May 1, 2013

Photo Credit: National Park Service 

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site 

America’s Ranch

It is not only the Clark Fork River that weaves through the Grant-Kohrs  Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge, Montana but an incredible  tapestry of history of the peoples of the Americas that weaves itself  there. This tapestry begins with John Francis (“Johnny”) Grant, born to a Canadian Métis mother (the Métis trace their descent to mixed First  Nations and European heritage) and a father of Scottish and French  descent, who established the ranch in Deer Lodge Montana in 1861.  From 1861 through 1866, Johnny Grant lived there on the ranch with his Native American wife of the Bannack tribe, named Quarra, and their children. Quarra Grant, whose father was Bannack and mother was Shoshoni, was a grand niece of Sacajawea, of Lewis and Clark expedition fame, and a sister of Tendoy, later to be chief of the Lemhi Shoshoni.

At this time in American history, the community of the Deer Lodge Valley was a mixed community, as the gold rush era had brought a rush of opportunists to the Valley. In fact, during the later half of the 1800s, much of Montana saw a steady stream of people of different nationalities and ethnicities pouring into the territory.  In addition to Native American tribes, there were American, Canadian, Metis,  Spanish, and Mexican people working the fur trade; British, Chinese,  Dutch, German and Irish people working the gold-mining camps; andAfrican Americans, those from the northern states and other recently  freed slaves, who had come west in search of opportunities.  As was the case for much of the West, the Montana territory was quickly becoming a land of mutli-ethnicity.

Grant’s own life was just as colorful – he married three more times, and had a great many children. At last, Grant decided to return to Canada, as did most of the other French-Canadians in the valley.  He sold his ranch to Conrad Kohrs in l866. Conrad Kohrs, and his three Bielenberg half-brothers (Johnny, Charlie and Nick) would be among those German immigrants who would settle in the Deer Lodge Valley and become a part of the cattle-ranching story of the American West.

Aimed at over 151 years, the efforts associated with the Grant-Kohrs Ranch -- from its beginning with Johnny Grant, followed by  Conrad Kohrs and his business partner Johnny Bielenberg, as well as  Conrad Kohrs’ grandson, Conrad Kohrs Warren, and today with the United  States National Park Service -- have depended on the skills and labor  of people of many cultures and ethnicities. Over the decades, the ranch has seen German and English housekeepers and nannies, a Chinese  bunkhouse cook, an Irish ranch foreman and a French ranch foreman, a  Greek irrigator, a Yugoslavian fence-builder, a Swedish dairyman, a  Mexican cowboy artisan who made the beautiful horsehair bridles still  preserved in the collection -- and native American and Métis range riders hired for the ranch’s turn-of-the-century roundups in eastern Montana.  And since the time that the Department of the Interior began to manage the National Historic Site, there has been a National Parks Superintendent of Norwegian, German and French ancestry with a skosh (1/32) of a Jewish ancestry from Poland;  a National Parks Chief of Interpretation & Education of Italian ancestry; an Integrated Resource Program Manager of German, English and French ancestry, and a Park Ranger of German and Scottish ancestry, to name a few.

As such, the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site represents – on one level – a history of cattle ranching in the American West that reaches beyond the borders of the United States.  It relates to, and is part of, the history of cattle ranching in both North America and Latin  America.  On a second level, the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site represents a history of the peoples of the Americas -- the indigenous First Nation tribes, the immigrants from our northern and southern neighbors of Canada and Mexico, and the immigrants from Europe, Asia and other corners of the world who came to the United States of America and became citizens.  All their descendants remain.

So, as a place to talk about the history of cattle ranching in the Americas, the Grant-Kohrs Ranch provides us with a rich tapestry of stories -- not just stories of the cattle and horses, but of the peoples of the Americas who played a role in the shaping of the West.  Recognizing the history of ranching families, and the ranch hands they employed, begins to weave together, and allows us to recognize, the shared legacy of ranching in the Americas.  And this is why, during a meeting in Deer Lodge, Montana in May 2012, members of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch Foundation christened the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site as “America’s Ranch.”