Martin T. Grande: Sheep pioneer in Montana

Martin T. Grande's ranch on Combs Creek

On May 25, 1866, the bark “Nicanor” left the town of Trondheim in Trøndelag, Norway. “Nicanor”, with a gross tonnage of 438, was built in Skellefteå in Sweden in 1857. When the ship set its course for Quebec in Canada, it had 233 steerage emigrants on board and five cabin passengers. Among the passengers were two brothers, Anton Grande, born 1843, and Martin T. Grande, born on August 17, 1844. Martin became a sheep pioneer, and they both ended up as sheep-ranchers in Montana.

The brothers grew up on the farm “Grande Øvre” at Verran on the north side of the Trondheimsfjord. They were the sons of Tørris Pedersen and Christianna Jeppesdatter and had four older brothers. At the time of the Norwegian Census in 1865, the farm had been transferred from the parents to the oldest son Ole Tørrisen, 41 years old, and his wife Nicolina Paulsdatter. Two brothers were at sea.

The Norwegian census in 1865 listed Anton, 22 years old, as “dreng” or agricultural laborer, on the farm “Wennes Søndre”. His younger brother Martin T.  worked as a “dreng” for the farmer Peter L. Paulsen on another farm, “Grande Nedre”. It was fairly large by Norwegian standards. The farmer employed two “drenger” and three maids – “tjenestepiker”. He owned three horses, 11 cows, 26 sheep and three hogs.[1] Both Anton and Martin knew that there was no future for them in the farming community where they grew up. If they were lucky, they might marry a girl who owned or would inherit a farm; if unlucky they would end up as “husmenn” or cotters.

Modest emigration

Emigration from the Trøndelag region to America began on a modest scale before the outbreak of the Civil War. A few people left during the war. Several shipowners in southern and western Norway participated in the Quebec timber trade, transporting emigrants as ballast from Norway across the Atlantic to Quebec in Canada. Between 1858 and 1862 the brig “Brødrene” left Trondheim every year with loads of emigrants. In 1865 the bark “Bergen” left on May 14 and arrived in Quebec on July 3.

Emigration from Trondheim had a breakthrough in 1866.[2] That season five sailing ships left for Quebec. “Victor” was the first ship to leave. It left on April 25 and arrived in Quebec on June 9, followed by the bark “Neptunus” on May 5, which arrived on June 9. “Nicanor” set sail on May 25 and arrived on July 10, followed by the bark “Vidfarne” on May 26, which arrived on July 18. The last emigrant ship to leave Trondheim that season was the bark “Telegraph”, which left on June 2 and arrived in Quebec on July 22. 

The passenger list on the “Nicanor” is known. Because of an emigrant letter from one of the passengers on board, we know far more than usual about the experiences of the passengers during the Atlantic crossing, and how the passengers continued from Quebec to the Midwest. Many passengers had relatives and friends who had settled in Fillmore and Houston counties in southeastern Minnesota. 

Departure from Trondheim

On May 25 at 6 p.m. the steamship “Finnmarken” began to tow “Nicanor” out the Trondheimsfjord and into the great sea. The bark continued under sail in a mild wind from the northeast. The passengers got a last glimpse of the Norwegian mountains on May 27. Most of the emigrants had never been at sea before and many became seasick, including the letter-writer Erland Taraldsen Tomasrud, his wife, his brother and sister-in-law.

A burial at sea

The journey went well until June 21 when a 17-year-old boy died from a brain inflammation. He was buried in the deep ocean around 55 miles east of Newfoundland. The captain held a moving speech and placed earth on the deceased before he was lowered into the ocean.[3]

The passengers saw the Canadian coast for the first time on July 3. When the “Nicanor” reached the quarantine station at Grosse de Isle below Quebec, it had two sick passengers on board. A boy and his family had to remain at the hospital. The majority of passengers were allowed to continue to Quebec on July 8 and arrived there on July 10. A man skilled in Norwegian and English guided the group to Chicago.

The Grande brothers had absolutely no preferences as to where they wanted to settle. They tagged along with the larger group to Brownsville and Spring Grove in Houston County, Minnesota. This county in south-eastern Minnesota was located on the border with Iowa to the south, with the Mississippi River and the state of Wisconsin to the east, and Fillmore County in the west.

