Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


Paul J. McCormick – “Grand Old Man of Montana”

(Under Construction) 

Revised Tuesday, February 24, 2004[Added more details & McCormick Trail links]

 Paul was a native of New York, born in Greenwood, Stuben County, NY on 14 June 1845. His father, James, and mother, Margaret were both from Ireland. He wrote a lot of early western history before his death at age 75, on January 26, 1921. He grew up in the New York area, first attending their public schools, then the Alfred Academy. He arrived in Montana Territory in 1866, settling first in Middle Creek, Gallatin area where brothers James and Robert had settled in 1864 after spending some time in Virginia City. His brothers took seven months to travel from Wisconsin by oxen. Here he tilled the soil for a while on their land.

In 1870 Colonel Baker headed an expedition against the Piegan Indians. McCormick supplied the wagons and went along on the trip. In 1874 he accompanied an expedition from Fort Ellis led by Major Pease, in an attempt to secure a wagon road through the hostile Yellowstone valley area that would enable them to connect Bozeman with the head of river navigation. This is considered to be the first invasion of the Yellowstone valley since Captain James Stuart’s prospecting party were evicted by warring Crow Indians in 1863. The party contained 130 soldiers and prospectors. They left Ft Ellis on 13 February 1874. After arriving at a place near Livingston they acquired more people trying to reach the Tongue River. The group now had 147 people, 200 horses and mules, 28 yoke of oxen, 22 wagons with supplies for four months, two pieces of artillery with 150 rounds of ammunition. The men carried 40,000 rounds of ammunition for their personal guns. After 90 days they were forced back by constant Indian attacks, reaching the safety of Ft Ellis on May 11. In August or September 1875 he along with Zed Daniels and Major Fellows D. Pease went to the Livingston area where they built bullboats (Mackinaws) and floated supplies down the Yellowstone River. This was the first attempt to open a settlement (Trading Post – called Fort Pease by the trappers) on the east side of Big Horn River, close to the banks of the Yellowstone River. [The fort can be reached by crossing the Yellowstone River, north of Custer, on the old Meyers cutoff road & follow it to the old Draper (Cunningham) ranch.  There was a plaque placed at the ranch entrance, which denoted the location of the stockade. [The Yellowstone River flows north at this point and the fort was located on the west side of it. Since 1875, the river has changed its course, and is now considerably east of the actual fort site, which was located next to the riverbank.[1]] Sioux Indians started attacking the settlers, eventually killing six and wounding nine members of the party before they were rescued. The Sioux warriors eventually drove the party from the area and back to Bozeman after eight months of fighting. Major James Brisbin, and his troops from Fort Ellis, Montana, arrived at the site on March 4, 1876, (just north of present day Custer, near Hysham) in central Montana, where Indians had besieged the 46 members of McCormick’s group. At the time of Major Brisbin's rescue, the major reported that “six whites were killed, eight wounded, and 13 escaped.” Major Brisbin escorted the remaining 19 members to safety at Bozeman. The post was abandoned. [If the eight months duration of fighting was correct, McCormick must have reached his trading post site before August 1875 two months after the Josephine made its maiden voyage up the Yellowstone River.]

After the Custer battle in June 1876, McCormick was honored to raise the first American flag commemorating the new fort in Big Horn County, located at his original trading post site and renamed Fort Pease. [The precise date for founding of this fort was apparently not recorded, or at least not readily available, but would have been in late June or early July in 1876[2]]. The fort apparently was manned until the fall of 1876, when the army took the ‘Fort Pease adventurers’ away. John Guy (ex-sheriff of Gallatin County) and his sons located ground on the upper end of the valley (now named Pease Bottom) near the fort. Soon afterwards other settlers arrived and they took the logs in the buildings and stockade for their own use. Guy dug up the buried men who had died during the Indian attack, and moved four of their bodies to the hill at the upper end of the valley. The survivors of the Fort Pease battle, and others who were interested reimbursed Guy for his trouble, and headstones were erected. Records are scarce, but the six who died and the ones who were moved were identified in the “Chronicles of the Yellowstone,” as:

Sam Shivley - shot by Indians leaving the fort. (Buried at fort)  

James Edwards - buried near corner of stockade. (Moved)

Fred Harlan - killed October 1, 1875. (Moved)

Orin Mason - buried December 18, 1875, north of the fort about 15 miles above its (Big Horn River’s) mouth.

