Immel & Jones Massacre - 1823
[Compiled in part from Carol
Holtzman’s news story, Billings Gazette, 1960, and earlier
Revised Friday, June 29, 2012
The massacre took place during the bonanza
days of the fur trade in Montana,
and centered near the area where “Indian Rock” was located. The
incident was so severe that it attracted the attention of the Prime Minister of
Great Britain and a US Senate Committee. At one time the Chamber of Commerce
had a sign erected on the Black Otter Trail near Alkali Creek to identify the
ambush. Most people are unaware of the event and the affect it had on the two
It started with the building of a trading post on the Crow Reservation at
the junction of the Yellowstone and Big
by Manuel Lisa in 1807. Manuel was a shrewd old Spaniard from St.
Louis whose sixth sense for the Indian’s needs and his
relentless ambition to build an empire on the Lower Missouri River caused him
to lead an expedition to the mouth of the Big Horn River. The location was a good one, and
the Crows were amiable Indians, willing to trade pelts for guns and
whisky. This was only the beginning,
since further west the trapping was even richer. Lisa heard fabulous tales from
John Colter, who left the Lewis & Clark Expedition to spend a season in the
mountains before joining Lisa’s crew. Colter knew the upper Missouri domain of the
Blackfeet, bitter enemies of the Crows.
Lisa had tried to make contact with the Blackfeet, but to no avail. The
whites had aligned themselves with the Crows as a result of this trading post
being established there. The Blackfeet were determined to repel them at all
costs. In 1811, Lisa was forced to give up his post and retire to the lower Missouri River area, founding the Missouri Fur Co.
A ten-year gap ensued before any other major contact in the Yellowstone area was attempted. In 1821 Lisa again pushed
westward toward the mountains in Montana.
Joshua Pilcher, the new head of the Missouri Fur Company, hoped that the
Blackfeet would do business with American (white) traders, just as they did
with the British Hudson’s Bay Company’s trappers in Canada.
He re-established a fort at the mouth of the Big Horn, naming it Fort Benton.
In 1822, one year later, he dispatched two of his most skilled and daring
trappers, Michael E. Immel and Robert Jones along with “30 trapper
adventurers”, from Fort Benton to the Three Forks area of the Missouri River to trap and secure a friendly interview
with the Blackfeet. No one in this rugged fur trade business was more qualified
for this dangerous mission. Immel was a veteran mountaineer, “uncommonly
large and of great muscular strength.” He was familiar with the upper Missouri River, having visited Lisa’s first mountain
expedition in 1810-1811. Jones was considered to be a “gentleman of
cleverness” whose position indicates he was held in high regard. The fur
season was at its height when Immel & Jones, along with the 30 men, started
up the Yellowstone. Soon as they left the
fort, the Blackfeet were aware of their presence, and kept well hidden. They
intended to reach the Three Forks area by early spring in 1823.
The little band of trappers reached the forks of the Missouri,
and traveled up the Jefferson River without sighting
any Indians. Their catch of Beaver pelts was meager. Immel concluded that the
Indians had nearly trapped the area to death during his ten-year absence. The
group continued to search for the Blackfeet, and continued setting traps for
Beaver. In mid-May they had a good catch of Beaver, but still no sign of
Blackfeet. On May 16, 1823 a war party of 38 Blackfeet descended upon the group
while they were on the Jefferson River. The
Indians made sign of peace. The Blackfeet Indian leader took out a piece of
paper and presented it to Immel as his credentials. Immel and Jones were
awestruck as they recognized the letter of recommendation in English, written
on a page from a trader’s account book. At the top was written
“Mountain Park, 1823” and in the superscription
“God Save the King.” The letter was dated 1820.
The letter was apparently written by an agent for the Canadian Fur Company,
declaring that the bearer to be a principal chief of his nation, well disposed
towards whites and with a large quantity of furs to trade. The chief introduced
himself as “Iron Shirt”, a great warrior, and announced that he
“stumbled on the group” by accident. Iron Shirt joined the trappers
for the night. Things were going too smoothly and Immel and Jones were
suspicious since they knew that Iron Shirt had to be lying. The Indians invited
the trappers to establish a post at the mouth of the Marias River,
in the heart of Blackfeet territory. The Indians were well aware that another
group of whites were pushing toward Great Falls from
the mouth of the Yellowstone. The trappers
were concerned that the Indians knew so much. They wondered if the Hudson Bay
Company representatives coached the Indians. In the morning Iron Shirt was
given a letter of recommendation to be used with other whites, and they
departed in peace.
The trappers, having accomplished their purpose, left the area and moved
down the Bozeman pass to the Yellowstone Valley.
