Yellowstone Genealogy Forum




Joseph M. V. Cochran – First Homesteader




‘Josephine’ River Boat


(Biography, BLM Record Files & Personal Statements)


Revised 29 May 2003 [Corrected typo error in 1877 dates]




Numerous articles and histories about his past exist in the newspaper files for Billings. Additionally, several people had interviewed him, and their findings published in booklets, including a summary of his life conducted by Judy McNally in 1981. [Ref: Historic Survey for Riverfront Park and Evirons, November 16, 1981] Her findings agree with other researchers. The following summary is a composite of the files available in the biography sections of the Parmly Billings Library, funeral records, and the Billings Gazette. It can be considered a starting point for persons desiring to create a full-length biography of this courageous first homesteader.


Cochran reported that “he filed homestead papers for land in Clark’s Fork Bottom at the Bozeman Land Office in 1877”. He stopped by the land office in Bozeman, quite by accident he stated, on his way to the valley and the land plats from Washington had just arrived. He filed for the land in Section 16 in early spring, prior to arriving at the site in May 1877. He had selected


the property location from his earlier visit in 1873. At the time, land office had not identified Section 16 for school exemption, thus allowing him to obtain title to the property. It consisted of 35.34 acres and was just north of Josephine Lake. (He passed through the area in 1873, reporting that there was plenty of game. This probably led to his returning and selection of the property.) Two years later the government took his land away, claiming it was platted on School Land.  

Prior to the dissolution of the land and its return to the state, it was sectioned into eight pieces.

Lot #1 - Orson Nickerson Newman 48.45 acres riverfront

Lot #2 – Joseph Cochran 35.34 acres riverfront

Lot #3 – John Miller 35.44 acres riverfront

Lot $4 – Mrs. MG Miller53.92 acres riverfront

Lot #5 – Not owned 5.61 acres part of a river island

Lot #6 – Mrs. MG Miller 80 acres

Lot #7 – John Miller 80 acres

Lot #8 - Orson Nickerson Newman 240 acres

Cochran appealed his loss to the government to no avail. As late as 2002, his two daughters were still unsuccessful in getting reparation for the loss. The government’s position is that the small group of Nez Perce who destroyed his belongings was renegades, and as such no repayment can be made.

 He then acquired another piece of land (Warrant) located about 1 mile north of present day Riverfront Park on Section10, Tp 1S, Rn 26E, and he gained title on September 16, 1887. He had to pay an additional $450 since there were some improvements on it. Although he was reported to be the first to actually file for land in the area, Cochran was preceded by other early Yellowstone Valley settlers such as Bela Brockway and Edward Forrest of Canyon Creek, Thomas McGirl and Omar Hoskins 12 miles down river (at Huntley), Lige Rouch at Rouch’s Point, and Alonzo Young at Young’s Point (west of Park City). The settlement of these persons were soon followed by a party led by P. W. (Bud) McAdow who in 1878[1]started a sawmill in the area later known as Coulson. McAdow and other settlers offered their land for sale to the railroad for construction of a permanent town but asked for too much money, which helped sway the railroad to build a town further west (Billings.) [Note: The land office at Bozeman was established in October 5, 1874, and after its closure the records were transferred to Billings. The first several years of land ownership record filings have not been located, and were not microfilmed. Verification of Cochran’s claim that he lost the land therefore is currently not available. However, there are other conditions represented by his statements that seem to identify the location of the initial docking of the Josephine on June 6, 1875, to be at Riverfront Park, north bank of the Yellowstone River to a tree that was on the lake within Cochran’s property. This location has no particular merit, except to identify where the boat spent the night before proceeding to its ultimate destination upstream. Earlier, on April 20, 1875 Cochran received a Warrant for 157.45 acres on Sections 32& 33 Tp 1N & 1S Rn 5E further upstream on the river in the then named Gallatin County, near Red Lodge. He paid for the land with Script. The BLM land records are identified by Section, Township and Range; counties are added for current reference. In 1875 the Riverfront Park area was located in Big Horn County at the edge of Gallatin County to the west, and the Crow Indian Reservation, south of Yellowstone River. No white men were living in the area at the time of Josephine’s arrival]


In September 1877 [September 13], while Cochran and an Irish friend were logging, for McAdow’s sawmill operation, near Canyon Creek, on the Indian Reservation land, two trappers named Clint Dills and Milton Summer were living in a tent on the Cochran property. Cochran and other loggers heard gunshots in the area of Brockway ranch nearby. [According to Ed Forest, who was at the stage stop, no gunshots were heard.] The shots must have originated from the Cochran farm. It was also reported by Perry McAdow that he and other loggers at his sawmill heard gunshots before they were attacked. These must have been the gunshots heard at Cochran’s farm since the Brockway place was over eight miles distant from the sawmill located on Perry McAdow’s land. [Note: Later in 1878, the sawmill was relocated onto John Alderson’s land, and became part of the newly formed Coulson Town.] Perry McAdow had heard the day prior that the Nez Perce might pass through, so he was prepared for an attack by having set up a palisade (fence of logs) to protect the sawmill. They later learned that white men at Ed Forest’ stage stop escaped the Nez Perce Indians by hiding in the timber. [See Dr. Allen’s and the Nez Perce ’s accounts of the event, and how he became interested in dentistry.] The logging party saw six Indians fording the river, and Cochran rode out for a parley, hoping to divert them from the horses picketing downstream. The braves, five young bucks and a grizzled old warrior halted. Cochran shook hands with the grizzled warrior, Chief Joseph, who was afraid that the younger Indians with him in full war paint might make a hostile move, and he would be the first victim of Cochran’s rifle. The Nez Perce proceeded on slowly, and then raced back through the timber to “annex” the horses before joining the main body of Indians across the river. The loggers followed on foot and Cochran & his Irishman friend found the bodies of the two trappers, one shot in the head, the other in the back. Apparently the men were surprised and had expected no trouble. They were living in Cochran’s tent at the time, and the Indians burned it, but their wagon unmolested.


