Westward, Ho! John J. Healy, Montana Pioneer

(Above: "When Wagon Trails Were Dim," Charles Russell's depiction of a wagon train in the American west.)

Many men and women with Irish roots participated in the “winning” of the West for the new nation that was growing into a world power in 19th century North America. Some are well known, but many are not. Among the latter is John J. Healy, of whom William Buck, publisher of the Benton (Montana) Record wrote in the late 19th century: “If a correct history of Montana is ever written … Mr. Healy will figure … as one of the most prominent and heroic characters of our early civilization.” Though John Healy made and lost a fortune a few times, he always seemed more motivated for a new adventure than the mere making of money. In his life he would be a soldier, gold prospector, trader, Indian fighter, law man, capitalist and more. The limited space of this article will not even scratch the surface of the list of adventures he had in his life time.

Like many of the men and women who led America’s conquering of the West from its native inhabitants, Healy was certainly not always heroic by modern standards in his dealings with those indigenous people. The opinions he often expressed regarding them were definitely racist by modern standards. But like all historic figures, he was a product of the times in which he lived, and the life experiences that shaped him, and that is how we should judge him.

(Left: John Healy in 1863.)

The first of those experiences was, An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, one of the greatest disasters to ever occur in his native country. John was born in in 1840 in Donoughmore, County Cork, one of the hardest-hit counties during those tragic years. The Healy family owned a gristmill. The sale of flour to the government shielded John and his family from the worst horrors for a time, but when he was a young boy the horrific scenes of that calamity would have been surrounded him. And it soon hit his own family, leading to the closing of the mill. In 1853 his family immigrated to New York City.

Though some Irish immigrants adapted well to city life, John was not among them. Tales of the beautiful open spaces of the American West may have been inspired him to move on. Before his 18th birthday, he was out on his own and may have joined with the infamous incursion into Central America by the mercenary William Walker. What is known for certain is that at age of 18 he took the route many Irish would use to get to the West: the U.S. Army. John lied about his age to do it. You had to be 21 at the time. John was not a large man; he was about 5’ 5” tall, with brown hair and what were later described as mesmerizing grey eyes. He ended up in Utah territory with the 2nd United States Dragoons near the end of the clash with the Mormons.

In the aftermath of that conflict, the 2nd did some escort duty with wagon trains full of settlers moving west on the Oregon trail. It was then Healy met a man who had a huge influence on his future life: trapper, trader, scout and western legend, Jim Bridger (right). Bridger was known for his storytelling of the old days of the mountain men, and he certainly had many real-life adventures during those years, but some of his stories may have stretched the truth a bit. As he regaled the young Healy around the campfire, under the open plains and among the scenic mountains, John fell in love with that romantic vision of the West. He spent the next year preparing to live on the frontier, learning about life among the Indians, sign language, horsemanship, marksmanship, and the art of negotiating with Native American tribes. He would put those skills to good use in the years to come.

On August 1, 1860, John got a discharge because his family had notified the government he was underage. If they did it with the idea that the army was about to become an extremely dangerous occupation, it was quite a wise decision on their part, as it saved him from service in the Civil War. The 2nd Dragoons, renamed 2nd U.S. Cavalry, moved east a year later and fought in most of the major battles of the Army of the Potomac during the war.

There were only a handful of ways for civilians to make a living in mid-19th century American West. For those looking for a fairly steady, if unspectacular living, there was ranching, farming, the fur trade (which was then becoming dominated by buffalo hides), or selling some product to all those people in the few settlements, which were often in and around forts or being a cowboy hired by some rancher. But for those dreaming of getting rich quick, as was the case with the 20-year-old John Healy, there was gold prospecting. It was a very dangerous lifestyle in the 1860s, as various Native American tribes still ruled over vast expanses of the West. But Healy later said, “I am never so happy as when on a good horse traveling light,” something he would be doing for much of the rest of his life.

