The next time the line is too long at the Old Faithful Visitor Center toilet or the traffic has slowed to a crawl in in the Hayden Valley because of a bison jam, consider the plight of one of Yellowstone National Park’s early tourists, George Cowan.
The 35-year-old Radersburg attorney was visiting the park with his 24-year-old wife, Emma, and seven other family members and friends in August 1877. They were visiting to see the incredible geysers, hot springs and views, to escape a grasshopper infestation back home and to celebrate a second wedding anniversary. Yellowstone had been designated the nation’s first national park only five years earlier and was still undeveloped.
The Radersburg Party’s timing was unfortunate. A group of Nez Perce Indians were traveling through Yellowstone at the same time. Beginning in June the Indians — about 250 warriors and 500 women, children, elderly and a herd of about 2,000 horses — had fled northeast Oregon after some young warriors’ attack on white settlers. Several skirmishes occurred as the U.S. Army and volunteers pursued the Indians as they sought refuge.
By the time they arrived in Yellowstone the Nez Perce were in mourning. Only two weeks earlier a surprise attack by U.S. Army forces — near what is now the community of Wisdom — resulted in the death of 89 tribal members, the majority of them women, children and elderly. The attack, now known as the Battle of the Big Hole, and subsequent fights with Gen. Oliver Howard’s troops, left some of the Indian travelers hostile toward other whites, no matter how agreeable they may have seemed.
Entering into this unfortunate scenario were Cowan and the Radersburg Party, who were camped along Tangle Creek in the Lower Geyser Basin — near where Firehole Lake Drive is now — when a small band of Nez Perce entered camp.
“It’s a bucolic area now,” said Alicia Murphy, Yellowstone historian, “but it’s easy to imagine when you’re sitting next to the creek what the camping party must have felt.
“I think that area is very evocative.”
A few braves either broke into the campers’ sugar and flour or were being given provisions by another member of the Radersburg Party, depending on the account. Angered that there wouldn’t be enough for his own group, Cowan forcefully halted the handout and shooed the Indians away. After packing up their gear, the campers began traveling north in their two wagons and on horseback when they were blocked near what is now Nez Perce Creek by about 75 Indians — including Chief Joseph — from going any farther.
Perhaps fearing the whites would notify the Army of their whereabouts, the Nez Perce forced the travelers to ride with them as they moved east up the creek drainage on what is now the Mary Mountain Trail.
“In my opinion, the Indians were fearful for their lives,” said historian Elizabeth Watry, author of the book “Women in Wonderland” which recounts the Cowans’ trip.
“It was just bad timing,” she said.
When the route became impassable to the wagons because of fallen trees, the campers gathered what little gear they could carry and continued on by horseback. The wagons were overturned, looted and disabled by some of the Indians near Morning Mist Springs.
After reaching an Indian encampment and a vote of the tribal council, the tourists were released. Their freedom was short-lived as they were followed and captured by other less-lenient Nez Perce warriors. Some of the campers were able to escape into the forest as the campers and Indians clashed. Not so lucky were George Cowan and Albert Oldham, both of whom were shot.
Cowan took a bullet to his right thigh and when he saw another warrior taking aim at him, he dismounted and fell to the ground, his wounded leg numb and useless. When a warrior came to finish him off with a pistol shot to the head, his wife Emma draped herself around her husband’s body to protect him. Her 13-year-old sister, Ida Carpenter, was at Emma’s side.
“Every gun in the whole party of Indians was leveled at us three,” Emma would later recall. “I shall never forget the picture, which left an impression that years cannot efface. The holes in those gun barrels looked as big as saucers.”
As one warrior pulled to dislodge Emma, another saw an opportunity and shot George Cowan in the head with a revolver. By some accounts, another Nez Perce clobbered Cowan on the head with a large rock, as well.
Leaving Cowan for dead, the Indians took Emma, her sister and her brother — 27-year-old Frank Carpenter — hostage. They were released the next day along the Yellowstone River at Nez Perce Ford in the Hayden Valley, where there’s now a picnic area. The women rode tired Indian horses while Frank walked.
