Man in Glacier
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Chapter Two:

As the buffalo began to disappear and the mountain men became obsolete, a different kind of white man approached the mountains of Montana. The missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic, hoped to Christianize the Native Americans, to soften the clash of white and Indian cultures, and to protect the innocent from any evil or wicked influences. The Methodists sent Jason Lee with a few assistants into the Oregon Country as early as 1834. The Whitman-Spalding party followed in 1836, bringing Christianity and the first white women to the Pacific Northwest. However, both groups bypassed Montana's mountains and preceded the general migration to Oregon during the 1840s. Ethnologist-historian John Ewers reported that the Rev. R. T. Rundle, a Methodist, conducted a mission to the Blackfeet from Fort Edmonton in 1840, but he met with very little success. At the same time, the adventurous Belgian Jesuit, Pierre Jean De Smet traveled among the Indians living just northeast of Glacier, and in 1845 he reported: "Protestant ministers of doubtful morals had traversed the country defaming the Black Robes."

Mission activities of Father De Smet led to the establishment of St. Mary's Mission in Montana's Bitterroot Valley in 1841. Christianity prospered for a while, but the Flathead temporarily rejected it in the late 1840s because of the missionaries' friendliness with the Blackfeet. Located in the southern end of the Flathead Valley, the mission of St. Ignatius was established by the Jesuits in 1854. An effort to preach to the Kalispel and Kutenai led to a permanent mission in the valley near the scenic Mission Mountains. (Western History Department, Denver Public Library)

Even though the Protestants may have traveled through the area first, the Catholic missionaries, led by Father De Smet, arrived in western Montana with the objective of establishing a permanent mission among the Indians. Men like De Smet, Father Nicholas Point, and Father Gregory Mengarini lived with the Flathead, Kutenai, and Kalispel and found their initial success in conversion quite encouraging. Success in war with the Blackfeet following the Jesuit arrival may have led the western tribes to accept Christianity as "powerful medicine"; however, a temporary withdrawal from Christian practices seemed to follow each military defeat. Additional problems resulted from the presence of American trappers and hunters known for their "shameful" and "licentious living," as well as their trade in whiskey.

Jesuit Father Pierre Jean De Smet
Missionaries like the Jesuit Father Pierre Jean De Smet traveled to the Flathead Indians following their request for a mission. DeSmet traveled widely throughout the West during the 1840s and initiated Catholic missionary work among the Flathead, Blackfeet, and numerous other tribes. (Courtesy of State Historical Society of Colorado)

In 1845, De Smet spent eleven days crossing the Rockies, and since his journal description was particularly vague, it could have been over Glacier's Kutenai or Cut Bank Passes. He was traveling to locate and convert the Blackfeet. Passing through the mountains, De Smet wrote: "All that one sees and hears in the wilderness is delightful and instructive; one is impressed, captivated, and elevated toward the Author of all nature." After viewing the mountain scenery, he wrote: "The famous Cheops and Cephren dwindle into insignificance before these gigantic peaks. The natural pyramids of the Rocky Mountains seem to hurl defiance at all human construction." Upon emerging on the plains he met a small band of Stoney Indians, whom he called "Assiniboins of the Forest." He stated that they "are filthy beyond description, and devoured by vermin which they themselves eat." Subsisting on porcupines, eating roots, seeds, and the bark of trees, having almost no horses but many dogs, these Indians lived in a pitiable condition and were frequently on the verge of starvation. De Smet reported that they occasionally reverted to cannibalism. He left—with little success toward their Christianization—in order to continue his search for the Blackfeet, possibly leaving history with its earliest observation of Glacier and of some of Glacier's closest Native American neighbors.

Gradually information about the mountainous region began to accumulate from direct observation of missionaries like De Smet, from free trappers giving oral reports, and through detailed maps provided by professional explorers like David Thompson and Lewis and Clark. During the late 1830s, a Department of State translator and librarian, Robert Greenhow, collected, compiled, and clarified the geographic information about the region. He published a history of the Oregon region as well as a detailed map which included the entire Pacific Northwest. Drawn in 1840 and published in 1845, his map displayed Marias Pass, marked "Route across the Mts.," clearly designated at its present-day location. The Greenhow historical account as well as his map displayed some very accurate details considering that he never visited the area and also reflected an interest and growing awareness in the region.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the entire area surrounding Glacier had a disputed ownership. Indians traversed the region and lived near it, and various governments claimed ownership on nationalistic principles. The northern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase had been recognized as the northern most branches of the Missouri River, which included not only Glacier's Cut Bank and Two Medicine Creeks, but also the nearby Milk River. That meant that the country drained by the St. Mary and Belly Rivers belonged to the British. An initial agreement came in 1818 when the 49th parallel was established as the boundary from the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota to the crest of the Rockies in Glacier. That agreement was not immediately clarified with a survey, but at least a dividing line appeared on maps.

