Endless Possibilities

Page 10 of 14

Truth is one forever absolute, but opinion
is truth filtered through the moods, the blood,
the disposition of the spectator.

– Wendell Phillips, Idols

Truthful opinions

The Jesuit missionaries who fled the Bitterroot Valley in late 1850 took with them the report of Lolo's mortal combat with a grizzly, and apparently no one else tried to enter it into the oral history of the valley. Likewise, Father Palladino may have simply forgotten to mention to Judge Woody that the Indians called him Lolo because they couldn't pronounce his baptismal name. Supported by the evidence in the record books of the second St. Mary's Mission, the Lolo-Lawrence etymology might have become the last story as soon as Olin Wheeler's book, with its Woody-D'Aste-Palladino-McDonald-and-others testimony was circulated. But although the original mission records were safely preserved in a Jesuit archive, they weren't translated from the original Latin and published until 2005. Whatever relevant evidence they contained wasn't readily available until then, while the simple proposition was repeated so often that it gained the warm glow of irrefutable truth.

Nevertheless, from time to time a few irrepressible storytellers persuaded themselves that there was a lot more to be told about that "famous old trapper." Some of their testimony was borderline-believable, but at least each tale added a splash of color to the otherwise drab fabric of the timeworn narrative.

Story 1. Plausibilities

Elers Koch (1880-1954) was recognized during his lifetime as the first, most qualified and most reliable authority on the history of the Lolo Trail. (While he was supervisor of the Clearwater National Forest he wrote the first interpretive signs for it, and erected them all himself.) Koch respected the Wheeler-Woody-Palladino-D'Aste-Mcdonald-etc. account of the name's background, but he credited William S. Lewis, a Spokane, Washington, attorney and independent historian–but no relation to Meriwether Lewis–with "a more plausible explanation," that Lolo was "a corruption of the French name Le Louis, given to the stream and pass by [anonymous, of course] early French trappers" in honor of Meriwether Lewis.1 ("The older maps," he pointed out, invoking the phonetic coincidence, "spell it Lou-Lou.") As Ralph Space pointed out, "If this were true, it seems that the spelling would have been Le Lou or La Lou."2

Possibly there were a few free trappers working in various parts of the region during the years between the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the appearance of the legendary Lolo, and many of them doubtless were of French Canadian extraction. However, given the lack of any evidence beyond his own words, Koch's postulate was nothing more than a fictitious predication,3 although a forgivable one since he could not have known how many Lolos had lived and worked in places where Meriwether Lewis had never trod.

Story 2. She said he said he said

Merchants in Lewiston, Idaho, wanted to see the northern Nez Perce trail across the Bitterroots improved into a wagon road. So, in 1866 Congress authorized Wellington Bird, an engineer from Iowa, and Sewell Truax (1830-after 1876), a civil engineer from Lapwai, Idaho, to plan, organize and direct the project. Unfortunately, it was underfunded and therefore the improvement was never completed. However, Sister M. Alfreda quoted Elers Koch as having once said that the late Major E. A. Fenn revived a boyhood recollection that Major Truax had named the trail after "Lolo Montez, a noted Spanish beauty."4 Precisely where truth went astray defies explanation. Yes, Sister Alfreda said Koch said Fenn said Truax said it, but how can we be sure which of them heard it first, or simply made it up?

In any case, that "Spanish beauty" was not really "Lolo Montez." She was a lass from County Sligo, Ireland, who was christened Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in 1820. Toward fulfillment of an ambition for a life on the stage, she dubbed herself "Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer." After nourishing the gossip columns of Europe for a number of years, and ruining the King of Bavaria's regal stature and reputation, she sought to revive her theatrical career first in the United States, then in Australia, then again in the U.S., consistently without success. She died of pneumonia in New York City in 1861 at the real age of 41 years. Whoever confused Lola with Lolo may charitably be forgiven, for "Lola Montez" would do almost anything to be noticed, but the fanciful link between her lurid self-made image and a rugged, remote Indian road in the Rockies was simply preposterous.5

Story 3. Ravels of theories

Sister M. Alfreda Elsensohn, O.S.B., in her otherwise authoritative and lucid history of early Idaho County, compounded several tenuous stretches of imagination, from "Lou" to Louis to Lewis and beyond. She supported Elers Koch's conviction that "Lou Lou," a synonym for Lo Lo, was "doubtless derived" from "a corruption of the French Le Louis. Later she returned to his theory that Le Louis was a memorialization of Meriwether Lewis, and declared that this was "probably the most authentic explanation." Lolo was, she explained, "an old half-breed hunter and trapper" who "lived among the Flathead Indians," was buried on Lolo Creek (but didn't live there?), and that he must have been named Lawrence because Lolo/Lou-Lou was the Indians' best phonetic approximation of that name. Then she interjected the supposition that it was "the Indians" who named the creek for him, although she should have known that Native People did not name locations for individuals, but rather for events, or stories of events that happened in a certain place (see Coyote's Tale, Tum-sum-lech - No Salmon!). Furthermore, she observed that "Lou-Lou"–which, on Koch's authority, she believed was his real name – was "now spelled 'Lolo' by the United States Board on Geographic Names."6

Story 4. Lawrence who?

