Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


William Alonzo Allen – Pioneer & Dentist


Revised 10 May 2002 (Added details)


W. A. Allen has had several short biographies written about his life, and some of these articles have married the timing and the facts in such a manner as to distort his real life. He wrote four books (two of which were co-authored) about the frontier days. Some of the current scholars are skeptical about his books, indicating that they “should be considered fiction.” A case in point is his translation from an elderly “Sheep Eater”, an old woman, and the last of her kind, who gave him a vivid account of her tribe. It has been thought by some that the tribe never existed. His life is summarized from existing Gazette articles and excerpts from his books, the Rocky Mountain Husbandry December 16, 1937 articles, plus burial and genealogical records. This article can be used to help formulate a true life’s story, should one day someone care to pursue that task. Corrections and additions to the summary are welcome, and greatly appreciated. There are numerous vacancies in his life that need to be filled.

Blankets and Moccasins

Sheep Eaters (Co-Author with Mrs. Gwendolyn, 1903.) Pages 15-19 Attached.

Adventures with Indians and Game, or Twenty Years in the Rockies (1913)

Black Feathers


The Trail to Dentistry

William Alonzo Allen, son of Robert Allen and Rachel Guiler, was born in Summerfield, Ohio 2 September 1848. [Some burial records indicate town was Summerville] Robert Allen’s birthplace was not recorded. Rachel’s birthplace was also not recorded. William married Josephine Huston. Josephine was born in Wigfield, Ohio. [Wigfield doesn’t apparently exist. Wickliffe, near to Cleveland might be the proper name. Additional research is required to identify the proper location.] They resided in Kossoth, Iowa and raised a son, William Orwin Allen. Orwin later on followed in his father’s footsteps and became a dentist in Billings. In the spring of 1877 he heard about the gold mines in the west and left his wife and son in Iowa to travel to the Black Hills. His first stop was at Sidney, Nebraska. There he linked up with two other men from Ohio and made a deal with three outfitters to go on as passengers to the Black Hills. About ten miles out, the outfitters determined that their teams couldn’t afford to carry the extra load, so the three men were forced to walk alongside of the wagon train until they reached Deadwood in Dakota Territory. The three didn’t have enough money to live on, let alone pay for any more travel, so they tried their hand in panning for gold. They got a few flakes, but not enough to get some real money.

Being a resourceful man, William started to sharpen miner’s tools and made a handsome profit. He had enough money in a short while to pay for a year’s supply of provisions for the three of them. Just as they were about to leave, news of an attack on another settler wagon train nearby reached Deadwood, and that Indians surrounded the camp. A group of 25 men assembled and rushed to their aid. Included were Thomas Nicholson, John Wustrum, Captain Patton, Charles Swerts, William Allen, and Thomas Randall. That night the emigrants and their escort traveled three miles to a nearby little town of Spearfish, and then onward to Belle Fourche. A number of Deadwood residents remained with the party, including W. A. Allen. William was made second in command to Captain Burnham who headed up the settler wagons from Utah. [See details about the Alice McCleary travels and her marriages.] The group continued on to the Big Horns without any more Indian trouble. From there they went to the Powder River and across the upper part of the Tongue River and other streams until they reached the Little Big Horn.

