Local historian recounts story of battle involving Chief Plenty Coups

By 
Kathleen Gilluly Outlook Editor
Thursday, October 22, 2020
The headstone that sits at the base of Square Butte recognizes the two white men killed by Piegans after they tried retrieving their stolen horses, as well as several other pioneering Park City-area homesteaders. Courtesy photo

The headstone that sits at the base of Square Butte recognizes the two white men killed by Piegans after they tried retrieving their stolen horses, as well as several other pioneering Park City-area homesteaders. Courtesy photo

James O. Southworth

James O. Southworth

James O. Southworth is sharp and fit. At age 91, he still works construction, is an active member of Laurel’s American Legion and spends time volunteering and compiling stories of his pioneering family. The historian, originally from the Park City area, was one of three people awarded the Montana Historical Society’s Heritage Keeper Award for his commitment to preserving Montana’s history at the Historical Society board meeting Oct. 15. Several months ago, he was recorded on video in an interview on the 1884 gun fight at Hailstone Basin. Soon, it will be edited and available on the Outlook’s website. In the meantime, here is part of the story as told by Southworth.

“I heard the stories about this while I was growing up,” he said, “and I’ve since researched the battle. It’s interesting to note that there was a Crow camp just outside of Park City at the time. From reading the reports in the Billings Herald and Jim Annin’s book, ‘They gazed on the Beartooths,’ settlers in the area generally got along with the local Indians and vice versa.”

Southworth made it clear that there are actually two stories to tell about the battle. “The Herald covered the white man’s version,” he said. “But, you have to look at Plenty Coups’ story too.”

The battle began after the Blackfeet or Piegans had captured 50-some ponies from the Crows and the settlers at Park City in February 1884. It was bitterly cold.

According to the Herald story as read by Southworth, “[That] Saturday morning, Plenty Coos and three other Crows came to Park City and reinforced by a party of residents, including Joseph Tate and Chauncey Ames, Fred Mitchell, Phillip Sidle, Lee M. Owns, J. Cole, Libe Toulle and another man, set out in pursuit of the raiders.

“After an arduous ride of 40 miles, Tate, Ames, Sidle and Owens, who were considerably in advance, overhauled the Piegans in Hailstone basin near Painted Robe creek and came upon them in such a way as to get the drop on them.

“Believing they had the Piegans in their power, Ames lowering his rifle, said to his comrades, ‘Let us not kill them but take them prisoners.’ Tate lowered his gun also and instantly they were both shot dead by the miserable horse thieves.”

According to the Herald, Sidle, using two revolvers, fired back, “killing two Indians dead in their tracks.” Owens killed one and Plenty Coups, who had arrived on the scene, shot and killed another. The fifth got away.

“If they had just followed Plenty Coups’ signs, they may have lived,” Southworth said. “He tried to hold the white men back, but they would not listen.”

Plenty Coups was surprised by other odd things the white men did, as well. He told his biographer, Frank Linderman, about how the white men thought mostly of eating and camping during the tough journey. He told Linderman the trip was very hard for them.

The two dead men, Tate and Ames were later buried at “what was then called Round Top Butte near Park City,” said Southworth, “and the grave headstone is still there although at the turn of the century, the cemetery was moved to the present day Park City Cemetery.” The butte, now called ‘Square Butte,’ is near Park City, off of Old Highway 10.

Plenty Coups, by all accounts, managed to retrieve most of the horses and he and the remaining white men brought them and the two dead men back to Park City.

Read about Plenty Coups’ version of events as told by Southworth in next week’s edition of the Outlook.

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