Woman seeks her father’s unpaid claim from 1882

By Ed Kemmick
Billings, Montana (AP) 11-08

An amateur historian may finally have solved a mystery that is more than a century old.

Cleve Kimmel thinks he has discovered why Joseph M.V. Cochran, the first settler to file homestead papers in what would become Yellowstone County, was never compensated by the government for damages he suffered at the hands of a raiding party of Nez Perce Indians in 1877.

Cochran’s “depredation claim” for $654.50 was thoroughly examined and approved for payment by Congress, but he died in 1938 without seeing a dime of it.

Decades of research by his daughter, Kate Dotson of Oakdale, Calif., convinced her that her father’s claim went unpaid because his file was confused – either by accident or by fraud – with that of another claimant.

As impossible as it may sound, Dotson is still on a quest to settle her father’s claim, 131 years after the Nez Perce raid. Dotson was the last of Cochran’s 10 children, born in 1911 when her father was in his 60s. She turned 97 on Oct. 1.

After examining hundreds of pages of documents that Dotson inherited from her father and making numerous inquiries on his own, Kimmel concluded that the real culprit in the case was a more familiar one: bureaucratic incompetence.

Kimmel determined that Cochran’s claim was approved by Congress and was transmitted to the speaker of the House on Jan. 1, 1889, for payment. Then things unraveled. Before the claim was paid, Congress, which had been flooded with requests for compensation for Indian depredations, decided to wash its hands of the claims and suspended action on them. In March 1891, Congress passed legislation transferring all existing claims to the U.S. Court of Claims.

The trouble was, Kimmel said, the speaker of the House never returned Cochran’s documents to Cochran’s manila folder at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, so when his “file” was transferred to the Court of Claims, it was essentially empty but for a few letters generated after the transmittal. The claim was officially dismissed in 1907.

Dotson, who had copies of all her father’s papers, wasn’t aware that the officials in Washington didn’t have access to the originals. As a result, when she tried to get to the bottom of the mystery during decades of sending countless letters and inquiries to congressmen, bureaucrats and department heads, she always got the same answer: Her father’s file contained no proof of claim, so there was nothing anyone could do.

What none of them bothered to notice, Kimmel said, was the one pertinent letter left in the file, the one noting that the contents of Cochran’s file had been sent to the speaker of the House and mentioning an endorsement for payment by the secretary of the Interior.

“Her father’s file is sitting over in some damn cardboard box,” said Kimmel, a retired engineer and aerospace industry business manager who dabbles in historical research. “How much clearer can it be? But nobody reads. They’ve got a bunch of dolts for clerks.”

Kimmel is convinced that Cochran’s file is gathering dust in the bowels of the National Archives and Records Administration.

“This is nothing but a paper search,” he said. “Why doesn’t somebody go find the file, put it in the Court of Claims’ face and say, ‘Settle this thing’?”

Old story, new details

Though the extensive documents in Dotson’s possession have done her little material good, they paint a detailed picture of an important event in the early history of the Billings area. The story of the Nez Perce raid on the Yellowstone Valley has been told many times, but Cochran’s papers add a wealth of particulars to the narrative.

Cochran was born in Missouri in 1847 and worked his way through a long life as a guide, prospector, miner, lumberman, trapper, hunter, soldier, printer, shipper and real estate agent. In 1877, he filed homestead papers on a piece of land in what is now Riverfront Park. His house was close to the famous “Josephine tree” to which the steamer Josephine tied up in 1875 – the farthest any steamboat would ever reach in a voyage up the Yellowstone River.

In the same year that Cochran filed his homestead papers, a band of some 800 Nez Perce Indians conducted an epic, fighting retreat that began in Idaho and would end with their surrender just south of the Canadian border in the Bear Paw Mountains. On Sept. 12, 1877, they crossed the Yellowstone near present-day Laurel.

The main body under Chief Joseph moved up Canyon Creek while a small raiding party continued east along the Yellowstone River. Cochran was cutting wood on the south side of the river when he and the men with him saw six Nez Perce ford the river near their camp. Five younger warriors sent an older man to parley with Cochran, who was armed with a rifle, and after a brief conversation the party continued on without incident.

The Nez Perce, however, found and made off with Cochran’s horses, which had been grazing a little downstream from the logging camp. Cochran, after reaching his homestead on foot, learned that the Nez Perce had been there before him. He found the bodies of two men, wolfers or ranch hands. who had been staying in a tent on his land. They had been killed by the Nez Perce, who also helped themselves to equipment and supplies belonging to Cochran.