As he left the Army, one of the latest gold strikes had been in the Rock Mountains of what is now Idaho, so John signed on to guide a wagon train up the Oregon Trail and go from there to the gold fields. All those frontier skills he’d been learning from Bridger and his experience in the cavalry helped him get the settlers though to Oregon. The Shoshone, whose territory they moved through, alternated between friendly and hostile. In one of the hostile periods, he suffered an arrow wound to his left leg. It was touch and go, but he got the train through. He later learned the following train suffered a major attack.

(Left: Charles Russell's "Plunder on the Horizon," depicting Indians planning an attack on a group of prospectors.)

Safely in Oregon, he made the acquaintance of another Irishman, John Kennedy, and the two of them were off into the mountains to prospect for gold. He immediately discovered that packing into the Rocky Mountain wilderness looking for your fortune was highly dangerous, even without the constant danger of Indian attack.

Healy and his party made a modest gold strike in the area of what became the town of Florence in 1861. John took note of how the merchants that arrived were able to overcharge miners for the scarce supplies they provided. He and his friend John Kennedy made a small venture into that arena, reselling some horses and supplies they brought in for a huge profit.

In 1862 he and a small group prospected up the Salmon River toward Montana territory. At one point, while out hunting for game, Healy barely avoided being mauled by a wounded grizzly bear when it collapsed while pursuing him. The trip turned into a harrowing ordeal when they discovered that Fort Lemhi, where they expected to obtain provisions, had been deserted. Barely getting by on starvation rations, with Healy no doubt reliving the horrors of his Irish childhood, they were finally rescued by a wagon train that included a former Army friend, Jack Mendenhall. John was so emaciated then that Mendenhall asked, “Good God, Healy, is that you?”

Once back to civilization John now put aside the get-rich quick prospecting scheme and began planning for the more stable career path of provisioning miners and settlers. He made his way to Fort Benton, Montana, on the upper Missouri River in the summer of 1862. That area that would be his base of operations for many years to come.

Before putting his new plans into effect, John decided to use Benton’s Missouri riverboat access (above) to travel home to New York. Before the trip even began, he had another adventure when he and other passengers on the boat helped a small village of friendly Gros Ventres Indians when they were attacked by a much larger group of Sioux. He greatly impressed the Gros Ventres when he and his friend John Kennedy entered the Sioux camp at night and retrieved one their stolen ponies.

At just 22, John must have been quite a neighborhood star as the returning Western mountaineer, regaling family and friends with his stories of arrow wounds from hostile Indians, near death by bears and panning for gold in places where no white men may have ever set foot before. Perhaps his celebrity allowed him to quickly woo and wed 18-year-old Mary Frances Sarsfield. Mary was said to be a “fine looking woman of the blue-eyed, black haired Irish type” and was already a school teacher.

The Civil War was ravaging the young men of the country during late 1862 and early 1863. Hundreds of Irishmen were killed and wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December. Whether it was part of his original plan or not, John returned to Montana in the spring with his brothers Joseph and Thomas in tow, getting them away before they had to face the new draft law. The now pregnant Mary Frances stayed behind for the moment. They would eventually have 10 children, four of whom died in infancy.

Back in Fort Benton, John had his eye turned to the north, toward Canada. He thought there might be prospecting opportunities in that sparsely inhabited area, but this time he intended to pay others to do it. He took a scouting trip to Fort Edmonton, where he had his first encounter with the Hudson Bay Company. Healy had a confrontation with Kootenay Indians, a Christianized tribe, on the way home and helped avoid a conflict when he showed them a crucifix tattoo on his forearm. Numerous interactions with Indians tribes could be a great aide in learning their culture and habits and how to best deal with them. Of course, you had to manage to live through these events to take advantage of that experience, and Healy continued to do so.

Healy sent his expedition into Canada in late 1863 and they found gold, but they were driven out of the region by the Hudson Bay Company’s refusal to sell them provisions. John was incensed. He vowed to “go back up into that country and make them abandon their fort if it was the last act of my life.”

Over the next few years, his life stabilized a bit. In 1866 he was employed by Indian agent Gad E. Upson at the Blackfoot reservation raising stock, and Mary Francis came west to be with him. He built a fortified home on the Sun River, where he raised horses for the reservation and began trading with Blackfoot Indians. John became adept at Indian hand signals and learned some of their language.