The idea that Lolo's "real" name–that is, the baptismal name given him by a clergyman of one denomination or another–might simply have been Lawrence, and nothing more, could not survive immersion in contemporary white cultures. He must have had another name. A surname. "He must have had a last name? Doesn't everyone?" In the Canadian fur trade, yes. To be licensed by a company such as the HBC, the trader in charge of a brigade had to list the names of all of his trappers and other employees, even if he had to make up a surname for a man who had never had one.

In Native American cultures, however, kinship systems were far more varied than the modern Euro-American patrilineal connections. Aboriginally, according to Father Gregory Mengarini, S.J. (1811-1886), one of the founders of the first St. Mary's mission in the Bitterroot Valley, and a philologist of numerous Indian languages, Flathead Indian families did not identify themselves by means of surnames. Each offspring had just one name, which usually changed as he or she grew to maturity. So the Jesuits introduced a new practice as a further step toward civilization. They gave each infant a single, obviously Christian, forename – meant to be kept lifelong – and appended the father's Indian name, or an English translation of it, to identify the baby's paternal blood line. However, the priests' innovation did not find favor among Flathead parents until well into the twentieth century.7 Like many other Indian tribes, the Flatheads readily bestowed nicknames on strangers or members of other tribes who, by marriage, adoption, or capture, were welcomed into their community. As we have already learned (see Figure 14), the nickname could arise from a newcomer's most obvious physical feature, a memorable event or experience, or his or her tribe of origin.8

In 1970, however, Lolo Trail historian Ralph Space attributed to John Harlan of Boise, Idaho – who freely admitted that he was not a scholar but a storyteller – the fiction that Lolo had both a forename and a surname, and that Lolo's full name was "Lawrence Rence." What Harlan actually wrote, however, was that Elers Koch had told him that an early (half-?) breed French (-Canadian?) trapper by the name of Lau Rence settled on that particular Montana creek and the Indians corrupted his name till it sounded like Lou-lou or Lolo."9 Space cautioned that he himself was "unable to confirm the name Lawrence Rence," adding that, so far as he knew, it did not appear in any early writings about mountain men or the fur trade.

Space was right. "Rence" is absent from every known list of French, French-Canadian, Quebecois, or Acadian surnames in use during the 19th century. It does not show up in any indexes or other lists of names in any of the major histories of the western American fur trade, such as those of Hafen, Coues, Beckles, Chittenden, Phillips, or Wood, for instance.10 Nobody by that name ever had an account at Major Owen's trading post. It isn't to be found in the sacramental records of St. Mary's Mission, nor in the memoirs or letters of any of the Jesuit priests and lay brothers who served in that region after 1840. It is nowhere in the extensive genealogical list of Mountain Men and the Fur Trade at www.mtmen.org.

To the objective student of the subject, "Lau Rence" sounds like a nonce name, a wisecrack tossed off within earshot of a credulous listener in response to a stupid question. Nevertheless, three years into the 21st century the shallow "Lau Rence" theorem was bluntly reaffirmed without explanation or documentation as "the most accepted story" on the subject.11 Furthermore, it was engraved on a headstone that was erected at Lolo's rediscovered gravesite in 2005.12

Story 5. Whose bones are they?

We've concluded from Father Joset's report, confirmed by Ralph Space's two personal observations, that Lolo was killed by a bear in 1850 and buried beside a meadow near the confluence of Grave Creek and Lolo Creek. However, Duncan McDonald's mother-in-law told him a different story. The fatal encounter took place, she said, a few miles south of Fort Benton, Montana, about the year 1846, when a party of Flatheads and Pend d'Oreilles were on their way to the Buffalo country in central Montana. It was customary during their buffalo quests, she related, for the men to go hunting before breakfast. On one particular day, McDonald told a reporter in 1916, "Laurent went up one side of the gulch and an Indian named Hast-Ski-Lu (meaning Good Man), a Pend d'Oreille Indian, on the other side of the gulch. Soon Hast-Ski-Lu noticed a grizzly bear following Lolo's tracks, and he shouted across the gulch to Lolo: 'Look out, there is a bear tracking you!' Lolo . . . was 'too proud to fight,' and so hid behind a log, hoping the bear would not find him, but the bear jumped on him and killed him." McDonald's wife's mother, "who was with the party, said that she was present at Lolo's funeral rites, which were held in the camp before the Indians again started on their journey to the 'Buffalo country.'"13

But Fort Benton is more than 225 miles northeast of the presumed location of Lolo's home, so we may reasonably suppose that his people would not have carried his body back to to Lolo Creek – a round trip that would have taken two or three weeks and would have shortened their critical hunting time – but would have buried him on or near the spot where he died. So if Duncan McDonald's mother-in-law's recollection was correct, then whose bones are in Lolo's purported grave today?