In the same skirmish Oldham had been shot in the face, “the bullet tearing through his cheeks without (major) injury to his teeth or tongue,” according to a Yellowstone account. “Instantly, he had turned on his attacker, pointing an empty rifle at him, and the Nez Perce bolted while Oldham dove into the brush where he roamed for an agonizing 36 hours sustaining himself on crickets until rescued.”
George Cowan was not so lucky. He eventually regained consciousness sometime the day after being twice shot. In an attempt to stand up and limp to a nearby stream to drink, a Nez Perce warrior saw him and he was shot a third time.
“As I was hobbling away, I glanced backward and saw him on one knee aiming his gun at me,” Cowan later recounted in Frank Carpenter’s 1878 book, “The Wonders of Geyser Land.” “Then followed a twinging sensation in my left side, and the report of the gun and I dropped forward on my face. The ball had struck me on the side above the hip and came out in front of the abdomen.”
Despite this third gunshot wound, the associated blood loss, and lack of food and water, Cowan was somehow still alive.
“I now took another inventory of my wounds, and in trying to rise found that I could not use either of my lower limbs. They were both paralyzed,” he wrote.
Over the next three days he would crawl down Nez Perce Creek about nine miles to where the wagons had been abandoned and destroyed, there finding his bird dog still alive and happy to see him. Hope, it seemed, had not entirely abandoned him.
Left for dead
After being shot three times by Nez Perce warriors and left for dead in Yellowstone National Park in August 1877, George Cowan’s next decision seems unusual, maybe the result of delirium, although some modern tourists may relate to his craving.
“It occurred to me that I had spilled some coffee when in camp, on Thursday in the Lower Geyser Basin, and calling my dog we started for it, I crawling as before, and the dog walking by my side,” Cowan later recounted in Frank Carpenter’s 1878 book, “The Wonders of Geyser Land.” “The coffee was four miles distant, but I thought not of that. The only idea was to possess the coffee. I was starving.”
Fortified by a boiled cup of coffee that he made in a leftover tin can, his “first refreshment” in “five days and nights,” the 35-year-old Cowan began crawling again. This time possibly fording the Firehole River on his stomach before passing out near the bank, weary from his tortured travels, blood loss and the pain of his wounds.
“I was now exhausted and could go no farther,” Cowan later wrote. “It was an expiring effort, and having accomplished it I gave myself up for dead.”
It was there, along a road into the park, that two of Gen. Oliver Howard’s scouts trailing the Nez Perce found the Radersburg lawyer near death.
The scouts built a fire, made some coffee for the injured man and gave him a blanket and hard tack, leaving him alone to await the trailing troops’ arrival the next day.
“After they were gone and I had eaten, my desire for life returned, and it seems the spirit of revenge took complete possession of me. I knew that I would live and I took a solemn vow that I would devote the rest of my life to killing Indians, especially Nez Perce.”
His vow was meant to avenge the capture of his wife, Emma Cowan, her 13-year-old sister, Ida Carpenter, and brother Frank Carpenter, 27. The three were taken hostage during the skirmish when George Cowan was shot and left for dead. At the time, he was unaware the Nez Perce had released the threesome. Their luck, it seemed, had turned.
Unfortunately for Cowan, his bad luck was not over. He awoke during the night to find the campfire had spread across the ground surrounding him in fire, according to historian Elizabeth Watry, author of the book “Women in Wonderland” which recounts the Cowans’ trip. Now in addition to gunshot wounds and the scrapes and bruises from crawling, burns were added to Cowan’s list of injuries.
The tale of the Nez Perce’s travels, encounters with whites and skirmishes provided sensational stories for the region’s newspapers that summer. Stories about the capture of the Radersburg Party were even more tantalizing.
Before knowledge that many of the group had survived, the Helena Herald wrote in its Aug. 30, 1877, edition about “The national park massacre” of 10 Helena men camping above Yellowstone Falls at about the same time.
“Not in the history of Helena — and it has been an eventful one — have we ever seen such crushing, staggering grief overwhelm our people as on the reception of the news of the massacre of nearly the entire party who left us a f ew days ago in high spirits for a pleasure excursion in the National Park.”
“Everyone was panicking throughout this region,” Yellowstone historian Alicia Murphy said.