(Left: A group of late 19th century Montana Cowboys.)

Healy was becoming connected with the local Democratic party in Montana, and acquired his license to trade with the Blackfoot from the new acting governor of the territory, his fellow Irishman and former commander of the Irish Brigade, Thomas Francis Meagher. They became friends, and John saw him in Fort Benton on the night Meagher died. John claimed that he told him, “Johnny, they threatened my life in that town.” The cause of his drowning death remains a mystery to this day.

In 1869, Healy and his family fought off an attack by Flathead Indians on his trading post with help of a small group of friendly Canadian Blood tribe Indians (a part of the Blackfoot Nation) who were camped nearby. The leader of the Blood’s was killed during the fight. The Flatheads stole John’s entire herd of horses but he demonstrated his growing self-confidence and tenacity by tracking them back to their reservation and getting most of them back. And he displayed his growing knowledge of Indian culture by negotiating the return without further bloodshed.

Healy had not changed his views on what ultimately must happen to the Western tribes, saying, “I do not take the view of many well-intentioned people from the east about them [Native Americans] and how they should be treated. One or the other had to yield.” But he often showed a softer side toward them in his personal dealing, as he did by adopting the son of the Blood chief who was killed helping defend his family and raising him to adulthood. This would also give John a strong connection to the Blood tribe. The boy was renamed Joseph Healy and would be the first Blood tribe member to learn to read and write English. Though he was usually negative in his comments about Indians in general, he later said, “I admire the Blood Indians. I fought them for years, and when they became my friends, I could trust them absolutely.”

With a partner, Alf Hamilton, Healy now formed the "Saskatchewan Mining, Prospecting, & Trading Outfit," and put into operation his plan to usurp the Hudson Bay Company’s trade with the Blackfoot tribe in what is now Alberta Province, Canada. Unlike Montana, where the U.S. Army enforced laws, there was as yet no Canadian law enforcement present. Near what is now Lethbridge they set up a fort and trading post that they named Fort Hamilton, after Alf, with the intent of trading for buffalo robes from the Blackfoot, but it shortly became known as “Fort Whoopup” (pictured below). John probably “married” the daughter of Many Spotted Horses, one of the Blackfoot chiefs, to cement his trade deal with the Blackfoot, though he never spoke of it later. Through these connections, he did destroy Hudson Bay's business in the region.

This is the most morally troubling time in the life of John Healy for the modern reader. Though they traded woolen blankets, various metal tools and utensils, flour, sugar, and tea with the Blackfoot, one of the staples of his trade was whiskey and also firearms. He and his fellow Montana traders, who followed up his success shortly after him, have come down through Canadian history, the telling of which was done mostly by Hudson Bay and the Northwest Mounted Police, as great villains. In truth, the company also sold guns and alcohol to the Blackfoot until the government passed laws against it. Still, it’s a fact that Healy was the catalyst for this whiskey trade, and it had a devastating long-term effect on the Indian tribes in the area. The combination of greed and revenge seldom results in anything noble.

(Below-right: "Indians Hunting Buffalo" a 19th century engraving by Karl Bodner. Buffalo robes were their "currency" when trading at Fort Whoopup.)

Other Montana traders soon followed the lead of Healy and Hamilton to the region. By 1873 disputes between the various groups from Montana led one rival of Healy to raise a militia call the Spitzee Cavalry. They were hoping to run Healy off, but one of their members, Asa Sample, told them, “I know John J. Healy and you’ll never make him do what he thinks is not right. You can kill him and you can burn his post, but you can’t make John J. Healy submit alive to what you intend to do.” Two-thirds of their members quit when told to go after Healy. And indeed, he stood down the entire group and managed to talk them out of their intended violence. His friend Dave Akers, said, “They was a lawless gang of fellers, an’ had some sand about them too, but John Healy could stand off a whole regiment of them.”

