Man in Glacier
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter One:

The European invasion of North America drastically altered Native American life, and particularly that of the Blackfeet. The horse produced revolutionary changes. It was introduced to the Blackfeet through warfare sometime after 1730 by their southern enemies, the Shoshoni. The horse quickly became a necessity to every Blackfoot hunter and it greatly aided his mobility. The "Big Dog" or "Elk Dog," as horses were called, provided the essential transport necessary for hunting buffalo, warring, and the nomadic life that we associate with Plains Indian tribes.

bison jump
While Indian hunters might surround or chase buffalo with their horses during hunting, a more ancient method was to drive the animals over a cliff or cut-bank sometimes called a piskun or buffalo jump. Ridges along the Two Medicine River, just southeast of Glacier, were ideal for this hunting technique. (Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections)

Then, at about the same time, some Cree and Assiniboine allies to the east provided them with their first fire-arms. The guns meant the Blackfeet could easily defeat their western enemies—particularly the Shoshoni. Fire-arms also meant aggressive expansion westward and eventually Blackfoot domination of the entire upper Great Plains. Tribes living in that area were forced southward or to the west of the Continental Divide.

As their influence and area expanded, the various Blackfoot tribes separated. The Northern Blackfeet (or Siksika meaning black-footed people) established dominance over the Northern Saskatchewan River area and fought the Cree and Assiniboine to the east. The Blood or Kainah, probably named for their facial paint, dominated the southern plains of Alberta and Saskatchewan and fought Blackfoot enemies in all directions. Farthest south, confronting the most hostile enemies, were the Piegan or Pikuni, whose name referred to their buffalo robe clothing. The Gros Ventre, living in the same region, allied themselves with the Blackfeet and hunted with and fought beside them until 1861 when some stolen horses resulted in their mutual hatred, separation, and an ongoing conflict.

Thus, after 1750 and no later than 1800, the Piegan became dominant on the plains east of the northern Rocky Mountains. But their empire did not go unchallenged. Western tribes like the Kutenai, Flathead, and Kalispel returned to hunt on the plains several times each year. In well-armed hunting parties, they crossed the Rocky Mountain passes anywhere from central Alberta to Montana's Hell's Gate (near Missoula, Montana) in order to hunt buffalo. To the south, Crow and Cheyenne proved hostile and to the east, Cree, Assiniboine and Sioux confronted the Piegan.

Responding to these incursions, the Blackfeet struck with effective raids upon these enemies. Blackfoot war parties, with leaders like Running Rabbit, No Chief, Running Eagle, White Calf, and Mad Wolf, crossed the mountains and raided their enemies' camps with a devastating effect. Attacking the hunting parties proved to be another effective technique in asserting their power. When negotiating with the western tribes in the 1850s, Governor Isaac Stevens of Washington Territory heard numerous complaints from Flathead, Kalispel, and Kutenai leaders about the unrelenting Blackfoot raiding. The western tribes were even described as having been "decimated" by these repeated attacks, and they demanded that Stevens prevent the Blackfeet from raiding before an effective settlement could be reached. Stevens assured the western tribal leaders that he would provide a peaceful solution to the constant Blackfeet threat, but in doing so he made them forego any claims to the northern Rocky Mountain passes or plains.

teepee and Native American
Fur trading meant that the Indian could barter for items like tea, coffee, tobacco, or trinkets. It also meant that whiskey, regardless of attempted government control, eventually became a major trading item. (Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections, Walter McClintock Album)

Just as the buffalo attracted the Blackfeet to the plains and the horse enabled them to exploit the buffalo and made them dominant in the region, another animal promoted their decline. A harmless rodent, the beaver, abundant in practically every mountain stream on either side of the Continental Divide, drew Americans, Canadians, and Europeans into this region. Beaver pelts, made into fashionable beaver hats, could be obtained from Indians by trading a few trinkets, some manufactured goods, or some whiskey. Fortunes in furs were available to those willing to initiate and risk commerce with hostile Indians in wilderness country.

