Haunted by Memory

Unearthing the Mystery of the Mourning Brooch

by Sarah Gage, Student Conservation Association Intern

Woman kneels on freshly dug up ground in roped off square with a shovel behind her.
Bonnie Butler Bunning was an archeologist during the 1972 excavations at Fort Union. She uncovered the brooch over 45 years ago and said that the unknown fate of the brooch has haunted her since that time.


In the summer of 1972, David Gillio led an archeological excavation at the Fort Union site that discovered many artifacts later added to the fort’s museum collection. One such item was unearthed by Bonnie Butler Bunning, an archeologist working on the project; she found what appeared to be a small brooch. The archived field notes from August 22, 1972, describe the item in detail: “Rectangular. Made of 2 plates. Backplate of silver, frontplate of ‘black material’ (some stone) and a piece of glass. Between plate there is a piece of plaited hair. Backplate of silver, inscription: NC.”

With the brooch still looming in the back of her mind, Bonnie returned to Fort Union in the fall of 2018. She later sent a follow-up letter to the park detailing her experience as an archeologist on the 1972 excavation. For over 45 years, Bonnie said, she had been haunted by the brooch and hoped to find out what had happened to the unique artifact. Her letter’s description of the piece of jewelry was nearly identical to the 1972 field notes.

With the letter and field notes in hand, the museum staff began to research the item, unfamiliar with the unique artifact. Despite searching the database with key terms from the field notes, no further information about the brooch was found. Where could such a unique piece have gone? At this point, it was believed the brooch was broken, lost, or stolen between the excavation and catalog processes. Unable to find a catalog record of the brooch, the search for the brooch came to a halt.

Mourning brooch showing black enamel front and initialed back
Other than missing the plaited hair, the brooch looked exactly like  the field notes had reported. The hair would have been placed between the front and back plates of the brooch, showing through the glass window.


Jewelry Made for Mourning

Several weeks later, while organizing collections drawers in preparation for the annual inventory, the brooch appeared. Other than missing the plaited hair, the brooch was exactly as Bonnie and the field report had described. Now that the artifact was in hand, speculation over the purpose of the brooch and its owner arose. Who was “N.C.”?

The mid-1800s showed a rise in the popularity of hair jewelry. While some pieces of hair jewelry were simple, like a brooch, other pieces were elaborate. Godey’s Magazine printed two articles in the 1850s on hair working (vol. 41 and 42), and in 1867, Mark Campbell published a book titled Art of Hair Work: Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description. Some hair jewelry was commemorative; it was not uncommon for a man to have a watch chain made from his wife’s hair in celebration of their wedding. Mourning jewelry, on the other hand, utilized hair to commemorate the dead. The fort’s brooch is a piece of mourning jewelry, as it was common in the Victorian Era to hold onto the hair of a passed loved one as a way of remembering them. Mourning pieces typically had black stone or enamel, as black had long been associated with mourning and death. Additionally, the fort’s brooch has the initials “N.C.” inscribed on the backplate of the artifact. Initials on jewelry were common and could have been those of the owner or, in the case of mourning jewelry, of the deceased.

Mourning brooched flipped to show J.N. intials
When the brooch is flipped, the initials no longer appear to read "N.C." Instead, the initials resemble the letters "J.N." This dispute between what the initials truly read may lead to a dispute regarding its original owner. However, Copperplate script aligns more closely to "N.C."


New Connections to Natawista Culbertson

Although there was some speculation the initials read “J.N,” as described in the Fort Union Material Cultural Reports, Part III, “N.C” more closely matches a 19th century script style of lettering. Copperplate script was a common handwriting and script form in the 1800s, and it very nearly matches the engraved letters on the brooch. While all of the letters are curly in nature, an uppercase “J” in Copperplate script had a pointed top, unlike the brooch if the letters were to read “J.N.” Additionally, the lower point of a capital “N” in Copperplate script would not have stretched past the tail, as it appears when looking at the initials on the brooch as “J.N.” From this information, it can be surmised that the initials on the brooch are “N.C.”

Page showing sample calligraphy handwriting.
An example of Copperplate script shows the distinct difference in style between the “J” on the brooch and in Cooperplate script. By looking at the popular style of 19th century script and comparing it with the initials on the brooch, it becomes clear that the initials are most likely "N.C."

