Fort Owen Trading Post has been important to Stevensville and the Bitterroot Valley since the late 1800s, and former Stevensville resident Bill Turner has a new book on the fort’s namesake and founder, John Owen.
Published by Stoneydale Press, “Warm Side of Heaven: The Life and Times of John Owen” will make its debut during Stevensville’s 107th Annual Creamery Picnic Friday and Saturday, Aug. 2-3.
Turner learned of Owen more than 40 years ago when he worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and his interest in the man and historic trading post grew into an obsession. To create the work of historical fiction, he spent thousands of hours studying Owen’s journals and interactions with leading citizens of the late 19th century, such as Christopher Higgins, one of the founders of Missoula, and even Abraham Lincoln.
“I discovered that no one really knew the history of Fort Owen or John Owen,” said Turner, who now lives in the Rattlesnake in Missoula. The history was all about Father Ravalli and St. Mary’s Mission, “but there was so much more than that.”
He knew he had to bring history forward in time when he discovered Owen’s journals were published by the Montana Historical Society in 1927. In the 1980s, he spent a week in Helena in the Montana Historical Society archives, and he even held one of Owen’s journals.
“There are eight or nine of his journals, little bound books that he would write in,” Turner said. “It made it more real holding it in my hand. To put it politely, it became an obsession.”
In 1975, Turner earned a degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing from the University of Montana, studying with Richard Hugo and William Kittredge. He said he wrote the book, his first, when he felt the community needed a shared knowledge of history.
“I wanted to write about John Owen in such a way that it would be more than just a history, and maybe something kids and adults would be interested in reading and learn more about the valley they live in,” Turner said.
Although less well known than some of his contemporaries, John Owen was one of Montana’s most influential citizens during its early territorial history, according to Turner’s research.
Owen traveled with the U.S. Army and provided their supplies, purchased St. Mary’s Mission in 1850, and built up the trading post called Fort Owen. The center of commerce for Bitterroot settlers and Native American tribes for over 20 years, the fort served trappers, Indians, traders, missionaries, settlers and travelers, Turner said.
He married Nancy Owen, a Shoshone woman, and traveled extensively throughout the West to acquire supplies for his trading post, Turner said. For a short time, he held the post of Indian agent for the U.S. government, and the fort served as agency headquarters to the Flathead Nation from 1856 to 1862.
In his detailed journals, Owen described meeting U.S. Army Officer Ulysses S. Grant; Isaac Stevens, the governor of the Territory of Washington, for whom Stevensville is named; famed road builder John Mullan; and Chief Charlo of the Salish Indians. Later in his life, he met with President Abraham Lincoln.
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“One of the favorite parts to me was straight from Owen’s journal about him trying to grind wheat and make a gristmill,” Turner said. “Another great part for me to imagine is when he goes to Washington, D.C., and meets with Abraham Lincoln.”
Near the end of his life, Owen deteriorated mentally and returned to family in Pennsylvania. In 1872, the trading post was sold at a sheriff’s auction and bought by Washington McCormick, who owned it until he died in 1889, the same year that Montana became a state.
Turner said a novel needs dramatic tension, and McCormick is the villain in his book. He also wrote about Owen's friendship with Missoula's Higgins, whose sister, Kate, he credits with keeping Owen's history alive.
The University of Montana and the Stevensville Historical Society helped preserve the fort, but Turner said that it was Kate Higgins who saved John Owen’s journals and donated Fort Owen to the state in 1937.
“She was the true hero,” Turner said.
Turner, who retired after 20 years as a carpenter for UM, has also worked as an editor, seasonal forest worker and Missoulian reporter.
He said he loves history in general and Native American history in particular. When he was older, he realized the infamous Trail of Tears marched right through his boyhood town in Arkansas, yet no one, “not a teacher or Boy Scout leader,” ever told the kids in school their history.
“I find that history is very selective, and the history that’s told isn’t all that needs to be told,” Turner said. “The history of the Bitterroot and Salish needs to be told, and the history of settlers that came to Montana territory is also important.”
Dale Burk, Stoneydale Press owner, said Turner’s book is important to the early history of the Stevensville community. He considers the novel one of the major books the company has been able to publish.
“John Owen was not only one of the most influential people of his time in this part of the world, but a man of integrity, strong moral character and a person of great historic insight into his times and what was taking place across the continent in the wake of the westward expansion of the country and later the impact of the Civil War,” Burk said. “It’s a story that, literally, has begged telling.”
Stoneydale Press will have a booth at the Stevensville Creamery Picnic and will feature Turner and other authors.