At the Big Horns the company separated for various destinations. Mr. Brown had a contract to put up hay at the newly built Fort Custer. He had 16 head of Missouri mules in charge of a man named Brewer. “Two men, called Burnstein and Brewer had brought a load of liquor across the plains, intending to establish themselves at some mining town. The Reeds and Nicholsons left with these two outfits and started down the Big Horn, traveling for two days. Reed had been promised a place as cook with the haying party. That night some Indians ran the horses and mules off and the men started after them. They followed Wolf Creek finding where the Indians had trailed the horses and mules in the water, and finally driven them onto a flat. They had just discovered the horses when an Indian on bareback got to the animals and began driving them on. Reed’s horses dropped out and soon, the Burnstein and Roper horses, but they continued after the mules. They got to some tress and were pressing closely when they saw the Indian wave a blanket to about 50 Indians encamped in a valley below, and they immediately astir. The three men found a buffalo wallow not far from the trees and they were determined to stand off the Indians. Aiming at the Indian’s horses they dismounted the first few who attacked. Roper was sitting up, in tailor fashion, shooting Indians until he was shot in the heart. Reed and Brewer remained there all day, warding off the Indian attacks. When darkness came they crept away on hands and knees to some rocks. From there they could see the Indians were having a war dance. On the way back they heard someone coming up behind them and they hastily concealed themselves. The Indians rode on by, on the captured horses. The next day they went to Fort Custer to report the attack. A force was sent out and the mutilated body of Roper and his papers were recovered.” [William reportedly guided the group to Bozeman, and then returned to the Coulson area. Little is noted about this event, but he must have returned there in early September.]

Stage lines were just starting up, and he took a job (as a blacksmith, helper?) working for Tom Shirley. Tom had established a line between the Army Cantonment (Miles City) and Bozeman. [In the Clark’s Fork Valley (Coulson area) the route ran essentially straight from the Canyon Creek Junction at Ed Forrest’s Camp & Stage Stop at Canyon Creek and on toward the Alkali Creek pass (Main Street in Billings Heights), then onto Tom McGirl’s place at Pryor Creek. To the west it ran directly to Young’s Point. Reference: de Lacy 1878 Survey map.] Apparently he was to assist in the travels, and prior to the first stagecoach ride, he and Frank McPartland made the trip in a buckboard pulled by two good horses to check out the route. After they left, the first stagecoach ride was already enroute to Bozeman. The main body of Nez Perce Indians, fleeing from the army attack at Cottonwood Canyon further up on Canyon Creek (north of Laurel), saw the stage arriving and attacked it when it reached the Bela Brockway farm.  [This was 13-14 September 1877.]  Ed Forest was handling the stage, and Hank Eastman was the driver. The stagecoach occupants, two women and an Englishman (dentist), ran for cover in a beaver island in the Yellowstone River, thus escaping certain death. The dentist left his belongings behind as he fled to safety. The Indians opened his satchel, and scattered his shiny dental tools about the area. They went through the mail and dumped it into a dry well. The Indians did not spot Ed Forest and Bela Brockway, but they had two dogs that might bark and give their position away. Ed Forest tried to cut the dog’s throats, but one got away. Seeing the dogs, the Indians danced, jumped and hollered. They then took the stage and drove it up to Heffner’s stone quarry, and rolled it down a hill.  In Dr. Allen’s book, “Twenty-Five Years in the Rockies”, he wrote:

“I soon tired of life in Bozeman and found employment on the stage line running from Bozeman to Miles City, a distance of 340 miles. We had no regular time for making the trips, for it was impossible to foresee what might happen to detain us upon the road. At every station we would stop and get a fresh team, but often found that the horses had been stolen, or, worse still, that the station house was in ashes.”

William and Frank arrived just after the attack. William spotted the shiny tools, left by the dentist in his hurry to escape, lying on the ground. He collected all he could find and the two men continued on to the Cantonment. He became a blacksmith for the stage line and had a shop in Coulson for a short while.

In 1878 he located coal in the Bull Mountains due west of Red Butte, head of Cow Creek. He filed for mining claims.

In 1879 his son arrived from Iowa. [Wife status is unknown, but apparently didn’t come with William Orwin.] Years later, when people needed dental aid, he used the tools to fix the problem. He continued practicing this crude dental trade for about two years before deciding to get an education and learn about his new profession. He went first to Chicago, and then Kansas City for advanced dental training. After that he returned to Billings and practiced full time. He lived in Canyon Creek at the time, but had an office in Coulson, then in 1882 relocated to Billings. In the 1880 Federal Census his occupation is listed as “blacksmith.” Residing with him on the Clarke’s Fork Bottom is his wife, Josephine (age 25), son William (age 6), daughter Rebecka (age 4), and newborn son Fowler (age 6 months). They have a border, George Cunningham, living with them. George, age 19, is a farmer.

