A E Wentworth and hired main

Homesteading in Montana (A.E. Wentworth, Ora Norcutt)

This is a story about a young man’s journey from the lush valleys and dairy farms of New Hampshire to the dry prairie and wheat fields of Montana. The young man was Arthur Elbridge Wentworth, my paternal grandfather. He was born in Jackson, Carroll County, New Hampshire on September 25, 1888. While the Wentworth name is prominent throughout New England’s history and Arthur’s ancestors included historical figures (Elder William Wentworth, Governor John Wentworth and other religious, military, and political leaders in Colonial New Hampshire and neighboring colonies), his father, grandfather, and several generations of great-grandfathers were farmers. The family farms were tucked in the beautiful, lush valleys in the foothills of the White Mountains. The small towns were near each other and family members lived close by.

In 1910, Arthur migrated to Fort Benton, Chouteau County, Montana. His daughter, Velma (Auntie Babe) told me that he said there was a shortage of jobs in New Hampshire. He and a buddy heard about working the wheat fields in Montana. They hopped trains, stopping to work and earn money to fund the next section of their journey until they arrived in Fort Benton, Montana. The distance between Jackson and Fort Benton is approximately 2,435 miles (travelling along today’s northern most route). What brave young men they were! No doubt full of hope and expectation of a better life.

The Central Montana prairie east and south of Fort Benton is flat, treeless, dry, with rocky outcroppings and buttes. The great Missouri River’s headwaters are in the Rocky Mountains in western Montana. The Missouri River flows eastward to  Fort Benton and continues eastward along the northwestern, northern, and eastern edges of the prairie. This section of the Missouri River is designated as the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument which protects the river and the badlands along the river. North Central Montana is dramatically different from New Hampshire in many ways including how crops are grown. In Montana, wheat and other grain crops are grown with the “dry-land farming” method.  The farmers rely upon precipitation for crop irrigation. Annual rainfall in Jackson, New Hampshire is about 41 inches; in Fort Benton, average annual precipitation is 13 inches. This was true in 1910 when Arthur and his friend arrived in Fort Benton. Life on the prairie was challenging. Supplies were scarce, mistakes and miscalculations could be disastrous, even deadly, and their survival would have been dependent upon their resourcefulness and adaptability to their new circumstances.

Local building materials were limited, there were no forests of native hardwood trees as in New Hampshire. Homesteaders used what was available and affordable: dirt, grass, and limited wood. Sod houses were typically built as claim houses to satisfy the homesteading requirements to live on the land and to improve it. In addition to fickle rainfall, bitter cold winters, and isolation, homesteaders routinely dealt with mice, snakes, and insect infestations.

Rail service played a major role in bringing people from the eastern states westward. The Great Northern Railway and the Northern Pacific Railway entered Montana in the late 19th century and their main lines eventually connected Chicago and Minneapolis to Seattle and Portland. In 1909 the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (“Milwaukee Road”) was completed through Montana. The Milwaukee Road was the third railroad to provide rail service from Chicago to the West Coast. The Milwaukee Road laid tracks from Livingston to Fort Benton, providing rail service through the north central prairie. The train depot in Geraldine was completed in 1914.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The US Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act in 1909 which doubled the amount of land deeded to each homesteader from 160 acres to 320 acres. The homesteader paid an annual filing fee, had to live on the land, cultivate crops, and improve the land for five years. Failure to do so would mean forfeiture of the patent and all improvements to the land. In 1912, Congress reduced the proving up time from five years to three years. More than 82,000 homesteaders moved to Montana between 1909 and 1919, most arriving via the Milwaukee Railroad.

On April 12, 1914, Arthur filed a Serial Land Patent for 331.26 acres on the prairie east of Fort Benton and north of Geraldine. His patent included seven parcels within two neighboring sections. Although the Missouri River flowed along the northern edges of the prairie, the farmers had no access to the river due to the badlands’ rocky terrain along the river. The homestead was about 18 miles northeast of Geraldine. The patent was obtained in the Central Montana District Land Office in Lewistown which is about 100 miles southeast from Fort Benton (75 miles from Geraldine). Again, the train was the most likely mode of transportation to the land office.

