Sandy McLauren, His Princess and His life as a Hermit.

In early 1857 the great Northwest, now known as Montana and Northern Idaho was a no-mans land except for a report from the Lewis and Clark Expedition which only covered a small area along the Yellowstone and Columbia rivers.

It was known that the Missouri and Columbia rivers began in the mountains between the Pacific slope and the Mississippi valley area.

The federal government had military posts in the Puget sound area for the protection of settler in Oregon and Washington. The only way to get supplies to these posts was by water.

Supplying these posts was expensive and time consuming, and impractical in times of emergency. It was thought that if a wagon road could be built connecting the head of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers the posts could get supplies faster.

In the summer of 1857, a Captain Stephens was sent to scout and blaze a route. He reported the plan back in 1859 and Captain John Mullan and one hundred men with equipment sent out to construct a wagon road from the head of the Missouri river, (what later became Fort Benton) to a point on the Columbia river(later named Walla Walla).

The building of the road was a very large task. The only tools that they had were axes, saws, picks and shovels. It took them three years to complete the road. The route led from Fort Benton through the prairies of Northern Montana passing the great falls of the Missouri through the rocky gorges of the Rocky Mountains.

There weren’t any white men living in this area of the western country at the time. It was a beautiful land with lofty mountains covered in thick evergreen trees. Streams of fresh water that ran from the Rocky Mountains was full of Speckled Trout . Deer, Elk, Moose, Bear and Mountain Lions were everywhere. Mountain Sheep and Goats looked down from the mountain peaks.

There were several bands of Indians who used this area for hunting. The Indians never hunted more than they needed. They only killed for food and this is thought to be the reason for the abundance of game in the area. The idea of a fresh start and adventure in an unknown land lured many young men to join Captain Mullen as scouts, guides and hunters.

One of theses men was a young Scotchman, named McLauren. He had long red hair down to his shoulders and full beard of the same color, which earned him the nickname of “Sandy”. He was a tall man and broad shouldered. He was well respected and seen as straight as an arrow, and knew the mountains better than anyone in the group. He had a string of pack horses and his own camp equipment. Sandy’s job was to scout ahead of the construction crew and locate the best places to cross streams and hills. His skill at the use of pack animals and knowledge of how to navigate mountainous country made him a valuable asset to Captain Mullan.

Living in the mountainous region was a group of Piegan Indians. They were living in the Milk River area, each fall they would ascend to the lower country in search of bitter root and camas, which they believed contained medicinal qualities. In one group of the Indians was a young woman that was tall, slender and about 16 years old. She also happened to be the daughter of a Piegan Chief and her name was Wannatuga. THe meaning of her name was “beautiful one”.

Many of the young braves had anticipated taking her for a wife, but the chief had refused all offers. When Sandy laid eyes on Wannatuga, it was love at first sight. Many offers were made by Sandy the her father, but he didn’t have enough horses or tobacco to make a trade or purchase for her.

The Mullan party spent the winter in the Hell Gate Canyon, just above where the city of Missoula stands today and Sandy disappeared. The winter was harsh and the party as well as the Indians lost many horses.

Durring the summer, Sandy returned with several ponies, wampum and other items in an attempt to trade for Wannatuga. Finally the deal was agreed too.

Sandy and Wannatuga moved to the area of St. Mary’s river. This area was full of wild game and fur bearing animals. They could be seen several times a year with their pack ponies loaded with skins and furs headed to the trading post on the Little Blackfoot river, where the city of Garrison now stands. Joe LeBarge, had a trading post there and they would trade the hides and furs for beans, bacon, tabacco and other necessities. Sandy was devoted to Wannatuga and the affection was mutual.

Several of the Indian tribes were accustomed to pitching their camps in the upper Deer Lodge valley. In the winter of 1863, there were many different tribes in the valley, because there the warm springs were located and also because very little snow accumulated here. This allowed the grass to continue to grow to feed their ponies. The marshes and willows of the upper Deer Lodge creek area also attracted thousands of whitetail deer, making it a attractive place to spend the winter. The steam rising from the warm springs in cold weather was like smoke rising from a teepee. The Indians held the legend the superstition, that it was the Lodge of the Spirit of the Whitetail deer.

When spring time came, the Indians gathered their ponies and headed for the buffalo ranges off to the North and East. The Indians not only took all of their ponies, but also the ponies of Sandy and Wannatuga. Sandy knew the Indians didn’t like white men and resented white men that took Indian wives. With Wannatuga, able to speak the language of everything from Piegan to Blackfeet and Crow decided to follow and attempt to get back the stolen ponies. She mounted her favorite pony, Minnetonks and started for the favorite camp of the Indians. Minnetonka was a horse that was well bred. He had a combination of gaits that allowed him to cover long distances without getting tired. He would change from the running walk to the fox trot and then break into a an easy gallop then back to the fox trot.