Spring Grove, Houston County, Minnesota

Spring Grove in the southwestern corner of Houston County was a very densely populated Norwegian settlement. Many Norwegians had located in Houston and Fillmore counties. In this region the Norwegian language and Norwegian customs held out for a long time. If Fox River was the Norwegian mother colony in Illinois before the Civil War, Fillmore and Houston came to play much the same role during the first decade after the Civil War.

Hundreds and thousands of immigrants from many places in Norway stopped there for a while before moving further west in Minnesota, to Dakota and Montana territories. The first of these families and single men settled in Spring Grove in 1852. Most of them came from older Norwegian settlements in southern Wisconsin – Koshkonong, Muskego, and Rock Prairie. A few came from recent Norwegian settlements in north-eastern Iowa. “They did not go to Spring Grove Township directly from Norway but were part of the westward movement of the American population, which was at this time pushing north-westward from the southern tip of Lake Michigan and which picked up immigrants from Norway on older frontiers and sent them out to the newer frontiers along with the native Americans.”[4] Many Norwegian immigrants found it very important to settle among fellow Norwegians who spoke their language and shared their Lutheran faith. This was regarded as more important than choosing the best soil in the vicinity.

In 1860 there were 480 Norwegian immigrants (86 families) who lived in the Spring Grove township out of a total population of 545 people (98 families). All the Norwegians were engaged in farming. After the Civil War, a flow of immigrants came directly from Norway to Spring Grove. Of the 231 families (1,325 persons) living in Spring Grove Township in 1870, 196 families (1,135 persons) were Norwegians.

Rising land prices and lower salaries

The best land had been taken and land prices had increased considerably. This was the situation when the “Nicanor” group arrived in the summer of 1866. It was even difficult to get temporary work. A couple of years earlier agricultural workers had been paid salaries of 2 to 3 dollars a day, wrote Erland Taraldsen Tomasrud. When the group arrived, agricultural workers were paid merely 1 dollar per day and only short-term work was to be had. In a letter to his brother and sister-in-law back in Gudbrandsdalen in early September, he wrote that he was on his way to get work at a large sawmill in northern Wisconsin.[5]

The Grande brothers brought no money 

The Grande brothers were advised to travel west to get harvest work in the wheat fields. A farmer hired them at a salary of 0.75 to 1.00 dollar per day. When the time came for them to get paid, however, the farmer said he had no cash. They were offered two head of cattle as their salary. They accepted the deal and later sold them.

Agricultural laborers often had problems finding work during the winter months. The Grande brothers heard that work could be found in the woods and sawmills in Michigan. Stories were also told about the Norwegian entrepreneur Holte and his sawmills far west in Helena, Montana. Holte usually hired Norwegians, they were told. In spring 1867, Anton Grande traveled the long distance to Helena hoping to get work in the Holter mills. His younger brother Martin T. Grande went west to Wyoming. Many Finnish and Scandinavian immigrants worked at the new coal mines at Carbon, Wyoming. Martin signed up for a job in the coal fields.

In the coal mines at Carbon, Wyoming

The main customer for Wyoming coal was the Union Pacific Railroad, which needed large amounts of coal to heat the steam boilers on the locomotives. The first coal town in Wyoming was named Carbon because of its rich coal reserves. It was located about halfway between Laramie and Rawlins.[6] The Union Pacific railroad reached Cheyenne in November 1867 and crossed the border into Utah in early 1869.

