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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Double Tragedy: The Deaths of Jimmie and Katie May

When James first brought his family to Ruby Valley, his wife, Maria, was one of the few women living in Madison County.  She quickly became known for her kindness and compassion, as she ministered to those in sickness and distress when there was no doctor in the county.  She bore five children in Sheridan without the help of a physician or a midwife.  Virginia (Jennie) was born soon after they arrived, and may have been the first white child born in Madison County.  Alice was born two years later.  After James returned from his year in Utah working on the railroad, Maria gave birth to their three youngest children, John, Katie May, and George, making a total of twelve, six boys and six girls.  (Two of the twelve children, Samuel and Emily died in infancy in Utah.)

James and Maria’s second daughter, Josephine, was the first to marry.  At age seventeen she married Joseph Irwin.  Just one year later Maria gave birth to her eleventh child, Katie May.  Little Katie was nearly a year old when tragedy struck the family.

On a hot day in July 1873, Maria’s seventeen-year-old son Jimmie was working with a group of men rounding up horses in Ruby Valley near Jefferson Island, not far from their Sheridan ranch.  Clouds of dust raised by the galloping horses obscured his line of sight, and Jimmie collided with another rider.  When his horse collapsed, Jimmie was thrown to the ground and suffered a broken neck.  P.W. Baker, one of the men in charge, realized that the boy’s injury was so severe that he shouldn’t be moved.  Baker jumped into a horse-drawn rig and raced to Sheridan to bring his mother to his side.  When Maria arrived, Jimmie was still alive.  She was able to speak to him, but he soon died in her arms.  The funeral was held on the lawn of the Gemmell ranch home.(1)

The following summer Maria’s broken heart was only beginning to heal.  As she was preparing supper on the evening of July 9, 1874, thinking about Jimmie and remembering that it would soon be the first anniversary of his death, she sent Jennie out to get a pail of water from the irrigation ditch, just a few paces from the kitchen door.  A few seconds later Maria heard Jennie’s screams for help.  As she rushed into the yard, Maria saw two-year-old Katie lying in the shallow water.  She tried to revive her, but it was too late.  No one had noticed that Katie was missing from the house until Jennie discovered her baby sister lying in the ditch.  She had already drowned.(2)
  1. The burial may have also been on the ranch property.  See Montana Historical Society, “The Pioneers”, author unknown; and David C. Chamberlin collection, 1989, courtesy of Cathy Hall.
  2. The Helena Daily Herald, Monday, July 13, 1874, p3, c3.  (Reprinted from The Madisonian)