Story 6 and beyond

The leading 20th-century authority on toponymics propounded the theory that the word Lolo, as used in Idaho, Montana and Oregon was "probably first applied to the creek in ID and later transferred to the pass and habitations in ID and MT."14

Blowing away the dust on a book that's been collecting it on a library shelf for many years reveals that Lolo was an "Ind[ian]" word meaning "muddy waters."15 It is true that the Lolo Creek–in Montana, at least–is briefly rather gritty during the highest level of springtime runoff, but it is crystal clear the rest of the year.

The possibilities are endless. Opening yet another doubtful window on truth is the recent suggestion that "Lolo may also be a perfectly good French nickname."16

To paraphrase Wendell Phillips, there is no way of knowing how many other "truths," filtered through the moods, the bloods, and the dispositions of other students of the subject, might still lie hidden beneath the dust of habit.


1. Elers Koch, "Geographic Names of Western Montana, Northern Idaho," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 1 (March 1948), 51. The author's name is pronounced ee-lerz kotch.

2. Ralph Space, The Lolo Trail, 2nd ed. (Missoula, Montana: Historic Montana Publishing, 2001), 8.

3. Elers Koch, "Lewis and Clark Route Retraced across the Bitterroots," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2 (June 1940), 161. William S. Lewis and Paul C. Phillips, eds., The Journal of John Work (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, 1923), 87n.

4. Sister M. Alfreda Elsensohn, O.S.B., Pioneer Days in Idaho County, 2 vols. (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1951), 2:393.

5. Bruce Seymour, Lola Montez, a Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996). Koch's recollection of Fenn's recollection was quoted by Elsensohn (2:393) from a speech Koch delivered in Missoula in 1928.

6. Elsensohn, 2:363.

7. Richard T. Malouf, "Family Histories," Appendix C in Robert Bigart, Life and Death at St. Mary's Mission, Montana: Births, Marriages, Deaths, and Survival among the Bitterroot Salish Indians, 1866-1891 (Pablo: Salish Kootenai College Press, 2005), 227.

8. Gregory Mengarini, SJ (1811-1886), Recollections of the Flathead mission: containing brief observations, both ancient and contemporary, concerning this particular nation, (Glendale, California: A. H. Clark, 1977), 118. Google Books (accessed 9/4/2011).

9. John Harlan, "History of the Lolo Trail and the Nez Perce Indians, Clearwater Republican, December 23, 1921, p. 8. The author is indebted to trails historian Steve Russell of Ames, Iowa, for this documentation.

10. Alvin Josephy, Jr. published the same conclusion in 1965, although he didn't have the benefit of Space's second edition (2001). Nor did he have Harlan's attribution of the name to Elers Koch to cap it off with. Alvin osephy, Jr., The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), 666.

11. Charlene Porsild, "Lolo Hot Springs," Montana The Magazine of Western History, vol. 53, No. 4 (Winter 2003), 67. There are a few occurrences of the surname Rence on the World Wide Web today, but their owners' birth dates begin no earlier than the 1880s, and there are no indications that any of them sprang from the name Lawrence.

12. Eva Cecil, "A Noninvasive Method of Searching for Buried Human Remains - LOLO'[s] Lost Grave," http://www.k9forensic.org/sha-Eva-LoLo.htm

13. "How Lolo Was Named," The Daily Missoulian, November 26, 1916, Editorial Section, p. 4, cols. 2-3.

14. George R. Stewart, American Place-Names: A Concise and Selective Dictionary for the Continental United States of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 262.

15. Federal Writers' Project of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Montana, American Guide Series. Montana: A State Guide Book (New York: Viking Press, 1939), 301.

16. William Bright, "A Glossary of Native American Toponyms and Ethnonyms from the Lewis and Clark Journals," Names, 52:3 (September 2004), 163. Almost any "truth" can be verified by browsing the World Wide Web: That "Lolo" is French slang for "breasts," and thus a child's word for "milk." That it's an informal Philipino synonym for "grandfather." That it's a video game–"&c, &c," as Clark would say.

Then there's Lolo Jones, the famous young 100-meter hurdler of the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1982, she was named after her mother, Lori. But it took only a few days for the Jones family and their friends to discover how much confusion that could cause. Easily enough, the nickname "Lolo" sprang to mind and tongue, and it stuck. (It seems highly unlikely that "our" Lolo could have been named after his mother, so forget it.)