French trappers advancing up the Saskatchewan River brought a response from Hudson's Bay Company officials who feared an infringement upon their monopoly granted by King Charles II late in the 1600s. In 1754, Anthony Hendy (or Henday), dispatched from York Factory on Hudson Bay, made his way to the Blackfoot territory in Alberta to encourage the Indians to trade. His observations of the Indians' skilled horsemanship, their lifestyle, and their buffalo-hunting orientation proved interesting—but he failed to open any trade.

Following the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and the expulsion of the French from North America in 1763, the growing pressure from free trappers and traders encouraged another Hudson's Bay Company trader to seek the Blackfoot commerce. In 1772, Mathew Cocking traveled to the Blackfeet and very accurately described the subdivisions of the Confederation, but again failed to encourage any trading with the Company. By 1780, the English established a trading post, named Buckingham House, east of Edmonton, Alberta, on the North Saskatchewan River, resulting in a permanent trading relationship with the Blackfeet.

Several additional events within the next two decades affected Indian domination of the plains—the Blackfoot tribes particularly—and set the stage for their nineteenth-century decline. In 1781, after an attack upon a diseased Shoshoni camp, the Piegan contracted smallpox. This devastating plague coupled with recurrent strains of the disease, particularly in the 1830s and 1860s, severely weakened Blackfoot resistance to the traders. While a peaceful period followed the epidemic, a war against the Shoshoni and their allies, the Flathead and Kutenai, soon broke out. The Blackfeet forced the Shoshoni, Flathead, and Kutenai from the Bow River area of Alberta southward into today's Montana and off the plains into the mountains. By 1800, Blackfoot raids continued to harass the tribes living west of the Continental Divide.

In his book The Old North Trail, Walter McClintock detailed an encounter between some Blackfeet and Kutenai near Cut Bank Pass as recalled from the memory of some Blackfoot participants. The Blackfoot party, returning from a raid upon the Flathead Indians, had just entered a dense forest below the Pass:

Mad Wolf (Siyeh) was in the lead, while the others followed in two separate columns along each side of the trail, as was the custom of war parties in those days. They rode in silence because the trees were so dense they could not see far in advance. Suddenly Mad Wolf stopped and signed to the others that he heard someone ahead striking his horse with a quirt (whip). The Blackfeet quickly ambushed themselves among the trees. A war party of Kutenai (Mountain Indians) were returning from an expedition into the Blackfeet country. They ran into the ambush and there was a fierce battle. Mad Wolf, as chief of the expedition, was entitled to the first shot. He singled out the leader, but the Kutenai chief was very brave. Although badly wounded, he ran into the thick woods where Mad Wolf killed him. While taking his scalp, Mad Wolf recognised on his belt the scalps of his own two brothers.

Native Americans on horseback
Blackfoot war parties were among the most feared in the American West. War honors were given great significance and could be gained by capturing an enemy's gun, bow, shield, war clothing, or ceremonial items; scalping was considered of less honor. Stolen horses were almost too common to he considered as trophies. War was an important aspect of Blackfoot culture long before the traders and explorers arrived. (Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections, Walter McClintock Album)

The story concluded that the Blackfeet killed every Kutenai in that party except for one old woman whom they released. The Blackfoot account did not explain why the Kutenai were classified as a "war party," or why a "war party" would have an old woman with it, for it was more than likely a returning springtime hunting expedition. Many encounters of this type and at similar locations probably occurred, but only a few oral traditions link these military adventures to Glacier's mountains.

The mountains along the Continental Divide provided the necessary strategic protection for the fleeing Kutenai, Kalispel, and Flathead with their inferior numbers. But in addition, the mountains provided numerous passes for their seasonal return to the plains for buffalo hunting. Regardless of great speculation, probably only Cut Bank Pass (also known as Upper Marias Pass) and Red Eagle Pass in the southern part of Glacier and Kootenai and Brown Passes in the northern section became routes of regular travel. Passes far to the north of Glacier or far to the south were probably safer and less well guarded by Blackfoot warriors. The mountains also provided animals for the appetite of western Indian hunters. Mountain sheep, elk, deer, and other animals became substitutes for the buffalo. But the mountain passes also became the regular pathway for Blackfoot raiders. Lieutenant John Mullan, an early explorer in the region and admirer of the Flatheads, referred to the Blackfeet as "these hellhounds of the mountains."

