Chickasaw women figured prominently in success of famed Chickasaw rancher

This article appeared in the January 2022 edition of the Chickasaw Times

The film “Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher,” is inspired by the life of Montford Johnson, an amazing and impactful Chickasaw man who established a vast ranching empire.

“It’s such a big story, so much history in the beginning of Oklahoma,” film content producer Jeannie Barbour said. “It’s all built on the infrastructure First American people had put into place before the land run. People like Montford Johnson trail blazed the way.”

Johnson was building something, creating something out in the wilderness of 19th century Indian Territory.

He was not alone. A group of women surrounded him on his journey. His wife, his sister and a motherly mentor were integral to his personal and business success.

“They were trying to make a living, make a life, raise their children – the same goals we have today,” Ms. Barbour said. “But this was a place where you had to be strong in order to survive. Without the women, Montford’s story wouldn’t have happened. They were an integral part of his success.”

Their names were Adelaide, Granny Vicey and Mary Elizabeth.

The Chickasaw culture is a living one, but it has roots that stretch back millennia. To understand what it means to be a strong Chickasaw woman, and what it meant in the time of the Johnson clan, requires a bit of a history lesson.

Luckily, some things have remained the same over the years.

“For Southeastern First American women – specifically Chickasaws – our cultural identity was created way back, beyond,” Chickasaw Nation director of research and cultural interpretation LaDonna Brown said. “But our main roles never changed from those early times to who we are today.

“We know women took care of their families. They made clothes for their families, they cooked for their families. They owned their household and agricultural fields. They shared culture and oral history. It has been passed down for thousands of generations.”

In addition to their roles as keepers of the home and culture, women participated in most other areas of tribal life.

In the time of “Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher,” women labored alongside their husbands or sometimes alone to rebuild homes and lives on the frontier. They were ranchers, farmers and homemakers, all at the same time.

Behind the day-to-day roles and responsibilities, there are also values and traits common among Chickasaw women through the years. These aspects are explored in Phillip Carroll Morgan and Judy Goforth Parker’s 2011 book “Dynamic Chickasaw Women.” It defines what it means to be a dynamic Chickasaw woman by examining the lives of impactful Chickasaws from the time of Removal to the early days of Oklahoma statehood.

In it, Morgan and Parker wrote, “Being a dynamic Chickasaw woman means the individual knows how to handle adversity, difficulties, and trials with courage and determination. If you are a dynamic Chickasaw woman, you are able to pull from within and accomplish things that would seem beyond your ordinary capabilities.”

They narrowed down the list of qualities exemplified by dynamic Chickasaw women: courage, loyalty, determination and self-discipline as well as a dedicated love for family, friends, tribe and humanity at large, far beyond the ordinary.

The women of “Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher,” in history as well as on the screen, fully possess these qualities.

Adelaide Johnson Campbell Bond, Montford Johnson’s older sister, was a revered personality in her own right.

The “dear old Aristocrat of the Plains” was famed along the Chisholm Trail for her hospitality. Adelaide Johnson provided food to hungry cowboys driving herds near her home on the South Canadian River. The table she set earned her praise as one of the best cooks on the frontier. She and her husband, Jim Bond, built a successful cattle and horse ranch.

Before her time feeding the wandering cowboys of the time, Adelaide Johnson’s selflessness also materialized as she helped raise the children and orphans of the Johnson household.

Rebeckah Boykin, a Choctaw model and actress from Hugo, Oklahoma, portrays Adelaide Johnson in “Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher.”

“Adelaide is a very strong Chickasaw woman and I hope that comes through in the film,” Miss Boykin said. “Chickasaw women were very influential in their tribe since the very beginning. They were head of their households, they made decisions.”

“This is number one – my first film,” Miss Boykin said. “I’m so happy to be a part of it. It’s an educational movie for the trials we went through.”

The trials Ms. Boykin mentioned are the difficulties Indian people faced after being removed from their homeland to what is now known as Oklahoma.

“A lot of people aren’t from here,” Ms. Boykin said. “They get to see something different from Oklahoma. Everyone thinks it’s all plains and rolling hills, and it’s that but much more.”

She said “Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher” depicted events which run along the backbone of First American history in Oklahoma.

“There is so much out there – war stories, family stories – and this movie is a new way to preserve all of it,” Ms. Boykin said. “That is so crucial, whether you’re Cheyenne, Sioux, Choctaw or any tribal nation.”

Vicey Harmon (Granny Vicey) was a Chickasaw widow and a friend of Chickasaw rancher Montford Johnson and Jesse Chisholm. Chisholm planned to have Harmon manage a trading post for him but died before it could happen. She wanted to operate a post for Montford Johnson, but he asked her to manage a ranch for him instead – one he was planning at Council Grove, near where Chisholm’s trading post had been.

She took on the responsibility and brought some of the Johnson family orphans with her in order to care for them. The ranch became known as the first permanent settlement in what would become Oklahoma City.

“She was probably the most traditional in her knowledge and lifeways of all who took on the different ranches within Montford’s ranching empire,” Ms. Barbour said. “Montford valued her knowledge and trusted her ability to make a success of the Council Grove ranch.”

