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History of Glacier National Park
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II. The Southern Approach - The Fur Traders

The approach to the Glacier National Park region from the south lagged far behind that from the north. The traders from St. Louis under Spanish control never penetrated any distance up the Missouri, although they were gaining experience nearer home which was to take therm at one bound to the headwaters of the great river.

In Canada, a government expedition marked the closing period of the fur trade era. In the United States it was a government expedition which initiated it. Lewis and Clark went into a country which beyond the Mandan villages, had never been visited by American traders. On their return in 1807, Lewis made an overland trip from the Missouri along the base of the Rockies as far as the Marias River, and named Chief Mountain. A question has been raised whether he would not have discovered Marias Pass had he not been threatened with Indian troubles. In any case this is the earliest mention of a natural feature connected with the Park itself.

Near the Marias, Lewis and his small party fell in with a group of Gros Ventre who attempted to steal their guns and horses. Two Gros Ventre were killed but the horses were nearly all stolen, although Lewis and his men secured four horses belonging to the Indians. They then beat a hasty retreat to the main party and pushed on rapidly down the Missouri. This encounter is usually said to have been with the Blackfoot, but apparently the tribe concerned was the Gros Ventre. At least this is Lisa's report.

One John Colter, a soldier with Clark, asked permission to stay on the upper Yellowstone, which was granted. Further down the river Lewis and Clark met with fur traders already following their trail, presumably the party headed by that dynamic Spanish trader of St. Louis, Manuel Lisa, who figured largely in the history of the succeeding years. In 1807 Lisa pushed as far as the junction of the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers, where he established a post. Colter met him and enlisted with his company, going alone to visit the Crow and crossing over the summit with Crow guides. There they were attacked by Blackfoot (Gros Ventre?) and Colter was forced to return, making his way through what is now Yellowstone Park. Two years later Lisa turned his post over to the Missouri River Fur Company which he had helped to organize. An attempt was made to establish a post at the Three Forks of the Missouri but this party, under Pierre Menard and Andrew Henry, was driven out. They crossed the Rockies, building Henry's Fort on the opposite slope, abandoning it the following year.

In 1811 all posts of the Missouri Fur Company above the Mandan villages were abandoned. The Astorians in this year went overland from Arikara rather than risk ascending the river through Blackfoot territory. No recorded efforts to make establishments above the Mandans are known for some years. The abortive Yellowstone Expedition of 1819 must have seriously injured American prestige. Yet two years later, in 1821, another effort was made and the first Fort Benton was built at the Big Horn and Yellowstone rivers and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company established a post the following year at the mouth of the Yellowstone. Disaster attended efforts to push into Blackfoot country, however. In 1823 a party under Jones and Immell left Fort Benton for the Three Forks and were ambuscaded on their return trip. The same year Andrew Henry, bound toward the Blackfoot for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, was attacked at Great Falls and driven back. The Blackfoot stole so many horses from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company post at the mouth of the Yellowstone that it was abandoned and moved up to the Bighorn. The following year the Missouri Fur Company found this upriver trade so unprofitable and dangerous that it withdrew all the way down river to the Omaha.

At this time a great deal was said and written about British influence being used to inflame the Blackfoot and other tribes against the Americans. As we have seen, the British were having their own difficulties and the attempt to reestablish Chesterfield House failed about then. Although the British were willing to buy beaver stolen from Americans, competing American companies were known to do the same thing, and there is at least one case where actual robbery of a competing company was instigated by an American firm. While the British may have depreciated the Americans to the Blackfoot, they did no more than they would and did do to any rival trader regardless of nationality. The diatribes against British machinations at this time must be read with the Anglophobia of the period in mind as well as an eye to fur trade ethics and the actual situation of the British in the same area.

The second and more successful Yellowstone expedition, in 1825, made a change for the better in the American fur trade. The expedition moved some distance up the Yellowstone, where it met General Ashley, moving spirit at the time in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and made treaties with all the tribes of the River except the Blackfoot, with whom it was unable to establish contacts. In 1827 Ashley projected a post at the mouth of the Marias for Blackfoot trade, but his interest was diverted, and no attempt was made to carry out the plan.

The year 1828 saw the entry of the powerful American Fur Company on the upper river, with posts at the mouth of the Yellowstone and up the Yellowstone. In 1830 the name Fort Union was applied to the post at the junction of the Yellowstone and the Missouri which was destined to become one of the important centers for the area. This same year Henry Vanderburgh had his first brush with the Blackfoot, who two years later were to kill him.

