It’s a creepy thought, but what if Annie Morgan were to rise from her grave in the Philipsburg Cemetery to tell her story?
Would she tell? Could she get it right?
Morgan was a black woman who was either widowed or divorced. She was in her 50s or 60s when she settled in the Hogback country 32 miles up Rock Creek in Granite County in the early 1890s. She lived there until her death in 1914.
For much of that time, Morgan lived with Joseph “Fisher Jack” Case, a Civil War veteran whom she found deathly ill on the banks of the creek in 1894 and nursed back to health.
In October, the Missoulian covered a barn-raising of sorts at the U.S. Forest Service’s Morgan-Case Homestead and attempted to summarize Morgan’s extraordinary story. Instead, we perpetuated some erroneous, misleading and outdated information.
Turns out there’s a lot of that out there. It points to the difficulties of both finding documented facts and weaving them into a narrative worthy of someone like Morgan, whose life is emerging in fits and starts but remains largely in the shadows of time.
“I don’t want people to get the impression you can never get history right,” Beth Judy said. “I think you can, but you have to be really careful.”
Judy is a Missoula researcher, proofreader and writer. She’s five years into retirement from the Plant Detective, the nationally syndicated show that ran locally on Montana Public Radio for 18 years.
Judy included a profile of Morgan with 10 others in “Bold Women in Montana History,” her 2017 book for young adults.
Her “Annie chapter” included new findings, such as details of the exciting discovery in 2007 when a Forest Service team was widening the Morgan-Case cabin’s door for wheelchair access. Tucked behind the trim was a rolled-up cloth bag that proved to be a “bag charm” used in the practice of hoodoo, an African American spiritual tradition.
It contained a folded soap wrapper, a small wooden spatula and bits of string, tape and cloth. It also, tellingly, carried a hand-written receipt from Huffman Grocery in Philipsburg made out to Morgan.
Judy said bag charms are common discoveries in the American South, where hoodoo practitioners were “highly respected and highly paid members of the community.” Annie’s is the only one found in the Pacific Northwest.
“Hoodoo could be used for good — to help others — or for ill, to harm them,” Judy wrote. “The cloth bag shed new light on Annie, who had a reputation as a healer.”
Morgan also had a reputation as a fine cook and was, according to the inscription on her tombstone, “very neighborly and well liked by all who knew her.”
But Judy says to think of Annie as simply a “little old lady who was sweet and a pie maker and everybody’s good neighbor” is an example of “where the story is not doing the person justice.”
“She was a powerful person, tied in with a powerful tradition.”
In her chapter, Judy speculates on but resists presenting as fact many of the unknowns of Agnes “Annie” Morgan’s life. She provides broader context to such things as the practice of hoodoo, laws on intermarriage in Montana and life for a cook on frontier military outposts.
While Annie grew up during slavery times and lived in Baltimore, Maryland, there’s no evidence that she was a slave on a plantation there.
“There were many free slaves in Baltimore, so we really don’t know whether she was a slave or not,” Judy said.
According to her obituary in the Philipsburg Mail in 1914, even Morgan didn’t know her exact age.
“Her birth date and age vary in different documents, such as her death record in the Philipsburg courthouse, censuses, her tombstone and her obit,” Judy said.
Morgan’s obituary said she “served as cook in the officers’ mess of General Custer’s command in the campaign against the Indians,” and “she was with the main column of Custer’s regiment in 1876 at the time of the memorable battle on the Little Bighorn when General Custer was killed.”
Judy said that's “highly unlikely.” Military experts told her women didn’t accompany troops when they were going into battle, even as camp cooks.
Enough is known about Custer and his domestic life to ascertain Morgan wasn’t a “formal” cook for him and wife Libbie.
“She did cook for him — maybe once — but we don’t know the details,” Judy said.
Tracing the lives of blacks in the U.S. through government records can be an inexact, frustrating experience, Judy said. Morgan is found in the 1880 U.S. Census at Fort Meade in what’s now South Dakota. There she worked in the home of Myles Moylan, an officer in the Seventh Cavalry and a relative of Custer.
“Maybe Custer was a guest of the house she worked in and she cooked for him in that way. He came over one night for dinner,” Judy said.
She also doesn’t believe, as some have maintained, that Morgan got to Montana from Fort Meade via steamboat to Fort Benton.
Morgan was probably her married name, but she was apparently without a husband in Philipsburg in 1890. In April of that year, the Anaconda Standard reported among its Philipsburg items: “Annie Morgan, an old colored woman, was sentenced to 30 days at Deer Lodge on a charge of vagrancy.”
