Swirling in History Part Two: Mattie Bell Castner and Mattie Byers Novotny Welch

    CastnersMattie and John Castner

This is the second and third stories of former slaves who moved to and married interracially in Montana.  Mattie Bell Castner is the called “The Mother of Belt, Montana.” My family and I had the opportunity to drive through the area in 2011.  It felt good to be close enough to touch history, but most of us could experience the same sentiments by just going outside or a few miles away as the contributions of our ancestors surround us, but I digress.

John K. Castner, born in 1841 came to Montana Territory in 1867 from Pennsylvania operating as a freighter based in Fort Benton.   He married former slave Mattie Bell Bost from North Carolina in 1879, and together they founded the town that became Belt.  When John died, he left Mattie a millionaire by today’s standards.

Mattie worked with her bare hands to help her husband build the first cabin in the town named after her husband Castner, later renamed Belt, MT.   Their cabin became the stop for the stage, then flourished into a hotel and restaurant.  Mattie grew her own vegetables and even worked in her husband’s coal mines.    They were good to the poor and gave new meaning to the word entrepreneur.  A former slave, Mattie Castner was given the opportunity to earn her own money from her hard work and brains.  Belt, MT has Mattie Castner’s name all over it and is a landmark in Montana history.Castner HouseJohn Castner died in 1915 leaving Mattie to run the business which she obviously did very well.  She died 5 years later leaving $30,000 to friends and charity.  Mattie was given two funeral services — one in Belt and the other in Great Falls.

Note:  This vintage photograph is NOT Mattie Bell Castner, the pic is of an unidentified woman in Helena or Billings, MT in 1889.  Because there are no known photographs of Mattie (maybe due to any trouble from being married to John) and I simply wanted to give her a face.  I learned that the white Castner family did not want a book about Mattie published in 1956 and threatened legal action.  What a shame!  I am sure that book could be published today.  Here is a note I received from Ken Robinson when I inquired about a photograph of Mattie Castner:

“Although Mattie Castner is the “mother of Belt,”  ran an exceptional hotel and eatery there for many years, and her white husband  John was prominent in the community and region, no photo has ever been located  of Mattie. I’m sure the interracial marriage was sensitive both in the  community and especially in the Castner family. I know this and the Castner’s  employment of Chinese cooks at the hotel was used against John in his political campaigns. As you probably know Mattie and John had no children, although they raised a boy, possibly John’s son. That Castner family stopped publication of a  biography (to be called Cradled in Dixie of Mattie and her friend, and another  fascinating black woman, Maria Adams Dutriueille. The book was scheduled to be  published about 1956 until the Castner’s threatened lawsuits. In any case, we  have never been able to locate a photo of Mattie.”

 

Mattie Byers Novotny Welch

Mattie Castner made two trips to North Carolina to try and find her relatives who hadn’t been sold.  She found a sister and brought her and her family back to Montana.  On the second trip back the elder brought back her 13 year-old niece and namesake Mattie Byers.  The younger Mattie graduated from 8th grade in Belt Montana and married a white man named John L. Novotny in 1900.  In 1911  J.L. and Mattie moved their family to Great Falls where there were more black people and where they felt their children would have a better education.  As one may assume, black children were subjected to racial taunts and teasing in school.  One such taunt was:

God made the nigger

Made ‘em in the night

Made ‘em in a hurry

And forgot to paint them white.

Not to be bothered with racial foolishness, these children cited a creative rebuttal:

God made the white trash

Made ‘em in a shack

Made ‘em in a hurry

And forgot to make them black

John and Mattie Novotny would have 22 children 9 of whom survived to adulthood.  Mattie was very involved in the church and some and at some point became a widow and married a John (Joseph) Welch.   Mattie and some of her children left Montana as I found that she was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC.  Most of her children preceded her in death.  If any of her descendants in Montana, the DC area or anywhere can share any information or pictures, the audience and editors at BBW would voraciously consume the information.

 

Sources:

Historical Blacks American in Northern Montana (An absolute Gold Mine of information compiled by Ken Robinson,  Historian at the Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton, River and Plains Society Board).

African Americans in Montana Index (1870, 1910, and 1930 U.S. Censuses)

 

 

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