An Event: Off to a Family Reunion

On Saturday, I’m going to the Page-Redfield family reunion in Twin Bridges. I was invited to the event by—let’s see—my second cousin once removed. Something like that; I never did get the hang of calculating kinship. I don’t expect to see any relatives much closer than a third cousin. Sometime a couple of generations back branches of the family drifted apart and I’m pretty sure my brothers, cousins, nieces, nephews, etc, won’t be there. But, there could be dozens of shirttail relatives. My family has had nearly a hundred and fifty years of being fruitful and multiplying in Montana.

The first of my relatives to arrive in Montana Territory was an 11-year-old girl named Mary Christianson. In her application for membership in the Montana Historical Society, Mary said she arrived in Montana in 1864 by the Bridger Cutoff. I imagine Mary walking beside a covered wagon in a train led by the famous mountain man Jim Bridger. Bridger’s wagon train emerged from the canyon that bears his name early in July 1864. From the mouth of the canyon, Mary could have looked past the point where three rivers run together to form the Missouri to the Tobacco Root Mountains 70 miles to the west. Mary’s odyssey from her birthplace in Germany, across the Atlantic and then across America was almost over. Mary would spend the rest of her life west of the Tobacco Roots.

While Mary contemplated her new life in gold-rush Montana, her future husband, James Madison Page, languished in the notorious Civil War prison at Andersonville where union soldiers died by the thousands of starvation and disease. (Andersonville Prison has been burned into the American consciousness as a symbol of inhumanity, but Page said he never saw  any intentional cruelty there. In fact, in 1908 Page published a book that said the charges against Major Henry Wirtz, who was hanged for murders he allegedly committed at Andersonville, were trumped up.)

Jim Page was released from Andersonville in a prisoner exchange and returned home to Michigan. After recovering from his ordeal and attending business college, Jim decided to move to Montana in 1866. Family lore says he wanted to rejoin the army so he could fight under his hero, General George Armstrong Custer, but his mother talked him out of it.

Jim got a job as a teamster on one of the wagon trains hauling supplies to the gold fields. When he arrived in Montana, he tried his hand at prospecting, but, like many gold rushers, he soon turned to other ventures. He established his Excelsior Ranch near Twin Bridges and began enticing his siblings to join him. His brother, Robert Wallace Page, came to Montana with his family by steamboat up the Missouri in 1879. Low water stopped the boat at Cow Island, but the family had planned to come overland the remaining distance anyway. A sister, Elmira Utley, came with her family a year later on an “immigrant train” operated by the Utah and Northern Railroad. The track ended at Lima, Montana, then, so the Utleys had to continue by horse and wagon from there to Twin Bridges.

My Great Great Grandfather Rodney Page and his widowed sister, Elvira Stephens, were the last to arrive, coming in 1882. By then the track reached as far as Dillon. Actually, Grandpa Rodney went ahead leaving  his wife and sister to manage the move while he rushed ahead to join his brother, Jim, on a surveying expedition to Yellowstone Park. That was the beginning of the Page brothers land survey company, which operated for nearly 40 years. Jim Page said the company surveyed in every county in Montana (probably meaning the original territorial counties).

Descendants of the Pages still tell stories about the 1882 Yellowstone trip. Rodney hired two young assistants named Fred Mercer and Harry Redfield. Mercer and Redfield become close friends and loved playing practical jokes on each other. They used to steal each other’s red flannel underwear and toss it into Old Faithful tinting the next eruption pink—so the story goes. With nearly 4,000 gallons in the typical eruption of Old Faithful, it’s doubtful that one pair of flannels would dye it, but perhaps the prank involved a smaller geyser.

Rodney must have liked Mercer and Redfield well enough. When the survey was done, they followed him home and married his daughters. Harry Redfield married Elvira Page and they had eleven children, so their descendants doubtless will dominate the family reunion. Fred Mercer married Eva Page and they had four children. I descend from the Mercer line.


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