William Courtenay Papers
Held at: Princeton University Library: Manuscripts Division [Contact Us]
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Princeton University Library: Manuscripts Division. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
William Courtenay (1832-1901) was an English settler who was born in London and came to the American West during the mid 19th century. After living briefly in Buffalo, New York, and Chicago, Illinois, Courtenay enlisted in the military and served in Company H of the Thirteenth Regiment of the United States Infantry during the American Civil War. He served for three years beginning in 1864 and was honorably discharged in 1867. After the war, Courtenay settled in Fort Benton, Montana, where he entered business gathering wood for the steamboats that traversed the Missouri River and established himself as a trader with Native Americans. He was appointed by the United States government as postmaster of Fort Berthold Indian Agency in September 1874, and then as the reservation's Indian Agent in 1879. Courtenay married Fannie Patterson on July 19, 1880, and the couple moved to Miles City, Montana, in 1882, where Courtenay became a successful businessman in livestock, real estate, and fire insurance. Courtenay also professed an interest in Native American cultures and amassed a large collection of indigenous cultural objects and other items during his lifetime. William and Fannie Courtenay had four children, Marguerite, Mae, Pansy, and Stella.
The collection consists of documents, correspondence, photographs, and other papers of William Courtenay (1832-1901), an English settler, veteran of the American Civil War, and frontier businessman who held positions in the United States Department of the Interior as postmaster, clerk, and Indian Agent at Fort Berthold, Dakota Territory, from 1874 to 1882. These materials provide insight into the daily happenings and systemic issues at the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, and are of particular interest for their documentation of frontier transactions, corruption and mismanagement within the reservation system, and the relationships between the people of the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Sioux people, and white settlers during the late 19th century.
Materials created by Courtenay span from 1850 to 1897, though most date to Courtenay's years at Fort Berthold. Initially a fur trading post and then an army outpost, Fort Berthold became the Indian Agency for the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa (also referred to in these documents as Gros Ventre), and Arikara, in 1868. It was made part of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in 1870, but the United States government flooded the fort's original site when they constructed the Garrison Dam in 1947-1953 and destroyed the traditional grazing and hunting lands of the indigenous population. This portion of the collection is notable for its documentation of conditions at Fort Berthold in the 1870s and 1880s from the perspective of indigenous inhabitants. Highlights include an eight-page report with testimony by Gros Ventre Chief Lean Wolf (also known as Chief Poor Wolf) relating to poor treatment of Native Americans and Sioux violence; a series of letters from Gros Ventre Wolf Chief to William Courtenay and his wife discussing his people's poverty, distrust of a new Indian Agent, and other struggles, many due to corruption by government agents. Additional perspectives can be found in Courtenay's postmaster letterpress copybook, which details activity at Fort Berthold and contains additional accounts of corruption and theft of provisions by white families. Documents in this collection attest to the fact that the Three Affiliated Tribes suffered greatly at the agency due to inadequate military protection, violence from the Sioux people who distrusted the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara due to their history of cooperation with white settlers, meager food rations, and the corruption of government officials and traders.
Courtney's personal papers include photographs, additional correspondence with family members and others, poetry and other narrative writings that often reflect on his travels and professional career, legal documents, clippings, ephemera, and lists and catalogs related to his collection and sale of Native American cultural objects, many of which he acquired from Fort Berthold. There are also a small number of later materials dating from after Courtenay's death in 1901 to 1965 which were added to the collection by family members who were researching Courtenay's life. These include genealogical writings, letters, and printed materials about Courtenay that were collected by members of the Terrett family.
Arranged into two file groups: Fort Berthold Papers; and Personal and Family Papers.
Purchased from Cowan's Auction in November 2019 (AM 2020-48).
This collection was processed by Kelly Bolding in January 2020. Finding aid written by Kelly Bolding in January 2020.
No materials were removed from the collection during 2020 processing beyond routine appraisal practices.
- United States. Office of Indian Affairs
- United States. Office of Indian Affairs. Fort Berthold Agency
- Arikara Indians -- History -- 19th century
- Dakota Indians -- History -- 19th century
- Hidatsa Indians -- History -- 19th century
- Indian agents -- West (U.S.) -- Correspondence
- Indians of North America -- Government relations -- 1869-1934
- Mandan Indians -- History -- 19th century
- Manuscripts Division
- Finding Aid Author
- Kelly Bolding
- Finding Aid Date
- Access Restrictions
Open for research.
- Use Restrictions
Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. No further photoduplication of copies of material in the collection can be made when Princeton University Library does not own the original. Inquiries regarding publishing material from the collection should be directed to RBSC Public Services staff through the Ask Us! form. The library has no information on the status of literary rights in the collection and researchers are responsible for determining any questions of copyright.
