Charles Vivian's Western Travels

Vivian & His Wife Imogen's Route in 1876-77.
Towns & Forts the Vivians visited are circled.
Great Sioux War battles of 1876-77 indicated with arrows.

1876 map of the west

In 1876, in the dead of winter and the middle of the Great Sioux War, Charles Vivian and his wife Imogen didn’t hesitate when they heard audiences and profits were waiting in Helena Montana. They bought head-to-toe Buffalo coats and promptly braved a seven day stage coach trip from Corrine, Utah to Helena, Montana. In her biography of Vivian, his wife recounts that the travellers were obliged to rise at each morning and depart by 4 in order to cover as much ground by daylight as possible. “Our fellow passengers were not always in the best of humor at being aroused from their slumbers at that untimely hour, but Mr. Vivian’s unflagging bonhomie soon transformed them from the grumbling, much-abused pessimists of a few moments previous to a very merry party and kept them well up to the high water mark of good humor with his sallies of wit, anecdotes, songs, etc., until kind Mother Nature warned us it was rest-time, by slowly drawing down her sable shades.”

Helena lived up to the Vivians’ expectations: they played to standing-room only crowds for a week. Among the audience were officers from Fort Shaw, North of Helena and South of Fort Benton. The Vivians, on being invited to appear there, promptly took the soldiers up on their offer. By the time they arrived, Imogen had a strong cold, and Charles insisted that she take a remedy he called “rum and gum.” She reports that “as it seemed of remarkable strength, I protested against drinking it all, but he insisted that I must finish it to have the desired effect, (a little stroke of polity on his part as I afterwards had reason to believe).” Charles, it seems, was up at the Officers’ Club all night. “That morning the wives of the officers were furious that their husbands should have remained all night at the Club, and the Commanding Officer especially had never before been known to do such an undignified thing. Each one gave as an excuse that he had been sitting up with Vivian. So all the wives vowed special vengeance upon Vivian, but when they called to welcome us to the post next day and were introduced to him, their anger soon vanished under the magnetic spell of his influence.”

After three weeks at Fort Shaw, the Vivians toured several Montana forts and towns. A newspaper account from Deer Lodge gives a good impression of the make-up of their show: “Mr. Vivian does not essay the rendition of time-worn recitative pieces, but tends more to the humorous in characterizations, song and travesty, while Mrs. Vivian varies the performance with the finer elocutionary readings. In all respects it is more of the character of a parlor entertainment than any that have preceded it, and even the step songs, ‘Simple Simon’ and ‘Ten Thousand Miles Away’ are given in a genteelly humorous manner. ... Vivian is immense. His character sketches are all good, and his after-dinner speech at the Agricultural Association is the neatest and most artistic oratorical extravaganza we have seen on the stage. As a stage vocalist he has had no peer, nor even rival in Montana.”

After playing in Montana, the Vivians sailed the Missouri to Fort Buford in the Dakota Territory which was situated near a Native American reservation. [I am currently researching which tribes would have been there at the time.] By twenty-first century standards, Mrs. Vivian’s portrayal of Indians reduces them to an exotic spectacle. Yet, considering that the Battle of Little Bighorn had taken place only months before (she & Charles visited the site) her account is open-minded for the times: “As we landed at Buford, a picturesque sight greeted our eyes, a tribe of really magnificent looking mounted Indians came galloping over the hills, the brilliant coloring of the paraphernalia of feathers and beadwork standing out in beautiful contrast against the dull background of the landscape. The Captain took great delight in presenting us to the Chief ... expounding upon his good qualities, at which his Royal Highness, the big Indian, seemed deeply touched. What a magnificent production of the homo geni he was; a modern Hercules, and he was well aware of his physical attractions, turning himself about that we might the better study his strong points with a self-conscious air that seemed to say: ‘Am I not an object of admiration?’ Mr. Vivian acknowledged his perfections with a nod and smile, which was apparently very gratifying.”

On arriving, Vivian wasted no time in infiltrating the Officers’ Club for a little something to take the edge off the many mosquito bites he had suffered during the river trip. Later in the day, when the officers arrived, the barkeep asked if chaplains drank, “for we’ve got the jolliest chaplain in the service. He’s awfully jolly; was in here and drank a good-sized cocktail before breakfast.” The officers promptly proclaimed, “he’s the chaplain for us.” Vivian had been mistaken for a chaplain whose arrival was expected, and was more than happy to play along.

Imogen relates that Charles and the Chief “became great friends, and at parting he presented Mr. Vivian with a handsome Indian pipe, and insisted that I should accept a very beautiful piece of bead work as a souvenir of our visit.”

— Warren Hedges, BPOE 944, 2004