari Graña

This book is the story of Dr. Mary Babcock (Moore) Atwater, written by her granddaughter Mari Graña.

At one point during her fascinating life, Dr. Atwater (“Mollie”) was a doctor in Marysville, Montana. Marysville is where my great great grandparents settled in the Montana Territory, beginning in the late 1870s. Although Dr. Atwater didn’t arrive in Marysville until the 1890s, the town was still a bustling gold-mining camp.

After arriving in Marysville, the author describes Mollie’s first impressions as she walked down Grand Street . . .

Marysville, that fall of 1892, was perhaps the richest little town in the United States. There was a pulse of excitement in the air. The sense of its own prosperity pervaded the town. And expectation–expectation of the fortune to be made in the mines . . .

Much of the town, however, was not fancy houses. There were an inordinate number of saloons, and here and there were piles of garbage along the road and in the side alleys. For all the town’s riches, the practical aspects of urban life left a lot to be desired.

Soon after, Dr. Atwater spotted this sign above a doorway . . .


Mollie smiled at the blatant self-importance; yet it did seem appropriate to the town’s sense of itself.

Talking to her new employer over coffee earlier that morning, she noted “the incessant thumping of a stamp mill” as it “pulsed through the town like a giant hammering heartbeat.”

Tell me,” she asked, “does the pounding ever stop?”
Frankly, no–except on Sundays. There are mines and mills all over these hills. But you’ll get so used to the thumping that after a while you’ll only notice it when it stops. And at night the rhythm lulls one to sleep.

I admit I had given some thought as to what Marysville was like in its heyday, but I never thought about the “incessant thumping of a stamp mill”. Click here for a YouTube video of what appears to be a five-stamp mill. (And if you’re really interested, click here for a YouTube video that shows a demonstration of a model stamp mill.) The Drumlummon, the largest but by no means the only, stamp mill in Marysville at the time had 110 stamps going day and night.

I really cannot imagine that. Day and night, except Sundays. Month after month, year after year. It certainly makes me appreciate in vivid detail what life in a booming gold town must have felt like.

The Road to Virginia City : The Diary of James Knox Polk Miller by Andrew Rolle

The book I’m currently reading is The Road to Virginia City, which chronicles the Overland Trail adventures of Jams Knox Polk Miller from 1864 to 1867. Again, I came across this book when I became curious about how my great grandfather David Lyman Blacker made his trip from St. Joe, Missouri, to Denver, probably in about 1860, and then on to Virginia City, Montana Territory, in the summer of 1864.

Just a few excerpts from this book beautifully illustrate the point of this blog post.

Early on in his journey, James spent a few days in St. Joe, Missouri where he stayed at the Patee House (now a National Historic Landmark). There he partnered with two other men with whom he continued his journey. The following financial arrangement was made on August 13, 1864 . . .

They are to put in $325 towards getting up an outfit to cross the plains and I am to furnish the balance of about $425. I to pay them .40 cents per lb. for my baggage over 25 lbs., that is their share of it as 325 is to 425. Found their names to be Geo. W. Brown & Edward Rushlow & from Rochester, N.Y. Upon concluding an arrangement we purchased a span of Bay horses for $400, Harness $35, and I purchased a fine saddle horse as before concluded, $200, looked at some wagons, made some purchases & returning to the Hotel.[1. According to a footnote, “It was standard procedure for western parties to go to towns near the Missouri River like St. Joseph . . . to be outfitted for the journey by wagon, caravan, or pack train across the plains.”]

My great grandfather lived in St. Joe for several years prior to moving further west, first to Denver in about 1860 and ultimately to the Montana Territory in the summer of 1864. It seems likely he would have likewise purchased supplies for his trip, and possibly even partnered with several others similar to James, in St. Joe.

Jame and his two partners finally began their trip in earnest on August 16, 1864 . . .

Arriving at Walthena a small town the chief point of interest being the well where we procured water for our horses, and a grocery store where we purchased a faucet for our Molasses Keg.


The woman my great grandfather David Lyman Blacker eventually married in 1871 (my great grandmother Ada Cordelia Buchenau) was from a town in Kansas called Wathena. A footnote in the book describes “Walthena” as being “one and one-half miles south of Bellemont near a bend of the Missouri River.” I was unable to determine the location of Bellemont but Wathena is definitely “near a bend of the Missouri River” and only about 7 1/2 miles due west of St. Joe. So it seems likely they would have been able to make that distance on the first day of their trip.

September 11th . . .

