My Forty Years Scribblin's
Interviews
Smallpox Epidemic Recalled

This interview was written in 1967 and published as a feature article in the May 21, 1967 issue of The Missoulian. Mrs. Mary Finely Miles recalls her long life on the Blackfeet Reservation in the Mission Valley.


Mrs. Mary Finley Niles of St. Ignatius has seen considerable Montana history in the making.

A sprightly ninety last August, she keeps a tidy house, helps tend her own and sometimes a neighbor's yard and has a delightful sense of humor.

"I'm planning to flood the market," she said last week, pointing to three strawberry plants thriving among her flowers.

She comes from hardy Indian Stock. Her mother's father, Eneas Eneas or To-Cha, was one of the group who went to St. Louis to bring the Blackrobes to the unsettled West.

Mrs. Niles has been told that when her grandfather died some months after returning, his legs were still swollen from the poisoning incurred in the long marches through the prickly pear. One of his companions and one priest were killed by hostile tribes, but her grandfather lived to finish the journey and help in the building of St. Mary Mission at Stevensville.

At the age of six, her mother having died, Mrs. Niles was put in the first Sisters of Charity School at St. Ignatius, a dirt roofed log building, where she remained until she was twenty, graduating from the tenth grade which she considers equal to some college courses of today.

She remembers her school days as a bright part of her life although she was prone to trouble. She once had to kiss the ground from the chapel to the girls school because she didn't know the catechism. Another day when water pipes were first being installed she was sent to paint the inside of the water tower as punishment for (twice) blowing out the plumber's lantern, leaving him to wriggle about under the building in darkness.

"I'll be as good as they are" she related herself. "I'll just stay here!" So she painted until the paint was gone then instituted a one-girl hunger strike.

Her superiors had forgotten about her being sent to the tower and it was two days before someone looked in the window and saw her sleeping on the steps. "The Sisters were so nice to me," she recalled. "They took me into the kitchen and fed me."

Mrs. Niles credits the Sisters Of Charity with everything she learned, not only the knowledge of books, but sewing, cooking and housekeeping also.

She knew most of the early day priests, having been about seven years old when Father Ravalli died. She had a very fine voice and sang in the choir and at special functions, for which she received a gold award of merit with her name engraved.

Mrs. Niles' first job after leaving school was waiting tables at Duncan McDonald's stage station at Ravalli. Mrs. McDonald was her godmother and she lived with the family in the huge log house that still stands, converted to a barn near the railroad bridge at the Dixon turnoff. The cook, she remembers was a "nice little Chinese."

"We called him John Smoke and I scared him out of his wits," she laughed, explaining how she brandished a butcher knife and threatened, "Now, I'm going to cut off your queue!"

The fastest travel was by horseback and she broke her own horses to ride, one throwing her against a tree when a girl came out to shake a blanket, causing her to spend eight months in the infirmary with a splinter near her spine. Her second job was teaching at the Jocko Agency, a branch school operated by the Sisters of Charity and the first school at Arlee.

"There were about seventy-five girls," she recalled, "and I made all the uniforms. They were all red and grey, in nice wool material."

When the Jocko school was moved to Chemawa, Ore., due to discontinuance of government funds, she didn't go along. She took care of children for a while but finding it rather dull, threatened to marry "the first hobo that comes down the track." However, she married a Frenchman named Wilfred Peche instead and went on living at Jocko Agency. While she was there, the agency suffered an epidemic of infantile paralysis. Her eldest son, Basil, contracted the disease and lay packed in ice for two weeks, but he came through with one affected arm.

She vividly remembers the smallpox epidemic when the stricken were treated at a big tent and teepee camp just west of St. Ignatius. She related that 181 people died and lie buried nearby, under farm fields of today. They had moved from the Jocko Agency and her husband had the task of bringing in people to be vaccinated. Many refused to come, and many homes had to be burned after the occupants fell ill.

"Oh, it was horrible," she commented with a shudder.

"But there were happier days," she said, "when we had dinners and dances at the Pablo ranch. And the buffalo were all over the hills and our home place north of Arlee. They came to lie down in our cow corrals. They got used to me peeping through the corral poles, sometimes offering a handful of hay."

She witnessed the buffalo roundup, saw herds of the big beasts swimming the river near Dixon, and knew two riders, Felix Cope and Joe Brooks, who were drowned.

"I can't stand buffalo meat!" she declared emphatically.

Her first husband died in 1915. Later, she married Wallace Niles, who died in 1962.

Mrs. Niles lived in Wyoming thirty-nine years before returning to St. Ignatius six years ago. Of her four children two sons remain. One son, Basil Peche, lives with her at St. Ignatius. Frederick Peche, with his family, lives in Wyoming. She has one grandson.

"Yes, I've had a great life," she said, bustling into her kitchen to serve home-made bread and fresh lemon pie.

Chief Charlo and his small band of Flathead (Salish) Indians cross the Clark Fork River in Missoula on their way to the reservation in the Mission Valley, October 1891. Photo courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.