Friday, November 22, 2013

The Montana mystery of Warren County... part one

We like to say that Hidden New Jersey is often a scavenger hunt. Sometimes we know the quarry when we set out on our journey, as when we're seeking out a rare bird reported at a certain location. Other times, we find history along the way and end up discovering much more during the follow-up research days or even months later. Sometimes we unearth interesting coincidences, other times mysteries.

This story is a little of both.

It all started on a trip to the cemetery in Belvidere in late summer. Ivan and I were wandering around when I noticed interesting inscriptions on two stones, one a family marker and another for one of the family members, erected nearby.

Given the detailed description, the place and circumstances of Lieutenant Loder's death appeared clear. He'd taken part in the U.S. Army's repeated battles with the Sioux Indians, served gallantly and apparently perished in one of the skirmishes, his remains returned to his birthplace in New Jersey. It also appeared that his family called him Howard, perhaps to differentiate him from another Samuel, maybe his grandfather, buried nearby.

Then I found this grave marker, not far away, noting another individual's birthplace in Montana, NJ.

I was left with two stories to work out. First, how did Lieutenant Loder die, and second, where in heck is Montana in New Jersey? Was this just an odd coincidence, or do the two have anything to do with each other?

Finding cursory information on Loder proved to be reasonably easy. After graduating near the bottom of his class at the U.S. Military Academy in 1877, he was sent west and eventually assigned to Fort Logan in frontier Montana. At the time, clashes with Native Americans were regular occurrences in the area, with opportunities for injury and death. Several sources note the April 1879 conflict with a small group of Lakota Sioux at Careless Creek near Ryegate, Montana. According to government records, Loder, 18 men under his command and two Gros Ventre Indians confronted eight natives who were said to be connected to Sitting Bull. A 90 minute battle ensued, in which all of the Lakota were killed.

None of the accounts of ensuing conflicts in the area make mention of Loder, which seemed rather strange. If he'd performed so heroically at Careless Creek that the local white settlers presented him with a gift, wouldn't he have led other battles? Had he died some way other than through combat? The 1880 U.S. Army Register notes simply that he died at Fort Benton, Montana on June 30, 1879, with no further explanation. Could it have been illness that did him in? It's well known that in many wars, disease killed more soldiers than weapons did. Did frontier outposts suffer the same issues? Could there have been an outbreak of some sort that led to Loder's demise?

Unfortunately the circumstances of his death were tragic in another way. A July 6, 1879 New York Times article reported Loder's suicide as the lead in a story chronicling several people around the country who had died by their own hands. He'd shot himself in the head while in his tent at Fort Benton; the Times noted that "It is asserted that he had been drinking freely of late." It could have been an accident or intentional, we don't know. The details remain a mystery, perhaps buried somewhere in a report deep in old Army records, if not only with Loder himself.

The grateful people of the Smith River Valley in Montana territory didn't have the opportunity to show their full appreciation to the lieutenant before his death, but they made sure his family knew what he'd meant to them. A year later, they presented a ceremonial sword to the Loders, along with a letter eulogizing the young lieutenant. The sword was inscribed, "Presented to Lieut. Samuel Loder, Seventh United States Infantry, by the citizens of Smith River Valley, for especial gallantry in his fight with the Sioux Indians on Careless Creek, Montana Territory April 17, 1879." Hopefully their regard brought some measure of comfort to the Loder family, who clearly wanted their son's achievement to be known for perpetuity.

As for the mystery of Montana, New Jersey? I'm still working on that one... story to come.

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