Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Girl From the Gulches

Early on in high school--either the summer I turned 14 or the summer I turned 15--my summer job came to me through my dad from an associate of his.  An interesting man--I think it would be fair to call him "a character"--who had a lot of money and an interest in local history, had come across a manuscript of a biography of Mary Ronan.  Mary Ronan was the wife of Peter Ronan, one of the first Indian Affairs officers on the Flathead reservation, during the second half of the 19th century.  She had been raised primarily by her father (her mother died when she was quite young), an Irish immigrant who made his living by working as a freighter in Montana's gold boom-towns.  She came of age in Virginia City, Montana and Last Chance Gulch (Helena), and became a young bride to Peter, whom she had met many years before when he was a hopeful young gold miner.

The manuscript that was handed to me was an unbound photocopy of a typewriter-written autobiography that Mrs. Ronan had written with the aid of her daughter during her twilight years.  I was to scan it page by page, and then edit any mistakes in the text in WordPerfect.  The software was having so much trouble translating the pages into readable text that it quickly became apparent that it would be much faster to simply retype the entire book.  So that's what I did.  My trained but still very unpracticed fingers learned to type quite fast that summer, something I am still grateful for.  And since I had to read the entire book--very slowly at first, while my fingers learned to catch up to the speed of my reading--I learned a lot.  She had a fascinating life, and one that by nearly anyone's standards today would be considered rather difficult.

The one thing that has always stayed in my mind, however, was something that probably wouldn't seem that notable to many who read the book (it was eventually published by a different party, under the name Girl From the Gulches, an editorial choice I'm not fond of.  Its a perfectly good title, but I much preferred the original title Not in Precious Metals Alone, from a quote that was on the title page: "Notwithstanding the richness of the Rocky Mountains in gold, it is not in precious metals alone that they present attraction to the seeker after fortune."  That title, and quote, capture much more effectively the hold that Montana, and the Rocky Mountain west, have on those of us who know it and love it, and conveyed better why she loved the hard life she chose.  But I digress--sort of a speciality of mine.)

When Peter was initially appointed to the BIA post on the reservation (just a few years after the Salish had moved to the reservation), he went to Arlee ahead of his family to try to make something of a home in what was still very much a wild, remote place, before bringing his wife and child along.  So Mary made the trip by stage from Helena to Missoula (her descriptions of 1890s Missoula are fabulous, especially given that the whole city was on edge because a warring band of Blackfeet were headed that direction), and then from Missoula to Arlee.  She described the trip north from Missoula to Arlee vividly.  It took multiple days (its about 25 miles), mostly due to the extreme difficulty of getting over Evaro pass.

I grew up in St. Ignatius, another 10-15 miles north of Arlee.  I almost always think of Mary Ronan as I make the trip to Missoula: an easy, 45 minute drive, where the biggest hardship I endure going over Evaro pass is losing my cell signal for about 10 minutes.  I thought about her today as I drove over that pass twice--the road gradely so nicely and so gradually that it didn't even occur to me that it was a pass until I was about 12.  She talked about how exhausting and uncomfortable and slow the trip was--how much she worried about her tiny, new baby because it was impossible to actually stay on the seat of the stage with all the bouncing about, being thrown all over when they were making any progress at all.  And this was not a woman unaccustomed to the the rigors of the west or mountain travel.

So, as I thought of her this afternoon, I said a silent prayer of gratitude for pioneers, for all those who went before, blazing the way for those of us who would follow (even if our following is done in a Dodge Caravan rather than a stage coach or a handcart).  Earlier in the morning, I had been visiting with my 93-year-old great aunt, who told me about her great-grandfather who sailed away from the comfort of England to find a new adventure in South Africa, and then about his son, her grandfather, who was born aboard a ship, and eventually pulled a handcart across the great plains and walked into the Salt Lake Valley.  I have many ancestors with similar stories, and I am grateful for the many sacrifices that they made that have provided me with the life I have.  And I am grateful to women like Mary Ronan, with whom I share no blood or religion, only a deep love a particular place in the world.  The place that I have so loved for all my life was still mostly wilderness when she got there, and she was one of the first non-Indian women who made a home there, planted a garden, raised a family, and helped to tame the land for all of us who would follow her.  My grandparents first came to the valley by train when they were young children, and I am grateful for all that they did not just in building houses, raising livestock, making roads, logging the mountains, but in all they did to build real communities.  Many of the houses and fences and roads have been changed or torn down, but the fruits of their labors in building the community are still evident today, and bless my life continually.

On this 24th of July, I am deeply grateful for those pioneers who walked, hobbled and pulled their way into the Salt Lake Valley (and then into southern Utah, Mexico, Idaho. . . .) and who lived their faith so righteously and humbly, but I am also grateful for all those many other pioneers who have contributed to this wonderful little life that I love so much.

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