John Fraley looked out from the bank of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River where Charles Black allegedly washed blood from his hands, wondering how the violent murder happened, and where the body of the dead mother of three lay.
It was 100 years ago to the day of Lena Cunningham’s murder in 1894, and six years after Fraley started chasing ghosts. Well into his second book, “Wild River Pioneers,” Fraley, who lives in Kalispell and is Northwest Montana’s regional information officer for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, had set out to tell the stories of the pioneers who settled the Middle Fork drainage, often following them to their graves.
More than decade after he began talking to old timers that inhabit the Middle Fork, reading old letters, newspaper articles, and traveling into the Great Bear Wilderness and Glacier National Park, Fraley’s second book, “Wild River Pioneers,” a collaboration of old West stories, is on local bookshelves.
Fraley uncovers stories of bootlegging, a train robbery, shootouts, and gold prospecting through extensive research, using topographical indications and a global imaging system to locate the points where some of wildest pioneers broke ground – not so long ago.
One story tells of Betty the Trapper. In 1925, Nyack Flats was still rugged land, and trapper Betty Robertson, as Fraley tells, was indicative of the land and its people. She was the first girl born in Nyack Flats and by the age of three was already missing a finger. But by the seventh grade Betty was trapping as well as any boy in the Great Bear Wilderness.
“The landscape, until you put its people to it, doesn’t come alive,” Fraley said. “Betty the Trapper is still vital in her 80s – that’s how recent it is.”
Fraley moved to Montana as a teenager, earning wildlife management degrees from both state universities and has since spent the last 30 years working for FWP in Flathead County. The author of “A Woman’s Way West” and many articles for wildlife and western history magazines, Fraley has found that some of the stories seem to be calling to him.
When Fraley went after the story of George Snyder, the man who originally settled Lake McDonald before the turn of the 20th century, he ended up at the Warm Springs mental hospital with Snyder’s medical file in hand. Inside was a letter to Snyder from Fraley’s wife’s great aunt and uncle.
“Who could have imagined that – they were the only two to have visited Snyder before he died,” Fraley said. “Some of these people’s stories that had been forgotten called to me. The more I got into them, the more I began to chase them.”
Fraley was likely the first to look at the file in more than 65 years. And Snyder’s grave was one of 1,000 unmarked graves. Fraley found and marked the grave of Snyder, a man who, at the time, defied the lawmen who tried to tame his wild spirit.
“He deserved a lot more than an unmarked grave,” Fraley said.
In another story, a lynch mob nearly got Charlie Black before he was tried, convicted and hanged. It was Flathead County’s first legal hanging and over the time of his eight-month incarceration and 10-day trial, the county spent $7,000 – a pretty penny in 1894.
“The trap door dropped at seven minutes and ten seconds past 10 o’clock,” Fraley writes. “Black’s pulse beat for four minutes. Six minutes later, Black’s body was taken down and put in a plain coffin.”
It haunted Flathead County’s first sheriff Joseph Ganger until his death. He never knew if he killed the right man.
On Thursday, October 16 at 7 p.m. at the Museum at Central School in Kalispell, Fraley, Trapper Betty and the great grandson of Flathead County’s first sheriff, will celebrate “Wild River Pioneers” at a book-launching party open for the public to attend and meet some of the area’s historical icons.
“You put so much of yourself into a book like this,” Fraley said. “It’s a little scary. This is my interpretation, the sources are there and the reader can decide on their own.”
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