(Continued from The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (5/7)- Living with the Metis)
The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (6/7)- Fort Benton
In 1877, Brown, Olivia and their two daughters left the Metis camp in the wake of the disappearing buffalo. Brown immediately took up a very different, and far more lucrative, sort of occupation: wolfing. Wolfing was a form of wolf hunting that involved shooting a number of buffalo, poisoning their carcasses, and returning to skin the poisoned wolves that had feasted upon them. According to Brown:
“We got $2.50 a piece for [the wolf pelts]… We averaged about one thousand wolves in a winter and as we were living on buffalo meat which didn’t cost us anything and using tents or cabins we built with our own hands, our only expense was the ammunition we used for killing buffalo and the strychnine for poisoning wolves… We never wasted any ammunition on wolves. No one ever thought of shooting a wolf unless he should attack a colt or a calf or bother about the camp. “Wolfers” always used strychnine which we bought in bottles of one eighth ounce and for which we paid five and six dollars and often as high as eight dollars…
For the wolfing business we organized ourselves into small parties of four, six, or perhaps ten persons, but these were all white men. I was not associated with half-breeds after my experiences in the buffalo hunting camps. The most prominent wolfers during my time… were: Sol Abbot, Jimmy McDevitt, Van Hale, Bill Preston, and Chas. Duval…
Our plan was to poison a whole animal at one time. This was done by “spread-eagling” the carcass, that is placing the dead buffalo on its back, skinning the legs on the inside and the belly down to the ground, then butting the carcass open and removing the inside. Hearts, lights and liver were put into a tub or large box of some sort. These were cut into small pieces and a bottle of strychnine scattered over them. The poison was thoroughly mixed with these small pieces and with them was rubbed into all parts of the carcass. The meat on the ribs was cut into strips which were left attached and the two got a good rubbing. There was a regular scale to determine the quantity of strychnine necessary for poisoning a carcass. It took four bottles for a full grown bull; two bottles for a two year old of any kind; and one for a calf if we happened to kill one which was not very often.
After the carcass had been poisoned a flag, a red one if it was possible to get that colour, was placed over it till it had time to freeze solid. The object was to keep the wolves away till it was frozen. If this was not done, one or two or a half dozen wolves would eat the whole bait. A quarter or a half pound of meat (poisoned) was enough to kill a wolf and as strychnine was expensive we were careful not to waste any. It was a common thing to get twenty wolves dead the first morning after the poison had been put out. Instances had been known where fifty to eighty have been poisoned, and old Bill Martin who was my partner in the Sweet Grass Hills one winter tells me that once he got one hundred and twenty-five wolves in one week within two hundred yards of a big bull buffalo bait.”
The Murder of Louis Ell
In the spring of 1877, Brown, his family and his wolfing companions- along with all the other wolfers and trappers in the area- travelled to Fort Benton, Montana, to sell the pelts they had harvested that winter. Due to the lack of accommodations resultant of the huge influx of transients that time of year, Brown and his family opted to stay with a group of Metis who camped on the Teton River about eight kilometers northwest of the fort.
While in the Metis camp, Brown met with a well-known Montanan fur trader named Louis Ell, who encouraged the wolfer to accompany him to Fort Benton. Brown obliged. As the two men were riding, Ell insisted the Brown owed him a debt that he had neglected to pay. Brown furiously denied the allegation, and in the heat of the ensuing argument plunged a knife into the businessman’s abdomen.
Stunned, Louis Ell fell from his horse. Brown dismounted and slid his knife from the trader’s body. Ell, alive but grievously wounded, rose to his feet and stumbled towards a nearby tent, at the opening of which stood a Metis man who had witnessed the whole incident. Brown trailed close behind him, evidently intending to finish him off.
The Metis, who had since grabbed a weapon from his tent, attempted to impede the slaughter. After Brown brandished his knife and warned the man not to interfere, the Metis knocked him on his back and seized his weapon. Brown scrambled to his feet, raced back to his horse, vaulted onto his saddle and took off northeast, bound for Canada. The Metis promptly reported the incident to the authorities at Fort Benton, while Ell promptly died.
Fort Benton’s Sheriff Rowe, after learning of the murder, took off after Brown and captured him about 110 kilometers north of the fort, up the Marias River. Brown was taken back to Fort Benton and imprisoned in one of the fort’s tiny cells and was detained there for several months.
In June sometime after Brown’s capture, Sheriff Rowe was replaced by Sheriff John Healy- a former whiskey trader and co-founder of the notorious Fort Whoop-Up (which stands in present-day Lethbridge, Alberta). According to a later letter written by Healy, it appeared that the ex-entrepreneur was sympathetic to Brown’s plight.
Throughout the course of his incarceration, Brown became increasingly distraught. Whatever the source of his anxiety- be it remorse for his crime, worry for his wife and two daughters, fear of vigilante action, distress in regards to the outcome of his trial or some combination thereof- he was driven to despair. On July 23, 1877, Brown attempted suicide. In the words of a local news article:
“Brown, the prisoner confined in the Benton jail for the murder of Louis Ell, attempted suicide on Friday last week by stabbing himself with a dirk knife obtained, as it is supposed, from a fellow prisoner. When Sheriff Healy entered the jail with the prisoner’s breakfast, Brown had on an overcoat, and was walking up and down the cell keeping his hand concealed behind him. His singular appearance and strange actions at once aroused the suspicions of the Sheriff, who drew a revolver and ordered the prisoner to throw up his hands, which he did, revealing a small dirk knife in his right hand. On searching the prisoner it was found that Brown had cut himself in the left breast causing a flesh wound from which he had been bleeding profusely.”
Brown recovered from his suicide attempt in Fort Benton’s infirmary. Several months later, on November 12, 1877, he stood trial. Likely due to lack of evidence and the fact that Brown, during his imprisonment, maintained that he attacked Ell out of self-defence, the Territorial Grand Jury rendered a verdict of not guilty. In later years, Brown rarely spoke of his incident at Fort Benton, although he disclosed to his friend William McDowell Tait that “the most wonderful words in the English language were ‘Not Guilty’”.
(Continued on The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (7/7)- Waterton Lakes)
- Kootenai Brown: The Unknown Frontiersman, 1996, William Rodney