Cochran left the bodies and headed for Coulson, finding that the Indians had set fire to the town’s saloon. He and the Irishman hid in a buffalo wallow until dark, and were happy to find that voices in McAdow’s tent were that of white men. Cochran reportedly submitted a claim to the government for $654.50 in property damage for loss of the tent and supplies. It was never paid.


After this attack Cochran left the area with “Liver Eating” Johnson to join with General O. O. Howard’s command near Pompeys Pillar. He became one of the Yellowstone Scouts commanded by George Houston, and was scouting about 25 miles away when Chief Joseph surrendered for the Nez Perce to General Miles. He stayed on as a scout until October 10th.


Cochran’s homestead Warrant was relinquished in 1889 when the land office ruled that his land was platted on school land*. This plat of land owned by him was reported by him as having been the site where**, the steamer Josephine anchored to a large cottonwood tree, later named the “Josephine Tree” by Coulson area residents. He wasn’t home at the time of the docking, but arrived a while later. Cochran clearly recalled the tree, but said that it was washed away some years later. He stated in his notes that he wished that the tree trunk had been cut up and saved, rather than just having it wash away when the river rose in height. Some people believed that the site was just below Coulson, which today is a barren piece of land, on which sits portions of the water plant for Billings, and Josephine Park. The Yellowstone Historical Society has placed a small plaque on a boulder in an area east of where Coulson was located (designated “Coulson Park”) that reads: “Coulson, Custer County, 1877-1882: Born by the river, killed by the railroad, giving Billings its best citizens, to Boothill her residue and to the Yellowstone, her memories.” [There is considerable controversy over the location of the tree; some place it at the old South Bridge or at Josephine Park (McAdow’s land), or Josephine Lake at Riverfront Park (Cochran’s land before it was confiscated). This tree apparently marked the place where the boat tied up when it first brought supplies to Coulson in 1877, and not the end location of its maiden journey commanded by Col’s Forsythe and Grant up the Yellowstone in 1875.] The de Lacy survey map created in October 17, 1878 for the Coulson area specifically denoted the exact location of Josephine’s docking on the north bank of the Yellowstone River. Details of the landing site, and actual tree location from the Walter DeLacy survey, were later made by James Minnie, County Surveyor, and pinpointed to be on the “south side of the south bank of the eastern-most part of Josephine Lake.” This was on Cochran’s land in Section 16 and was adjacent to the mainstream flow of the Yellowstone River on its north bank at that point. (Refer to last paragraph on the Josephine River Boat in this text for details.) Note also that a few years later the Yellowstone River changed its course, and after the gravel pit, used to fabricate the Thomas Dolan Bridge was completed, the void was filled with water, creating what we now call Josephine Lake. The land shift was about ¼ mile in a north to south direction, pivoting about the point where the tree was located.


* No records have been located to verify the reversal of Cochran’s land ownership by name, but six titles were created by the BLM to accommodate the transfer, and the former landholder’s names were not recorded. According to the BLM procedures (July 2001), it would have been unlikely (if not impossible (?) that school land could have been issued to a claimant after the survey. However, based on the information provided by Cochran in his biography and the survey performed by W. W. de Lacy in 1878, he did have ownership to Lot #2 Section 16, Township 1S, Range 26E before being evicted. His actual currently reported homestead (Warrant paid for with script) is on fertile soil located just above the park school land (which today is basically brush, swamp and small trees, unsuitable for farming. When this property was later acquired by the BLM and transferred to School-Lands usage, he stated that it was taken away from him. On February 2, 1901, the Department of the Interior General Land Office, Washington. D.C. issued a final approved listing for 4,621.72 acres of confiscated and presumably non-assigned lands to be taken from the Public Domain and transferred to the state for use by school districts. Reason for the discrepancy was not noted, but probably after achieving statehood, the amount of land assigned for school districts must have been in error, and more was required. The Abstract Title files held by the Forum indicate that there was a lengthy process to clear land titles in the previously assigned homestead, mining claims and other titles for these two sections, since they were not completely “Domain Land.” Records for Section 16 and 36 (Riverfront Park and the Big Ditch pickup point on the river) show they were finally placed into School lands in 1889. Six title transfers were made in the Riverfront Park area, Section 16, but names of the original landowners were not noted. These must certainly be the six persons listed above who owned land there at the time. This title transfer provides a significant clue confirming the landing site where Josephine docked when it first brought supplies to Coulson in 1877. It should be pointed out that this site is about four miles south west of Coulson.


In 1865 Cochran was at Fort Benton in the fall when 8,000 Indians came there to sign a peace treaty. After relocating to Billings, following the Nez Perce attack in 1877 and his scouting efforts with General Howard, he operated a feed and flour store on 27th street between Montana avenue and 1stAvenue North. He was the founder of Montana Realty & Loan Company; incorporated along with Christian Yegen as president. He owned the Commercial Hotel and had 37 rental properties.


Biography Summary (Reference: Montana Pioneer Biographies & News Articles)


Joseph Morton Venerable Cochran (Joe) was born in Missouri in 1847. He came to Montana at age 16 with his father to search for gold in the Virginia City area. Two years later he joined the gold rush at Helena, followed by a trip to Fort Benton where the Indian Peace Treaty was signed. He moved about quite a bit, both in state and out, until 1871 when returned to hunt and trap in Montana. In 1873 when he was trapping beaver, he passed through the Clark’s Fork Valley. He married Rose Clarke, daughter of Richard Clarke, a member of Newman’s original settlement in the area (locally known as Canyon Creek.) Rose was a member of Newman’s school, first one in the area. She died in 1952. They had nine children:


Mary; died very young










Joseph (moved to NY)








Kate (moved to Oakdale, CA)


Their home was a story and a half of hand-hewn logs, and was just north of Kratz Lane between Jackson Street and Riverside Street. The gables ran east and west. Their granary was in back of the house, with stables behind it. The Grey Eagle Ditch ran through their property. Dick Clark first met Joseph in 1867 in Gallatin County. “Joe had just bought some sugar that was in a small sack from a Jew. The Jew was trading with miners. Joe soon found that the sugar was mixed with salt. When I saw Joe he was demanding that the Jew take the sugar back, firing the sack at him at the same time.”






