Man in Glacier
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Chapter Two:

The sun set gloriously behind the Chief Mountain just as I would have given anything for one half-hour's longer light. I was, most probably, the only white man that had ever been there.

Capt. John Palliser, 8 August 1858

[In 1913] I was whisked about in motor cars which seemed an affront to the former sanctity of those mountains; to submit to being conducted by licensed guides over trails which I had myself discovered and made . . .

Henry L. Stimson, 1949

I was the first woman to look on those mountains and glaciers—it was absolutely wild country, and very beautiful.

Mrs. George Bird Grinnell, date unknown

sketchs of mountains
James Madison Alden, an artist with the 1860 Northwest Boundary Survey, recorded his impressions of the Kintla Lake and Waterton Lakes region. Since few verbal impressions remain from those early government surveyors, Alden's portfolio of twenty-two sketches of Glacier's northern mountains provided the American public with its first glimpse of its scenic grandeur. (Courtesy of National Archives)

A lone hiker climbs into an obscure cirque north of Gardner Point near the Canadian border and another adventurer scrambles cross country between Jackstraw and Lena Lakes. They both investigate a little-known region and become more familiar with its physical features. They both consider themselves explorers, and in the narrow definition of the term "explorer," they fit that description. Even in the twentieth century, parts of Glacier's wilderness regions remain virtually unvisited. Only to the most adventurous individuals will places like Boy Lake or Kupunkamint Mountain become objectives for investigation rather than points on a map or features viewed from the window of an airplane. Just as certain individuals today display a curiosity about the physical features within the mountainous territory, the Glacier area attracted numerous adventurers and explorers during its history. The explorers entered the region with different objectives and their impressions remain somewhat obscure. But the collective impact was to introduce the region to its marginal settlement, its resource exploitation, and a much greater visitation.

Viewing the mountains of Glacier, early visitors found a virtual wilderness. Fur trappers, missionaries, railroad surveyors, and boundary locators passed near or through the region, but interest in the area was slow to develop. (Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections)

Since early explorers failed to leave elaborate reports detailing their visits to the Glacier area, one must treat the European-American approach to the area in generalities. Our recorded evidence shows almost no effort to enter the mountainous area of Glacier with the expressed purpose of "exploration" until the 1850s. Both geography and the presence of the hostile Blackfeet made alternative approaches much more acceptable. Once again Glacier must be treated as part of the vast Rocky Mountain front range and the journeys of explorers to and through these mountains must be considered as part of a very gradual, transcontinental movement.

The motivations of these early white visitors developed from a strong international competition for the possession of North America; from an economic rivalry for the trade with Indians and for furs; from a desire to extend the Christian religion to Indians; in response to a demand for the construction of a transcontinental railroad; and finally, to clarify an international boundary between Canada and the United States.

Thus, national goals or international rivalries directly affected the adventurers who entered or came near the region; these nationalistic and economic objectives affected what the men were looking for as well as what they saw. A lone fur trapper looked for safe passages through the region or for signs of Indians or for beaver dams, but he did not concern himself with potential railroad routes or whether he was fighting a Blackfoot war party at the 48th or 51st parallel.

Competition for the ownership of this region was not merely between Indian occupants and white invaders. The European struggle to dominate North America meant a constant British, French, and Spanish conflict among themselves east of the Mississippi River until the expulsion of the French in 1763. That international rivalry for possession of land and for the fur trade of the interior gradually moved westward. In the 1660s, the French explorers Pierre Esprit, sieur de Radisson and Medard Chouart, sieur de Groseilliers skirted the Great Lakes and headed westward into Manitoba opening those regions to trade. The British responded with voyages and settlements in the Hudson Bay region and formed the "Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading in Hudson's Bay," later shortened to Hudson's Bay Company. With a charter from King Charles II, Hudson's Bay Company claimed the entire region including all rivers and tributaries which drained into the Bay.

In return for this vast stretch of land, the extent of which was not known until a century later, the Company was to pay the king "two Elks and two Black Beavers" whenever he happened to enter the country. The northeast third of Glacier Park would be affected by that claim even though Hudson Bay and those first British posts were a thousand miles distant.

French competition for the beaver trade and against the British intensified almost immediately. The statement "possession is nine-tenths of the law" applied successfully for the French trappers and traders for the next one hundred years. The French voyageurs and coureurs de bois (woods runners) lived with the Indians, adapted to the wilderness environment, and dominated the interior of America while the British traders, protected by their navy, established coastal forts and hoped Indians would visit them to engage in trade.

In his pen-and-ink drawing entitled "La Verendryes Discover the Rocky Mountains," Charles M. Russell depicted this event of the 1740s. Russell, a noted western artist, lived near Apgar, within Glacier Park, and used the mountainous background of Lake McDonald in a number of his paintings. (Courtesy of Amon Carter Museum)

French connections with Indian leaders meant British trade suffered. As early as 1690, the Bay Company dispatched Henry Kelsey to the interior to encourage the Indians to travel with their furs to the British forts, but his efforts were unsuccessful. French exploration and expansion continued, and, by the 1740s, a notable expedition led by Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de la Vérendryes, brought fur traders of Montreal into the upper Great Plains region. There is some evidence that the expedition sighted the Rocky Mountains, but the exact location of their visit is unknown, as the "high, . . . well-wooded" mountains seen could have been either the Big Horn range, the Laramie range, or the Black Hills. The British reacted in 1754 by dispatching Anthony Hendry to the interior. He made his way southwestward into present-day Alberta, observed the Indians living there, took a "long distance" look at the Rockies, and returned to Hudson Bay. His observations of the Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, and possibly the Blackfeet led him to regard them as an encouraging potential market for British trading, but little or no trade resulted.

