On August 30th, 1979, a group of hardy adventurers left Dewey Hart Ranch in the Larb Hills, Phillips County, Montana, in covered wagons and other horse-drawn vehicles to meet the Milk River and travel along it to Malta. The goal was to experience the wagon train as Montana pioneers once did, and to arrive in Malta in time to join the celebration of Labor Day, a trip that would take five days. It was the 10th anniversary of the Milk River Wagon Train. Participants had to bring their own horses, wagons, and supplies for the journey. Among the travelers were two folklorists, Kay Young and Michael Crummett, who had brought cameras and sound recording equipment to document the trip for the American Folklife Center’s Montana Folklife Survey. The wagon train is preparing to go again at the end of August.
Most of what is now Montana east of its western mountains was acquired through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but settlement by European Americans began in the 1860s. Gold was discovered in what is now far western Montana, in what was then Oregon Territory, in 1862. Prospectors coming from the east needed routes across eastern Montana’s plains. Those interested in the business of providing support for those making the trek west helped to create towns along the wagon train routes. Finding and developing the routes across the plains was of great interest to all concerned in the effort, including the Federal Government. James Liberty Fisk, a former Army officer, led several wagon trains across Montana in the employ of the Federal Government. One of his expeditions in 1866 traveled along the Milk River, one of several developing routes across the plains.
Today’s Milk River Wagon Train is a reenactment of that period of settlement in the 19th century. All reenactments have their own formal or informal guidelines about the players’ actions, costumes, and equipment, with groups like Civil War reenactors maximizing the effort to represent the past. The Milk River crew meets that effort halfway: they prefer antique wagons, appropriate draft horses or mules to pull them, and authentic trail equipment. Period dress, however, is not required although there are plenty of cowboy hats in use. The most treasured part of the wagon train experience is not something that can be seen or read about in a book. It is the knowledge of how to work as part of a wagon train team: driving wagons, repairing wagons, riding horses along side the wagons to protect the travelers, as well as training, working with, and taking care of the teams of horses or mules that pull the wagons. These things are taught first-hand from generation to generation. Even in the 19th century, the knowledge of how to manage a wagon train, requiring all the skills mentioned and more, was not common. That was why trail bosses like James Liberty Fisk were needed.
In 1979 the trail boss for the Milk River Wagon Train was Bud Hasler, who passed away in 2009. He was also one of the people who came up with the plan for the first wagon train. In this recording, made just after the wagon train met its destination in Malta, Bud Hasler and “Young” Billy Young talk with Kay Young and Michael Crummett in Stockman’s Bar about how the wagon train got started.
In a later section of this interview, Kay Young asks where participants in the wagon train get their wagons, leading to an interesting discussion. There are quite a variety of horse-drawn vehicles in the wagon train, including a sheep wagon, covered wagons, farm wagons, buckboards, buggies, and even a stage coach. As you will hear, there is quite a lot of kidding between Hasler and Billy Young, as well as joking comments about other members of the wagon train. There are also a few swear words in this segment.
This recording shows something important about eastern Montana as the birthplace of this wagon train. The spare western plains actually have some surprising resources, not the least of which is the knowledge of people who live there. Old wagons and buggies can be salvaged and repaired, if one is not fortunate enough to have inherited one. When Hasler says he pulled one out of a coulee, he means a deep ravine. Hasler also tells of a buggy he built “from scratch,” which also speaks to local knowledge. Veterinarian “Doc” Curtis is jokingly accused of “stealing” the chuck wagon he drove, which may simply mean that he purchased or borrowed it. Curtis was one of the founding members of the wagon train, but younger than either Hasler or Young, and consequently he endured a lot of kidding on this 1979 trip. He not only drove the chuck wagon but provided its use for the wagon train. He can be seen helping folks to get lunch in the rain in this photo (he is in the jean jacket and hat). When the subject comes to spreading the tradition farther, Hasler encourages Michael and Kay to spread the idea of having wagon trains beyond Montana, and asks if Kay could start a wagon train where she lives. Kay explains that they do not have draft horses where she lives in Nebraska. Some draft horse breeds are much less common since the introduction of tractors and other motorized farm vehicles, and are no longer found in some parts of the country. Finally, there were enough older people who had experience in driving a team hauling a wagon, and even some not so elderly who had learned from their elders, so that the knowledge needed to drive wagons makes this adventure possible.
Learning how to salvage or build 19th century wagons provides an important education for wagoners. With people of varying levels of experience on the wagon train, animals that may not always do what they are told, and the uncertainties of the trail through the plains, things can happen, and they do. There were two crashes during the 1979 wagon train. In one a wagon hit a rock and fell over on its side. Because of the way wagons were built, it was possible to unload it, take it apart, right the base with the wheels, and then reassemble everything so that the wagon train could get back on the road. The other accident was much more serious: the driver lost control of the horses, who took off, and then bolted again. The box of the wagon was separated from the base as the wagon went through a fence, while the wheel assembly wound up in a deep ravine and had to be towed out. In that case the wagon was temporarily reassembled and then taken to a shop that had the tools needed for repairs to be made. The experienced members of the wagon train made the repairs themselves, providing the fieldworkers with an opportunity to document the process, learning still more about what makes a wagon work. So in a sense the Milk River Wagon Train is not only a reenactment of wagon trains of the past, it is also a school intended to pass on the knowledge of how to do the various tasks needed to be part of a successful wagon train.
There are many more things for participants in the wagon train to experience and learn, and fun to be had as well. Folklorists Michael Crummett and Kay Young could not record the events while they worked as part of the wagon train during the day, although they took some pictures. They got out their recording equipment in the evening of the first night on the trail and recorded people singing songs and telling stories around the camp fire. This is the first of the recordings they made that night. It begins with a Montana version of the folksong sung by Art Warren, “Starving to Death on a Government Claim,” that he attributes to Frank Baker, named in the first line of the song. It is an old pioneer song that dates to the Homestead Act of 1862 and has had its lyrics adapted to make it a song about pioneering in different states. A version folklorist Vance Randolph learned growing up in Kansas and sings in the recording at the link starts with “My name is Frank Taylor.”
Today there are wagon trains organized for tourists, by small and large companies making a profit on giving people a wagon train experience. But what is happening in Montana is much rarer, a wagon train that is wholly home-made, relying on local knowledge passed on over generations.
This August, the Milk River Wagon Train makes its 49th journey, and hopes to inspire the 50th next year. Although the group has worked to pass on the knowledge of running wagon trains to the younger participants over the years, the loss of most of the original members has had a cost. The future of the tradition beyond its 50th year will require a new generation of wagoners to take up the reins of the horse teams. The staff of the American Folklife Center wishes them well, and hope that the documentation of the 10th anniversary trip, now online, can help to provide inspiration for future journeys.