** Josephine River Boat:


The Josephine was a wooden hulled stern-wheeler packet/snag boat originally owned jointly by John S. Coulson, Elisa Coulson, Sallie Coulson, James McVay and Fanny Maratta (Coulson Packet Co.) so as to conserve on the expense of insurance coverage. It was named for the daughter of General Davis S. Stanley. It normally drew 40 inches of water [with 4 feet of available cargo space in the hold fully loaded], and was listed as 300 tons. After it was launched, tickets sold for passengers carried the identification of the boat as a “Sidewheeler [2].” It was empty when it made its maiden voyage up the Yellowstone River (Records state that it draw 20-inches of water when empty, two feet with 70 tons loaded, and three feet with 180.7 tons[3]) by Col. Forsythe. It was 178 feet in length and 31 feet wide. The date for the docking at the “Josephine Tree”, highest point reached by the Josephine, has been reported [from people’s memory] in numerous newspaper articles and biographies as being June 7th, 1877. That statement refers only to the subsequent docking of the boat prior to the town of Coulson being formed, and cargo carried to the residents in the local area at the time. The true first docking of the Josephine near or within Riverfront Park, and its journey up the Yellowstone from Pompeys Pillar to its final terminus of the journey at Duck Creek on June 7th 1775 follows. In late May of 1877, Thomas McGirl reported that the Josephine, carrying cargo he acquired for his store at Huntley (Baker Ground), and himself as passenger, docked at his place at Baker Ground.




[When the Josephine started its first journey up the Yellowstone in 1875 the Cottonwood trees near the Glendive area were reported to be from 3 to 5 feet in diameter. They diminished in size upon approaching the Billings area. In the vicinity of where Coulson would be formed three years later, the trees were small, typically 6 to 10 inches in diameter. When the area known as Josephine Park was reached [Perry McAdow’s land], the trees were reported to be from 20 to 26 inches in diameter; and that size continued upstream at least for about a mile or two. A boat the size of the Josephine would probably require a large tree to safely anchor it to the riverbank. After the town was well established (approximately 1879 to 1882) diaries of the local residents, compiled by I. D. O’Donnell, recalled that the Josephine docked near the site where the water plant was eventually located. This would have been immediately downstream of Ramsey’s Rapids [Hell Gate Rapids.](Josephine Park on the south edge of McAdow’s land) to load and unload supplies, thus the creation of the Park to honor those occasions. To go further upstream would have been a complete folly on the Captain’s part as he would have had to travers the rapids, and the supplies would have had to have been transported a long distance back to the town. This location for transferring supplies and goods to Coulson residents in 1877 has no relation with the initial military expedition in 1875 that terminated upstream of the Duck Creek Bridge and its highly probable stopping at Riverfront Park [Cochran’s land] on June 6th, or the later initial trip to town in June 1877 carrying supplies when captained by Grant Marsh. In June 1877, Joseph Cochran reported that he wasn’t home when the boat tied up to his tree, but recalled seeing the tree and its inscription left by the captain. He regretted not saving the tree.




The Yellowstone River’s length is not exactly known but is currently reported to be about 671 miles in length. The two military commanders and not Captain Marsh recorded the official distances traveled for this specific military trip. They reported 46 miles to be the distance from Pompeys Pillar to the end of their journey. Forty-six miles from Pompeys Pillar places the terminus below the Ditch pick up point southeast of Laurel at the edge of Yellowstone County (Gallatin County) when it was first formed. It is presently called Stillwater County. When I. D. O’Donnell mapped the area for the start of the irrigation project, the edge of the county was where he selected the place for the Ditch (Section 36, which was also later confiscated by Congress and turned over to Montana for use as School Land).




Thirty years after the 1875 exploration, it was proposed by our government by the residents of Miles City that a dam should be constructed across the Yellowstone River for improved water supply to the local area. Captain Grant Marsh, on 21 November 1907, sent a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt, requesting that such a dam would be disastrous to the river. The President listened to him, and the plans were stopped. In that letter he described several riverboat experiences, including the one where he piloted the Josephine upriver in June of 1875, along with Colonel Forsythe. There are three conflicts of memory committed in that letter, as compared with the official government report. These memories are actually part of the June 1875 exploration that immediately followed the trip described below:




  There were some professors from the Smithsonian Institute with us for the scientific part of our expedition”

[These were assigned on the 2nd trip established in June 1875 by the War Department.]

 Careful measurements are best on an expedition like this of course, but we had neither the time nor the safety for careful surveying on shore. What we did was put three men on top, or ’hurricane’ deck, with one at the stern and two at the bow. One at he bow would pick a point on shore and walk from bow to stern, keeping even with the point on shore, so he was in place while the boat moved beneath him. When he reached the stern, the boat had traveled exactly 150 feet. He went back to the bow while the second man also picked a point and walked to the stern, and the man in the stern kept track of how our distances from point to point, Inexact distances I grant you, but still the standard pilots us on the Yellowstone.”

[The Josephine’s upper deck is calculated to be about 138 feet; the Far West’s deck was 150 feet, and earlier he had performed that measurement feat using that steamer. Recording of mileage distances going upriver in 1875 were not required, as the river and its various streams had been well surveyed, and a copy of that map was onboard at the time. The 1” Gatling gun, a huge weapon resembling a howitzer, along with its 10,000 rounds of ammunition took up a lot of space. The only place it could have been erected was on the upper deck. The bow, where it would have otherwise been located was full of poles and rigging for sparing, hay and straw for the horses, plus the four horses were stabled there.]

 “[When stopping on the night] I carved the name ‘Josephine’ and the date, June 7th, on the cottonwood to which the boat was tied.”

[The steamer arrived on June 6th, not the 7th. Departure dates aren’t generally used to denote arrivals. This had to have been the 1877 arrival date.]



Captain Marsh identified in this letter that when they stopped at Pompeys Pillar, and that he took a second American flag he was carrying, and planted it at the top. He also admitted to carving ‘Josephine, June 3, 1875' on its face. His letter has caused much confusion about the events that took place during the ensuing years. These minor infractions do in no way demeanor his heroic achievements. This appears to be the sole source for creation of a June 7th, 1875 arrival date in Riverfront Park. All other references appear to have copied this comment as being the arrival date as used to mark the tree; when the 1875 date has been mentioned.