The American Fur Company was determined to open trade with the Blackfoot at any cost. In 1831 opportunity offered. An old trapper by the name of Berger, formerly with the Hudson's Bay Company, who had lived among the Blackfoot and spoke the language, appeared at Fort Union. He offered to lead a party into the country and set off with three companions, returning with forty Blackfoot men, many of whom had never before visited this far down the Missouri. So suspicious were the Blackfoot that Berger had told them the distance was less than it actually was. One day's journey from the fort, they refused to travel further. Berger courageously offered his life as forfeit if they did not reach the fort the following day. Berger's companions had felt that they were committing suicide in accompanying him. To Berger must go the credit for a courageous handling of a dangerous enterprise which resulted in the establishment of American relations with the Blackfoot for the first time.

The immediate result of Berger's success was the establishment of a post, Fort Piegan, at the mouth of the Marias, which had a successful season except for one abortive attack. The Blackfoot wished the post kept open in the summer and when the founder, James Kipp, left it according to his instructions, the Indians burned the first fort. The same fall it was rebuilt by D. D. Mitchell in what is now known as Brule Bottom and renamed Fort McKenzie after the energetic director of the Missouri River operations of the American Fur Company. From this time on the American Fur Company maintained almost permanent relations with the Blackfoot but all was not peace. This same year Bridger and Fitzpatrick of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company had one of their many encounters with Blackfoot (or Gros Ventre?).

The year 1831 was epoch-making in another respect. That year steamboat navigation began on the upper Missouri and the first steamboat reached Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone. This was destined to revolutionize the fur trade.

The long and bitter hostility of the Blackfoot has always been somewhat of a mystery. It has sometimes been attributed to Colter's presence with the Crow when the latter were attacked by the Blackfoot, sometimes to the mistake of Lisa in establishing his first up-river post among the Crow, bitter enemies of the Blackfoot, and sometimes to British influence. The last charge is disproved by a reading of British troubles with the Blackfoot. Neither of the first two seems in any degree an adequate explanation, although it is true that Lisa found the Blackfoot friendly before he established his post among the Crow.

For one thing the Blackfoot were blamed for many events with which they had no connection. The early trappers and traders constantly classed the Gros Ventre with the Blackfoot although they in fact were only loosely allied to them, speaking a different language and occupying a different territory. The Gros Ventre were really a branch of the Arapaho, whom they frequently visited. The Gros Ventre route is known to have been west of the Rockies, to avoid the Crow country, and most of the "Blackfoot" encounters in this region were actually with Gros Ventre. Although such an able authority as Chittenden was thoroughly aware of these facts, in his narrative sections he generally repeats Blackfoot without qualification.

From the conduct of the Blackfoot in a somewhat later time, that is, at the making of the Reservation treaties, both with the United States and Canadian governments, it seems fairly clear that their hostility was in part an effort to keep their own territory and customs intact, aggravated perhaps by the misdeeds of some whites. To well-conducted individuals they seem to have been friendly and permitted numerous individuals to reside among them and marry into the tribe. Hendry's account of the dignity and friendliness of the tribe is but one of many telling the same story. Thompson, too, had most pleasant relations with them until he began selling arms to the Kootenay. They do not seem to have been hostile to trading parties but only to the establishment of posts and the visits of trappers as opposed to traders. In 1857 a Blackfoot chief said to Hector, leader of one of the parties of the Imperial Palliser Expedition, "We see but little of the white man, and our young men do not know how to behave. But if you come among us the chiefs will restrain the young men, for we have power over them. But look at the Crees, they have long lived in the company of white men, and nevertheless they are just like dogs, they try to bite when your head is turned - they have no manners, but the Blackfeet have large hearts and they love to show hospitality." (MacInness, 44) For similar good accounts one may see also the account of Stevens on the Pacific Railway Surveys.

We return to the chronological story of the fur trade advance. The American Fur Company built Fort Cass at the mouth of the Big Horn in 1832, the year of the building of Fort McKenzie. This year is also notable for the visit of Catlin to Fort Union, and the following year came Maximilian, Prince of Weid, both famous chroniclers of Indian customs. In 1834 Thomas Nuttal and J. K. Townsend, English scientists, crossed the continent by way of the fur posts on the Missouri. In 1836 Larprenteur speaks of Blackfoot trading at Fort Union, and of traders being sent into the Blackfoot country, as though it wore a regular thing (Larprenteur, 92: 101.) Father de Smet began his famous missionary labors among the Flatheads in 1840. The usefulness of Fort McKenzie came to a close in 1842-3 when F. A. Chardon, post manager, attempted to massacre a group of Bloods in revenge for the killing of a favorite negro servant, reviving Blackfoot animosity. Fort Benton which was built in 1846 slightly above the Marias on the Missouri was destined to become a famous post because of its situation at the head of steamboat navigation. The day of the fur trade was about to wane, and here, as to the north, the story is to be taken up by engineer, cowboy, miner, railroad builder, and settler. (The preceding section is largely summarized from: Chittenden; American Fur Trade of the Far West; Laut; The Blazed Trail of the Old Frontier; Larprenteur; Forty Years a Fur Trader; Irving; Bonneville. Various other journals and accounts in the bibliography may be used to supplement this information in detail.)

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