While the Blackfeet were classified as "hellhounds," the impression of the western tribes as gained from the earliest explorers is quite different. The Kalispel or Pend d'Oreille (meaning "camas people" referring to their staple food, or "earring people," referring to their decorative ornaments), lived a more peaceable existence in the mountain valleys. Centered along Flathead Lake, they ranged westward to the Priest River country of Idaho and the present State of Washington.

The Kalispel depended upon buffalo hunts east of the mountains in a way similar to other tribes which had been forced off the plains, but they also became skilled hunters of mountain sheep, elk, and deer; they seined fish and generally varied their diet and way of life as buffalo became less accessible. At the meeting with Governor Isaac Stevens in 1855, one of their chiefs, Alexander, referred to his father as having lived near the Three Buttes or Sweet Grass Hills, which are located directly east of Glacier. Alexander expressed his bitterness over the inability of the Kalispel to return to their former home lands to hunt buffalo because of the Blackfoot expansion and aggressiveness. Unquestionably, this group entered the park area with frequency when heading east to hunt, crossing Marias, Cut Bank, Red Eagle, or other passes. They probably also entered the area when pursuing Blackfeet who had stolen their horses or while tracking elusive elk or deer.

Native Americans on horseback
Glacier's mountain passes served as routes of travel for hunting parties or raiders. Blackfeet occasionally left the plains to raid their enemies' camps. At least once a year, if not more, tribes of the western slope headed east to hunt buffalo. Passes like Marias, Cut Bank, Red Eagle, and Brown probably served the bulk of these infrequent visitors. (Courtesy of Glacier National Park Historical Collections)

Similarly, their southern neighbors, the Flathead or Salish (meaning "The People"), expressed an affinity for the plains east of the Continental Divide. Early explorers, settlers, missionaries, and other observers consistently praised the Flathead (who were nevertheless misnamed as they did not practice head flattening) for their friendly attitude, peacefulness, industry, and other admirable qualities. Blackfoot aggression drove the Flathead from the prairies, but they, too, returned eastward through the mountains to hunt the tasty buffalo.

The Flathead lived primarily in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana and passed through Hell's Gate when heading to the plains. But frequently they chose alternative routes to avoid Blackfoot war parties. Occasionally they would pass through the mountains of Glacier or even through more northern passes. Captain Thomas Blakiston, an early explorer in the Waterton Lakes area during the 1850s, reported that "The Flathead Pass enters the mountains at the 49th parallel of latitude, follows the west shore of Lake Waterton, and gains Flathead River, which it follows to the Flathead Mission on the Clark Fork of the Columbia, about 80 miles south by east of the Kootenai Trading Post. It is used by the Flathead Indians when crossing to the Saskatchewan Plains for the purpose of obtaining buffalo meat." It is unknown to which pass Blakiston referred, for it may have been Waterton Park's South Kootenay Pass or its Akamina Pass; possibly Glacier's Kootenai but more likely Brown Pass. The Flathead and Kalispel both passed through the mountains of Glacier to return to their ancestral homes and to satisfy their desire for buffalo. Their adaptability to life in the mountain valleys served them well, however, for when the buffalo disappeared during the nineteenth century, suffering among the Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, and other plains tribes was severe. Alternative food sources had already made the western tribes more flexible. Their trips across the mountains simply stopped.

Native Americans on horseback
Indian tribes, like the Kutenai, Flathead, and Kalispel, also used horses, hunted buffalo, and lived both east and west of Glacier's mountains. However, the more aggressive Blackfeet forced them to hunt in well-organized groups when on the plains, to direct their appetite to food other than buffalo meat, and to gradually forego their claims upon the buffalo ranges east of Glacier. (Courtesy of Western History Department, Denver Public Library)


Man in Glacier
©1976, Glacier Natural History Association
buchholtz/chap1a.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.