It was not until September 1882 that Cochran filed his depredation claim in Miles City, seeking damages totaling $654.50 from the Nez Perce. In it, he laid out an itemized list of property that he said was taken by the raiders.

Heading the list were four horses, each described in detail. One description read: “One gray mare (previously designated as a horse) six years old, weight 850 pounds, sound and gentle, and well broken to harness.”

The list also included two harness sets, two regular saddles, two pack saddles, a tent, a large zinc trunk and numerous items of clothing, including three suits of woolen underwear and “one fine cloth coat, very good coat, not much worn.”

‘Very good tea’

Also stolen, according to Cochran, were enough supplies to last his camp for six months, among them four 100-pound sacks of flour, 60 pounds of sugar, 60 pounds of bacon, 25 pounds of beans, 25 pounds of green coffee and a “7 pound caddy of tea, very good tea.” Miscellaneous stolen goods included ammunition for a Winchester gun, two buffalo robes, implements, hand tools and “one silver watch, I believe Elgin works, a very good watch.”

As the claim worked its way through the government bureaucracy, it was joined by affidavits from other citizens of the Billings area, attesting to Cochran’s honesty. Omar Hoskins testified that Cochran’s reputation in the community “is proverbial for integrity, truth, and honesty.”

Other people who testified as to Cochran’s character and the value assigned to the property in his claim included Paul McCormick, Thomas McGirl, Bela Brockway, Henry Colwell and Edward Forrest. Forrest said he had long been a raiser and breeder of horses and could estimate the value of Cochran’s animals and their tack, but he was on shaky ground when it came to Cochran’s silver watch.

“I have had the watch in my hands, it was a good watch, but I do not know the value of watches,” he testified.

Probably the most fascinating testimony was provided by a Nez Perce named Multitude, who was a member of the party that raided Cochran’s homestead. He was interviewed in December 1882 at a meeting of the Nez Perce Indian Council, after Chief Joseph and the people under his leadership had been captured and removed to the Oakland Reservation in Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma.

The council was convened by Indian Agent Lewellyn Woodin to look into Cochran’s claim for losses. A transcript of a report on the council said attendees included H.H. Clark, who was the reservation superintendent and clerk, and three Nez Perce chiefs, Yellow Bull, Heur-es-Kulte and Chief Joseph, identified as “Young Joseph.”

Woodin first read to the assembled chiefs the affidavit filed by Cochran, then made a demand for full satisfaction of the claim. Joseph, Heu-es-Kulte and Tom Hill, another Nez Perce not previously identified, all said they knew nothing of the raid, having been with the main body of Indians along Canyon Creek.

Enter Multitude Joseph, however, said there was “one young man of my band named Multitude whom I think has some recollection of the circumstances connected with this claim.” Multitude was sent for and soon appeared before the council. His testimony, as related by the translator, was somewhat vague.

Rather than saying he took part in the raid, he testified: “I was below the mouth of Canyon Creek and saw some things taken by Nez Perces; no one now present except myself saw these things taken or assisted thereat. Those who were with me are all dead.”

He did say that “every man took what he wanted from the camp and packed it on his horse,” but he enumerated only a couple of blankets, some cartridges, “part of the provisions” and a frying pan. “I know nothing about a watch,” he added.

Multitude said they soon jettisoned what they had stolen.

“We were then so closely pressed by the troops that we fought them and had to abandon what we had taken; we left it the next morning on the prairie about 25 miles from where he took it, except the horses. Those we kept with us,” he testified.

Yellow Bird said he would trust to the government to reconcile Multitude’s recollections of what was taken with Cochran’s claims, and if the government determined that the Nez Perce were to pay up, “we will work and try to raise money enough to do so.” Hill then chimed in, pointing that that “when the whites put in claims to the Government, it is a common thing to put too large prices on the articles.”

Chief Joseph, famed for his eloquence, did not disappoint his listeners. After saying that he had never heard the particulars just related by Multitude, he continued:

“When the war broke out between my people and the whites, property of either that fell into the hands of the others’ ... was considered to belong to the captors; it was the fortune of war. They took from us thousands of head of stock, both horses and cattle. Now we do not see how we can pay this claim; we have nothing to pay it with; we have lost everything. ... It is all past, and if I should see a white man with one of my horses that I had during the war, I would not wish to recover it, as the circumstance are all changed; I would say to him, ‘I am glad you have got it.”’

Claim approved

Later in 1882, the Indian agent at Crow Agency wrote to the commissioner of Indian Affairs to say that he found Cochran to be “a straight-forward, honest citizen and a truthful man” whose claim should be paid in full.

