Diaries Save The Day—Personal History is Captured!
Oct 06, 2022 by Tempe Javitz
Diaries Save The Day --Personal History is Captured!
God Bless the diarists in my family, without which I could not
have discovered such interesting facts. Thank goodness Jessamine’s
parents, Belle Benton and Willis Spear, were interested in what
was happening around them. They both kept diaries from an early age.
The diaries reveal their sturdy characters, and their wild and woolly
adventures on their way to falling in love in Big Horn, Wyoming.
Jessamine also kept a daybook type diary. It was an exciting experience
to read my grandmother’s notes, letters and journals. Unfortunately,
1919 is the first one of twenty-two to survive. As I opened a diary
papers would cascade across the desk or fall into my lap: poems, clippings,
letters from Will (that's how I discovered that he called her 'Jessa'),
verses to songs, postcards, newspaper clippings and genealogical notes.
Jessamine’s photo looking across the town of Big Horn to the
In the 1860’s Red Cloud and his confederate Sioux were fighting bloody
battles defending their hunting grounds along the Bozeman Trail, which
crossed Wyoming into Montana. Gold seekers had shortened their route to
the gold mines of western Montana by cutting through the area set aside
by treaty for the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Crow. Jessamine’s
grandparents (Willys & Jane Spear) had narrowly avoided these warriors by
crossing southern Wyoming and southwestern Idaho in 1874 to safely reach
the gold fields in Phillipsburg, Montana. Amazingly just twenty-two years
later this wild frontier had vanished.
In 1883, the Spear family abandoned their cabin in Drummond near New
Chicago, Montana to journey southeast to Wyoming. The gold strike in the
Phillipsburg area had dwindled. They had heard about Big Horn via their
daughter Mary’s brother-in-law (John McCormick), who had recently settled
there. Again, a family diary, this time by Willys’ son Willis Moses told this tale.
Willys & Jane Spear’s wedding photo, 10-17-1853
Willis M. Spear returned to the Spear family cabin
where he grew up in Drummond, MT. in 1934.
Jessamine’s other grandparents, a Baptist minister and homeopathic physician,
George Washington Benton with his wife Hannah arrived in Big Horn by wagon in
September of 1881. They were searching high mountain air for their son John
who suffered from asthma. The Sioux by then were on a reservation in South Dakota
and the marauding Cheyenne corralled on their reservation in southeastern Montana.
The Crow tribe had always allied with the incoming pioneers. Therefore, they
were allowed to choose reservation lands along the Yellowstone and the Big Horn
George and Hannah Benton’s wedding
The children of these determined pioneers, Willis Moses Spear and Virginia Belle
Benton met in 1883 as the Spear’s arrived in Big Horn. Willis and Belle soon were
‘stepping out’ and married in 1885. They settled into the Benton’s original cabin
on Goose Creek, orginally purchased by the sale of two white mules. Baby Jessamine
arrived one sunny morning on September 11, 1886. Nearby, Little Goose Creek still
rushes in a bed of granite on its way north to the Missouri River. Jessa would
grow up in this young community separated from its Native Americans by a reservation
system. But contact with these supposed wild savages was in her future, and would
leave an indelible mark on Jessamine’s photographic legacy, as she ventured to
record for posterity her Crow and Cheyenne neighbors at the X4 Ranch in Kirby,
Virginia Belle Benton and Willis Moses Spear, Jessamine’s parents.
Here's a final photo showing one of my favorite images by Jessamine. This
is the Crow Encampment, held for many years at Lodge Grass, Montana. Jessamine
would visit with family, friends, and guests. The Crow people would camp, parade
and dance for several days during the July 4th weekend on the banks of the Little
Bighorn River. (See more of Jessamine’s images at the gallery or under “media” on
my website, tempejavitz.com.)
The Crow Encampment, July 3, 1925, Lodge Grass, Montana
Hit the Trail: To get going. That’s what pioneers did, they hit the trail, usually the
Oregon trail or it’s offshoots, like the Bozeman Trail or the California Trail.
Hitching Rack or Rail: An elevated pole set on posts to hitch your horse to. Also
called a hitching post.