My Forty Years Scribblin's
Interviews
Early Reservation Days

This interview was written in 1961 and published in Montana's Little Legends(1963). Louis Demers remembers his father and others' contributions to the Jocko and Mission Valleys.


The Demers name is a familiar and enduring one in Western Montana, these families being instrumental in the development of the Jocko and Mission valleys.

Alec Demers, father of Louis A. Demers, to whom we are indebted for this article, arrived in the country before the Indians were moved there from the Bitterroot Valley, and was assigned to Major Peter Ronan at the Indian Agency as a clerk. A short time later he was assigned to construction in preparation for the moving of the Flathead, or Salish, people to the new reservation.

After the move was accomplished Alec Demers left the Indian service and started a business of his own, a store at St. Ignatius, freighting supplies from Deer Lodge by oxen, fording the Jocko below the site of Arlee.

Louis (Louie) was born at St. Ignatius in 1883, the year the Salish moved from the Bitterroot.

Later, a Dr. Dade was sent to the reservation and stayed to minister to the ailing for a great number of years, but in 1883 no doctor was available and Louie was ushered into the world by an Indian lady, a Mrs. Barnaby.

Prior to the coming of the Northern Pacific, someone, possibly the Hammond Company, had established a store at Arlee, we are told, and shortly after the completion of the railroad a Mr. Combs was operating the business under the jurisdiction of the Missoula Mercantile.

At this time, the Indians, under the scourge of the white man's liquor, were wont to put on terrific celebrations, procuring at least part of their supply from off the reservation by a trail across the hills to the Frenchtown valley.

On one occasion one of the celebrants, already under the influence, came to the building in the night and demanded liquor from Combs. The storekeeper refused, or declared that he had none; whereupon the Indian began to break the door down. Combs threatened to shoot, but the man, past reasoning, continued to batter his way in. The storekeeper shot through the door and killed him.

The Indian settlement, incensed, and fired by alcohol, began to organize a scalping "bee" with Mr. Combs as the principal. But the storekeeper learned of their intentions in some manner and was well aware that his survival hinged on one circumstance, escape. By now the railroad was completed and a "helper" engine sat placidly snoring beside the water tank. The badly frightened storekeeper ran to the depot and called the division superintendent, gaining permission to have the engine and crew take him to Missoula, and safety.

Mr. Combs never returned and Alec Demers was called in from St. Ignatius by the Missoula Mercantile to take charge of the business. It seems the new storekeeper found it necessarily to keep an ax handle handy under the counter to quell an occasional disturbance; but quell them he did and got the business straightened out and rolling.

The Demers store in St. Ignatius in the early 1900s. Photo courtesy Albert DuMontier.Mr. Demers also operated a livery stable since the settlers must come to town by horse-drawn conveyances for supplies, though some came only as often as every six months. He also dealt in lumber, the piles of which furnished Louie a vantage point from which to watch many scenes that are history today.

After the business became well established Alec Demers sent back to Canada for his sisters and his brother, Hector. Hector Demers died while working for the railroad when he fell between the caboose and a box car and was cut in two. After the tragic death of his brother, Alec Demers sold his interests to a man named Dow and returned to St. Ignatius for several years, but returned to Arlee to resume operations for a second time.

Louie relates an incident that took place "when he was a kid of eight or nine" after the family moved to Arlee, and the Indians were in the midst of a celebration.

He had been watching from a favorite spot behind one of his father's lumber piles when he heard a shot. One Indian had sent a bullet through the lower thigh of one of his comrades and left a little ball of flesh dangling from a six inch sinew. The fellow, apparently unhampered by the streak of daylight through his leg, stalked about, proudly jiggling the grisly decoration saying "see-see."

The man was later shot by a Game Warden who in turn was shot and killed by the young Indian's mother in an altercation in the Swan Valley.

Another time, from his vantage point behind the lumber pile, Louie saw the Indians get into a scrap with butcher knives. Running to the restaurant he summoned the Chinese cook and together they watched "while Finley cut Charloway to pieces."

Someone ran for Alec Demers who in turn, ran for a sack of flour and some sheeting. He laid the bleeding Charloway on the sheeting and packed his slashed legs in the flour. Mr. Demers had the patient carried to the Indian village where he was obliged to lie quiet for approximately six months. When at last the flour was removed the injured limbs were perfectly healed.

Louie remembers with pleasure his father's summer camp at Polson Point on Flathead Lake when he and his brothers and sisters were young children. His father would charter the steamer "State of Montana" and several families would avail themselves of the opportunity to tour the shoreline for ten-day vacations, complete with a Chinese cook, the services of the latter alternating between the boat and the shore camp. When the boat was at anchor the children of the party swam, fished, hunted frogs and whiled away the time much in the manner of children of today.

One day in particular the boys of the party had come in high spirits after a successful frog hunt. Someone had left a shotgun lying on a bed, and Louie, with a small boy's impulse, grabbed up the weapon and banged away at a fly on the wall. Results were instantaneous. Louie was upended from the recoil while from the kitchen came a wildly excited "Gee—Chli—me no stay—me go 'way—tly killee me!" [Jesus Christ—me no stay—me go away—try kill me!] The fly probably suffered nothing worse than shellshock, but the Demers cruise was in the market for a new cook.

While the Demers family still resided at St. Ignatius, the Indian people employed a formula for giving thanks. It was a New Year's custom for them to line up single file, dressed in their best blankets and moccasins. The white families lined up also, leaving both front and back doors open. As the red men filed through, each one shook hands with each member of the white family. The clay was at its muddy best and "Sometimes," said Louie, "we shook hands for two whole hours!"

General Miles, Louie relates, was very interested in sign language so Indian agent Charles Coe, while on a business trip to Eastern Montana, met with Miles and agreed to arrange a succession of meetings at Arlee for the purpose of instruction. Bitterroot Jim, an expert in sign language, John Delaware, and Mose Big Sam were chosen as instructors. The three Indian men, together with General Miles and Indian Agent Coe, held a rendezvous at Demers store each day to converse by movements of the hands.

The procedure? Before beginning the conversation Bitterroot Jim would take out a long, well decorated pipe and a buckskin bag of tobacco mixed with kinnikinnick leaves. After due time and ceremony the pipe was lighted and passed to each Indian and then to General Miles. The General became proficient in sign language, and so, this writer might add from observation, has Louie Demers.

The Demers store is still a landmark at Arlee. Louis Demers, a brother, and two sisters still make their home there although they have retired from the mercantile business.