During the first years, visitors to Carbon found a scattered and disorganized settlement full of dugouts and log cabins. Infectious diseases like typhoid, diphtheria, and cholera were frequent visitors. Martin Grande stayed three years in the Wyoming coal mines, while his brother Anton soon returned to the Michigan lumber camps.[7]

Martin left Wyoming in 1872. He traveled by stagecoach to Helena, Montana, via Salt Lake City. The first couple of years after his arrival in Montana he only could find temporary work. One of his first jobs was to cut cordwood for the military at Camp Baker, near White Sulphur Springs in Meagher County. A fort was built there in 1869 in response to the miners at Diamond Gulch, who demanded that the authorities establish a fort in the vicinity to protect them against Indian attacks. The fort contained sleeping quarters for a hundred men, officer’s quarters, a hospital, a laundry, and a post office. The name was changed to Fort Logan in 1879.[8]

Elk hunting with Peter Jackson

For a while Martin Grande cut cordwood for the railroad at Sun River. Here he met a fellow Norwegian who had emigrated from the Trøndelag region in Norway. His name was Peter Jackson, born on October 21, 1846. He emigrated from Trondheim through Quebec to Wisconsin in 1869. He worked in Wisconsin for a while at the sawmills at Menominee, one of the main suppliers of lumber to Chicago. In 1871, Jackson chose to go west. He traveled on the Union Pacific to Ogden, Utah, and then traveled north to Montana. When he met Martin in Montana, he was supplying a railroad camp with wild game meat.

The two Norwegians, 26 and 28 years old, formed a joint venture to hunt elk along the forks of the Musselshell River. During the first winter they delivered 400 elk hides at a trading post on the Missouri River in the spring. On average they killed more than two elks per day during the six winter months. Jackson and Grande divided 800 dollars between them at the end of that season. Martin once witnessed a buffalo herd so large that it took the animals three to four days to file through the pass near the headwaters of the Musselshell .[9]

The Jackson ranch on Little Porcupine

Peter Jackson left the Musselshell area in 1876 to hunt buffalo in the Yellowstone River Country further east. He settled at the mouth of Little Porcupine Creek where it entered the Yellowstone River, a few miles west of Forsyth. Jackson married Mary Price on April 11, 1883, in Forsyth, Rosebud County. This was the first wedding by two white people ever to take place in Forsyth. A special Northern Pacific railroad car from Fort Keogh brought a band to play at the wedding. The newlyweds moved to the Jackson ranch at the mouth of the Little Porcupine. Over the years they became the parents of six children.

Working for the Smith Brothers

Martin Grande found big game hunting day in and day out somewhat tedious. The Smith Brothers owned a gold mine at Thompson Gulch west of White Sulphur Springs in Meagher County. They offered him work as a miner during the summer and miscellaneous work on their ranch on Willow Creek east of White Sulphur Springs during the winter. He accepted their offer.

The Smith brothers were among the first sheep ranchers in Meagher County. John M. Smith was born in Fairfield, Ohio, on October 6, 1833, and his brother William A. Smith was born in Williams County, Ohio in 1843. At the age of 21, John migrated to California by way of Panama. He worked in the California mines for several years.

When news of the gold discoveries in Virginia City, Nevada, reached California in 1860, John Smith moved to Nevada and prospected around Gold Hill and Comstock for a year. The war with the Ute Indians, however, made further prospecting risky and he returned to California. In 1863 he sailed to Portland, Oregon, where he joined a group of men eager to try their luck at Placerville, Idaho. His brother had now joined him.

From mining to farming to ranching

The Smith brothers tried their luck as gold diggers at the Last Chance Gulch, Montana, in 1866. They did not have much to show for their work and joined a threshing team in the Gallatin Valley in the fall. In 1867, they chose to farm in the Gallatin Valley, but their crop was ruined by grasshoppers. In 1868 they began prospecting at Thompson Gulch, 18 miles west of White Sulphur Springs. They experienced some success during the first year, but the second year proved disappointing.

During the winter 1871/1872 the brothers began ranching in the Musselshell Valley. In 1873 they built more permanent living quarters there. The Smith ranch was located four miles west of Martinsdale. The two brothers worked well together until William died at White Sulphur Springs on February 12, 1897.

From cattle to sheep

They traveled south to Boise, Idaho, in 1873 and bought 100 head of Oregon Short Horns for 8 dollars per head from John Haley, an influential stockman in Boise.[10] The brothers learned that Haley owned a large flock of sheep. Two years later they entered into the sheep business. They again traveled to Boise, Idaho, and bought 900 head of Merino ewes from John Haley for 1.50 dollars per head. It took most of the summer to move the flock north to the Musselshell Valley, and later to Willow Creek, four miles east of White Sulphur Springs. This flock was the first ever to graze along the Musselshell River.[11] By 1902 John Smith owned 43,000 head of sheep and raised 20,000 head of lambs.