Creative Commons "Copperplate Bold Script type specimen" by James Puckett, used under CC BY / cropped from original / https://www.flickr.com/photos/28813954@N02/32197006070

Could “N.C.” refer to Natawista Culbertson? The wife of Alexander Culbertson, who was a bourgeois at Fort Union, Natawista (Medicine Snake Woman) was a member of the Blood band of the Blackfoot Nation. At the fort, it was common for the managers or engagés to marry an American Indian woman. The partnership of a Euro-American man and an Indian woman gave the woman a number of advantages that were social, economic, and political. Additionally, an Indian and Euro-American partnership helped to ensure positive trade and social relations with the wife’s people and the fur traders. As a result, Natawista was one of many Indian women who married a Euro-American man at Fort Union. She and Culbertson married around 1840, when she was 15 and he was 30. Thereafter, she was a powerful woman and a diplomat between the Blackfoot and the Euro-American traders who helped to create strong relationships between the two.

Not only was Natawista a significant character in Fort Union’s past, but she also would have been one of the only women at the fort able to indulge in luxuries like Euro-American jewelry. Swiss artist and Fort Union clerk Rudolph Friederich Kurz discusses Natawista in his journal, saying that “she loved jewelry” and regularly donned Euro-American clothing. Additionally, being the wife of a bourgeois would have given Natawista more privileges in terms of affording and acquiring such luxuries.

In the search to determine if Natawista may have owned the brooch, photos of her were consulted. There are only two, and while she is wearing jewelry in both, neither featured the brooch Bonnie had found. The image of Natawista with her husband and son brings another possibility to mind. Natawista had five children -- Jack, Nancy, Julia, Fannie, and Joe. Nancy, who was born in 1848 at Fort Union, drowned in the Missouri River sometime after the year 1851. Nancy’s death not only coincides with the growing popularity of Victorian mourning jewelry but also with the initials on the back of the brooch. Nancy Culbertson, N.C., could be the person the brooch was made to commemorate.

Black and white painting of a white man wearing a historic suit, an American Indian woman with braided hair wearing a black dress  with a white collar and a young boy wearing a dark suit.
Alexander, Joe, and Natawista Culbertson photographed in 1863.

Montana Historical Society Photo Archives 941-818

Bonnie had unearthed the mourning piece on the western side of the dwelling range, which ran along the western wall of the fort. Interestingly, if the brooch had belonged to Natawista, she most likely would not have lived in the dwelling range. The dwelling range housed the engagés (post laborers) and their wives, while she lived in the Bourgeois (or post manager’s) House. One of her surviving children, however, could have been playing with the brooch and dropped it at the dwelling range. Additionally, it is also possible that Natawista may have visited the dwelling range to care for someone who was sick.

Bonnie’s excavation notes hinted at another possibility, too. The brooch was found in the same location as a bone dice fragment. The bone dice are believed to have been used by Blackfeet women, and Natawista was part of the Blackfeet Nation. She is also known to have been social and mixed with the other American Indians in social and diplomatic situations. When Governor Isaac Stevens, leader of 1853’s northernmost Pacific Railroad survey, documented his trip to Fort Union, he described Natawista, saying that “She was in constant intercourse with Indians, and inspired them with perfect confidence. . . The men and women were fond of gathering around Mrs. Culbertson to hear stories of the whites.” Could she have also regularly socialized with the Indian women at the fort, playing games, and lost her brooch in the process?

Painting of an American Indian man on horseback in front of a family of American Indians beside a tree with a grassy field in the background.
In “Barter for a Bride” by John Mix Stanley, Natawista is painted wearing a red blanket. It is believed that her brother is the man on the horse.

U.S. Department of State, Accession # 1965.0053

A Tale of Tradition

While all of the evidence surrounding Natawista’s potential ownership of the brooch is circumstantial, the idea of such a unique piece of jewelry belonging to one of Fort Union’s most significant residents is captivating. The mourning brooch gives us a glimpse into the past and opens up a new conversation about the daily life and practices of women at the fort. Additionally, the piece of hair jewelry acts as evidence of the Victorian mourning practices and links the traditions back to Fort Union. Natawista also went through a mourning period after her brother was killed in battle, and she cut off her long hair. Though the traditions are different, hair played a role in both American Indian and Euro-American 19th century mourning practices. Fast-forward over 150 years and hair jewelry is no longer romantic or popular, and mourning practices have changed. How do modern day people commemorate or remember passed loved ones? How different are our mourning practices? How are they the same?

Because of Bonnie Butler Bunning’s ongoing interest in the unique artifact she uncovered over 45 years ago, the mourning brooch has generated a new series of questions and discussion about Fort Union and the activity within its tall walls. Though we may never know whose brooch was found at the dwelling range, the artifact has exposed a new side of life at Fort Union.

Last updated: April 24, 2021

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