Hudson Bay Company characterized Healy and his Montana cohorts as men “forced to leave Montana by the Vigilance Committee formed to punish horse thieves and murderers.” This was nonsense, of course, but following the massacres of perhaps as many as 20 Assiniboine at Cypress Hills in 1873 by a group of wolf hunters and traders (neither Healy nor any of his associates were involved), the Canadian government formed the Northwest Mounted Police to enforce their laws in the region, which put an end to the whiskey trade a year later.

(Below: "When Law Dulls the Edge of Chance," by Charles Russell. Northwest Mounties disarming some lawbreakers.) 

When the Mounties arrived, Healy had removed all whiskey from his premises to avoid arrest. He developed a good relationship with one of the first Mounties he got to know, James Walsh, whose parents were Irish natives. Having read all the lurid tales about him fed to the Canadian public over the last years by Hudson Bay figures, Walsh told him, “I thought you were bigger than a grizzly and carried more guns than a pirate.” John’s reaction to “the English” putting him out of business brought back bitter memories of his childhood, however. “We know from experience in old Ireland that wherever the English flag floats, might is right,” he wrote.

In 1876, John sold Fort Whoopup and returned to Fort Benton. In 1877 he worked for a time as a columnist on the “Benton Record” newspaper. His column was about his first years in Montana and, sometimes, in support of the Fenian cause, perhaps just to spite the Canadians. He proved to have the storytelling ability that seems inherent in so many Irishmen.

His reputation as a man not to be trifled with was growing, and he accepted a midterm appointment as the sheriff of the massive Choteau County, which encompassed an area larger than the state of Connecticut around Fort Benton, when William Rowe resigned. The line between law-breakers and lawmen was often blurred in the American West; thus Healy sometimes found himself enforcing the same laws against whiskey runners that he had once violated. When he ran an won election to the post in 1878, his slogan was “Don’t vote for me if you plan on stealing any horses.”

Healy was a very unusual Western lawman because he enforced the law around town without a gun. Merchant T.C. Power, who was one of John’s financial backers, said, “He made hundreds of arrests and never used a gun.” Healy later revealed that he felt most would not pull a gun on an unarmed man, but he hedged his bets by having a derringer hidden in a pocket, and he wasn’t crazy enough to not carry a gun when chasing down law breakers outside town. He also formed a local militia to help confront the growing problem with several Indian tribes in the area, often being referred as "captain" thereafter.

The mid-1870s saw the culmination of major Native American resistance to the U.S. military, highlighted by Custer’s disaster at the Little Bighorn in southern Montana in 1876. Men who knew local geography and had knowledge of Indian culture like Healy were often employed part time by the army as scouts. Thus John was present at the famous surrender of Nez Perce Chief Joseph in October 1877 and later praised his group for “remarkable fighting qualities” in an article in the Benton Record.

(Right: The surrender of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce)

Later that month, General Alfred Terry asked Healy to accompany him on a trip to Fort Walsh, across the Canadian border, where he was going to try to convince Sioux chief Sitting Bull to return to the United States. John’s contacts with the Sioux had never been pleasant ones, and his later comments about Sitting Bull's appearance and demeanor reflected that. Those negotiations failed, and John arranged another adventure for himself when he made a bet that he could reach the nearest telegraph station in Helena (340 miles) in 48 hours to send out a report on the failed talks. It seemed impossible without killing your horse long before you got there, but John knew places along the way where he could exchange his horse, and won the bet, using nine changes of horses in the process.

Ranch owner Alexander Hill once said of Healy, “A more cool minister of the law has, I should think, never existed even in the North-West,” but some in the county thought he got that praise from rich ranchers partly because he favored them. He was voted out of office in 1882, though the winner, Jim McDevitt appointed him deputy sheriff.

In 1883 Mary Frances died after a short illness. His life was changing, and the West was changing. “The passing of the buffalo forced civilization on the savage red man and on the semi-savage white man,” he said, and more civilized was not what he was looking for. He looked for another challenge and heard it calling to him from Alaska.

