Editor’s note: For the Christmas season, the Big Horn County News offers a story from more than a century ago about a homesteading family’s effort to save a stagecoach driver frozen to a horse. Information for the story was taken from Richard Upton’s 2013 book Fort Custer on the Big Horn, 1877-1898: Its history and personalities as told and pictured by its contemporaries.
It was the day after a winter storm in the late 1870s or early ‘80s when Sarah Thompson of 246 Custer Ave. – located “on the banks of the Bighorn” in present-day Hardin – noticed the Fort Custer stagecoach driver outside her log cabin. He was sitting on a horse and he wasn’t moving.
The Thompson family homestead was situated about two miles northwest of Fort Custer, making it a regular stop-off point for stage drivers.
“The stage drivers took their meals at our place and left their horses in our barns,” Thompson wrote to the Billings Gazette for their Nov. 3, 1935 issue. “Two stages left each day, one for Custer and the other for Junction, each town being a distance of 50 miles from the fort.”
The driver hadn’t arrived from the stage station the previous day, Thompson wrote, and “there was no doubt in anyone’s mind…he had frozen to death.” Her husband Hiram had ascertained as much back when he had donned snowshoes, visited the station, and learned the driver had left on schedule. According to those who searched for the driver, he presumably had been caught in the storm once he left the station.
Thompson waited for the driver to enter her cabin, but when he didn’t, she went outside to meet him. He had fallen into unconsciousness atop the horse.
“He had tied himself into his saddle and was frozen into his saddle,” said Randy Schoppe, Director of the Big Horn County Historical Museum, during Dec. 2 presentation on Fort Custer. “She determined he was still alive, and so she had to cut him down, break him off of his saddle…and drag him into her house.”
Despite her situation, Schoppe continued, Thompson had the “presence of mind to realize if she thawed him out too quickly, she could kill him.” To keep him alive, she packed him in snow to slow the thawing process. Then, she searched the bunkhouses and found a bottle of whisky for the driver.
“He later jokingly claimed that I kept him drunk until he got well,” she wrote. “He remained with us, slowly convalescing for two months, after which he spent over eight months in the post hospital.”
If Pvt. James O. Purvis’ column in Fort Custer News was accurate, the driver was fortunate to finish his recovery at the fort’s hospital. In the Billings Gazette, Purvis wrote, “Our post hospital is a model institution, a credit to the medical department of the U.S. Army and a godsend to many of its soldiers, who have found there the oasis in the desert of their affliction and disease.”
Thompson remained near Fort Custer for four years starting in late July of 1878. The 20-square-mile fort itself was in operation from 1877-98 as Crow tribal members were relocated from the surrounding prairies and onto reservations.