As the landmarks became more familiar, they started to relax a bit. Since the
river was swollen with runoff and the banks were lined with swamps and steep
banks, they thought it best to ride on the high bluffs along the valley for a
while. On May 31, 1823, the party, which was down to 29 trappers by this time,
entered the narrow passage at the east end of the north rims, “a war
whoop split the air and 300-400 Blackfeet emerged from behind rocks brandishing
British rifles.” Recognizing Immel and Jones, they were attacked first.
Immel shot one Indian and then was cut to pieces before he could reload. Jones
rallied the remainder of the party and fled toward the river plain when a horde
of Indians closed in. Two spears in the chest pierced Jones, but rallied the
men and horses before he died, and the attack was repeated. William Gordon and a man called Keemle were
among the group. A few trappers escaped and under the direction of Keemle made
a raft, reaching the far (south) bank of the Yellowstone.
When the survivors reached a nearby Crow village it was learned that Immel,
Jones and five trappers were killed, four were wounded, and that all their
pelts, horses and traps, about $15,000 value, were stolen. This was even more
damaging to the Missouri Fur Company, since their best men were slaughtered.
They never again traded on the upper Missouri
The slaughter affected other traders. Gen William H. Ashley and Andrew
Henry, who were trying to establish the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, were at Great Falls when Immel
& Jones met with Iron shirt. Ashley quit the territory, and set up
operations on the Snake, Platte and Green
Rivers. He established an
annual rendezvous tradition of mountain men, leaving the upper Missouri fur trade to
John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company.
Benjamin O’Fallon, US American Indian Affairs Agent, had little love
for the English, and concluded that the Canadian traders were inciting the
Blackfeet. His outspoken views found
their way into the newspapers. “I was in hopes that the British
traders had some bounds to their rapacity. I was in hopes that, during the late
Indian war, in which they were so instrumental in the indiscriminate massacre
of our people that they had become completely satiated with our blood; but it
appears not to be the case. Like the greedy wolf, not yet gorged with the
flesh, they guard over their bones – they ravage our fields, and are
unwilling that we should glean them …” To confirm
O’Fallon’s statement, the stolen furs turned up in the Hudson Bay
Company’s possession. This showed open willingness to profit from spent
The American public’s tempers flared along the frontier. The memory of
Tecumseh was still fresh in people’s minds. Prime Minister George Canning
eventually rebuked the Hudson Bay Co., for buying stolen furs.
Where did the massacre occur?
For almost a century, researchers were trying to uncover the specific
location. Choices were: Mouth of Pryor Creek, Canyon Creek, or Alkali Creek
Canyon. All locations were unacceptable due to
mismatches with the written accounts. Harold Rixon, local resident, was
informed about a curious incident that took place during the first decade of
the century, when he was in college that helped identify the site. At the
eastern end of the north rims, close to where 6th Ave and Highway 10 (Main Street) join
each other, there used to be a landmark called “Indian Rock.” On it
were carved Indian markings describing an earlier battle that took place there.
Rixon, and a college friend Roscoe F. Allen, in 1906 heard that a blasting crew
directed by a man named Vermilye had been sent to clear the land around the
rock. They took their camera along to record the inscriptions, only to find
that the crew had just blown the rock to pieces before they arrived.
Behind the rock, in the earth uncovered by the blasting, were the reported
remains of seven white men skulls. No Indian artifacts were located in the
area. The graves were very old. It wasn’t until 1956 that Rixon and Fred
C. Krieg, a person well versed in the early fur trade, conceived of a possible
link to the Immel-Jones massacre. Fred recalled the ambush, and that it
occurred where the valley narrows, and that Alkali Creek is the only break in
the rims for miles, and the only place fitting the description of the ambush.
He recalled tales of the ambush, and that the survivors, after the first
attack, buried six of their dead before fleeing to the river. Unfortunately,
the seven skulls disappeared, so no further identification as to their origin
could be made. It was reported that prior to the blasting in 1906, the Indian petroglyphs
on the rock had been defaced by a local business establishment. There are no
other written records of the rock, or the discovery of the skulls, or where
they went. Indian
Rock was a junction, located just south of Boothill
Cemetery where the overland route
joined the Yellowstone River, and east-west traffic from Buffalo to Blackfeet, and where Crows and
mountain men passed. [The account of the attack was
recorded in Hiram Martin Chittenden’s “American Fur Trade of the
Far West,” and letters of the attack written by Joshua Pilcher, fur
trapper who succeeded Manuel Lisa at the Missouri Fur Company fort on the Big
In 1824, the Department of Indian
Affairs became serious about the relationships between the Indians and the
importance of the fur trade. The 18th Congress, 1st
Session started to take positive action. In this multi-page document, the
plight of Immel and Jones fight with the Blackfeet is brought to light. A
portion is posted for your review:
The following is a
very small part of this Senate Committee’s queries, and several persons
were invited to comment.
(This reply by
Joshua Pilcher was extracted from the American State Paper’s file.)
details presented is skipped::::::::::::::
record is from Lutig’s Journal, Records of a fur Trading Company: