Yellowstone Genealogy Forum
Immel & Jones Massacre - 1823
[Compiled in part from Carol Holtzman’s news story, Billings Gazette, 1960, and earlier accounts]
Revised Wednesday, March 23, 2005
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 nations.
It started with the building of a trading post on the Crow Reservation at the junction of the Yellowstone and Big Horn Rivers 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 mountain area.
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 American blood.
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 Chittden’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 Horn River.] Should anyone know more about the event, please contact the webmaster.