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Notes from Billings, Montana, 1819

In 1976 and 1977 I conducted archaeological survey for the forest service in Montana as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Montana. In the summer of 1997 I stayed in Wisdom, Montana (Wisdom was surrounded by farms, so while the town had a population of only 25 people, the greater area was more populated). I was surveying along the Continental Divide, would go up into the mountains for two or three weeks, and then come down and stay in Wisdom for three or four days to recoup. I learned that when returning to Wisdom it was best not to shower before going to the café for dinner. And it was also best to keep wearing my cowboy hat, though I found that more difficult. This was Montana.

I stayed in a cheap hotel and ate all my meals in the café. I became well known in that café and when I left at the end of the summer the young woman behind the counter gave me a café mug as a remembrance. I think she found me interesting. I would sit at the counter drinking my coffee or beer, depending on the time of day, eating my meal while reading a small hardback copy of War and Peace. The book had a black cover and thin paper like in a Bible. One day the young woman asked me why I read the Bible so much. It took me a second to realize that my copy of War and Peace did indeed look like a Bible.

Believe it or not, Wisdom had a second hand bookstore and I spent many hours browsing on my off days. One day I found A Brief History of the United States, published 1871, 1879, 1880, and 1885 by A. S. Barnes & Company of New York and Chicago. A Brief History of the United States was a text book and begins with “Suggestions to Teachers”:

The following method of using this work has been successfully employed by many teachers. At the commencement of the study, let each pupil be required to draw an outline map of North America, at least 18 x 24 inches in size. This should contain only physical features, viz., coast-lines, mountains, lakes, and rivers…As the pupils advance in the text, let them mark on their maps, day by day, the places discovered, the settlements, battles, political divisions, etc., with their dates. They will thus see the country growing afresh under their hands and eye, and the geography and the history will be indissolubly linked. At the close of the term, their maps will show what they have done, and each name with its dates, will recall the history which clusters around it.

I have to say, it seemed like a good idea, though I never drew a map or read the book in its entirety. However, what intrigued me, and what motivated me to buy the book, was Edna Cardwell.

An Illustration in Brief History of the United States Edna Cardwell was the owner of this particular school book, now owned by me. At the top of the first page is written:

Edna Cardwell
Billings, Montana
Dec. 11, 1889

At the bottom of the page is written:

Edna Cardwell = marry

(She had drawn several lines though her name.)

On the inside front cover is stamped:



PERFUMES, POWERS,School Books & and Supplies,            



Bilknap Block, Opp. H’d’q’tr’s, BILLINGS, M. T.

The store also sold paints, oils, brushes, glass, stains, razors, scissors, knives, pocket books, musical instruments, all kinds of stationary & blank books. Quite a store, and presumably where Edna’s parents bought Brief History of the United States.

Edna Cardwell's notes in Brief History of the United States Edna made numerous comments in the margins and the text throughout the book, and on pages obviously there for pupils to write on she made more detailed notes. Also, and to my delight, there were four yellowing pieces of paper folded and tucked in the pages of the book, all with various writings, in pencil, in her own hand.  

On one is a list of states and dates, and capital cities. On the other side most of what she wrote is scribbled out so I can’t read it, but one sentence remains readable: “Have you thought any more about boys or girls?”

On a second page is: “I was into Earnest P. room yesterday.” Below these words is a diagram of the room with its dimensions. Below that is: “They have a lovely dance room,” again with a diagram and the room’s dimensions.

The third has short biography of Hawthorne, beginning with these words: “Hawthorne was born July 4th 1804 and died May 19th 1864.”

The fourth piece of paper is the most interesting. At the top is her name and then this:

On Queen St. in Portsmouth at a tavern door about one hundred years ago there lived a woman by the name of Mistress Stavis.

Up over the clock was a portrait of the earl of Halifax with his scarlet coat.

At the (can’t make out the word) station the Earl had seen Stavis her husband dressed in bottle green driving his stage coach.

The Earl was interrupted by a little girl barefooted and ragged who men would adore and through her streets she goes with a pail of water and bathing her feet.

As she hurried by with laughter in her eyes a sunbeam danced in her pail.

The Earl of Halifax seen the sight and heard the words “Martha Hilton” how dare you go down the streets half dressed and she repeated “I shall ride in my own chariot.”

One day a portly person riding a chariot with a three cornered hat and a crimson velvet coat, a gold headed cane and diamond buckles on his pants. Gov. Wentworth had a great large house down by the bay and was not seen from the high road.

(I have copied the “story” exactly as Edna wrote it.)

And that was it. I loved the line “As she hurried by with laughter in her eyes a sunbeam danced in her pail.” I wondered if the story continued on another page that didn’t get folded into the book. Of course, I’ll never know.

George Montagu Dunk, 2nd Earl of Halifax (1716–1771) became known as “the father of the colonies” because of his long tenure as president of the Board of Trade (a British colonial advisory group). I’m assuming that is the Halifax Edna is writing about. 

Benning Wentworth was Colonial Governor of New Hampshire 1741-1766, but here’s the fun part. Martha Hilton was Wentworth’s maid. In March of 1760 Wentworth invited the upper crust of Portsmouth to dinner where he announced that he, the rich portly 64 years old widow with two dead sons, was marrying the 23 year old maid Martha Hilton. He wanted an heir and Martha “decided the crotchety, portly, gout-beset Wentworth was husband material…” As it turned out, Wentworth died ten years later without an heir, but left his wealth and land to Martha. Eventually Wentworth’s nephew, John Wentworth, stripped Martha of the land having contested his uncle’s will through the courts in England. But in 1789 the ex-maid got the last laugh when she hosted President George Washington in the Benning Wentworth mansion in Portsmouth and accompanied the new president to church.

An Illustration in Brief History of the United States I wasn’t able to find where in A Brief History of the United States Edna might have found the confusing story she wrote in pencil on a now yellow and fragile piece of paper. Perhaps she simple made most of it up. Nonetheless, I’m left wondering who is Mistress Stavis? Where was the tavern located? Who was the little girl with the pail of water and whose feet did she wash? But most of all, I wondered, and still wonder, who was Edna Cardwell?

How old was she when she read A Brief History of the United States in Billings, Montana? Did she pass her history class? Did she ever marry? How long did she live? How did she live?

It’s interesting looking at a person’s handwriting written in 1889. I imagine her fingers holding the pencil and her hand sliding across the paper as she wrote. What was she thinking? What did she feel? What did she hope for?

She seems young to me, though the history book is obviously not for young children. I did make the effort to find her. I looked at numerous Montana genealogy sites and birth records but with no luck. My guess is Edna was born in Billings, but I don’t know how old she was in 1889 when she signed her name in A Brief History of the United States.

I will never find you, Edna, but I have your book, I have your notes, I have your calculations, I have your handwriting, I have your now yellow paper. I just don’t have you.

Copyright © 2017 Dale Rominger

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