This blogger caught up the other day with his third great-grandfather, J.R. Boyce, for a graveside interview at the Benton Avenue Cemetery in Helena, Montana. Though available for only a few minutes before returning to his rightful place in heaven, James Richard (1817-1898) was characteristically gracious and clear-minded during his first contact with a live human in over a century. Nothing was off-limits in our conversation, which covered a wide range of charged issues, including slavery, his time as a bound boy, and his service with the secretive Masons. Boyce looked remarkably well-preserved for a man who had been dead more than 100 years, a testament to his peaceful, mortal life. The patriarch was sometimes short with his answers. But what do you expect from a profoundly religious frontier man who would have little respect for the kind of wusses bred in America today? (Note to future generations: J.R.’s comments are based on letters he left behind.)
How old was your mother, Mary Childs Smith (1786-1828), when she died?
I was only 11. My recollection of her is limited to that period. She was an angel, a ministering spirit, everbearing herself as a calm, lofty character of great sweetness of temper and marked intelligence. She was honored by all in her neighborhood as a very superior, highly cultivated woman of deep, consistent piety who all her children loved.
Okay. In one of your biographies, I read that you were apprenticed to your uncle at age 11. I guess that makes you a bound boy.
If that’s what you want to call it. I was apprenticed to my uncle William Wright (1796-1849), from whom I learned the details of mercantile work and accountancy. We lived in Russellville, Logan County, Kentucky, and I remained in William Wright’s employ until I was 20, when I married his daughter, Maria Louisa Wright (1820-1875). Perhaps in her life, a more devoted wife and mother never lived.
You married your cousin, who was also your boss’s daughter?
No one more faithfully and conscientiously discharged her every duty as a wife and mother. She was deeply endowed with a sense of her obligation to God and profound reverence for all sacred things. She was a loving Christian, with her lamp ever burning and ever reflecting the light of a holy and devout life. She was patient, cheerful and consistent, ever careful, watchful, and enduring, a living witness of the religion of Jesus.
Your father, Richard Boyce (1775-1853), was still alive when you were apprenticed to Wright. Why didn’t you stay with him?
That was my father’s decision. I was his first-born son. He was of considerable prominence in the frontier settlement where he lived. He owned a large plantation, served as Country Court Judge, and was also Sheriff of Logan County. He and my mother were members of the Baptist Church.
Your family moved from Virginia to Kentucky before you were born, correct?
That’s correct. My mother and father married in Virginia. The Wrights were an old Virginia family. The Boyces were general traders in Hardy County, Romney City, Va. Three generations were born in Virginia. My father traded in cattle and slaves between New Orleans and Virginia. He was trading in Baltimore at the time of Aaron Burr’s conspiracy.
In your letter to your grandsons, you write extensively about the women in your family but not the men. How come?
The women in my family were purer and better, though the men were all good. My grandfather, Aaron Boyce, fought in the Revolution for American Independence. He was born in about 1735 and had about ten children, including my father, Richard, and his brothers, Robert and Nicholas. The Boyces were some of the earliest settlers of Virginia, and I believe they came from Wales.
In 1842, you moved your family from Kentucky to Columbia, Missouri, where you engaged in merchandising until 1863. You also had a plantation and enslaved people. Was it hard to choose sides when the Civil War broke out?
While I was a Union man at heart and loved my country, my home was in the South. My friends and kindred were there, and I had no alternative but to take the side of the South. During the early part of the Civil War, I served under General Price in the Quartermaster’s Department of the Confederate service. Two of my sons served on the side of the Lost Cause as well. I lost my property in the war.
The other day, I read that one of your former slaves ratted you out during the Civil War.
Well, I’m told that’s a public record. I heard that the Fifteenth Illinois Cavalry was coming after me, and I fled across the Plains to Denver, where I worked in merchandising for a year. I set out for Montana, where gold had been discovered after I heard that I was on a proscription list. I made the journey with a pair of mules and a wagon loaded with provisions. I landed in Alder Gulch after 72 days of travel. I remember the date I arrived — June 14, 1864. I called for my family a year later.
When you arrived in Alder Gulch, which was also known as Virginia City, you opened a dry goods store under the name Tootle, Leach & Co. Your first store, I saw in an advertisement, was on Idaho Street, four doors above the corner of Idaho and Jackson Streets at the sign of the Big 7. You had a good business proposition. You sold goods as fine as any in the West or the East but at prices that locals could afford.