 Some of his observations, reported in the Gazette:

“The first account, defining the origin of Sacrifice Cliff and the Smallpox Epidemic comes from a report by Dr Allen when he interviewed Chief Plenty Coups as he talked about his uncle and the River Crows. Dr Allen, from his shop in Coulson, noticed hawks and crows hovering over “Skeleton Cliff”, a shale-ribbed butte tipped with pine trees. Following the birds he discovered bright colored cloth that was hanging from nearly every tree, and each held a skeleton, about 100 in total. The bodies were draped in bright blanket shrouds and bound to the trees with rawhide thongs, Property of the dead, found around the trees, included necklaces of elk teeth, moccasins, brass or copper rings and other articles. Chief Plenty Coups stated: these Indians were “big men, heap tall, heap strong” and proud of their long braided or wrapped around their heads for a battle.  They had no squaws. They were noted for making what he called ‘Guarded Villages’.  “The braves lived upon the peak (Skeleton Cliff) to guard the Crow villages (below), and they were young, strong and knew no fear, so ‘their hearts sang all the day long.’ They did not fear the strange sickness taking the Sioux and Blackfeet as far down as the Missouri ‘for the Great Spirit had been very kind to his Crow children.’

According to Dr Allen, “the place where Kelly was buried was called “Kelly Mountain.” It was used as a medicine point for young Crow or Absarokee braves who went alone for fasting and prayer with the Great Spirit before becoming a full-fledged warrior. After three or four days alone without food, drink or sleep the Great spirit gave the youth a name, a mission in life and instructions for making his medicine or good-luck talisman. The medicine usually consisted of objects in a buckskin pouch worn by the warrior and guarded closely.“

The townsite of Allendale, 13 miles west of Billings, was platted January 6, 1893 by Dr. W. A. Allen and J. L. Guyler (Guiler). In 1894 a flourmill was built and an attempt by them to found the town itself failed.

According to Dr Allen (frontiersman and dentist) a group of men were discussing the town, and remarked “We have everything here but a graveyard, guess we’ll have to kill somebody and start one”, it was jokingly said. Soon after, in March 1880, John Alderson shot Dave Currier over a dispute about the title to his piece of land adjacent to Coulson. A listing of persons buried in the site and circumstances leading to their death is available in the Boothill Cemetery Listing. The proceeds from Dave Currier’s previous fur trade were donated to the town’s committee and the funds were used to refurbish the existing gravesite that became known as Boothill Cemetery.”

In 1882, when the train arrived in Billings, he demonstrated the value of Montana Coal from his own mines to NPR. NPR immediately bought Allen’s holdings. The veins were about 16 feet thick and many miles long.

On 24 November 1887 William Allen married Marie Francesco Finkelnburg (Germany) in Fountain City, Wisconsin. She was born 7 April 1865 in Fountain City, and died 19 September 1946 in Billings. Her father was August Finkelnburg (Germany), and mother was Mary Buesch (England). 

While practicing as a real dentist he discovered mineral clay near his Canyon Creek property, from which he developed toothpaste, face cream and other such preparations. For a short while he manufactured and sold these products himself. A toothpaste company was organized in Los Angeles, and he provided 50 tons of the clay to start the manufacture.

His son William Orwin Allen married Matilda Delfoss on August 3, 1899 in Billings. Orwin attended the Northwestern Dental School and practiced in Billings until his death on 6 September 1943.  His office was at 27th Street & Montana Avenue. They had a daughter, Maurine. Living with them at the time of his death were his father, stepmother, daughter, and sister Lelah Yager.

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