Pat Sweeney - shot January 2, 1876, and died 18 days later. (Moved)

Joe Jessie - Frenchman, death date unknown. (Moved)

In June 1877, Bill Taylor settled on the north side of the river (Yellowstone) a short distance from the fort (ten miles above) and directly opposite of Cantonment Terry (soldiers post), he opened a store. This was where McCormick also settled about the same time and started a lively trade business with river men and soldiers. The trading post was named Terry’s Landing at first, but saloons, restaurants, with a dance hall and the other places soon came. Thus the name was not considered dignified enough so it was changed to Junction City. [Note: locations of towns are not exact, and according to the “Eastern Slope”, Vol 1, No 3, September 1909]:

“The first attempt to establish a settlement at Junction, a name derived from the confluence of the Big Horn and Yellowstone on the opposite shore, was somewhere in 1875, when a few of the more hardy and venturesome men on the east side of the Rockies occasionally stopped there to barter with the Indians. But it was not until the spring of 1877 that anything like a permanent settlement was accomplished. It was then that Paul McCormick, now of Billings (1909) but then living in Miles City, in the company of Major Pease, landed there with a small stock of merchandise and opened a store which the major conducted, Mr. McCormick remaining at Miles City, where he had another store.”

“The battle of the Little Big Horn, where Custer and his troopers of the Seventh Cavalry fell the year before, had determined the war department to build posts in this part of Montana. One was located at the mouth of the Tongue, Fort Keogh, and the other, named after General Custer, within a few miles of the battlefield where he was killed.”

“This caused great activity on the Yellowstone and steamboats were common, used if forwarding troops and supplies for the new posts. General Terry was in command of this department and he established a landing place for Fort Custer, opposite Junction. For a long time this was known as Terry’s Landing, but when the Northern Pacific railroad was projected west from Bismarck the place was renamed Custer, a name it now bears. Buildings for shelter for men and stores were erected and a considerable number of soldiers were maintained there in Cantonment to guard the supplies and protect the few whites who(m) were living along the river. Although it would seem that Terry’s Landing had it over Junction, the later continued to grow slowly until the spring of ’78 when it had become famous as an outfitting place for the country to the north and northwest. Mr. McCormick closed out his business at Miles City and removed to Junction and the little store soon became a large concern.”

“Being the head of navigation on the Yellowstone, Junction became the headquarters for the freighting outfits that hauled merchandise and supplies to Fort Maginnis and Maiden on the north and Fort McKinney on the south. Often hundreds of men and teams could be seen there and the town was characteristic of the times and the people. It was a “wide-open” town with little law, save what the people made for themselves, yet it was not a wholly bad place. “Gun plays” were common but only one actual killing stands to its credit.”

“The last steamboat to arrive was the Batchelor, which ran its nose against the bank in ’82, steam boating having seen its finish upon the arrival of the railroad. While it has been said that the Batchelor arrived at Junction, the truth is, the steamboat got no further than Pease Bottom, twelve miles below, where it wintered and returned down the river in the following spring. Its departure was celebrated with a dance which was attended by almost everybody from Junction and the surrounding country.” [Continued: See Junction City Biography for other pioneers and more details.]

