Montana river yields 19th-century shotgun to ponder
BONNER, Mont. (AP) — Someone dropped, chucked or dunked a double-barreled shotgun in the Blackfoot River long ago.
We’ll never know who or when, but the barrels of the gun itself, rescued in pieces from the river bank, tell some of its story.
By faint but telltale stamps, authorities have dated it back to the mid-19th century, years before there was a Montana and decades before there was a lumber mill here.
“Just round it off at 1850 or thereabouts,” said Lloyd Priest of Florence. “It could be a little older or a little newer.”
It was a sure-fire treasure for Darin Wicks when he spotted the back half of the double barrels in 2013.
Scouring of the river after the 2008 removal of the Milltown Dam a mile downstream was uncovering any number of metal scrap, wagon wheels, frayed cables, horseshoes, saw blades and the like.
“It really was a scrap heap here,” Wicks said, overlooking the steep river bank behind the new KettleHouse Brewing Co.
He’s an artist in architectural iron and runs Hellgate Forge, in what once served as a blacksmith shop for the Anaconda Copper Co. mill.
When Wicks found the business end of the shotgun in 2015 less than an arm’s throw from the first discovery, it wasn’t obvious what it was.
“For one thing I couldn’t remember where I had the first one, so it took me awhile to get them together,” he said.
When he did, “it was pretty apparent that I found two parts of the same gun,” Wicks said.
To the sculptor and welder in him, it was a thing of beauty.
A percussion shotgun as opposed to the earlier flintlock, it was crafted at least in part in Birmingham, England, a center of the world’s gun-manufacturing industry dating back to the 1700s.
“It was all made by hand. There wasn’t a lathe or even a machinist involved. It was all one-offs,” Wicks said. “All the material has this intense character, some from rusting in the river and some just how it was made. It’s wrought iron, not steel, and when you make something out of it you can’t fake it.”
Wicks did some preliminary research into the gun’s origins with unsatisfactory results. Two winters ago he dropped it off down the street to the Bonner Milltown History Center.
“They just took off with it,” he said.
In particular, Norm Jacobson went to town. A retired Missoula high school teacher, amateur historian and researcher, and a long-time volunteer at Travelers’ Rest State Park, Jacobson showed the shotgun barrels to a handful of experts in his world. Priest is one of Travelers’ Rest’s most esteemed Lewis and Clark re-enactors as hunter-scout George Drouillard, and his demonstrations usually have a firearms theme to them.
Using markings on the barrels of a tiny ram’s head, the number 17 and, especially, a small crown-and-cross stamp, Priest narrowed the gun to a “later style” Birmingham gun.
“Many of the old English shotguns, rifles, pistols, etc., had parts made in Birmingham, even though the barrels were marked London,” he said in handwritten note to Jacobson.
The ram’s head appears to signify the company that made the gun, Jacobson said. He believes the “17” refers to the gauge of the steel, not the gauge of the gun itself.
“The way the hanger is welded to the barrels tells them that whoever worked on this shotgun was a good gunsmith,” Jacobson said.
“You’d have to be,” said Wicks.
The unique music venue in a former log yard that opened to rave reviews signals yet another step in the reinvention of this company town on the Blackfoot.
Nick Checota, who conceived of and built the KettleHouse Amphitheater, hailed the location for its scenic and recreational attributes. The shotgun barrel pieces in safekeeping at the Bonner Milltown History Center are also reminders of the rich and varied history of the lower Blackfoot.
Here was one of the ancient roads to the buffalo for mountain tribes, a hunting and trade route that led to and from the Missoula Valley and points west.
It became an industrial site in the 1880s when the Big Blackfoot Milling Company started churning out wood products, and has remained as such, albeit with some innovative twists lately.
How and when did the antique shotgun find its way to these parts?
“It’s one of those things,” Priest said. “If that gun could talk it’d probably tell some interesting stories. All we can do is look at it and speculate.”
It’s not clear how late in the 19th or 20th centuries the Birmingham double-barreled shotgun was made in England. As a lighter shotgun, possibly a 20-gauge, it would have been a common weapon on the frontier.
“It’s your utility gun,” Wicks said. “If you’re close enough you could shoot a deer with it, kill a beaver, kill all kinds of varmints, grouse, people. You could probably shoot a ball wrapped in a wad or just birdshot.”
The fur trading era was pretty much over by 1850, Priest pointed out, but the British Hudson’s Bay Co. was still active in Canada.
“It could have come from up north of the border, and possibly some Indians might have got hold of it,” said Priest. “They liked a smooth-bore gun a lot of times. It was easy to load and they weren’t too fussy what you put in them.”
While it doesn’t happen as much these days, he added, “down through the years they’ve found a lot of traps and old firearms that dated to the fur trade, even flintlocks and things that could have gone back to Lewis and Clark’s time.”
Angus McDonald completed the Hudson’s Bay post of Fort Connah near St. Ignatius in 1847.
“They imported smooth-bore firearms, knives and axes, anything that was needed on the frontier,” Priest said.
Fort Owen in the Bitterroot Valley and Fort Benton on the Missouri were in the gun-trading business in the 1850s as well. White settlers began populating the Missoula valley in earnest in the 1860s upon the establishment of Hellgate Village and Missoula Mills. Among other European influences in the Bonner area was the winter camp of Lt. John Mullan’s road-building crew in 1861-62.
“Then you had Duncan McDonald. He was quite an active trader in the 1860s, ’70s and ’80s,” pointed out Joe McDonald of Ronan, a great-grandson of Angus McDonald who’s active with the Fort Connah Restoration Society.
After Fort Connah closed in 1872, Duncan McDonald opened a store at the Old Agency southwest of Arlee that was “quite a good one,” Joe McDonald said. Alex and T.J. “Jacques” DeMers had successful mercantile operations in Frenchtown, on the Flathead Reservation and at the head of Flathead Lake starting in the 1880s, and the Missoula Mercantile Co. was amassing its own empire by then.
A dam was constructed at Bonner to hold logs from river drives in 1884, and the mill went into operation in 1886 as a company town grew up around it.
Wicks thinks the gun found its way to the river after that. Early residents of Bonner were certainly shotgun hunters, he reasoned.
The two barrel pieces are nearly equal in size, which is a clue for him.
“What happens with these old barrels is people get an old one, restore it, and then they want to go and use it,” he said. “They load it with more of a hotter charge and it blows apart. I think maybe it blew apart and someone chucked it in the river.”
Wicks didn’t have to give the shotgun pieces to the history center, but he said he’s glad he did. It’s a mysterious piece of history.
If he kept it, he said, “I’d end up making it into a high-end piece of furniture and some rich guy would have got it and nobody would know about it.”
Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com