The Josephine Journey


[Extracted from reports made by Lt. Col. J. W. Forsyth, Lt. Col. F. D. Grant, & Capt. William Ludlow]


“War Department Report Expedition Up the Yellowstone River – June 1875”




“War Department Report Reconnaissance … to Yellowstone – Summer 1875”, by Corps of Engineers






The Josephine provided round-trip transportation for both expeditions. For the first trip it was assigned to the army on 19 May 1875; and for the second trip it was assigned immediately thereafter upon its return to the Missouri River. It appears that many articles written about the first expedition mistakenly included references to civilians (biologists, archeologists, & others) who were un-named and on-board. The following civilian scientists were on the 2ndexpedition and assigned as special assistants to the Army, without compensation. Identified were: Edwin Ludlow & W. H. Wood from New York; and George Bird Grinnell & Edward S. Dana from Yale College. The first trip had only the boat crew and assigned military personnel.[Note that the Billings Gazette, June 30, 1927 article assumed that the boat first docked on June 7thof 1875 on Cochran’s land; site of the Josephine Tree.]


General Orders (Letter of Instruction dated May 19 1875, P. H. Sheridan, Lt-General)


 Steamer Josephine (NARA Sketch) will be placed at your (Lt. Col. Forsythe) disposal at Bismarck, ND for examination of the Yellowstone River from its mouth to the Big Horn River and farther up, if possible. Report on timber, soil, geological formations, depth of water, and character of rapids. “Make your examination as complete as possible, without any unnecessary detention of the boat, and return from any point when, in your best judgment, there is not sufficient water, or any other obstacles to impede your progress.”


“I decline to authorize you to allow any person whomsoever to accompany you except Lt-Col Grant (Aide de Camp), who is part of your expedition, …. officers and troops forming your escort. “ Boat personnel will accompany you. Four mounted scouts are authorized.










Personnel on Board


Both Lt-Colonels boarded the Josephine at Bismarck, [along with Acting Assistant Surgeon J. A. McKinney]. Twelve officers and 31 men manned the boat; Captain Marsh, boat commander, was the only boat person identified in the reports. The Josephine carried no freight for this trip, although it was permitted to do so up to the point that it would enter the Yellowstone River. It drew 20 inches of water when it entered the Yellowstone River. All army personnel were from the Sixth Infantry. No photographers were on board. Note that there were no professors from the Smithsonian Institute. They were on the same boat, the following month.]


Stopping first at Fort Stevenson they took on Company H with 2nd Lt R. E. Thompson and 2nd Lt C. L. Gurley commanding 40 men, and a one inch Gatling gun supplied with 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Stopping next at Fort Buford they took on Company E with Capt. Thomas Britton and 2nd Lt R. I. Jacobs commanding 30 enlisted men; and Company G with 1st Lt W. H. Cornell and 2nd Lt Thomas G. Townsend commanding 30 enlisted men. One month’s food rations were loaded for the army members. Each soldier carried 350 rounds of ammunition, and the enlisted men were assigned duties to chop wood for the trip.


2ndLt Thomas G. Townsend provided pen & ink sketches of the country, 2ndLt Richard. E. Thompson provided the map of the Yellowstone River used for the journey, and Corporal Thoma prepared pencil views of the trip. [2nd Lt R. E. Thompson also accompanied the 2nd expedition of the Josephine.]


Four mounted scouts were added to support the infantry, no names provided. [In the 2nd expedition, some of these persons were identified, and their exploits interchanged in error with the 1st expeditions travels in many published articles and books.]


Mileage Records


Col. Forsythe 1

Both Colonels took on the responsibility of making independent “estimations” of distances traveled each day, both going upstream and returning downstream. These measurements on the river and landmark locations agreed closely with each other. From the mouth of the Yellowstone River to the Powder River, Col Forsythe on a previous May 1873 trip reported the distance to be 238 miles. Measurements used by Col Grant & Col Forsythe for calculating mileage during this trip placed the distance at 180 miles. From the Powder River to the terminus of the Josephine, their independent measurements agreed within a variance of two river miles. Col Forsythe reported 250 miles traveled, Col Grant reported 248 miles. There was one-mile variance in measurement from Pompeys Pillar to the final stopping point near Duck Creek (58 miles versus 57 miles). [The method of measurement was not discussed, however, on the 2nd trip the mileages were recorded by use of military survey equipment at each stop. They probably used established landmarks to determine where they were geographically, and then they estimated the additional mileage caused by bends in the river.]


[There was no indication that for this trip Captain Marsh made any measurements of distances traveled, although stories created in his letter to President Roosevelt so stated, were embellished about how he used his crew on the upper deck to establish the distances traveled on this trip. The Yellowstone River by 1875 was well mapped by survey crews, with over eight separate revisions having been made by the time this trip took place.] If these measurements were actually used, then there would not have been two separate measurements by both Colonels. Captain Grant stated that the “upper deck” of the Josephine was 150 feet in length. According to the photographs of the ship, this deck could only have been about 100 to 120 feet long. The Far West, a slightly large boat, had a vastly different design, and its upper deck was at least 150 feet long. General Forsythe was on this boat long before the Josephine was in operation, and this is where the apparent mileage estimations must have been observed. Captain Grant also stated that he gave his notes of the trip to Col. Forsythe.




River Conditions


It would appear that the river shape is basically the same today as it was in 1875, except for erosion and loss of trees. The chutes, sandbars and channels are created mainly from rock and soil, and are un-moving. When the Josephine entered the Yellowstone, the river was two feet below its high water mark for the season. Water levels dropped about 1-1/2 inch per day. Cottonwood trees grew to 3-5 feet in diameter along its bank, and there was plenty of driftwood available for the boat’s boilers. The enlisted soldiers chopped wood for each next-day’s journey after stopping for the night. Throughout the entire journey, no white men were seen, although it was hoped that there would be some along the river to assist the crew in getting wood. Soldiers were placed on guard duty during the nights, spaced about 300 yards out from the boat.