I was a partner in the Missouri-based firm. We hauled dry goods–men’s and women’s clothing mostly–in wagons from St. Joseph, Missouri, and Denver and did a prosperous business. We got fabulous prices in gold dust for our goods. Virginia City was the territorial capital of Montana at the time. I stayed there for three years. In 1867, my store was on the ground floor of the new Masonic Temple Building. In 1868, I moved the business to Helena. By 1872, we had renamed the firm J.R. Boyce & Co. I lived in Helena until 1880.
I first united with the Masonic fraternity when I was only 22 and was honored from an early age with an official position. I held most of the Lodge, Chapter, Council, and Commandery positions.
You certainly did. You served 11 years as Master of different Lodges, one year as Deputy Grand Master, and one year as Grand Master of Montana. You spent four years as a High Priest of a Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, five years as T.I.M. of the Council of Royal and Select Masters, and five or six years as an Eminent Commander of Knights Templar.
Yes, I don’t deny that.
You were also present at the organization of the Montana grand lodge in 1866 when you installed the lodge members. And you instituted the Helena commandery of Knights Templar. I read in an old newspaper report that you were once awarded a beautiful jewel.
Yes, that was quite a day. That was in 1867 after we built the second Masonic Temple in Virginia City. I received a Templar’s jewel made by the jeweler’s Butler and Stampher. It is shaped like a Passion Cross and Crown, surrounded by a circlet that encloses rays. The inscription reads, “Be Faithful Unto Death and I will Give Thee a Crown of Life.”
The newspaper report says it was your idea to build the temple and that you were rewarded with the jewel for your “unremitting” efforts to build it.
Yes. I understand it’s still standing.
It is…What about your politics? I read that you were once elected to political office.
I never indulged in any political aspirations or sought any political office. But I was once elected, without my solicitation, a member of the Lewis and Clark County Legislature. They elected me speaker of that body. That was quite an honor.
You were elected speaker on the first ballot. What was your political party?
Early in my life, I was a Whig, like my father before me. We were great admirers of Henry Clay. When the Whig party died, I became a Millard Fillmore American. Afterward, I belonged to the “Know Nothing” party.
What can you tell us about your involvement with the vigilantes in Virginia City? I understand that you arrived a year after many of the leading citizens formed a “vigilance committee” to combat the doings of Henry Plummer and his gang, which had robbed and killed townspeople. Twenty-four of Plummer’s men were hanged during the first two months of 1864 before you arrived, but the hangings continued until 1867.
That was during my early years in Montana when the lawless element prevailed, and the lives and property of citizens were in danger. I allied with the Vigilantes and did my part toward putting a stop to the depredations that were being committed on all sides. I have always cast my influence and support on the side of justice and right.
You were a big supporter of the Montana territory, maybe even an apologist. You wrote a pamphlet, “Facts About the Montana Territory And The Way to Get There,” that makes Montana seem like an idyllic place to relocate. Did you think back then that Montana was for everyone?
As I wrote, Montana was no place for dandies or drones in the late 19th century. But for people interested in hard work and an honest endeavor, with capital backed by brains, it offered a wide field and a reasonably sure reward. When you consider Montana’s climate, healthfulness, fertility, variety, and abundance of natural riches, along with its location on the line of a great thoroughfare, I knew of no part of the Western country to which I would sooner advise my personal friends to emigrate.
How about religion? To which church did you belong?
For many years, I was identified with the Methodist Episcopal Church. I served as Steward, Class leader, and Trustee.
When did your first wife die?
Maria died in 1875 when we were living in Helena. She was 55 at the time. I remarried a year later to Ada F. Wiemann nee Jackson, also of old Virginia stock.
Tell us a little about your children.
Most of our children also lived in Montana. The oldest, William Richard (b. 1840.), was a farmer in Silver Bow County. Mattie Louisa (b. 1842) was the wife of Col. Thomas L. Thuroughman, a distinguished lawyer from St. Louis. James Richard (born 1844) was a merchant in Butte City. My sweet Anne Marie (1846-1894) married William Thompson, a lumber merchant and mine owner from Butte. I lived with them off and on late in my life. Marvin Lee (1862), my youngest, was a printer engaged on the Montana Methodist.
You didn’t get to witness it, but that was quite a funeral you had. The ceremony was conducted under the auspices of the grand lodge of Ancient and Free Accepted Masons, and the Knights Templar commandery of Helena acted as your escort.
Yes, I was deeply grateful to my brothers for that. I later heard that Grand Master E.C. Day presided, with Judge A.H. Barret as senior grand warden. Several past grand masters attended as well. I had initiated into the Order many of the men who attended.
Do you have any advice for your descendants?
Yes. Life is a struggle. Always stand forth as a defender of right against wrong and virtue against vice. Don’t compromise your principles for the sake of policy. Don’t be concerned with being so pronounced in your opinions that you can’t always succeed.