For a few days there, during the Nez Perce War of 1877, it looked like George Cowan would die at Yellowstone National Park – and that would be the end of his story. But as fate would have it, he lived and eventually found his way to Spokane. And when he did die, he and his wife, Emma, were laid to rest at Riverside Memorial Park along North Government Way in Spokane.
Once again, a fascinating tale of Northwest history found its conclusion in the cemeteries of Spokane, where a number of history’s most intriguing people are buried.
In the summer of 1877, about the time of their second wedding anniversary, George and Emma Cowan left Radersburg, now part of Montana, with some friends and relatives for a vacation at Yellowstone National Park. They entered the park on Aug. 14, and on Aug. 23, as they were packing up to return home, the Radersburg Nine, as they became known, encountered a group of Indians near the Lower Falls and Yellowstone Lake – members of the Nez Perce Tribe, who were fleeing U.S. forces led by Gen. Oliver Howard.
The Nez Perce War of 1877 came about when tribal members refused to accept terms of a treaty to remove them from their lands and attempted to flee to Montana and Canada, led by several chiefs, including Chief Joseph, whose life and leadership has much been written about. The Cowans got caught in the middle of it all.
Though accounts vary about what happened exactly, it appears there was a dispute over the food and supplies being given to or taken by the Indians, and it turned out that George Cowan was shot twice, once in the right thigh and once in the forehead. Emma Cowan, her brother Frank Carpenter and his wife Ida were held captive for a day near Mary Lake and then released. Some accounts state that the remaining Radersburg Nine were captured and then escaped, but other accounts indicate the others were not held at all. But records seem to agree that of the Radersburg Nine, only Cowan was harmed during the incident.
He was left for dead and mourned for two weeks by his wife. When a tribal member found him still alive a day after the initial incident, he was shot a third time – in the left hip.
In Cowan’s own account, he recalls awaking and finding he could not move his legs. He began dragging himself along the ground, pulling himself forward by using his elbows, toward a place where his group had previously encamped. “I crawled about nine miles in 60 hours,” he wrote. When he reached one of the wagons, “… I found my faithful dog, Dido, beneath it … she came bounding to me and covered my face and wounds with caresses.” She stayed with him as he crawled on and, when near exhaustion, he was found by scouts from Howard’s command. They gave him a coat, food and coffee and left, letting him know that the main column of soldiers would be by the next day.
And so he was rescued – on Aug. 30, 1877. Local historian Don Popejoy said the place where Cowan was found was called Camp Lewis, named for explorer Meriwether Lewis; it is near the Madison River. When Howard heard Cowan’s tale, he renamed the site Camp Cowan.
George and Emma Cowan were reunited not long after and returned to their lives in Montana, where George, a Civil War veteran who had fought with the Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, was an attorney and later a district judge. Only once, in 1901, did they make a return visit to the site where the Radersburg Nine got caught up in the Nez Perce War of 1877.
They moved to Spokane in 1910, where he practiced law until his death in 1926. Emma went on to write several books about Indians and the Northwest – “Adventures in Geyserland” among the most successful, Popejoy said. She died in 1938, and the two of them are buried side by side at Riverside Memorial Park.
The Cowans had three children – sons George and Charles, both attorneys in Spokane, and a daughter, Ethel Maxfield, who lived in Spokane as well.
Popejoy said the events of the summer of 1877 were a part of George Cowan’s life every day – literally. For the rest of his life, he wore on his watch chain the bullet removed from his forehead, the bullet that nearly ended his life at Yellowstone.