The newspaper account is riddled with questions about whether dispatches from so far away could be hearsay or actual accounts of what happened, yet it still goes on to eulogize.
“If these men had fallen in battle as did those in the Big Hole fight, there would have been a different feeling in contemplating their fall. We expect some to fall in battle, and we know that death on the battle-field is not without its charm to a brave man, but it aggravates our regrets to think of the lives wantonly taken without warning to avenge offences (sic) committed by others hundreds of miles away.”
In the final accounting, two of the 10 Helena men were killed by Nez Perce raiding parties; two others were injured.
“They had a pretty rough time, too,” Murphy said.
A Sept. 7, 1877, account from the New North-West newspaper in Deer Lodge provided updates on the Radersburg and Helena tourists, noting that, “Fortunately the casualties have been greatly reduced by late reports but the adventures and perils of those little parties have been as thrilling and wonderful as ever made up a chapter of border experiences.”
Howard’s troops would eventually reach Cowan. The Army had also found two of the Radersburg Party who had escaped — A.J Arnold and Albert Oldham, the camper who had been shot in the face. The Army surgeon and friends treated the Cowan’s wounds. The flattened bullet pulled from his head later graced his watch fob as a memento of a second anniversary and summer trip to Yellowstone that would never be forgotten.
“What an adventure that was,” said Murphy, the Yellowstone historian.
Cowen saddled up with Howard’s troops before breaking off to detour to Mammoth Hot Springs with Arnold and Oldham. After being freed, Emma, her brother and sister had found Army troops camped near Tower Junction. The detachment escorted them back to Mammoth and then on to Fort Ellis near Bozeman. While awaiting news of her husband, Emma returned to her parents’ home near Townsend.
When Emma read in the newspaper that her husband was still alive she traveled to Bozeman, only to find out Cowan was resting and in poor health at a ranch along the Yellowstone River in the Paradise Valley. Renting a carriage and driver she rode from Bozeman to the ranch. Three weeks after being found alive Cowan was finally reunited with his wife in late-September.
As Watry writes in her book, Cowan’s misfortunes were still not over. On the trip back to Bozeman in the carriage, the carriage broke and the team of horses spooked. Luckily, the travelers were thrown clear of the wagon before it tumbled down a cliff. After arriving at a Bozeman hotel, Arnold sat down on Cowan’s bed to treat his re-opened wounds and the bed collapsed.
“Had I been morbidly inclined,” Emma later commented, “I might have conceived the idea that some avenging Nemesis was following in his foot-steps, which nothing but the forfeit of his life would satisfy.”
In the end it would be a rugged 126-day, 1,200-mile journey for the Indians through the Rocky Mountains, eventually ending violently on Montana’s eastern plains in October. At that time the remnants of the original band of fleeing Nez Perce surrendered to the U.S. Army near present-day Havre, although a small band escaped to Canada. The captives were shipped on rail cars to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, that winter and then on to Indian Territory in Oklahoma where many died of disease. It would be seven years before tribal members were moved to the Colville Reservation in Washington.
In 1986 Congress created the 1,170 mile-long Nez Perce National Historic Trail. About 84 miles of that route wends through Yellowstone National Park.
In 1901 George and Emma Cowan revisited Yellowstone National Park and the sites where their traumatic experiences had taken place four years earlier, tourists once again, but this time without the drama they had suffered in 1877.
Amazingly and despite his injuries, George Cowan walked again and lived to the age of 84, dying from pneumonia in 1926, Watry wrote. Emma lived another 12 years after her husband’s death, dying in 1938 at the age of 85.
Considering the many bad turns Cowan’s trip took, historian Elizabeth Watry said it was almost like a “Keystone Cop comedy of errors,” referring to the silent film policemen known for their blunders.
In her many examinations of Yellowstone history, Watry hesitated to call Cowan the most ill-fated of tourists ever to visit the park. Stagecoach accidents, Truman Everts’ lost wanderings for 37 days in 1870, tourist maulings by grizzly bears and the scalding of tourists in hot springs sprang to mind of other tragedies. But Cowan’s series of unfortunate events were one of the few to involve American Indians, to extend over several days and to contain such “high drama.”
“This is probably the most dramatic story of Yellowstone,” Watry conceded.