(Left: The elderly, Alaskan entrepreneur, John Healy)

Healy had another entire career in Alaska serving the gold rush prospectors there. He opened a store in Dyea with partner Edgar Wilson. John bought a boat, learned to sail it, and opened a shipping line to Juneau. Eventually, some people began referring to him as the “King of the Klondike.” There is even a town there named for him. His last dream was his biggest ever, pushing the idea of a Bering Sea railway tunnel connecting Siberia and Alaska. He made a fortune in Alaska, but spent nearly all of his on that last idea, which was one frontier too far.

John Healy passed away from cirrhosis of the liver in San Francisco in September 14, 1908 at age 68. Given the life he lived, it was amazing that he had managed to die in bed in his sixties, rather than from hypothermia in the mountains of Idaho, Montana, or Alaska, or from a Blackfoot arrow, or an outlaw’s bullet or starvation in Ireland before he ever arrived in the American West.

Healy knew he couldn’t be proud of everything he’d done in his life. He once wrote in his column about Montana history that, “You have seen me at my worst, and at the same time my best.” Surely not all his actions were admirable, but he had that in common with many of the people who led the American conquest of the West. He was part of a society that saw themselves, whether we all agree with that today or not, as the bringers of civilization to an uncivilized wilderness.

John Healy knew tremendous success at times in his life, and also tremendous failure and loss. He escaped a land suffering under the yoke of a foreign government, where the native population had no freedom at all. What he found was a world where he was totally free to pursue whatever adventure he could conceive. In the end, that’s probably all he ever wanted.

Related Links:

"Healy’s West: The Life and Times of John J. Healy" (video)

"The Days of Whiskey Gap," (video, early history of the Northwest Mounted Police)

"Healy's West: The Life and Times of John J. Healy," by Gordon E. Tolton

"Life and Death on the Upper Missouri: The Frontier Sketches of Johnny Healy," Ken Robison, Ed.

Historical Fort Benton Blog

John Healy's Obituary from the "San Francisco Call"

The History of Alaska-Yukon Mining (from National Park service, contains a lot of information on Healy's business in Alaska)


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Tags: Canada, Diaspora History, Fenianism, John Healy, John J. Healy, Montana, United States, War

Comment by The Wild Geese on March 19, 2017 at 10:02am
Through his incredibly varied fifty-year career, John J. Healy left an indelible mark on the Canadian and American West. Healy was a soldier, a trapper, a prospector, a free trader, an explorer, a horse dealer, a scout, a lawman, a newspaper editor, a speculator, a merchant, a capitalist, a historian, and a politician. He defied classification while defining the lifestyle of a frontier adventurer and buccaneer capitalist in the late nineteenth century. Alberta author Gordon E. Tolton discusses his book, about which reviewer Jon Guttman stated: “For those who have never heard of the man, Healy’s West should prove enlightening. For those already familiar with Healy, the reward is a further introduction to this unsung Westerner.” Presence of the Past Program Series, April 28, 2016.

Comment by Joe Gannon on April 5, 2017 at 9:05am

Life and Death on the Upper Missouri: The Frontier Sketches of Johnny Healy

Comment by Joe Gannon on April 5, 2017 at 3:54pm

Comment by Gord Tolton on April 21, 2017 at 12:01am

Hi, Joe

I'm the author of Healy's West. Found this through a Google search, and I have to say you've assembled a very nice and well organized article. Thank you very much.

Gord Tolton

Comment by Joe Gannon on April 21, 2017 at 7:41am

Thank you Gord, for writing your book about him. He's a very fascinating character. The hardest part of writing this article was figuring out which incidents of his life to leave out to keep the article to a manageable length. It was researching Healy that led me to the another fascinating Irish figure from a bit earlier in the US west, Thomas Fitzpatrick.  http://thewildgeese.irish/profiles/blogs/mountain-man-thomas-fitzpa... 

Comment by Gord Tolton on April 21, 2017 at 10:22am

I know what you mean. I could have filled two books with Healy's life. I face that issue every time I'm asked to speak in public about him. I don't know what to gloss over.


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