First Church, Miles City, MT
by sherwood McKay ’74
I’m pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Miles City, Montana. I went West after graduation, serving as an intern in A Christian Ministry in Yellowstone Park, where I met my wife, Rhonda. I’ve spent most of my time in ministry in the West.
The church in Miles City was established about the time the town was, in 1880, when General Nelson Miles was charged by the federal government with rounding up “renegade Indians” and herding them onto reservations. The following account is recorded in the church’s official history, written by Ray Grant:
After Little Big Horn, the military orders to General Nelson A. Miles were to bring the scattered Indian tribes together again and persuade them to return to the peaceful reservations. At one time the general had more than 2,000 Indian prisoners confined on what is now the west side of Miles City.
Two of the most noted prisoners among them were Spotted Eagle and Rain-in-the-Face. With their tattered followers, they had come close to the fort to camp in the valley of Sunday Creek, north of today’s airport. There they discussed whether they should surrender or attack the fort. They chose to surrender.
Spotted Eagle was an intelligent man, and he immediately asked that he be allowed to attend the Presbyterian Church. His request was granted, and on February 6, 1881, the great Sioux Nation chief, with a few of his people, came to hear the sermon delivered by Reverend W. L. Austin, the first minister of the church in Miles City. Although under military escort, the proud chieftain would not leave the church until he had spoken with the minister.
Spotted Eagle demonstrated great interest in all that took place at the church. His acquaintance with the minister deepened until he asked the Rev. Austin if he would learn the Sioux language and come and speak more to his people of Jacob and Joseph and the Hebrew children…. While humor is not a dominant characteristic of the Indian brave, the Reverend Mr. Austin took a chance one day after church worship and asked Spotted Eagle what he liked best about the service. In true laconic style, the chief replied, “The benediction.”