Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Coffee Joke

Henry Boller was a trader working for a company in opposition to the American Fur Company in the late 50’s and early 60’s at Fort Atkinson (near Fort Berthold).  Tiring of the crowds that filled his room daily, he once played a gentle joke at the expense of his visitors.

On one occasion, during the long and seemingly interminable days that always preceded the arrival of the annual steamboat, my house was filled with Indians, as usual; being, in fact, the headquarters of the Gros Ventres village. Meat was plenty in camp, so there was no immediate necessity to hunt; no enemies had been seen around for several weeks, and besides, the mah-ti-she-skeesh (steamboat) was daily looked for. It was a season of absolute repose, of masterly inactivity, for both traders and Indians; and lounging from the trading post to the village, and the village to the trading post, was the only business to be thought of. I had become completely tired of the incessant loafing that never gave me a quiet hour during the day; and for a little diversion to kill time, filled a large coffee-boiler with water and set it on the hearth close to the embers of the fire. My friends soon began to drop in, and before long the house was uncomfortably crowded. In the anticipation, however, of a cup of coffee, they did not mind it in the least, but cheerfully, and with well-timed remarks, made room for every one that entered. Pipe after pipe was smoked, and an animated conversation kept up all the while. An hour passed, but no one left the room, being afraid to lose the expected treat, and I was ostensibly too busy with some writing to pay any attention to the thirsty souls. They waited with unfailing good-humor, attributing the delay to my being occupied, and indulged in a brisk conversation about engaging in a general war with the Sioux after the departure of the steamboat. Time wore on, my circle of guests was still there, and had not manifested any inclination to diminish. I now purposely left the room for a few moments, and on returning found them drawn as close around the fireplace as they could possibly crowd. One gentleman, known among us by the sobriquet of the "Gambler," was just setting the boiler down, having evidently been testing by its weight, for his own satisfaction and that of his comrades, whether it was full or empty. That it was full of coffee was the only inference they could draw. One, unable to remain any longer, and not wishing to forego the pleasure of tasting it, drew my attention to the boiler, and plainly hinted at what was expected. I cheerfully assented; tin cups were quickly produced, and the "Gambler" was deputed to do the honors, which he undertook with great alacrity. The peculiar clearness of the liquid drew forth a remark from some one of the party, and the cup already drawn was poured back, while the supposed grounds were vigorously stirred with a stick, but with no improvement in the result. A brief consultation ensued, and they were unwillingly forced to conclude that they had been "sold;" but without manifesting the slightest displeasure, quietly left the room. It was soon noised through the village, and ever afterwards the Gros Ventres were satisfied to see a coffee-pot standing near my fire without waiting half a day to investigate its contents. The joke had a lasting effect.

Henry Boller, Eight Years Among the Indians, published 1868.