Monday, June 3rd, 1875


Portions of the river below Pompeys Pillar, starting about 12 miles distant, were running at 8-9 miles per hour, maximum speed of the boat, through a 75 - 85 yard wide channel. The boat forward speed was calculated to be 1/6thmph. Captain Marsh had to resort to spars and lines to pull the boat along. This place was called: “The Narrows” by the crew. Before this section the average width of the river was 800 yards. Col Grant considered the river easily navigable to Pompeys Pillar, even with all the sparing the crew had to do. They docked at Pompeys Pillar at 5:30 pm. This location was reported to be 39 miles from the Big Horn River inflow, and is the starting point for the location of the total distance traveled in this summary. Col Forsythe places the mileage at 204; Col Grant stated it was 203 miles. A sketch of the total trip follows in five sectional displays of the Yellowstone River.


Captain Marsh, reported by other un-named sources, stated he placed an American flag from his ship (it carried two) on the pillar’s top. Following Clark’s example, he reportedly then carved the landing date into the rock face of the pillar with a chisel, “Josephine June 3, 1875[4].”[However, according to Park officials, there is no evidence that he carved anything into the rock. Only the soldiers from the Josephine, who carved their names into the northeast face, and a date “June 3, 1877”, exist. There are reportedly over 3,500 names carved into this side of the mountain.]


Col Forsythe visited the site, looked at Clark’s signature, and discovered that it was badly deteriorated. He had a soldier onboard who was a stonemason, and he had him carefully restore the signature and date by re-carving the information deeper into the stone. Note that after the NPR decided to restore and protect the signature, it was in need of another recarving.


Pompeys Pillar is located about one mile southeast of the docking point. (Reference Mile Marker 203)




The dashed line represents the future site of where the Northern Pacific Railway would pass in 1882.


Tuesday, June 4th, 1875


The group started west at 8:45 am. The water current was very strong, and the crews had to resort to spars and pulling the boat along for most of the day’s journey. This was called Cordelle, and employed a length of rope tied to a tree and a capstan on the ship, which was turned by a separate Donkey style engine to pull the boat forward. [Neither file report indicated where they stopped for the night, but a place called “Little Great Rapids” at mile marker 218, some 15 miles from Pompeys Pillar is noted and is probably the location. With the headway being slow, and the current increasing at this point, it was probably as far as they could go for the day.]




It was stated that the current increased in velocity as they passed further upstream during the next two days.


Wednesday, June 5th, 1875


At mile marker 227 they reached Baker Ground, a location later named Huntley, and then parts named Huntley Project. They explored portions of the Pryor River (Creek), which was 25 yards wide at the mouth. They had been passing through portions of land considered by the Sioux Indians to be their territory, but none were seen. A sketch of the creek’s mouth was made.


Thursday, June 6th, 1875 (Morning)


The journey continued to be difficult, with the crews still having to use spars and pulling for part of the way. Eight miles from the Baker Ground camp they encountered a large group of Indians at mile marker 234. This is at the entrance to Clark’s Fork Bottom, with the edges of the rims [at the east edge of Billings] on both sides of the valley become quite evident. This was referred to as “Belle Butte”.




The Crow Indians were encamped on the north side of the river, on the flat sections of land about two miles above where the Metra (Fairgrounds) is currently located. They were on the way to Big Porcupine to hunt. The camp consisted of five tribes and 351 Lodges, approximately 1,800 Indians:


Mountain Crows – 270 Lodges ruled by Iron Bull, Crazy Head, Black Foot, Long Hair and Bear Wolf


Nez Perce – 50 Lodges ruled by Looking Glass


River Crows – 20 Lodges ruled by Black Bull and Forked Tail


Gros Ventres of the Prairie – 10 Lodges ruled by Brass Bracelet


Bannacks – 1 Lodge represented


Many of these Indians were supplied with Sharp’s carbines and had 15,000 rounds of ammunition given to them by the Indian Bureau. Their families were along, and they had many ponies. The Indians boasted that if they could get a chance at Sitting Bull and his people “not one would tell of the meeting.” The Crow Indians further stated that this Big Horn country belonged to them and if they had to kill all the Sioux Nation they would do so. [The Crow Reservation at this time ran along the south border of the Yellowstone River.] The Indian agency was moved prior to this meeting, from a location near Fort Ellis to the ‘wagon crossing’ on the Big Rosebud River.


After leaving the Indian encampment, they passed through “Hell Gate Rapids”, two miles further upstream, which leads into Clark’s Fork Bottom. Col Forsythe referred to this section of river as “Hell Roaring Rapids”, and is at a point where the Yellowstone-Clark’s Fork Valley begins. JM Hanson[5]described the location of the rapids he called “Hell’s Roaring Rapids” as being just before the boat tied up for the night on June 6th. This rapid was identified by Captain Grant Marsh as “ being at the foot of Belle Butte” [Sacrifice Cliff – Four Dances Area], immediately east of Bitter Creek. On the 1878 survey maps, this rapid is identified as “Ramsey’s Rapids.” As Billings grew and the need for water and electrical power became evident, the Billings Water & Power Company was formed in 1885. Water was extracted from the Yellowstone River at the beginning of the rapids, and ducted 4,000 feet around the rapids through a ditch 30 feet wide and seven feet deep, and passing through the plant before it rejoined the river. The rapids had a drop of 13 feet[6]. A concrete dam was placed across the river at this point so as to improve the water flow, and in 1909 it was abandoned and destroyed[7]. This dam and its destruction eliminated all evidence of the rapids. According to Lewis Freeman, in “Down the Yellowstone”, in 1921, there was no evidence of the rapid anywhere in the vicinity. When the power dam was constructed, the rapid was wiped out. Water feeding into the inlet is backed up for quite a distance, suggesting that there was originally quite a fall. [Note: on the map below, the location is incorrectly positioned. It should be opposite Perry McAdow’s land. Correct position in larger scale follows. This will be corrected later]


Thursday, June 6th, 1875 (Afternoon)


The boat continued upstream until they tied up for the night on the north bank of the river. They attached a line so as to continue Cordelling when they started out in the morning, since the water was flowing swiftly, and they needed to be pulled along.