More depositions would be taken, affidavits filed, reports made and letters exchanged, but the upshot was that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and ultimately the secretary of the Interior, recommended payment of Cochran’s claim. Congress concurred and in 1883 asked the speaker of the House to issue an order for payment.

There were still more delays, however, and the exchange of still more documents, and for reasons unknown the payment was delayed in 1886 because someone decided the claim needed to be recertified. On Jan. 1, 1889, it was sent again to the speaker for payment. But before it was paid, Congress, swamped by depredation claims, decided that it no longer wanted the authority to settle claims.

That was in 1889. For the next three years, until it passed the act transferring call depredation claims to the Court of Claims, “Congress stood virtually still on claimant actions,” Kimmel said.

It was during this period of inaction and confusion, Kimmel is convinced, that Cochran’s thick sheaf of documents was lost. All unpaid claims were to be transferred to the Court of Claims, where they were to be re-examined. Letters in Cochran’s file, Kimmel said, indicate that the speaker of the House never returned Cochran’s documents to the BIA for transmittal to the Court of Claims.

But his nearly empty file was sent over, and the Court of Claims, apparently numbering the claims as they came in, assigned to Cochran’s file the number 3689. Cochran and his lawyers pursued his case for years, but in 1907 it was dismissed “for want of prosecution.”

It was the renumbering of her father’s file that inspired Dotson to follow what was apparently a false scent.

She had inherited her father’s papers from her older brother in 1960s, and she started going through them in hopes of compiling some family history. She knew her father had never been paid for his claim because he spoke of it until his death, but in going through his papers she thought she had finally discovered why.

When her father’s file was over at Interior, its number was 2891. In the Court of Claims, that number was assigned to a claim filed by Jacob Hoffman, who asked for compensation of $1,420 for depredations committed by Comanche Indians in Texas. The government, in 1917, settled that claim by paying $659 to Hoffman’s estate.

Because Hoffman’s number matched the one assigned to Cochran when his case was before Interior, and because Hoffman’s final settlement was close to the sum asked by her father, Dotson assumed the government had inadvertently switched their numbers. Later, based on further discoveries, she became convinced that Hoffman’s lawyer intentionally made the switch and essentially “stole” her father’s money.

Making her case

Over four decades, Dotson pressed her case with anyone who would listen, and with many who wouldn’t do even that. She wrote to attorneys general and their assistants, to officials in the Court of Claims, the Interior Department and to various congressmen. Among those who made at least some attempt to settle the claim were U.S. Reps. Arnold Olsen, Ron Marlenee and Denny Rehberg of Montana, Rep. Gary Condit of California and U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns.

No one made any headway and in 2004, in exasperation, Dotson filed suit against the U.S. government. Mainly because of procedural problems – Dotson, acting as her own lawyer, misfiled some papers and missed some deadlines – the case was dismissed by a federal judge.

There matters sat until a couple of years ago, when an acquaintance of Dotson’s in Billings put her in touch with Kimmel, a native of Billings who had returned to the city in 1992 after retiring from a career in the aerospace industry. In his retirement, Kimmel soon got involved with various historical groups, including the Yellowstone Historical Society, the Yellowstone Genealogical Society and the Pioneers of Eastern Montana.

Early on, he became fascinated by the Bozeman Trail through Montana, and by extension he started looking into the history of some of the earliest residents of the Billings area.

“Cochran came to the top of the list because everyone said he was the first settler,” Kimmel said.

He gladly agreed to examine Dotson’s father’s papers to see what he could find.

“People just ask questions and I go dig stuff up,” he said.

In addition to patiently working his way through Cochran’s voluminous documents, he corresponded with government officials and consulted other sources of local history and the history of depredations claims. He even drew his own large map of this section of the Yellowstone Valley, showing the location of every element of the Nez Perce party, as well as their pursuing soldiers, during their brief visit to the Billings area in 1877.

And at length he discovered what he believed to be the cause of the government’s failure to make good on Cochran’s claim: that simple act of neglecting to have certain documents transferred from the House speaker to the Court of Claims.

“After 120 years,” Kimmel wrote in a summary of his findings, “the officials still refuse to obtain the file contents from wherever it is located in NARA (National Archives and Records Administration). They simply stare at an empty folder.”

Dotson, a retired schoolteacher, has no illusions that she’ll ever collect her father’s money.

“If that claim is paid – if – I know it won’t be in my time,” she said, though it’s worth noting that she’s been telling reporters that for more than 15 years. She says her only goal is to get the facts out so people know that her father was wronged.

When she started looking into her father’s papers, she said, “I didn’t know anything about politics or Washington, but now I’m really disgusted. I know more about Washington than I wanted to know.”