Friday, May 25, 2012

One of My Favorites: Frank Bird Linderman

     Montana has produced or fostered some really good writers.  One of the great things about so many them is that they are often relatively unknown, just waiting for you to pick up one of their books and be surprised. Frank Bird Linderman is one of those writers. His lack of acclaim can only be described as a damn shame.  He was a story teller of the campfire/bunkhouse tale variety. His books are anthologies of stories and yarns, and even his autobiography is chalk full of memoirs that could stand alone by themselves as individual narratives. Norman Maclean referred to the novel as a construct that was "Mostly wind". In today's age few remain, but when you are exposed to the skills of an expert story teller you begin to see why Maclean said that. These stories are told in a way that is never boring. Lots of action. Every sentence with force. If it couldn't hold an audience captive live, you may as well save your breath, and Linderman was a master.
     Frank Bird Linderman was a rare person in a rare time. He witnessed the waning years of a wild Montana, knew and befriended the free Native American in his element, watched it all go to hell(civilization), took part in it, and tried to reconcile with it. He produced 14 books and numerous magazine articles about trapping, Native Americans, Montana history and politics, and his own life. And he did it all very well. His books captured my imagination when I was a teen, and they still do.
      In 1885, at the age of 16, Frank Linderman left his parents and home in Chicago and went to the last bastion of wild country remaining in Montana: The Swan River country between Flathead Lake and what is now the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  He had spent his youth poring over maps of the west and decided on the location, "most remote from civilization". He became a successful trapper and hunter, and lived this way for nearly a decade. Can you imagine? 16 years old and into the wilderness where lawlessness reigned. What a world it was.   Well known for his integrity, as well as being one of the few educated white men in the area, he was viewed in a positive light by both the Indian and the white man. Linderman wrote a fictional book based upon his trapping life called, Lige Mounts: Free Trapper, and it's a damn good one. Eventually, he met a girl in the now disappeared town of Demersville, south of present day Kalispell, and quit the trapping life. His struggles with quitting the "free life" are honest and elaborate, and as a young man I couldn't help but sympathize with his version of growing up, and my own.
      As a hunting guide Linderman had built a solid relationship with Samuel Houser,  the 7th governor of Montana Territory, and through him obtained a job as an assayer at a mine up the Bitterroot. This mine failed as most mines did and do, and Linderman's journey from the Bitterroot to Butte to Brandon, MT,  are admirable and give insight into the life of a turn of the century Montana miner. He was a man trying to provide for his family in tough times. Throughout his life he also owned a newspaper, sold insurance, authored books, and was a state legislator. His autobiography, Montana Adventure, is gem which I have read and re-read numerous times throughout my life.
       He was a state legislator for Madison County in 1903 and 1905, as well Assistant Secretary of State from 1905-1907. At the tail-end of the War of the Copper Kings, Linderman was a straight shooter in a sea of crooks. His stories of bribery, theft, and coercion are really appalling, and through it all he was one of the rare few who called Bullshit. This is one of the reasons he wasn't that successful in politics, which he clearly disliked. At his first political convention in Butte a fight broke out and he, "got a punch on the nose that made my face feel as large a stock saddle." Could you picture today's politicians acting in such a way? Actually, nevermind.
      Linderman was also friends with many now famous Montanans. He was close friends with Charlie Russell, and they were quite a pair joking and blowing hot air together. The book, The Long Friendship, by H.G. Merriam, is a wonderful account of their life-long association.  There is a story within it about their final hunting trip together near Linderman's retirement home at Goose Bay on Flathead Lake. Two old timers, hiking into the hills to hunt and camp, only to find that their bodies can't take it, and that it isn't fun any more. It's a sad and true reminder that we all take one last trip into the hills.
     Linderman also produced excellent histories of the Native American. He was friends with many well known indians, from Rocky-Boy to Red-Cloud to Full-of-Dew. He wrote a biography of Plenty-Coups, chief of the Crows, called, American. It's a book written with love that doesn't forsake accuracy.  Among the Native Americans, Linderman was known as Sign-Talker. During his time as a legislator, he wrote about the horrific conditions that Native Americans lived through in the slums on the outskirts of Helena. Old friends that he knew as free men in the wilderness were now destitute and starving. This sparked a fire within him, and he became one of the Indian's most motivated allies. Traveling all over the state and as far as Washington D.C., he fought for food and shelter for the indian, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Rocky Boy Reservation, home of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, in the Bears Paw Mountains of north-central Montana. One of the most interesting stories he tells is of taking the Cree chief, Full-of-Dew, to a laboratory to show him bacteria, to emphasize the importance of cleanliness in the Indian camps. The horror and bewilderment of a man who was free in his youth and was now a starving captive, being shown a world which he had never even dreamt of, is moving to say the least. A large collection of Native American clothing, pictures, sculptures and tools donated by the Linderman family can be seen at the University of Montana Library.
      So please go read some Frank Bird Linderman. His books are well written, and are written with love. He saw so much of it. The time of the trapper turning to the miner and lumberman. The demise and mistreatment of the Native American.  The war of the Copper Kings and the monopolization of an entire state. When you read his book, On a Passing Frontier, it's clear that he knows what he loves. He has stirred my imagination and made me care, he is actually the source of the title of my blog, and I guarantee he has got something for you too.


  1. I have what I consider a rare copy of Franks work, Black Feet Indian's. Sighed to my great grandfather in the twenty, as they were friends.
    If there is anyone who would like to talk about frank or my great grandfather, email me at

    1. I am a great grandson of Frank Linderman.
      Send questions to and I can share what I know!


  2. Wow, very cool. That is quite a possession. I bet you've heard some great stories. I keep hoping that someone will produce a biography of Linderman. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I have read his biographical work on Plenty-Coups several times. It is one of my favs of all times, and wherever I go in Crow Country, I feel like Plenty-Coups is with me, thanks to FBL. Where can one find his works on the Cree?

    1. I believe it is in his book "Montana Adventure". The book is mostly about his life growing up in Montana, but also tells the story of his relationship with the Native Americans he met and loved along the way.