The exact placement of the Josephine for the night was not specifically mentioned. Col Forsythe simply stated that they “fastened up for the night above Hell Roaring Rapids.” [The location at Riverfront Park would be ideal for docking, since the water at the north bank is fairly deep, affords good anchorage, and allows for cordelling. According to Cochran’s statement that the boat tied onto a tree on his land, which was later taken from him for schools, has some merit. The land denoted as Section 16, in ‘red’ was confiscated by the BLM in Washington D. C. By congressional action, and given to the Montana School District. The exact location is actually of little relative purpose, since it merely identifies where the boat docked for the night, and does not reflect where the journey ended. Cochran and the other settlers were not in this area at the time the boat passed through. It is also very doubtful that Captain Marsh would have been allowed to dock the boat in the vicinity of Josephine Park, since it would have been within easy reach and visibility of the Indians encamped about two miles to the north.] When encamped for the night, Col Forsythe stationed army personnel some 300 yards from the boat to guard against intruders.


The stopping for the night was apparently no different from the previous night dockings, and they didn’t realize that their journey would cease the next day. The town of Coulson was located on land sections later belonging to John Shock (Schock), John Alderson, and Perry McAdow. When Perry arrived, he started a sawmill business, and opened a store. The site for Josephine Park was created out of Perry McAdow’s land. The following article, published in the Billings Gazette about 1939, source unknown (believed to be written by Jennie McFarlain, wife of Gazette publisher), contains misinformation about the Josephine’s initial journey, leading to the belief that Josephine Park was the terminus of that journey, and that the famed ‘Josephine Tree” commemorated the event.









Many biographies of early Coulson residents state essentially the same thing, “the Josephine was bringing supplies to the town, tied up to an old tree near the old filtration plant (Josephine Park), and was as far as any boat traveled up the river.” This created the long-standing myth that the terminus of the journey in 1875 was at the Billings location, whether at Josephine Park or Riverfront Park. It is quite evident that there were two separate events occurring, and that these became one in peoples minds. Since there was no town, or white people in the area in 1875, it was not possible for the residents to recall that specific event. What they probably recalled was the first subsequent docking of a loaded Josephine, and it’s tying to a tree at that time. Then it would have tied up to large tree near the settlement. The trees start to become large [20-26 inches in diameter] at the Josephine Park area.


The next day’s journey on June 7th establishes the basis for the two events becoming one, and the creation of the ‘Josephine Tree’ legend. Since McAdow originally had a sawmill on his property in 1877, it seems very probable that the boat tied up on the land near his place when it arrived at Coulson that year. The river channel at the south end of his property is where Hell Gate Rapid’s starts. The rapid continues into the sharp bend of the river. To pass through this section and deliver supplies to the town would be senseless, as it would require much exertion on the part of the crew; and they would have had to backtrack to get supplies to the town, and to acquire wood from the sawmill. When the water plant constructed its plant, they chose the site adjacent to Josephine Park, since this is where the river took a sharp drop in elevation, and created the rapids. After the inlet flue was established for the plant, the course of the Yellowstone River was shifted about 1/8th mile to the west downstream of the flue. The water flow was greatly reduced, causing the river to widen, and a large rock-sandbar island was created in that area. By 1921 all evidence of the rapids has disappeared.


 Later in 1878, the sawmill was relocated onto the southeast corner of John Alderson land at his request, thus placing it in the new town of Coulson. However, the census records for 1880 didn’t report McAdow’s sawmill operation personnel (10 people) as being in Coulson. They were apparently omitted from the census.
















Friday, June 7th, 1875


The boat, already prepared for the day’s journey, started upriver. The mounted scouts were out ahead, evaluating the river terrain. The boat continued forward until 2:10 pm when based on information provided back to Col. Forsythe by the scouts, it was decided by him to terminate the travel (Per his Letter of Instructions) and return immediately to Bismarck as the river was too dangerous for them to continue upstream. The scouts reported that the river ahead of them “… for several miles was unchanged in volu image020.jpgme, it was cut up into various chutes and channels, by islands, and the river bed so wide, with a most powerful current hurling it forward to its mouth, that any further progress up the stream could only be accomplished by sparring and warping, and without any reward for labor expended.” At this point the prow of the boat was turned around, and they retraced their steps of the previous day. The area just up steam of where the Duck Creek empties into the Yellowstone provides a suitable spot for a boat of the Josephine’s size to easily turn around.




Careful examination of the river at Duck Creek (which is north of the Big Ditch pickup point in Section 36, also taken over for School Land) shows numerous chutes and channels; many more than were located further downstream. Col Forsythe did not indicate any stopping points on their way back, merely that “they retraced their steps.” [After spending most of the day fighting strong currents, and turning the boat around, they probably re-tied to the same place at Riverfront Park and loaded on a supply of wood for the journey back, although they could have tied up anywhere further downstream, but due to the time element, they might have had to camp in the vicinity of the Indian camp.] There is no indication that Captain Marsh carved the June 7th date into a tree at this time in 1875, there being no specific reason to do so, as this was not the end of their journey, although in his letter to President Roosevelt he so stated. Records from JM Hanson also state that he did so on this trip. That would mean that the boat docked for the second time at the same place, and then he carved the note. After turning around no mention of where they stopped for the night was indicated. It probably was at Pompeys Pillar, or nearby. They took four days to return to Bismarck.





This enlarged view shows the mileage locations made by Col. Forsythe and Col. Grant. Belle’s Butte is now called Sacrifice Cliff (South Rims.) Hell Roaring Rapids [mile marker 237] was later called Ramsey’s Rapids. After the Power Plant was constructed in 1887, the water diversion changed the river’s course, widened the stream flow and the rapids vanished. In addition, the numerous islands now evident were created, probably as a direct result of this construction effort. A full dam was created at the site, and lasted for about two decades. When the boat docked for the night of June 6th, its location was not reported. Col Grant, continued in his report stating that on June 7th:“We proceeded up the river until the afternoon of June 7, when we found the river so cut up with islands, and all the chutes having rapids, that it was practically the head of navigation, and decided to return, as the object of the expedition had been accomplished. The distance of the highest point reached from the mouth of Powder River we estimated as two hundred and forty-eight miles.”