Harmon’s adventures as a ranch manager included living in a dugout in the bank of the North Canadian River and dealing with bears, panthers, wildcats and snakes.

Casey Camp-Horinek of the Ponca tribe of Oklahoma portrayed Granny Vicey Harmon in “Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher.”

Mrs. Camp-Horinek is an Emmy-award winning actress known in part for her work in “Winter in the Blood,” “Barking Water” and “Goodnight Irene.” She has had lead roles in multiple theater productions and appears regularly in documentaries and news publications. Mrs. Camp-Horinek is a longtime Native rights activist and environmentalist.

Explaining the character as she appears in the movie, Mrs. Camp-Horinek said, “She is a kind, traditional woman who knows the ways of the Chickasaw people. Granny Vicey was the guiding force, the sounding board, the person others went to for guidance.”

Such a role was a natural fit for Mrs. Camp-Horinek, an Ponca elder and tribal councilwoman.

“She is a genuine character with strength, endurance, who was willing to go through anything for the generations still to come,” Mrs. Camp-Horinek said.

“For the character of Granny Vicey, the actress had to have a sense of what it means to be First American,” Ms. Barbour said. “Casey understood. Her every breath reflects that truth.”

Mary Elizabeth Campbell Johnson, the daughter of a career soldier, grew up on military posts. When she married young Montford Johnson, who was dedicated and determined to become a cattle rancher, she became an adept rancher alongside him.

“She was determined. She faced adversity and difficulties,” Ms. Barbour said. “But she had an absolute confidence in Montford and what he was trying to achieve. She embraced it and even came up with some inventive ways of doing business successfully, in a seemingly inhospitable area.”

With an understanding of Montford Johnson’s goals, she offered him knowledgeable, timely advice and support.

Along the way, she managed the business end of one of the largest cattle and horse operations in the Southwest. All while raising nine children on the edge of a volatile wilderness.

“Mary Elizabeth was a tough, sassy woman,” Ms. Barbour said. “She kept the homestead going while Montford was gone. In the movie, we depict how strong she was. Christian values were the foundation of her strength.”

Grace Montie – a film, television and theater actress from Dallas, now working in California – portrays Mary Elizabeth in “Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher.”

It was a part she landed, in part, due to the chemistry she and Martin Sensmeier, who plays Montford Johnson, shared.

“She embraced the character of Mary just wonderfully – that feeling of assertiveness, strength, the support of her husband – I mean, she got it,” Ms. Barbour said. “She understood who Mary was right off the bat. Day one, she was Mary. And a lot of what the audience comes to understand about Montford, they get through Mary’s interpretation of what he’s feeling.”

About ‘Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher’

Governor Bill Anoatubby said film production was part of the Chickasaw Nation’s effort to tell the true story of Native Americans such as Montford Johnson.

“Montford Johnson’s life story helps illustrate the important role Chickasaw people have played in shaping American history and culture,” Gov. Anoatubby said. “We are pleased to have such a diverse group of actors involved in telling the story of Montford Johnson’s remarkable legacy of entrepreneurialism, altruism and diplomacy.”

Montford Johnson’s story is a true Western epic, spanning his birth in 1843, through the tumultuous years of the Civil War and its aftermath, and the Land Rush of 1889. It was a time among settlers, cowboys, tribes, military and bandits.

Armed with determination and dreams of a better life, he had the grit and courage needed to tame what seemed an infinite wilderness, while always maintaining respect for the Indian people who lived there.

As his ranching empire expanded, Montford Johnson’s perseverance established his legacy. Through conflicts with “Boomers” and cattle rustlers, and numerous personal tragedies, he stood strong. His ranching practices, such as burning fields to control growth and reduce diseases spread by ticks, along with barbed wire fencing, are still used today.

At the height of his ranching operation, Montford Johnson accumulated a herd of over 35,000 head of cattle which grazed over a million acres of the newly created Indian Territory.

Many tribes are represented within the cast of the movie. Martin Sensmeier, who portrays Montford Johnson, is Tlingit and Koyukon-Athabascan. Tatanka Means, who plays Rising Wolf, is an award-winning Oglala Lakota, Omaha and Navajo actor. Sonia Hoffman is a Cheyenne and Arapaho citizen and is cast as Asha, Rising Wolf’s wife. Eddie Easterling, a Chickasaw citizen, plays Jesse Chisholm. Spencer Mabary, Zack Morris and Bella Muncy are among other Native actors.

Other cast members include Dermot Mulroney, Tommy Flanagan, Grace Montie, James Landry Hébert, Denim Richards, Mackenzie Astin, Caleb Martin, Danny Tracey, Cat Merritt, Richard Whitman, Randy Mendez-Kestler, and Callan Wilson.

“It’s very important we tell the story of the Chickasaws,” Gov. Anoatubby said. “People simply do not know that story. We live in a day where we see what is around us. Unless you are a student of history, those things get overlooked. In our case, we believe we need to tell as much of our story as we can through the lives of our people.”

“Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher” was directed by Nathan Frankowski and produced by Paul Sirmons.

It is the third Chickasaw Nation Productions feature film, joining “Te Ata” and “Pearl.”

“Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher” is now available. Visit for more information.