Historian tells Plenty Coups side of gun fight at Hailstone Basin

By 
Kathleen Gilluly
Thursday, October 29, 2020
The original grave of Joseph Tate and Chauncey Ames, the two men killed by horse thieves, near Square Butte when it was dedicated in the 1950s. The photo is used courtesy of Burt Mitchell, who said his sister was in the band and his grandfather is also in the picture.

The original grave of Joseph Tate and Chauncey Ames, the two men killed by horse thieves, near Square Butte when it was dedicated in the 1950s. The photo is used courtesy of Burt Mitchell, who said his sister was in the band and his grandfather is also in the picture.

James (Jim) O. Southworth, 91, is a recent receipient of the Montana Historical Society’s Heritage Keeper Award, continues to work and volunteer and is also active as a member of Laurel’s American Legion Post.

James (Jim) O. Southworth, 91, is a recent receipient of the Montana Historical Society’s Heritage Keeper Award, continues to work and volunteer and is also active as a member of Laurel’s American Legion Post.

Plenty Coups

Plenty Coups

“Plenty Coups was probably the most important Indian Chief ever, well in Montana certainly,” begins Jim Southworth’s narration of the gun fight at Hail Stone Basin. “He proved his worth to the Indians by collecting coups in acts of bravery and he always tried to get along with the Whites.”

Having grown up near Park City, South worth had long heard the stories of the White men killed by the Piegans and had visited their burial site by the base of what is now called ‘Square Butte,’ off of Old Highway 10, east of Park City. He retold the stories at the Outlook office recently and a video of the interview is being prepared and will be available online soon.

In 1884, at the time of the gun fight, Plenty Coups was 36-year-old and living at the Crow encampment south of Clark’s Fork River near Rock Creek. He had grown up living a traditional life, warring and hunting; later he had visions of the future, setting him apart from other young Indians, and began collecting coups, or acts of bravery. At 28 or 29-years-old, Plenty Coups had been named Chief. He was the last Chief to be so named by other Chiefs.

But, in February of 1884, it was bitterly cold and the ground was covered with heavy snow. Plenty Coups’ camp had about 40 lodges and a number of horses, said Southworth.

“The warriors or scouts had come and told Plenty Coups that 50-some horses had been stolen by the Piegans or Blackfeet,” Southworth said. “They had to go catch some good horses from those they had left to take up the chase.”

Reading from Plenty Coups’ account to his biographer, Frank Linderman, Southworth continued, “‘Where Park City now stands we came to a few houses, and the white men who lived in them told us the Pecunies, or somebody, had taken most of their horses too. We talked to them as best we could with signs and a little English, and at last four white men who had lost good horses wanted to go along with us to get their stolen property. I believed them able to take care of themselves and agreed, which was one of the most foolish things I ever did.

“‘They began to show me this soon after we started. Their horses had been eating hay and oats in a house, while ours had been pawing snow for grass in the windy hills. Naturally their horses could travel faster than ours, but because the trail was likely to be a long one I tried to hold the white men back, telling them to save their animals for save their animals for the trouble ahead. They would not listen but rode on, while we walked, until their animals grew tired. Then the white men camped. When I passed them by their fire they wished me to stay with them, but I told them the Pecunies would not camp and that if we expected to catch them we must keep going.”’

That was just the beginning of the rough journey to reclaim the stolen horses, said Southworth.

“The White men confounded Plenty Coups,” he said. “They didn’t listen to him and they had a long way to go.” Southworth thinks the group went after the thieves by navigating through Red and King Gulch, which today is accessed via roadway from Buffalo Trail north of Laurel and then Clapper Flat Road to the west of it.

By the time Plenty Coup passed the White men’s camp, he knew better than to trust their instincts.

“Plenty Coups kept pushing on. He had three other Indians with him and they knew they had to keep going and couldn’t stop with the White men,” said Southworth. “Plenty Coups said, ‘I saw they were a hinderance instead of a help, and that, if left to themselves, they would never in this life catch a Pecunie horse thief.”’

According to Southworth, the White men caught up the next afternoon. “But all they talked about was eating and camping again. Plenty Coups pretended not to hear them.”

Southworth said the Linderman account tells of Plenty Coups stopping near the headwaters of the Musselshell River to let his men’s horses rest. He then scouted ahead and became suspicious of a place in the rim rock. There were horses above it.

Southworth, reading from Plenty Coups account, said, “‘Not daring to trust the white men to do the right thing, I hurried back to where they were waiting with Plain Bull. ‘Stay here,’ I signed to them. ‘I will go ahead now and steal their guns before we attack them, if I can.’ But I could not hold my white friends. they were unmanageable, and got on their horses to charge the camp in that dim light.

“‘I ran ahead, waving them back, but they followed on horseback and began to yell. Yes, I am telling you the truth; they began to yell, and I dodged behind a boulder, leaving them out there sitting on their horses and yelping like coyotes.

“‘They did not shout long. The Pecunies were not fools. I soon saw rifles poking over the rim rock, one of which spurted fire. Down went a white man with a bullet over his eye.”’

Soon after, one of the White men hightailed it away on foot and another was shot. Afterwards, Plenty Coups killed one of the thieves and wounded another before loading the dead men on their horses. Before the journey back could begin they were shot at by a group of White men who had come to help. Then they set up camp, found the runaway White man and Plenty Coups rounded up the stolen horses and began leading the group slowly back to Park City.

“‘It was a hard journey for these white men,”’ read Southworth. “‘Two whole days and nights, with little rest, took us to Park City, the white men’s village, and it was there I learned that white women mourn as ours do. My heart fell to the ground when I heard them crying and wailing for their men, who need not have died if only they had used their heads a little. I do not like to fight with white men.”’

For his role in preserving Montana history, Southworth was awarded the Montana Historical Society’s Heritage Keeper Award Oct. 15.

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