Montana family’s deep roots draw historians to reunion at Bridger Creek homestead

An old barn and an outbuilding, background, were built during the lifetime of Thomas Kent, who homesteaded on Bridger Creek. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

A family with deep roots in Montana met last weekend on the land their ancestors homesteaded almost 140 years ago.

“In Montana,” said Stan Stevens, at 93 the oldest of the clan at the family reunion, “we go back forever.”

And in a way, they do. The family patriarch, Thomas Kent, entered Montana in 1864 as part of a wagon train led by John Bozeman, for whom the Bozeman Trail was named.

The family matriarch’s roots are deeper still. Thomas Kent’s wife was named Mary, but her Crow Indian name at birth was What She Has Is Well Known, though she was also called White Shield. She was the daughter of Talks Slow and his wife, Kills Quick.

The intermarriage of whites and Indians continued through the generations. At the gathering last weekend at Bridger Creek, just north of Interstate 90 about 10 miles east of Greycliff, Stevens gestured out at the 70 or 80 relatives gathered under a big tent, or wandering the grounds of the homestead.

“As you see from this crew out here,” he said, “it’s mostly pale faces. But they represent five tribes that I can think of.”

That mix, and that deep history, drew Crystal Alegria to the family reunion. Alegria is the co-director of the Extreme History Project, which is based in Bozeman and is dedicated to making history more accessible to the general public, and to using a knowledge of history to promote social change.

Alegria, a past president of the Montana Archaeological Association, said Thomas and Mary Kent and their descendants are important in the history of Montana and of the United States.

“This family really represents the coming together of the two cultures,” she said.

She was also impressed by a family passionately involved in recording and preserving the past.

“To me, this is amazing to see this family here, looking at photographs, passing around maps, talking about Indian allotments—so interested in history,” she said.

Julie Hoffman of Billings, Stan Stevens’ daughter, had the idea of holding this year’s family reunion at the Bridger Creek homestead, for the first time ever. She and her cousin, Peggy Welliever, did most of the work on organizing the gathering. The family used to have reunions fairly regularly, but they grew less and less frequent until the tradition was revived 12 years ago.

They haven’t missed an annual reunion since then. Most of them were held on Upper Lodge Grass Creek, where Dominic Stevens—who married one of Thomas Kent’s daughters and was Stan Stevens’ grandfather—had his homestead. The family also gathered a few times at Veterans Park in Billings and once at the Big Horn County Historical Museum in Hardin.

Hoffman thought it was high time the family got together at Bridger Creek, where an expansive barn and a log outbuilding, both built in Thomas Kent’s lifetime, still stand. Near the homestead, on a little rise overlooking the Bridger Creek Exit off I-90, is the Kent Family Cemetery, where Thomas and Mary Kent, along with various other family members, are buried.

The family obtained permission to meet on the property from its current owner, Stan Meyers of Great Falls, who also attended the gathering. To a round of applause, Meyers announced that 365 acres of prime wildlife habitat, Yellowstone River bottomland that includes the homestead and the surviving buildings, has been placed under a conservation easement, ensuring it will never be developed.

When the grandchildren of the youngest family members at the reunion have their own reunion, he said, it should look much as it does today.

“This is a part of Montana that is very special to us, and to you,” he said.

Thomas and Mary Kent share a tombstone in the Kent Family Cemetery at Bridger Creek. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

According to a family chronology compiled by P.J. Smith, of Billings, a Kent descendant who happens to be president of the Yellowstone Genealogy Forum, Thomas Kent’s ancestors—then named Kint or Kindt—emigrated from southwest Germany to Pennsylvania in 1749.

An article in the Billings Gazette, dated April 28, 1963, said Thomas Kent was born in Westmoreland County, Pa., and moved with his family to Iowa in 1854. It was from there that he lit out for Montana, meeting up with John Bozeman at the North Platte River.

Kent reportedly spent several years in the gold fields of Western Montana—in Virginia City, Alder Gulch and Last Chance Gulch—before spending time as a wolfer in Yellowstone River country. The article said he killed 700 wolves one winter.

In 1869, he went to work as the first government butcher at Fort Parker, also called Mission Creek, which was the first Crow Agency. It was there that he met and married What She Has Is Well Known, whose birthdate on the tombstone she shares with her husband is given as Oct. 18, 1860.

Thomas and Mary were wed in 1875 and they had five daughters. The family tree grew to include many other names as those five girls became mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Among those at the reunion on Saturday were people named Garrigus (the line from which P.J. Smith descended), Cashen, Kemph, Barclay, Stovall and McComas (the family that maintains the cemetery at Bridger Creek).

Most of those at the reunion were from Montana, but family members also came from Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Texas.

Alegria, with the Extreme History Project, said her primary interest in the family stems from Thomas Kent’s connections with Fort Parker, about which she and other project members are writing a book. As part of their research, she said, they had already sat down with Stan Stevens a few years ago for oral history interviews. At the reunion, she had a chance to meet other family members and hear other stories.

Another historian, Tammy Mansfield, attended the reunion to learn more about Dominic Stevens, who homesteaded on Upper Lodge Grass Creek and later built a home in Hardin, described in a National Register of Historic Places nomination form in 1987 as “one of the most substantial residences in Lodge Grass.”

Mansfield is a member of the Upper Lodge Grass Creek Historical Association and one of the authors of a recently published book, “Ranches and Families of Upper Lodge Grass Creek.” She was also gathering recollections, corrections and emendations, and she was hoping to find out more about Dominic Stevens’ background.

“I got a couple little tidbits of information,” she said, a few hours into the family reunion. “Hopefully, those will help me find out where he’s from.”

Descendants of Thomas and Mary Kent gathered last weekend a little east of Greycliff for a family reunion on the land their ancestors homesteaded in the 1870s. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

Over lunch, which Stan Stevens opened with a short prayer, first in Crow and then in English, the 93-year-old held forth for a tableful of kin, telling family stories, Crow history and whatever else came to his still-nimble mind. It was said that he acquired his storytelling skills and his good memory as a boy, when he would sit up and listen to his mother and other Crow women talk late into the night.

His daughter, Julie Hoffman, said the family reunions help carry on that tradition.

“A lot of the younger generation are getting to know each other again,” she said.

Her grandson, 16-year-old Dillon Olson of Billings, said Stevens, his great-grandfather, “taught me my entire Indian history. He definitely taught me a lot about my culture.”

Dillon also said it was a powerful experience to be at the old homestead, to see buildings that were in his family so long ago, and to think of the pride and trouble it took to preserve them this long.

“I think it’s pretty amazing,” he said.