Consists of correspondence, documents, statements and testimonies, and other materials from the period when William Courtenay was employed at Fort Berthold as clerk, postmaster, and Indian Agent in the late 1870s and early 1880s.Physical Description
Includes over 250 pages of ink transfer copies of letters that are signed almost entirely by Courtenay in his role as postmaster, including correspondence detailing post transactions such as purchases of meat and tobacco and the selling of hides. The letterbook also includes copies of more personal correspondence, some related to reservation corruption, such as an undated six-page letter written to Acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs E.J. Brooks Esq. in Washington, D.C., describing the activity of J.E. Tappan, Fort Berthold Indian Agent from 1871 to 1873, and likely evidence of corruption. Another letter written January 31st, 1874, to Col. Campbell K. Peck of the Leavenworth, Kansas, firm Durfee and Peck, describes in detail the rampant corruption on the agency and its effects, including the theft of government provisions intended for Native Americans by white families.Physical Description
Signed by Postmaster General Marshall Jewell.Physical Description
Consists of over 25 "true copies" of sworn statements given by Native American residents of Fort Berthold, most taken on September 17th, 1878, by E. H. Alden, who was then Indian Agent at Fort Berthold. Most of the statements describe transactions between indigenous residents and Indian Agent C. W. Darling who served at Fort Berthold from 1875-1876. Statements are identified to Little Bull, Crow's Breast, Poor Wolf, Sharp Horn, Walking Bull, and others. William Courtenay is listed as a witness on most of the documents.Physical Description
One letter is from steamboat magnate T.C. Power. Also includes a letter documenting Courtenay's prior appointment as clerk at Fort Berthold.Physical Description
Consists of handwritten letters and additional letter fragments sent to William Courtenay and his wife by Wolf Chief of the Gros Ventre, many asking for assistance with matters at the agency after Courtenay's move to Montana. Wolf Chief expresses that he does not trust the agent (Shaw) who replaced Courtenay, and several letters reference United States presidents Garfield and Grant.Physical Description
Consists of an eight-page manuscript copy of a testimony given by Lean Wolf, 2nd Chief of the Gros Ventres in answer to questions in relation to Colonel Gilherst's communication to General Hancock. In the testimony, Lean Wolf describes in great detail his tribe's relationship to the Sioux, an incident in which a trader was attacked by Sioux warriors, and the sentiments shared among his people that the Great Father had abandoned them and that the Sioux were correct in their assertion that the poverty and sickness his tribe experienced were attributable to their friendship with white settlers.Physical Description
Two documents from the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology concerning communicating with Native Americans via sign language, including "Types of Hand Positions in Gesture Language."Physical Description
Consists of Courtenay's personal writings, correspondence, documents, photographs, and ephemera, as well as papers related to his collection and sale of Native American cultural heritage objects, art, and remains. Obituaries, genealogical papers, and related materials dating from the early and mid 20th century were added by Courtenay's Terrett family descendents.Physical Description
Consists of drafts of poetry, diary entries, speeches, and a travelogue, including a narrative titled "Diary of a Homely Old Sinner" and writings related to his time at Fort Berthold.Physical Description
Includes a letter from Henry Ward Beecher (April 9, 1877), correspondence with family members and others, and some letters about book collecting.Physical Description
Includes some original documents and some copies that may have been gathered by Courtenay's descendents.Physical Description
Consists of cabinet cards and albumen photographs of William Courtenay, his wife Fannie Patterson Courtenay, and their daugher Rita. These include a cabinet card and albumen photograph of William and Fannie on their wedding day taken at the studio of noted Dakota Territory photographer O. S. Goff, circa 1880; a cabinet card of William, Fannie, and their young child, taken in Miles City, circa 1885; a cabinet card of Courtenay taken by S.C.R. Hamilton in Bozeman, Montana, circa 1892; an albumen photograph of the interior of Courtenay's real estate office in Miles City, circa 1896; an albumen photograph of Courtenay with his family in Miles City, circa 1896; a small albumen photograph of Courtenay standing in front of an unidentified structure; and two albumen photographs of Courtenay in front of his 1887 and 1896 real estate offices.Physical Description
Consists of several handwritten lists of items, as well as an auction catalog for a sale of his collection through George A. Leavitt & Co. in October 1881.Physical Description
Includes corrected drafts of various obituaries and narratives about William Courtenay's life.Physical Description
Includes a history of Miles City, Montana, written by William Wiseham Dade Terrett, as well as other materials created or collected by members of the Terrett family.Physical Description