Passed the grave into which eleven bodies were thrown & buried, killed by Indians about three weeks ago. They were attacked by 500 Indians and all but the wagon master massacred. No names over the grave. Nought to tell who they were and only a mound and stick to tell that any one was there buried. They are upon the roadside in a mound slightly elevated and partly surrounded by a ravine.

On September 25th . . .

Met train of wagons from Virginia City crowded with men returning, not having made their expected strikes and returning in disgust–and in want. Had to guard mules untill [sic] after supper. After taking a light supper I reclined to the Arms of Morpheus[2. “Sound asleep, most likely dreaming”, per https://www.bookbrowse.com/] with my arms (Fire Arms) under my pillow.

September 26th . . .

When out of wood we used weeds, sticks, and Buffalo Chips.

September 29th . . .

Supped on Antelope meat, Potatoes, Onions, Bread, Syrup & coffee.

October 1st . . .

Ed proposed to take a drink of whiskey and not withstanding my declining fixed enough for both and, in my declining, drank it all. Shortly afterwards, disputing about some trifling matter, he became half crazy with anger . . . I made up my mind that one of us would need take a bullett [sic] before it was quieted as that is the fashionable way to settle disputes in this country. Waiting untill [sic] he had “blowed out” I informed him that he acted as if under the influence of liquor but that if he wanted to make a quarrel it must be a “serious” one as I would not descend to a fist fight. This somewhat cooled him and gave me an opportunity to talk to him and in a few moments the man was crying as if his heart would break.

October 3rd . . .

Purchased a ticket here for $107 to Salt Lake. Slept all day among the straw on the bottom of the stage, I being the only passenger. Dined at North Platte, good dinner. Bought a Buffalo robe for $8.

October 4th . . .

We are now across the Great Alkali Desert watered by Bitter Creek. The water is miserable and in many places can not be used, being fatal to man & beast . . . Reached Rock Springs at about 11 o’clock, 15 miles from Salt Springs. Bought a pint of whiskey for which I paid $5 and spilled 3/4 of it. Weather warm. No people in Mail Stations, no plant but sage. We meet hundreds of people almost daily coming from Virginia City out of provisions, some in starving condition. Arrived at Green River where the land lady, being sick, had “pickings” for dinner. Rather tough.

October 7th . . .

. . . reached Salt Lake at about 11 o’clock.

James stayed in Salt Lake City for six months before moving on to the Montana Territory. He arrived there in the summer of 1865, about a year after my great grandfather arrived. I look forward to reading his adventures for that portion of the trip between Salt Lake and Virginia City!

But as you can see, I already have a very detailed idea of what that trip must have been like for my great grandfather.

In the future I plan to read nonfiction accounts of Irish and Swedish immigrants to the United States in the late 19th century. And recently I learned that one of my ancestors may have been a French Huguenot. I know nothing about French Huguenots. At least not yet!

How about you? Have you read any nonfiction historical books that relate either directly or indirectly to your ancestors? I’d love to hear about it!

© 2017 Copyright by Lark M. Dalin Robart. All rights reserved.


This is the house that Jack built

As part of a photo challenge that I’m participating in, I posted these pictures and story to my Instagram feed today. And I thought I’d share the same here.

Today is Day 12 of this month’s #genealogyphotoaday challenge and the word is “neighborhood”.

“The house that Jack built” in 1935/1936 at the corner of 7th and Davis in Helena, Montana.

This is the house my grandfather Jack Blacker built after the 1935 earthquake that destroyed my grandparents’ home. (I’m in the process of writing a more detailed blog post about this event, so stay tuned!) The house sits at the corner of 7th and Davis in Helena, MT.

“The house that Jack built,” as my mother lovingly refers to it, is located in Helena’s east side neighborhood, just around the corner from the much larger home my grandfather grew up in, located at 335 No. Rodney.

The house my grandfather grew up in, located on No. Rodney.

The house on Rodney was built in the mid 1880s by his parents Ada and David Lyman Blacker.

My mother jotted down this memory regarding the neighborhood . . .

[My father] used to take all 5 of us [my mom, her 2 brothers, and 2 sisters] over to a neighborhood bakery at 11:00 p.m. at night on weekends and get two loaves of fresh bread. Warm, right out of the oven. And then we would go home and butter it and eat all of it.

Follow me on instagram @8roads2montana for more photos and stories!


Photo attribution: both photos were taken by the author.

The question of the left-handed plow

Browsing the newspaper collection at the Library of Congress Chronicling America website, I came across this tongue-in-cheek article[1.Daily inter mountain. (Butte, Mont.), 08 July 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85053057/1899-07-08/ed-1/seq-2/>] from an 1899 issue of The Daily Inter Mountain, a Butte, Montana, newspaper.