At the Junction City store, which was at first a branch outlet of the J. Ellis & Co., was established as the firm of McCormick & Carlyle. Charles Richard Ely Spear [brother to Paul’s wife, born 15 May 1860] arrived there in the spring of 1882. Together they handled general merchandise, groceries, clothing, dry goods, hardware, drugs, lumber, and anything that would be needed in the frontier. Carlyle died the next year, in the spring of 1883, and in the fall T. C. Power & Co., bought Carlyle’s half-interest. The name was changed to “Paul McCormick & Co.” In 1886 he entered into the cattle business and bought out the Nelson Story herd’s “Ox Yoke” brand, which had grazing rights established on the Crow Indian Reservation east of the South Hills area near Billings. He ran 20,000 head of cattle and 100,000 head of sheep on the reservation. At the same time, he and United States Senator T. C. Power, from Helena jointly contracted to build roads in Yellowstone Park. Their construction included roads from Dunraven Pass over Mount Washburn, and from Thumb to the South Entrance. They also built the Corbett tunnel near Powell, WY. His son, Paul Jr, supervised the construction. He also held meat contracts with several nearby Indian Reservations.[3][4]

McCormick then had the distinction of ‘raising the flag’ between the Crow Indian Agency and the Union Pacific Railroad [presumably bringing peace and settlement to both sides[5].]Following this ceremony he and the military commandant ventured into Crow land and established trade routes with the Indians. After that he successfully contracted with the Crow Indians for grazing rights, presumably an extension of the Ox Yoke brand. He and his family held these rights until 1926. Local Crow Indian ranchers recall Paul Jr. (Son of the pioneer elder), and liked him very much. They state that he constructed the trail (wagon road) leading from Pryor Creek alongside of Monument Creek, and onto the South Hills plateau.  The hilltop is called McCormick’s Hill, and his brother Alphonso ran a small ranch there. Part of this road was created by dynamite blasting it into the face of the rocky-rimed area just below Collier Road; it is believed that the road was actually constructed by wagon team drivers in 1868, which delivered supplies to Fort C. F. Smith. [Perry McAdow & Nelson Story-freighter owners.]. It is now closed to all visitors. He then moved to Miles City, started a freight line, and also sold general merchandise there.  He moved to Junction City in 1879, and from that time until 1883 he hauled freight from that place on a route later taken over by Thomas C Power. [In 1869 Mr. Power opened a general store on the Missouri river and then took over the freighting business that ran on the Benton trail from Ft. Benton to Helena.[6]] He represented Custer County at the first constitutional convention for statehood, and helped draft its constitution.

In 1898, with the large cattle operations phased out the costs to ship stock increased. In addition, state taxes were being added to the cattle grazing on the Reservation. Indians were killing stock owned by Portus Weare and Thomas Paton. Both claimed that each lost 2,000 head to the killing. The Indians admitted killing the stock, but denied that any belonged to these two persons. In consideration of resolving the mess, Weare’s entire lease was transferred to Paul McCormick, who promised in exchange to build fifty miles of fence line to separate the affected Districts. This became known as “the McCormick Fence” and it separated Districts 3 and 4, in a northeasterly direction.

About 500 Indians complained to Agent Stouch about the fence. They hadn’t been interviewed on the matter, and their permission had not been obtained. They also asserted that the first contracts (leases) were for a period of three years, and made with their knowledge and consent, with one-year continuance allowed; but all leases since 1895 were made without their knowledge, and now a fence was to be constructed without their approval.

Agent Stouch stopped construction on the fence, but Secretary Thomas Ryan approved the original proposal; and the fence construction was restarted. The Crows continued to complain about the fence, but it was built.

He started the Paul McCormick Cattle Company, and for ten years was one of the leading cattlemen in Montana. He then became president of the Custer Cattle Co with brand “7-7”, with TC Power and AC Johnson as partners; and in 1898 was vice president of the Spear Brothers Cattle Co. He moved to Billings in 1891 and was general partner in the Donovan-McCormick, a general merchandise company. He established the Custer Forwarding Company, and conducted a large freighting business between Junction City, Custer, Fort Maginnis, Fort McKinney, and Buffalo (WY). Freighting was accomplished by wagons hitched to oxen or horses. In 1894 the Billings store of Donovan & Spear purchased the McCormick store at Junction City. They operated it for about four years, selling their interests to Harry Scott. The site of the store has long since been erased by the Yellowstone when its course was changed. Paul also ran 100,000 head of sheep on the Crow Reservation.

