The local museum has set a special display honoring a pioneer businessman, rancher and state senator, Box Elder’s William T. Cowan, or Little Bone Chief.
The display, set between the pioneering and Native American sections of the H. Earl Clack Museum, shows a decorated buckskin jacket, leggings, moccasins and a feathered headdress given to Cowan by Native Americans in the Bear Paw Mountains, with whom he and his father had traded and had employed for years.
The Cowan family loaned the clothing and headdress to the museum for display.
William Cowan’s father, David Cowan of Ontario, moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, when his son was 5 years old.
After a boom and bust economic cycle left David Cowan destitute, he traveled by rail to the United States with his destination the young town of Great Falls. In 1888 he instead stopped in the small town of Cypress on Big Sandy Creek, just north of Fort Assinniboine and just west of where Havre is today.
After hearing that bison bones could be collected in the region and shipped east for commercial use, Cowan decided to stay at Cypress, opening a store in the rough-and-tumble community using a tent borrowed for that purpose, William Cowan wrote in his memoirs.
Later, David Cowan sent for his wife and children, including William, and they followed him to Cypress.
The community mainly served the U.S. Cavalry soldiers of Fort Assinniboine..
Eventually, the fort’s officers forbade their soldiers going to the town — known for its drunkenness, gambling and disorder, with William Cowan saying in his memoirs that when his father settled there, it had “32 saloons, two houses of prostitution, a Chinese restaurant and a lot of hope.”
As the town declined with the loss of the soldier’s visits, settlers in the Box Elder area asked David Cowan to move his retail business there. He and his family went to Box Elder in 1889. and he and William opened Cowan and Son Mercantile.
One of David Cowan’s main lines of business was trading for bison bones, primarily with the Native Americans in the area — the reason he was given the Cree name Wah-skon-a-ka-mow, “Bone Chief,” and his son Wah-Skon-a-ka-mosis, “Little Bone Chief,” William Cowan wrote in his memoirs — which he shipped east to be made into bone char used in refining sugar.
William Cowan travelled the area collecting the bison bones, to Chinook in the east and as far as Portage near Great Falls.
Both David and William Cowan became leading forces in the area, operating a grain elevator and William starting a large ranch as well as the duo operating the mercantile, which stayed open long after the death of David Cowan in 1925.
David and William Cowan also were instrumental in the creation of the first school in Box Elder and in bringing in the Methodist church opened in Box Elder by Brother Van Orsdel, a major missionary in Montana.
William Cowan served as postmaster for Box Elder and as a U.S. land commissioner, and was elected to the state senate in 1921. He served in the Legislature through 1933 and is credited with being a driving force in the creation of Northern Montana College — now Montana State University-Northern — in Havre.
Cowan Hall at Northern’s Havre campus is named after the senator.
He also was a main force in the creation of Tiber Dam and Lake Elwell south of Chester, pushing for the diversion of the Marias River to supply water to residents of the land between the Marias and Big Sandy Creek, along with advocating many other reclamation projects in the state.
Some have called Cowan the “father of the Marias project” of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In his memoirs, Cowan recounts writing in the 1890s to U.S. Sen. Thomas H. Carter of Montana about diverting the waters of the Marias to Lonesome Lake and the Big Sandy Creek valley. That led to a preliminary U.S. Geological Survey investigating the possibility, six decades before it became a reality.
Construction of Tiber Dam began in the year of William T. Cowan’s death, 1951.