Looking at a current map of Chouteau County, the homestead was at the intersection of Flat Creek Rd to the west and Graceville Rd. N. to the south property lines. Section 31 is located at that corner, section 30 is adjacent on the north side. Section 31 extends east to Hole in the Wall Rd. The land is at an elevation averaging 3100 ft. and is describes as being flat with rolling conditions.

Arthur’s circumstances changed in a dramatic fashion when he met Ora Norcutt and her family. Her parents were Gilbert and Ada (Addie) Norcutt. Addie’s parents were Peter Kelly and Rachel Wylie. Ora was born in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota on December 10, 1896. She grew up in Sleepy Eye and in Polk, County Missouri. In 1910, Gilbert, Addie, and their seven children still at home; Lucy “Olive”, Ora, Lottie, Noble, Forest, Rachel, and Mamie (youngest) were living in Goshen, Lane County, Oregon. Per Ora’s personal documentation, they arrived in Montana when she was 15 (circa 1912) and settled north of Geraldine in Clear Lake.

On November 8, 1916, Arthur wed Ora in Lewiston, Fergus County, Montana. Methodist Pastor Chas. M. Donaldson officiated. Witnesses were Olive Norcutt (sister of the bride) and Earl Modlin (friend of the groom).  Three of Arthur and Ora’s six children were born in Montana. Ora’s personal papers note the birthplaces as Geraldine, Montana. Melvin was born in 1917, Glennis in 1919, and Deloris in 1921.

Ora’s father, Gilbert Norcutt, filed a land patent on 320 acres on October 1, 1917 in an adjacent township.  Ora’s sister Lucy Olive Norcutt filed a homestead land patent on four parcels totaling 50.44 acres adjacent to Arthur and Ora’s land. Her filing date was December 5, 1921. The distance between Gilbert’s land and Arthur’s land was no more than a mile.

The wet years during the early to mid-1910’s became the dry years at the end of the decade. Times were difficult. Without adequate rainfall, crops failed, land values hit rock bottom, and the homesteaders left in droves. The Bureau of Land Management records show some 60,000 homesteaders had given up their patents by the early 1920’s. Their abandoned land reverted to government held land.

Family folklore is that after seven years of failed crops, attributed to drought and the locust that flourished in the dry conditions.  Facing enormous debt and literally, losing their farm, Arthur and Ora packed up the kids, and left Montana in 1923. They joined a wagon train and headed for Oregon. They left the caravan in Princeton, Idaho as Ora was pregnant with my father, Ronald, and could not continue the journey. He was born in Princeton on Sept 5, 1923. They stayed through the winter with plans to continue west in the spring. In 1924, they joined another group travelling to Western Washington.

Gilbert and Addie and children, including Olive, were back in Missouri by 1920. Their family included Naomi who was born in 1914 in Montana.

In closing, researching this story has been exciting and surprising. Arthur and Ora did not talk much about the past (or maybe I was playing with the calves and missed the stories). I would ask questions from time to time and Grandma Ora usually would remark that those old stories were nothing special, just living.

They were pioneers in Montana’s history, facing circumstances that were challenging, they were successful, and and they failed.  They did not give up, they moved on to another opportunity. I am in awe of what they experienced, what they did, and how resilient they were during their years in Montana.

When Arthur arrived in Montana, he likely had few resources to begin his new life. Probably, he had a few clothes, items easily carried around, a bit of money, youthful optimism, a strong body, and a stubborn will.

Ora crossed the Rockies Mountains three times! She travelled with her family from Missouri to Oregon to Missouri to Montana to Washington. The conditions were extreme. Crossing not once but three times is an incredible feat.

Gilbert and Addie moved their family back and forth across the country, Ora was only 13 when they arrived in Oregon. Naomi, their youngest child, was born in Montana when Addie was 41 years old. Talk about a woman of iron clad strength!

Olive apparently returned to Montana as she filed her land patent one year after the family returned to Missouri. She would have been required to complete the filing in person.

I have pieced together these stories from Grandma Ora’s handwritten documents, government records (land and censuses), and historical documentation of life on the Montana prairie during the time frame they were there. I am in awe of their aspirations and admire what they achieved under the most challenging circumstances.

Arthur Wentworth and Ora Norcutt wedding day portrait

Arthur and Ora’s wedding license

Rachel Norcutt holding nephew Melvin Wentworth

Posted in Norcutt, Paternal line, Wentworth.

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