During his stay in Junction City, the local paper “Sheep Herder” often reported about his affairs. The following are a few excerpts from the 1890 issues[7], they read like a diary, and identify numerous contracts for freighting and services to the Crow Reservation areas, many of which are directed towards Paul.

        March 20       Paul McCormick went west on No.1 Tuesday morning. [NPR train]. Paul McCormick was on the streets again Monday, after an illness of five days. Paul McCormick is the lowest bidder on Camp Sheridan transportation by one-tenth of a cent. Joseph Graham & Emmerson loaded their mule teams with 40,000 pounds of tombstones for Custer Battle Ground Monday.

        April 24         “Paul McCormick was seen making medicine for rain one day last week. He has a wolf tail hanging at the corner of his store and the Crows claim that to be a heap good. Joe Graham gets a thousand cords of wood to put in to Fort Custer; price $7.17 per cord: Paul McCormick gets the other three thousand cords at a higher rate. J.J. (James) McCormick, the new manager for the Paul McCormick & Company, takes to the business and is winning friends daily. Charlie Skinner, of Big Horn, had a 12-horse team at Custer Station Tuesday loading freight for his store. Monigan & Emmerson’s mule teams pulled out Tuesday for Crow Agency, loaded with flour. Billy Sales, with an 8-yoke bull team is here loading for S. A. Leverton & Co., Sheridan. William Haux two 12-horse teams pulled out Monday loaded with potatoes for the commissary at Fort Custer. Fort Custer hay went for $16.00 per ton. If it does not rain, the contractor will wish he was at the bottom of the sea with McGinty! Frank D.  & Emmet McCormick returned last Friday from Wyoming with a load of saddle horses they had purchased over there for the 7-7. Four 4-horse teams passed through Junction last Thursday from Sheridan, Wyo., enroute to Maiden and Great Falls, all young men looking for work. That’s right, Montana has plenty of work for working men. Idlers had better stay away.”


        May 1            Paul McCormick was awarded 1,100,000-pound oat contract to be delivered to Fort Custer.

        May 15          Paul McCormick received contract for 200 tons of baled hay to be delivered to Fort Custer by July 1st.

        June 26          Paul McCormick is putting in ten tons of baled hay at Cantonment.

        July 10           Paul McCormick and William Hank are searching for timber lands suitable for making railroad ties.[They returned after eight days.]

        August 21      Paul McCormick lost a bid to deliver 100 tons of baled hay to Fort Custer. Won by a firm from St. Paul.

        Sept 4            Paul McCormick and family traveled to St Paul.

        Sept 11          Paul McCormick traveled to Helena to partake in the State Convention.

From 1906 to 1911 his son Paul, Jr commanded Billings Company K of the Montana National Guard. In 1916, as a Captain, he was sent to Douglas, Arizona near the Mexican border. During WWI he was an artillery officer, and was sent overseas. While traveling on the troopship “Tuscania” off the coast of Scotland, in February 1918, it was torpedoed. 1,800 men were rescued, he being one, and 200 others lost their lives. He entered the Army Reserve after WWI, and was a cavalry major from 1924 through 1945.

In 1908 he sold out to the Yegen Brothers, Hughes and Yates. After retirement he ran an elk & buffalo ranch along the edge of the north rims in Billings. He owned a building on North 29th Street, and a block of residences on North 31st Street. He had a 22x34 foot long log cabin built in 1893 on the property to be used as a community center, later it was used for the YMCA. The cabin was sold to Mrs. Nellie Elliot, who in turn sold it to the YMCA.

