Maxx Martel, from Glendive, Montana, is known as a man who finds things. "When I'm out, I look around everywhere. Just yesterday, I found a .45-70 bullet, and an 1857 penny, the kind with an eagle on it." Martel's country is the wide open grasslands and huge cottonwood bottoms of the Yellowstone River. He was born there, a descendant of the Assiniboine and Oglala people that have called it home for centuries. The place is dense with stories of raids and fights, fur trappers and voyagers. Martel began his life as a finder in 1996, "just trying to find arrowheads," he said. In 2000, that search led him to discover an entire battle site, the Battle of Whoop-Up Creek, where Sitting Bull and his chiefs led 400 warriors against the 22nd Infantry of Lt. Colonel Elwell C. Otis. Now recognized by historians, the site near Glendive had been forgotten for over 130 years. Two years ago, Martel found an old shotgun while using a metal detector along the river. "Both hammers were missing, and the stock was worn, but in pretty good condition," he said. "They told me it was a Parker, made sometime before 1874." But he had never found anything like what he encountered a couple of weeks ago. "I was walking in the riverbottom, just looking around," he said. "I saw part of the butt of the rifle sticking out of a tree, up off the ground.".
Amanda Breitbach, Glendive Ranger Review
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Martel had to climb up to where the rifle was hidden, and he found it encased in tightly packed leaves. When he dug it out, he says, it was preserved with what he believes is bear grease. The rifle was in a remarkable state of preservation. “It really made my day,” Martel said, with his trademark quiet understatement. He took his treasure back to Glendive with him, to the home of Pat Brophy, a gun expert who runs a local rifle and pistol range and is a licensed firearms dealer. Brophy examined the rifle. “It fits the description of a Springfield Armory rifle, made sometime between 1847 and 1852,” Brophy said. “The barrel bands and all that are identical to the photos I have in my books.” But the rifle has no maker’s mark at all. Brophy says that this is not necessarily unusual. “That rifle design was mass produced by just about everybody at the time. It was a very common rifle, the main rifle of the Civil War.” Asked if he was surprised at Martel’s find, Brophy said, “I’ve hunted artifacts with him before. He is the luckiest person at finding things that I have ever known.” Amanda Breitbach, Glendive Ranger Review
Martel went to Reynold’s Market in Glendive to show the rifle to his friend Kevin McGovern, who took these photos. It is a .58 caliber muzzleloader, smooth bore, no rifling at all. The lock still works. As word got out about the find, it became the talk of Glendive and then the talk of Dawson County. That was before it ever hit the Internet. The fact that the gun is so well preserved has lead to a great deal of skepticism about the find. “I don’t understand how it could have lasted like that for 160 years,” said Kevin McGovern. “Maxx is a truthful person, and I think he is telling the truth. He is always finding wild stuff.” Kevin McGovern
Pat Brophy believes that Martel is telling the truth, too. But he thinks the story of the rifle is even more mysterious than if it had been stashed in the tree by its original owner. “The story behind this is anybody’s guess,” Brophy said. “But I can’t imagine how it would survive in a tree for 160 years. Even if the tree had been a sapling when it was put in there, the rifle would have been 75 feet in the air by now. We have huge floods on the Yellowstone, ice jams that take out the trees or pack them with mud and sand. Before the Civil War there weren’t that many cottonwoods in these bottoms because the Indians stripped the bark for food, and even if there was one, most of them only live for about 100 years.” Brophy’s own experience adds to his conviction. “I have a friend who lost a Ruger Single Six from horseback, and we found it six years later, and you could just barely tell it had been a pistol. With this rifle that Maxx found, with a little cleaning, you could shoot it.” Kevin McGovern
Martel, like any treasure seeker, does not want to reveal too much about where he found the rifle. He told Cindy Mullet of Glendive’s newspaper The Ranger Review that he could not believe that other wanderers along the river, people looking for agates or hunting game, had not found it long ago. “It was meant to be mine,” he told the reporter. As to who might have left the rifle in the tree, and when, he told me he is sure of only one thing: “I can only tell you it didn’t belong to an Indian, because he would have held on to it.” Asked what he would say to people who do not believe his story, his answer is simple, with no trace of anger. “I don’t care whether people believe me or not. Most of the people around here are excited that I found it.” And he says that he has no intention of selling the rifle, or even cleaning it. “People ask me what it is worth, and I always say I don’t know. I don’t care. I never sell anything I find.” Martel says he will probably display the rifle at the little museum he has set up at the Glendive RV Park and Campground, with some of his other finds. “I’m always looking,” he said. “I’ve found knives, breastplates, even an old cannonball with a chain on it that they used against horse charges. Lots of bullets. You know, in the summer when it’s hot, those old cartridges sweat, and sometimes they’ll go off when you pick them up. I’ve lost my hat brim that way.” Rodger Phillips, the owner of the Glendive RV Park and Campground, says he is looking forward to having the rifle at Martel’s museum, where visitors can see it and talk with the man who found it. “He knows so much about all of this, and he doesn’t mind telling people the stories,” Phillips said. “He’s got so much stuff, that old fowling piece he found, a headdress that belonged to his grandfather, a ceremonial buffalo skull with the black paint around the eye sockets. I’m glad to see him get some recognition, because he’s a nice guy, and he certainly deserves it.” The museum is a favorite stop for the many fishermen who come to Glendive during Montana’s paddlefish season in May and June to try and snag the big prehistoric fish at the Intake Diversion, on the Yellowstone River, 17 miles north of town. Hal Herring
Montana native Maxx Martel found this 1858 muzzleloading rifle packed in bear grease in the hollow of a tree. How did it get there? Read the story here.