When the French and Indian War ended in 1763, the French lost their entire North American possessions. But after their victory, the British did not lose their competitors. French-Canadians working out of Montreal did not concede trade to the Hudson's Bay Company. French trappers and traders (some also known as "Pedlars") formed their own organizations—the North West Company and the X Y Company—and scoured the upper Great Plains, and later the Pacific Northwest, looking for furs and competing with the British. According to historian-ethnologist John Ewers, the French-Canadians were probably the first whites the Blackfeet met. The Blackfoot name for Frenchmen was translated as "Real (or Original) Old Man People" or the first white men.

Even after the North West Company was absorbed by Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, men of French extraction continued to inhabit the wilderness, live with the Indian tribes, and extract the valuable furs from the region. Men like Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (whose wife was Sacajawea), Pierre Chouteau, James Bordeaux, Antoine Robidoux, and many others reflect their continued influence as the Americans became engaged in the western fur trade.

From 1763 until the Louisana Purchase in 1803, the entire upper Missouri River region, including Glacier, remained generally unexplored and unvisited. Technically, the Spanish held claim to the interior Missouri River Basin, but the British furthered their invasion from the north. Bay Company agent Matthew Cocking traveled to Blackfoot country in 1772, again attempting to encourage the Indians to travel to Hudson Bay. Since the Indians would not travel such long distances or use canoes, Company officials finally decided to establish trading posts in the interior. They established Cumberland House in 1774 on the lower Saskatchewan River, and in 1780 they located Buckingham House some five hundred and fifty miles upriver, providing permanent contact with the Blackfeet.

Upon his return eastward from the Pacific coast, Meriwether Lewis, co-leader of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-06, ventured northward to the 49th parallel and viewed Glacier's front range. A hostile encounter with the Piegan made Lewis and his men flee the area. (Courtesy of National Archives)

The British approached Glacier's mountains while traveling in the company of Piegan hunting parties. The famous explorer David Thompson probably became the first British representative and first white man to view the Glacier region during a 1780s reconnaissance. By 1792, another Bay Company agent, Peter Fidler, arrived near the base of the mountains while accompanying some Piegans and he attached the first place name to the region. Fidler's map included "King's Mountain," which he had derived from the Indian name meaning "Governor of the Mountains." The name was later changed and still remains "Chief Mountain." Fidler's account of his journey and his geographical information became incorporated into a 1795 map published by the London mapmaker Aaron Arrowsmith. For the first time a section of Glacier appeared to be "discovered."

At the same time Fidler made his observations, the Spanish moved northward to assert their claims. Led by Santiago de la Iglesia, several expeditions during the 1790s attempted to open trade in the upper Missouri region, to cross the Rocky Mountains, and to reach the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish failed to make their transcontinental journey, but expeditions were continuing when the Americans purchased Louisiana Territory in 1803.

The purchase of Louisiana produced an immediate American presence in the region. Planned prior to the purchase, but dispatched in 1803 to gain information regarding the country, the Lewis and Clark expedition spent three years exploring the Missouri River drainage, crossing into the Columbia basin, traveling to the Pacific Coast, and returning eastward to stimulate American interest in the entire area.

Upon their return journey, the expedition divided for a time, and Captain Meriwether Lewis traveled northward to explore the headwaters of the Marias River. After reaching the Cut Bank-Two Medicine River junction which formed the Marias River, he followed the Cut Bank branch north toward the 49th parallel. However, due to bad weather, a lack of food, the fear of an "interview" with "the vicious and profligate rovers" as he called the Blackfeet and Minnetarees, as well as the necessity of completing their expedition yet that season, Lewis decided to return to the Missouri River. Lewis observed: "The course of the mountains still continued from southeast to northwest; in which last direction from us, the front range appears to terminate abruptly at a distance of thirty-five miles." From their most northern position, Camp Disappointment (between today's Cut Bank and Browning, Montana), the American explorers observed the front range of Glacier's mountains. On their 1806 map, the "Peccneaus or Blood Indians" were shown far to the north of the Marias River, but "The King" mountain is clearly designated near the 49th parallel. Their subsequent encounter with "Minetarees" (almost certainly Piegans) two days later, in which the Americans killed two of the Indians, made Lewis's party flee the area with substantial haste. Lewis noted that these Indians traded northward with a post on the Saskatchewan River, and his unfortunate incident south of Camp Disappointment on the Two Medicine River would cement the Indians to that Canadian trading relationship for the next thirty years. The Piegan and other Blackfoot tribes would remain hostile to almost any American presence in or near their territory.


Man in Glacier
©1976, Glacier Natural History Association
buchholtz/chap2.htm — 28-Feb-2006

Copyright © 1976 Glacier Natural History Association. All rights reserved. Material from this edition may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author and publisher.