In 1952-1953 Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. chose the McCormick block as their new office site, which included the cabin. On April 13, 1953, Peter Yegen and Paul McCormick, Jr., asked the oil company for the cabin stating they planned to use it for a museum. Oil company manager, W. W. Clawson gladly gave them the cabin, with the stipulation it be moved within 30 days. Numerous city officials assisted in clearing the land and property holding details that concerned the transfer. One of the problems was that no one wanted the cabin to be placed on or near their land. Eastern Montana College [MSU-Billings] had land available, but the details needed to gain permission could not be accomplished within the allotted time. Land on the Pioneer Park site’s north boundary was originally designated to be a museum site, but 17 citizens living near by objected stating: “the cabin would hurt the Park as it was originally intended.” Dick & Marjorie Logan came up with idea to place it on the rims. This idea was approved and Fred Zeier moved the building, sod roof and all. Arthur Archibald disassembled the interior fireplace and each stone numbered for relocation. The stone mantle was inadvertently hauled to the dump by a workman, but was recovered. It was stated by townspeople  “the reason the museum is on the rims by Bill Hart’s monument is he was the only one who didn’t object to it.”  The first Northern Pacific switch engine that helped create the railroad line in Billings on August 22, 1882 was donated to the museum. The Hi-Ball Contractors moved the engine “Old 1031” to its final resting spot after it arrived in Billings under its own power.  Edward B. Stanton from St. Paul presented the engine to the town on May 25 1957. In the fall of 1959 the Yellowstone Historical Society purchased the Walters’ collection of Indian artifacts, the finest and oldest collection in the county. The cabin is now called the Yellowstone Museum. When Paul relocated from Junction City to Billings in 1893 he purchased the Cabin home built by Conrad, on 31st St &4th Ave N for his residence. This cabin was originally bought by Alfred Myers, and then resold to Paul. After Socony-Vacuum purchased the property, much of home furnishings were acquired by the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody. The home was a landmark of elegance, and contained a hanging staircase designed by R. R. Rowe, a Boston cabinetmaker who moved to Billings in 1892. The home contained seven fireplaces; and a Packet Steamer originally shipped most of the furnishings to their first home in Junction City.

This cabin was his first home at Junction. After a few years he added a wing to the structure to accommodate the growing family. After he made arrangements to leave Junction and settle in Billings, the structure was dismantled and the logs transported on or about March 1893 to its new resting place alongside the alley near his home. This he referred to as his “Daniel Boone” cabin. It was used for guests and parties. The window arrangements were changed to accommodate a single-room, and a fireplace added at one end. The false ceiling was removed, and the logs left exposed. If you visit the cabin (Yellowstone County Museum) you will be able to see the cuts made into the logs where the dividing walls once stood. The “not identified” portion was probably the kitchen. After the addition was created, it might have been simply a storage area. See attached for details on the Junction City cabin. In preparation for his relocation to Billings, and afterwards he acquired all of one city block. Many of the lots were rented to others. The acquisition history is presented on the Land Acquisition attachment.

He was an active Republican and delegate to the 1888 convention, a member of the territorial legislature, member of the Knight’s of Columbus, member of Lodge 394 of the BPOE, head of a committee to welcome President Taft to Billings, and a personal friend of Theodore Roosevelt. The Montana Society of Pioneers elected him president of that organization in 1906.

Family Lineages (Partial)

James McCormick and spouse Mary Margaret _____, both of Ireland, moved to Rexville, NY and had six sons:

              I.      Robert McCormick. Born 7 Mar 1840, Rexville, Steuben, NY. Died 21 August 1928 in Billings. The last of six brothers, he married Mary Moran, daughter of Martin & Mary Lee Moran, from Ireland. Mary was born 15 August 1854 in Rexville, died 31 Mar 1930 in Billings. Robert came to Montana in 1864 with brother James, settling first in Virginia City, then onto farmland in Gallatin County. They had nine children, and resided at 510 N 22nd St prior to their deaths.