Mileage Comparisons:





Col. Grant


Col. Forsythe


Pryor Creek Convergence






Crow Camp Meeting






Hell Gates Rapids






June 6th Docking Point






End of Journey June 7th @ 2:10 pm






Journey Ended near Duck Creek






ID O’Donnell, in a talk given to the Kiwanis Club in 1930[8]stated that Josephine tied up for the night on June 6th, 1875, one mile upstream of Hell Roaring Rapids, across from Belle Butte, [meaning the start of the rapids prior to construction of the power plant in 1887]. This docking location he stated was ½ mile west of the South Bridge [Washington Street Bridge]. This location agrees in general with Col Forsythe’s diary; and places the boat’s anchoring directly on the east edge of Cochran’s Land where the June 7th 1877 anchoring was reported as having occurred. It was reported by O’Donnell that the exploration party carved into the Cottonwood tree “the date of their arrival.” It was decided by the club members to construct a marker for the location of the tree [which has for a long time been washed away] and the boat’s docking so that the location and memory of the event wouldn’t be lost. The group identified the site and location in their publication for tourists called the “Golden Guide.” [Note that this site was not the terminus of the journey, and the boat continued upstream during the next day.]


Josephine’s Stop on June 7th, 1877 at Coulson (Second Trip to the local area)

image024.jpgimage026.jpg  image028.jpg

The map in the center depicts the area of Riverfront Park as surveyed by de Lacy in 1878. The piece of land belonging to Cochran is enlarged to show the river and lake boundaries. Currently the lake rests entirely within the former Cochran property, and the Yellowstone River cuts south just below his property. The large island has been reduced in size and changed into three chutes. The distance between the river and the lake was at its narrowest point on the southeast end as indicated by the marker shown. James Minnie, surveyor hired to locate the place where the tree once stood re-identified the location. The picture on the right shows how the river has changed its course since 1877.[Walter deLacy added a note to his research stating that this was “the highest point of navigation on the Yellowstone.” That statement was true only for the 1877 trip into the area, as he stated in his other field notes.] The land and river areas in this section have changed drastically from the original survey to current ones. It would appear from review of land records that the tree site location is still essentially as shown. Also note that the Josephine’s upper deck does extend slightly beyond the smokestacks, making the approximate length about 130 to 140 feet. The picture on the left came from NARA files.

De Lacy Survey Notes 1S, R26E, FRACTIONAL S16: (October 21 1878, page 49)

“….. S61 ½ W 7.70 cross Cochran’s fence. Over S. thence S. 54 ¾ W 9.70 chs lks 6.60 dis (chains, links and distance). Tree marked by steamer “Josephine” bears N 50 lks distant, the highest point ascended to by steamboats. Cochran’s house lies north of tree 4.00 chs. Leave timber at end of course” [lks = links, dis = distance, chs = chains]

De Lacy Survey Map Accompanying the Survey Notes: (Original Entry dated Oct 18th–22nd, 1878)

 Tree location noted: “Highest point reached by Steamboat 1877”. The tree’s location was plotted on Cochran’s parcel, Lot #2. Location is about ½ mile west of where the Old South Bridge on Washington Street was located, directly on the sharp bend in the river just before Blinkey’s Island.

De Lacy Survey Notes 1S, R26E, FRACTIONAL S16: (October 21 1878, pages 56 -57)

General Description. This fractional township is situated at the Eastern end of the Clarke’s Fork Bottom. It is bounded on the South and East by the Yellowstone River which has been navigated by a steamer in 1877 to a point within this township and a little above the town of Coulson. The land is partly bench and partly bottom land, all of which is 1st rate land, on which have been grown vegetables of all kinds. There are several settlers in the township who have operating farms. The only timber in the township is Cottonwoods along the banks of the River and on the island mentioned.” [Blinkey’s Island]

Comment: After the Coulson trading post was created the Josephine carried supplies to the residents for several years, and tied up to large trees nearby. A photograph of the event was taken, presumably when the photographic shop in Coulson opened (Forum files, undated picture), and Captain Marsh was reported to have carved the date of his docking into the tree [symbolic memory] for his second trip in the area prior his departure of the region at that time. He couldn’t have done this earlier, since there were no photographs taken during his first trip up the Yellowstone River, and there really was no reason to identify a simple docking; the tie-up was not the end of the journey. This first trip of the Josephine into Coulson after it was formed probably accounts for the recollection of so many residents recalling the docking, the carving and the carrying of supplies to the town. The Josephine’s first trip was made without any cargo. There are many erroneously published accounts of the original landing date, some state June 7th, 1877, others June 7th, 1875. The first date is the real one, signifying the time the boat came to Coulson, loaded with cargo. It is doubtful that Captain Marsh wrote a report about his first military excursion into the Yellowstone River, since this trip was strictly a military expedition of which he had no input in support of possible war with the Indian Nations, specifically the Sioux. He did however; write a summary report about river travels to President Roosevelt in 1907, reflecting back on his vast experiences. These experiences are what has caused the misunderstanding as to where and what was carved into the tree, and why the location became known as “the highest point of navigation!”


Reality Check of the Tree and Multiple Dates Regarding Josephine’s Journey into the Local Area

Captain Grant Marsh stated in his 1907 letter to President Roosevelt that he carved the boats name [Josephine] and the arrival date into the area as June 7, 1875. He also stated that he was forced to give up his notes to Col. Forsythe for military usage.

Reality Check: He actually arrived on site June 6th, not the seventh. If he carved the 7th into the tree, then he used the departure date, not the arrivals date. It is more probable that he did the carving on June 7th, 1877, which would agree with the factual report provided by Walter deLacy in his 1878 report where the 1877 date was established. Loss of his notes might have caused some confusion between the two major trips. There was no mention of any special considerations by the 1875 commanders, Forsythe and Grant that they attributed any special significance to the June 6th docking, as they were unawares that this was to be their last shore stop on the river.