Here are a few excerpts:


During a temporary lull in business a Helena lawyer discovered that the plow on the great seal of the State of Montana is a left-handed contrivance, and raises the question as to whether such a thing as a left-handed plow ever existed. Several graduates from various agricultural colleges were cross-examined, but as they had never seen a plow they could not settle the question. A Dutchman who had plowed the raging main on his trip from the Faderland refused to give expert testimony, and finally the editor of the Helena Herald volunteered the information that a corn plow would throw dirt in both directions, being ambidextrous, so to speak, and possibly the designer of the great seal was right after all.

The Montana Territory Coat of Arms (illustrated, 1876), by Henry Mitchell. Restoration by Godot13 [Public domain or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The article continues, laying out the argument for one opinion, then the other. And finally concludes that left-handed plows may be found in the Alleghney mountains . . .

. . . where the horses’ legs grow longer on one side so they can walk around the hills with impunity, and where the farms are fastened onto the mountainsides with stakes driven into each corner. If such plows are not found in that part of the country, the Inter Mountain will suggest that Governor Smith loses no time in abolishing the great seal of the state of Montana. What is the use of having a right-handed seal with a left-handed plow on it?[2. There is a discussion of the various versions of the State Seal at the Montana Secretary of State’s web site but there is no reference to the “left-handed plow” controversy.]


On this day in 1917 | Montana in WWI: “rounding up the draft duckers”

From The Butte Daily Post on this day in 1917 comes this article on men called for examination for the “national army”.[1. The Butte daily post. (Butte, Mont.), 07 Aug. 1917. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85053058/1917-08-07/ed-1/seq-1/>]

I’ve transcribed some excerpts from the article, which began on page 1 of the paper that day, and continued on page 9.

“Here are some interesting figures gleaned from the
first two days’ examination of men for the national
army, as taken from the figures in the hands of the
county exemption board:

Out of 488 men called for examination in the first two
days, 104 failed to report at the courthouse for exemp-
Out of the first 150 men given preliminary examina-
tion on eyesight and hearing only four men failed to
come up to the necessary qualification on these two
Out of the 198 men examined on Monday by the phy-
sicians but 37 returned to the county board’s offices
to make inquiry concerning exemption claims
Tentative figures on the 198 men examined Monday
are that but 22 will fail to qualify physically.
A majority of physical disqualifications will be on the
grounds of hernia or chronic stomach trouble.
Only six men have been suspected of trying to “fake”
in the examination of the first 198 me.
It takes an average of 1.4 minutes to examine a man
at the hospital where the examinations are conducted.”

[continuing on  p. 9]

“Consideration of the cases of 104
men who have not reported or ex-
amination will not be undertaken until
Thursday morning, when the board
members will officially check over the
names of those who have reported for
examination. A few of the missing
men, it is known, have enlisted since
registration day. Two men named in
the first two days’ call have died since
registration day.[1. Sadly, some of the young men who registered for the draft on June 5th died in the Granite Mountain Speculator mine fire on June 8th. In all, 163 men died that night or in the following days. Here is a card that was filled out by Harry H. Sangwin. “United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 7 August 2017), Harry H. Sangwin, 1917-1918; citing Butte City, Montana, United States, NARA microfilm publication M1509 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 1,684,100.] Two men have been
officially reported sick and uanble to
reach the courthouse. A few did not
report because of insufficient knowl-
edge of draft rules, although the law
provides no leniency for men who ab-
sent themselves from examination by
their ignorance.

As fast as the missing men are
checked off as failing to report and
as having no excuse for absence, the
board will turn the names, descriptions
and addresses over to the federal gov-
ernment. Federal court trial or court-
martial will be in store then for the
missing ones. As soon as the exami-
nations are finished over the country,
the government will start a systematic
campaign of rounding up the “draft

Said He Was Sick.

One amusing incident happened at
the courthouse this morning. A young
foreigner, standing in a group of his
friends, was the subject of much
“He say him sick,” said one of the
companions. “He tell the men his
stomach bad and he can’t fight. He
could eat nails and not be hurt.”
A young native American stepped
into the group.
“Look here,” he told the young for-
eigner. “If you are trying to fake
sickness I’m going to knock your block
off and make you really sick. Some of
you fellows who ran away from your
own country come over here for free-
dom are trying to duck your duty. But
we fellows are going to see that every
one of you does his bit for the country.
We are certainly not going to go to
war and fight for a bunch of foreigners
who have come over to enjoy our coun-