           II.      Frank D. McCormick. Born 18 Jun 1843 in Rexville, NY. Died 3 Mar 1926 in Billings. Married Lillian Malvina Martin, born: 16 Mar 1868, Bellaire, Ohio, she is buried in Mountview Cemetery, (died 28 February 1932) as Mrs. Frank McCormick. [Note: she remarried Francis DeSales after Frank’s death.] Was Deputy Sheriff in Junction City, and operated freighting business with the army at Fort Custer; also cattle rancher.

         III.      John McCormick. Senator from Wyoming. Paul and he traveled to Montana in 1866, and at first resided with brothers Robert and James in Gallatin Co.

        IV.      Alphonso (Alphonsus) McCormick. Came to Montana with brother Robert after Paul and John. Took up homesteading on the land overlooking Monument Creek in South Hills of Billings, at edge of Indian Reservation. (Monument Trail is also called McCormick’s Trail.)

           V.      James J. McCormick. Born: February 28 1837 calculated from age at death.) Came to Montana with Robert in 1864, and farmed in the Gallatin area. [Some biographies state he came with Paul in 1866 to Montana.] Died: 13 March 1922 in Chicago.  [Married Mary Jane O’Hara; born 13 Mar 1847 Sheldon, VT, died 31 Jul 1924 Billings. Her father was Bernard (Ire), mother was Martha Hogan (Sheldon, VT).  James died before 16 Mar 1916, in Billings.

        VI.      Paul McCormick[8]. Born 14 June 1845, Rexville, NY. (Birthplace sometimes listed in biographies as: Greenwood, Stuben County, NY). Died 21 June 1921 in Billings, following a long illness; and is buried in Mountview Cemetery. He married Mary Catherine Spear on 23 February 1879 in Helena[9],[10]. [Mary was born 23 Feb 1856 in Sweetgrass, Nodaway Co, MO. She died 11 May 1943. Parents were Willis Bradford Spear (born 12 Jan 1824 in Chautauqua, NY) and Jane Ferguson (born 2 Feb 1826 in Ashtabula, OH.) [11] They had five children: Paul Jr, Myrl, Blythe[12], Edith (died at age 2), and Guy (died at age 4).

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[1] The Montana Room has the fort’s location identified on a framed map, dated 1899, in the Map File drawer.

[2] [2] From the Burlingame Papers (Collection 2406 Bozeman, Montana): July 18, 1876, Fort Pease, Montana.
Almost a month after the battle (Custer’s Battle), Charles Schofield writes to Lilla Bogert from Fort Pease, where he is recovering, and tells her of  the drunken condition of Major Thompson.

[3] Obtained from the Yellowstone News, February 28, 1952

[4] Extracted from Billings Gazette, undated, circa 1950, announcing arrival of Socony Vacuum. Information copied from biographical files on Paul McCormick; Parmly Billings Library.

[5] Many articles post George McCormick as the person that brought the two sides together. Additional research is required to establish the proper name, as Paul’s long time associates state he was the person performing the right to pass. There are references to “George Paul McCormick”, and this might well be the same person. [Please assist]

[6] Megan Reynolds, student in Helena,

[7] Extracted from the Billings Gazette Weekly Editions

[8] According to the lineage history of Paul’s son Paul Jr and Paul III, prepared by the family descendants, his middle name apparently was James (from his father), and this was carried down the lineage. No other record located.

[9] Death Certificate records - Billings

[10] Spear Bible Record – Mrs. Jessamine Johnson, Kirby, MT.

[11] Death Certificate information, Billings

[12] Blythe married Guy Wagner Williams 20 October 1928 in Long Beach, CA. She was born 7 November 1897 in Billings. [Source: Death Certificate records. Note:  Family History Center records (AFN: 1ZZ1-ZQP) erroneously state birth as 1889. Guy murdered her in Artesia, CA on September 23, 1962. Reason not established.]