Martin Grande became partner with the Smith Brothers

In fall 1876 Grande left the employ of the Smith Brothers and began working as a sheep herder for Potter and Ford on their place south of White Sulphur Springs. The Smith Brothers had truly learned to trust Grande, and they were not happy that Grande had left them. Next spring, they offered Grande a partnership in their sheep business.

Sheep grazing on the Musselshell River 2018.
Sheep grazing on the Musselshell River in 2018.

After signing the partnership contract, William Smith and Martin Grande traveled west to Helena to buy a wagon and supplies. Together they returned to the Musselshell River and then continued to Boise, Idaho. This time they bought 2,000 head of yearling Merino ewes from John Haley for $ 2.50 per head. They drove the flock north to the Smith Ranch on the Musselshell River by way of Horse Prairie, Bannack City, and Radersburg. The whole flock crossed the Missouri River by ferry at Toston and arrived in the Musselshell Valley in August 1877.[12] Their trek from Boise to Meagher County took place during the summer of the Nez Perce Indian uprising.[13] At Bannack, on their way to Boise, they were warned that it was dangerous to proceed to Boise. Not heeding the warning, they came through without any harm.

Wool for Boston

The partners wintered the band of 2,000 ewes on the Smith Ranch near Martinsdale. In spring 1878 about fifteen hundred lambs were born. “The sheep were shorn, and the fleeces piled up as no bags had been secured. Wool prices were low and there were no buyers closer than Helena”.[14] Martin Grande got the job of freighting the wool to Helena in big ox team wagons. When he arrived there, the buyers had already left. To sell the fleeces and get them shipped to woolen mills in Boston, Grande ended up driving east all the way through the Musselshell Valley and Judith Gap to Carroll on the Missouri River.

The Grande Ranch on Combs Creek

Sheep found good grazing in the hills around Combs Creek.
The hills around the Grande ranch provided grass for wintering the sheep. From the Lennep cemetery.

The Smith Brothers and Martin T. Grande dissolved their partnership in spring 1879. It took Martin more than ten years to build up the necessary capital to own his own ranching operation. When he left with a third of the flock, he located his ranch at Combs Creek, a few miles west of the Smith ranch on the Musselshell River. Grande had discovered the place during his time as a big game hunter.

The place had a year-round stream close to Comb Butte south of Lennep. Timbered areas close by would supply the homestead with wood and logs for house-building and fuel. To the north lay protecting mountains, to the west, south and east lay large and open grazing areas. Down-slope winter winds cleared the range of snow for the livestock.

The Grande Brothers partnership

When Martin established his sheep ranch, his older brother Anton was trying his luck during the Black Hills gold rush. Martin invited Anton to join him in Meagher County. The two brothers formed a partnership in the ranching and sheep business under the name of Grande Brothers. The first home was a two-story log house. A row of small log buildings provided space and shelter for horses, cows, and chickens. A much larger and more comfortable frame house was built half a mile to the north some years later. The number of ranch buildings grew steadily. Grande installed a steam engine and sawmill on Little Cottonwood Creek with easy access to fir timber. By 1883 the Grande brothers had built up their flock to 4,800 sheep. The brothers also began building up a small herd of cattle. “TG” was registered as their livestock brand in Helena.

Pioneering and partnership

Grande financed his part of the partnership with the Smith Brothers with borrowed money. He never again loaned money to build up his flock, “but through careful selection of bucks has bred up one of the finest flocks of sheep in the now famous Musselshell valley”. The partnership with his brother suffered a big blow in August 1880 when Anton was seriously injured by a trail wagon on a street in Helena. He survived the accident but never quite recovered.

Anton Grande died in 1897, and the partnership was dissolved. The Grande ranch was then running 12,000 head of sheep. Martin Grande had built up one of the largest sheep ranches in Meagher County. Over the years Grande hired many Norwegian immigrants as sheep herders. Not all, but some of them, saved money to build their own sheep ranches after having learned the sheep business by working for Martin T. Grande.

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