When Wannatuga arrived at the camp, she made known the purpose of her visit. The chief in charge offered to return the horse in exchange for her horse Minnetonka. But to give up her favorite horse! Never she said. After much negotiations and pleading from Wannatuga the Chief agreed to return the ponies.

On the third day from home and after some rest, Wannatuga headed back home. She soon realized that with several ponies to drive back was slowing her return and the trip that had taken her two days to get to the Indian camp was going to take longer to return home. Nightfall found her at the head of Greenhorn gulch where the Mullan tunnel is. She camped for the night.

When the first gray streaks appeared on the horizon, she gathered her ponies and crossed over the divide onto the Pacific slope and following what is now called Meadow Creek, down to it’s junction with the Little Blackfoot River near where Elliston is now. She found the river overflowing it’s banks. She realized that the warm rains had melted the snow in the mountains and had finally reached the rivers. Wannatuga, knowing the area well skirted the hills to the North attempted to cross the river. She had found herself at the mouth of the Little Blackfoot river where it empties into the Hell Gate river, near present day Garrison.

Sandy, thinking he knew her intended route, went to the forks of the stream to await her arrival, but could only get as far as the south bank of the river which was a high lookout point. He believed he could spot his courageous wife coming home. Wannatuga had left her loose ponies on the foothills nearby and having great confidence in Minnetonka rode into the still water on the flat. The faithful horse breasted the water with all his vigor, plunging into sink holes and scrambling out the opposite side with his rider clinging to his mane and shouting encouragement.

Sandy, watched from the high bank with straining nerves and a beating heart. Powerless to assist in any way but with confidence in the endurance of Minnetonka and the skill in Wannatuga. But when they reached the current in the river, which surged and rolled he saw the horse rise far out of the water, plunge forward and disappear only to rise many yards down stream without a rider.

Sandy was in agony, he ran back and forth straining his eyes in vain hoping to catch a glimpse of Wannatuga. All night long he walked along the bank of the river and called out the name Wannatuga, to no response. For several days Sandy searched for Wannatuga. Finally the rains stopped and the water started to recede and on the far banks he found the object of his search.

Opposite where Rock Creek empties into the river now called Cedar Point, Sandy dug a cavity into the loose rock and buried Wannatuga. For several years he disappeared from sight.

In the spring of 1882, the Northern Pacific rail road was being built and the contractor Mr Nelson Bennett had a contract for this area. Cedar Point extended perpendicularly to the North bank of Hell Gate river. The workmen drove a tunnel into the point and with a large charge of dynamite blew the entire end of Cedar Point away. In clearing away the loose rocks a skeleton was found. The engineer decided that they belonged to an Indian woman. The event was published in newspapers throughout the country.

One day not to long after, and old man with long snow white hair and beard, dressed in white goatskin appeared and took the remains. Wrapping them in a blanket and departing. The Northern Pacific rail road followed the Mullan road through the mountains and the tide of immigration followed.

Near the base of Mount Powell was a lake surrounded by peaks covered with evergreens. The lake was used as a reservoir for storing water for the miners and irrigation projects. Stories began to circulate of a hermit who lived in the rugged country above the lake. Prospectors reported seeing an old man with long hair and a beard as white as snow. He was non-cummunicative and evaded them whenever possible. Others said he lived in a small cavern on the sunny side of the mountain.

A little stream of water trickled from beneath a boulder and ran through a patch of soil that allowed him to grow vegetables like carrots, turnips and other garden stuff. It was said that the old man would sometimes come to Philipsburg, with skins and furs to trade for provisions.

In the winter of 1903 two young Norwegians who had heard the story were wondering how he could live in the mountains through the bitter cold. Equipped with snow shoes they climbed the rugged canyon to the supposed living quarters of the hermit. Deep snow showed no tracks or signs of visible life as they approached the cavern. Inside on a couch made of bearskins was the remains of Sandy. A few homemade cooking utensils were near a fireplace. Further back in the cavern hung strips of jerked venison and dried fish. On a rock ledge was a chest made from hewn cedar with a lid fastened on with Elk skin hinges.

Inside the chest, was a pair of Elk-Skin moccasins ornamented with porcupine quills, a few strings of beads, a lock of long black hair and the bones of a skeleton. On the inside of the lid was carved the name WANNATUGA.

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