Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame & Western Heritage Center Agnes “Annie” Morgan, born a slave on a Baltimore plantation in 1833, fled the horrors of the Civil War, cooked for General George Armstrong Custer, sought adventure in the west, and survived in the Montana wilderness by homesteading land, near the Hog Back, on Rock Creek, near Philipsburg, Montana. She lived a productive life of 81 years. While living on her homestead, she changed her name to Annie and answered to that name for the rest of her life.
Annie was taught to be an inside slave, learning to cook, sew, read and write. As a young teen she studied herbs and ways to make natural medicines. Custer used this expertise often when black soldiers needed medical attention. For her entire life she kept a black doctor’s bag on a peg by her back door. Annie responded to neighborhood medical emergencies, be it human or animal.
The shocking news of Custer’s death in 1876 reverberated throughout the nation. Buffalo Soldiers, involved with the Custer Cavalry, took Annie with them to Ft. Benton, Mt. Territory. There she met a man from Philipsburg in need of a housekeeper/nurse to care for his terminally ill relative. He hired Annie.
Annie lived in a rustic cabin some 20 miles west of Philipsburg, where Rock Creek flowed eternally past her front door. Part of her pay was the cabin. She applied for a homestead grant, filing papers claiming the cabin and land in her name. After five years of proving up, she was granted the site. Annie was the only black woman in Granite County in the 1880 U.S. Census. She was the only black woman to have a homestead in that county, which she held until her death in 1914.
Being totally self-sufficient, Annie raised potatoes and other vegetables, berries, and herbs. She kept chickens, milk cows, and pigs. Wild game and trout she preserved in a smoke house. A two-horse wagon team carried her to town. She used a sled for winter trips when four feet of snow isolated her from the nearest neighbor almost five miles away.
She built an icehouse, a dugout pantry into the side of the mountain, a fireplace built from the river rock, a sturdy barn and a chicken coop. An abandoned sawmill on her land was used to cut the trees from her property.
Known for her southern cooking, Annie ran a creative business allowing fishermen to pitch tents, hobble their horses, and fish the river right in front of her cabin door. For fifty cents a day she would cook their catch and supply dinner. A roaring campfire in the evenings always enticed the guests to talk about the big ones that got away.
One evening Annie found a man delirious from Typhoid lying in the water. She fished Joseph “Fisher Jack” Case out of Rock Creek. She nursed him back to health, and love bloomed. He stayed with Annie for over 30 years in a common law marriage. The laws of the day would not allow the inter-racial couple to legally marry.
On April 8, 1914, at the age of 81, Annie’s heart stopped beating. She is buried in the Philipsburg Cemetery in Phillipsburg, Montana. Her tombstone reads “Agnes “Annie” Morgan 1914, Cooked for General George A. Custer, A good neighbor and liked by all who knew her.”
Resource: Annie Morgan’s death certificate State of Montana.
Homestead Papers: Montana Historical Society Helena
The only known photograph of Annie shows her wearing a slat bonnet, the typical covering for slave women in the South. She was never without it. I am sending you a copy of that photograph. Joseph “Fisher Jack” Case stands near her.
Photo Credit - The Granite County Historical Museum, and Museum Gift Store, P.O. Box 502, Philipsburg, MT 59858 owns the original, and can supply you with a better copy.
If Annie is accepted as an inductee into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, I would give the certificate to the museum. They would proudly display the document. Mr. And Mrs. Pat McDonald own and operate this museum, and they have a deep affection for the memory of Annie.
Lenore McKelvey Puhek, 1215 Hudson Street, Helena, MT 59601, would remain the contact person.