I.D. O’Donnell in his research for the Kiwanis Club’s Visitor’s Guide in 1930, and the establishment of a permanent visitor’s marker at the Cochran site, stated that the boat arrived on June 6th, and that that date was used on the marker and guide. He also specified that this stop represented the terminus of the boat’s journey up the Yellowstone River on June 7th, 1875, indicating that the sign and guide carried a June 7thdate. (This guide hasn’t yet been located.)

Reality Check:O’Donnell has the arrival date correct, but since the tree had long since vanished, the date was not recorded elsewhere, but apparently just remembered. He referred to the opening remarks of Col. Forsythe as meaning to be that the boat stopped at the tree and didn’t continue upstream on the seventh, but simply turned around. This was the same statement made by Captain Marsh in his 1907 letter. Both individuals forgot to read the actual journal entries that showed the boat to continue upstream until they reached the many islands and chutes that would cause them problems. The survey maps of 1878 show the river to be essentially clear of these cut-up islands until they reach the Duck Creek area. It is there that the boat was ordered by Col. Forsythe to turn around and head back as quickly as possible. The current riverbed is badly distorted and widened in the area of the Cochran ranch. There appears to be no real need to re-stop at the tree on Cochran’s land just to carve the arrival date, and they certainly must have had sufficient fuel to reach Huntley or Pompey’s Pillar area for the night.

Residents of Coulson recall that the boat used to tie up near where Josephine Park is now located.

Reality Check: This certainly makes perfect sense. With the town being created and established across from Sacrifice Cliff, why should the boat try to go further away from the town, and fight Ramsey’s Rapids (Hell Gate Rapids), which had a 13 foot elevation gain in just a few thousand feet? It would also be able to acquire substantial amounts of fuel from the McAdow sawmill. In the area downstream of the park, the Cottonwood trees were reported in 1878 to be small 6 – 10 inches in diameter. The larger trees appeared on the McAdow site (Josephine Park.)

Walter deLacy Stated that the tree was marked by the” steamer”, and that the date was 1877. He also stated that this was the terminus of its journey in 1877.

Reality Check:He apparently read the words from the tree itself, but never recorded all of the information; leaving only Josephine and 1877 as the real dates. It seems unlikely that he would state 1877 if it were carved with 1875. Apparently the local residents filled him in on the ships journey into town and that this stop represented the end of its journey when loaded with supplies used by the initial residents and the start of Perry McAdow’s store, still on his land at that time. Earlier in May, Thomas McGirl traveled east and purchased supplies for his store that was being established at Huntley. They arrived at his place at the end of May 1877. From there Captain Marsh traveled upstream to where Perry McAdow and others were busy establishing their home sites. Joseph Cochran had stated that he knows very well of the tree, but when the Josephine arrived on his property, he wasn’t there at that time. This statement has no direct bearing on what the real date was. Could be either 1875 or 1877.

Summary Recap about “Josephine Tree”

It seems that the currently available source materials are in conflict with the dates, although the facts seem to point to June 1877. The arrival date to the site (June 6th, 1875), which has been presumed by the early researchers to be on-site at Riverfront Park (Joseph Cochran’s land) makes logical sense, but it could just as well have been anywhere in the local area, upstream of the rapids. There is no reason for Captain Marsh to assume that this was the end of the journey, since they still traveled about ten more miles the following day, June 7th, 1875. So why would he carve June 7th, 1875 on a tree, when that wasn’t the arrival date, nor the true end of the journey? Also, why would he later in his 1877 trip travel past the McAdow trading store located just downstream of the rapids, at Josephine Park, where he probably had his sawmill in operation at the south end of the property by that time. There he could get wood already cut for his engines. Why travel the extra distance just to carve an arrival date of June [7th] 1877 or 1875, into the tree?

It also seems improbable that Walter deLacy made an error in reading the military excursion date as being 1877, when it was 1875. So dear friends, what is the true date, and how did it come to be?


Size of the Josephine’s Decks


The most probable description of the steamer’s deck arrangements were made by Don Powers who created a 1/96th scale ship model. The full details are available in the October 1988 “Scale Ship Modeler” magazine. Thirty-nine pages are devoted to the study and construction. The model is housed in the Montana Room of the Parmly Billings Library. From this model the deck lengths verify that Captain Grant Marsh could not have used the walkways for his “mileage – walk” estimations of 150 feet as claimed in his letter to the President in 1909. These calculations are probably more accurate than the ones calculated from the NARA sketches, and referred to above.


Overall length               178 ft (Lower water-line deck / used to store wood for the boilers. Boilers use 1-2 cords per hour at full throttle. No access for walking)

1st Deck                       107 ft (Passenger deck with lifeboat added. Has smokestacks protruding through the decking)

1st Deck                       98 ft (Available straight area for walking)

2nd Deck                      102 ft (Hurricane Deck – Access to wheelhouse. Has cutouts for internal stairs.)

Front Deck                   29 ft (Area where horses are stabled. Water-line area contains gangplanks, poles and spars, donkey engine and numerous ropes and pulleys.)


Commentaries and comments are welcome.


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 [1]Several sources indicate he had the sawmill in operation before June 1877, but the date is not clearly established. He probably was collecting wood in preparation for sawing.


[2]South Dakota Historical society boat ticket


[3]History of Steamboating on the Upper Missouri River, Lass (pg 108)


[4]Letter to President Roosevelt (21 Sep, 1907) Grant Marsh


[5]Conquest of the Missouri, diary recollections of the trip up the Yellowstone by JM Hanson. [These recollections do not entirely agree with the Military Diaries, and he has mixed the two Josephine 1875 Journeys into one.]


[6]Chapter V, “Billings, The Magic City”, Illustrated History of Yellowstone Valley, 1907 by State of Montana


[7]Billings Power Dam, Gazette News article, undated (1914) with pictures; from Parmly Billings Library Biography Files.


[8]Billings Gazette Article dated May 14, 1930