That might have meant she was homeless, Judy said, or that she was an alcoholic. Morgan’s obituary said lucrative cooking positions might have been hers “but for one fault — she was addicted to drink and could not be depended on.”
Two years later, Annie was employed by David Durfee, a Philipsburg attorney, to take care of an elderly alcoholic, probably Durfee’s uncle.
According to the Morgan-Case Homestead’s National Register of Historic Places record, Durfee set them up in a two-room cabin on an abandoned fox farm in lower Rock Creek, a few hundred feet from the current cabin on what became Annie’s homestead claim. She stayed on when the uncle either recovered or died.
Morgan rescued Case, who had been supplementing his Civil War pension by selling fish from Rock Creek in Granite when he was stricken with typhoid fever. Case repaid her by fencing her claim, then took her up an offer to stay and help her prove up on her homestead, though Morgan didn't file a homestead entry until the year before she died.
Case and Morgan evidently never married, though Judy found interracial marriages in Montana weren’t banned until 1909. Their relationship remains another question unanswered.
“They may have feared the community’s negative reaction” to marriage, Judy wrote. "It’s also possible that they were not lovers at all, but merely friends and business partners.”
About two weeks before Annie died, she made the three-hour trip into Philipsburg and completed a will bequeathing all she had to Case. Her obituary identified him as “her old partner in the little ranch at the first hogback.”
“My editor didn’t like this chapter at first,” Judy admitted. “You can guess why. There’s a lot of ‘probably’ and ‘we don’t know this but ...’ There are a lot of holes in the story, whereas in all the other chapters it’s pretty straightforward.”
Still, she felt it was important to include Annie’s story in “Bold Women in Montana History.”
“I wanted to throw down breadcrumbs for other researchers coming along behind me,” Judy said.
History is slippery.
“No matter how careful we are, it’s not a static thing,” said Ellen Baumler of Helena, one of Montana’s most prolific and respected history researchers and authors. “You’re always making new discoveries. That’s what makes it interesting.”
In 2007 Baumler wrote a successful nomination to the National Register for the Home of Peace, the Jewish cemetery in Helena.
“It has a really interesting history,” she said. “I have all the minute books and it talks about the early Jewish community and this and that. But I just came across a paragraph the other day I’d written in the nomination that now I know was completely wrong.”
Virginia City, Montana’s territorial capital before Helena, had a Hebrew Benevolent Society.
“I always thought there was a cemetery there. It was platted on the first plat map in 1868. But in doing more research, there were no Jews who even died in Virginia City,” Baumler said.
The errant information is still part of the National Park Service’s historical record.
Likewise, in a well-documented nomination for the Morgan-Case Homestead in 2004, Missoula researchers Janene Caywood and Delia Hagen included two undocumented assumptions. They said Morgan was 44 years old when she “came to Montana as a cook for General Custer in 1876.”
Caywood and husband Milo McLeod, a retired archaeologist for the Lolo National Forest, have been driving forces for the preservation and maintenance of the Morgan-Case Homestead. They reviewed Judy’s Annie chapter before it was published and praise it now.
"I think Beth's book is probably the best representation of her life," Caywood said.
The job she and Hagen had in nominating the Morgan-Case Homestead was to convince the state review board and the keeper of the National Register that the homestead merited listing as a property "associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history."
“The reason it’s on the register is none of the gaps in the research, the unknowns, negatively affected its listing,” Caywood said. “It wouldn’t have been turned down because, say, we didn’t know how Annie got to Granite County. The important thing is we know she was there and she filed for a homestead patent. We know the Forest Service inspected the patent and we know she died before the process was completed.
“Really the reason it’s listed is it was an African-American homestead in a very marginal place to homestead in Montana.”
“Knowledge,'' Judy said, "keeps on evolving, so it’s easy to find something that’s not quite up to date. That’s what happened here.”
Over the past 15 years, newspaper articles and blogposts have taken stabs at Annie Morgan’s story. Author Lenore McKelvey Puhek wrote the 2009 historical novel “Annie: The Cabin in the Woods” and wrote the nomination for Morgan's inclusion as a legacy inductee to the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2013.
The story of Morgan and another black woman homesteader, Bertie Brown of the Lewistown area, was told on the Montana Historical Society’s 2014 Women’s History Matters project website.
“They got it right,” Judy said.
She's not through with Morgan. Judy has a sister in Maryland and wants at some point to expand her research to where Annie's story began. But she’s not uncomfortable with what she’s written so far.
“This is a person of color who made her way from Baltimore all the way out to Montana where she lived in Rock Creek by herself until she ran into 'Fisher Jack’ and saved his life,” she said. “She found a place she loved and made herself a life to her contentment. That to me is a very bold woman."