West of the Continental Divide, however, the region became the object of conflicting international claims. During the 1830s and 1840s, "Oregon Country" became the objective not just of trappers and traders but also of settlers and speculators. The major British business in the region, Hudson's Bay Company, recognized that the fur trade was about finished and its interests no longer depended on the need to control the trade of the entire Columbia River. Hudson's Bay officials also began to fear the possibility of destructive American raids on their outposts and encouraged the British government to offer a compromise on the issue of ownership. President James K. Polk accepted the British offer in 1846, and instead of "Fifty-four forty or fight," the lower 49th parallel became the boundary, extending from Glacier's mountains westward to the Strait of Georgia. Thus, in 1818 and again in 1846, Glacier was on the edge of both American and British claims. It was a fringe area in terms of interest and actual occupation. Until 1846, the Glacier area had been "up for grabs," but after 1846, Americans began to assert their claims and examine what they now owned. The authority on the Northwest, Robert Greenhow, writing in 1845, speculated that the end of the fur trade in that region would mean the end of economic productivity. Except for having soil which would provide a small farmer with a "means of subsistence," Greenhow noted: "In those countries they produced no precious metals, nor commodities, no gold nor silver, nor coffee, nor cotton, nor opium; they are not like India, inhabited by a numerous population, who may be easily forced to labor for the benefit of a few."

In 1848, the portion of Glacier west of the Continental Divide became part of the newly organized Oregon Territory. It later became part of the Washington Territory when that subdivision was made in 1853. East of the Divide, possession by the Blackfeet was recognized by the first major Indian treaty to affect Indian ownership west of the Mississippi. In 1851, the Fort Laramie Treaty defined the Blackfoot territory around the headwaters of the Missouri River. The treaty gave the Indians further assurance that they could live there unmolested "for all time." But time would show that clearly defined territories enabled the United States government to gain land cessions from single tribes without antagonizing all Indians.

The late 1840s and early 1850s produced an influx of people to the West: miners headed for California, settlers journeyed to Oregon, Mormons traveled to Salt Lake, and numerous other immigrants moved westward. No sooner had these settlers reached the West, than proposals developed for a "transcontinental railroad" to link the East with the Far West. As early as 1845, a New York businessman, Asa Whitney, suggested that the government grant a sixty-mile-wide strip between Lake Superior and Oregon Country to any company willing to undertake the construction of a railroad across that land. Even though that plan was not accepted, Congressional leaders realized that the Federal Government would have to aid any project of this magnitude. In 1853, Congress authorized the Army to survey all possible routes for a railroad between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Coast.

The task of surveying the mountains of Montana and the rest of the Pacific Northwest fell to the newly appointed Governor of Washington Territory, Isaac I. Stevens. Stevens divided his survey party between the Cascades to the west and the Rocky Mountains to the east, and he personally took charge of the survey in Montana.

From his initial Montana headquarters at Fort Benton, Stevens determined that a search for Marias Pass was imperative. He possibly had Greenhow's map in his possession, but more importantly, he had heard an actual description of Marias Pass from the Piegan Chief Little Dog. On this he based his decision to locate a usable pass in that area. Stevens sent engineer Frederick Lander with a small reconnaissance party to explore the pass, but some internal dissension among members of the group caused it to return without ever reaching its goal.

Stevens moved his expedition southwestward across the mountains to the Bitterroot Valley. There he established a camp, planned to spend the winter, and hoped to complete his survey of the various mountain passes. With Marias Pass still on his mind, he instructed another, more dependable engineer, A. W. Tinkham, to travel north through the Flathead Valley and then eastward to locate Marias Pass. On October 7, 1853, Tinkham and a Flathead Indian scout began their journey to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. They followed an old Indian trail up Nyack Creek, crossed Cut Bank Pass, and entered the plains on the east side. Due to the "3 degrees above 0" weather and a mistrust of the Blackfeet, they hurried to Fort Benton where they arrived October 31st. While Tinkham called Cut Bank "Marias Pass" and noted correctly that any railroad passage there would be impossible without a tunnel, little other information of his journey was provided. Tinkham became the first white man to enter these mountains since MacDonald in 1810.

Tinkham's unfavorable report convinced Stevens that another survey should be made, and in the spring of 1854 he dispatched another member of the expedition, John Doty, to find Marias Pass from an eastern approach. Accompanied by Hugh Monroe (also called Rising Wolf), a former Hudson's Bay employee who lived among the Piegan, Doty left Fort Benton on May 10, 1854, and traveled to explore the front range of Glacier. On May 24th, Doty passed an old Indian trail leading into the mountains and later noted that it led to the "Marias Pass" located by Tinkham the previous year. His expedition proceeded farther north and camped near "Chief Mountain Lake" (later called Lower St. Mary Lake by Hugh Monroe and the missionary Father Albert Lacombe). He then scouted along the adjoining "Bow Lake" (later called just St. Mary Lake) and reported the lack of a suitable pass for a railroad in the area. He added that the "lakes are filled with beaver dams, and beaver, elk, moose, and deer, were abundant, and trout of a large size were taken in the lakes." Then, he traveled northward to 49 degrees 30 minutes, observed "Chief or King Mountain," and returned to the south to revisit the old Indian trail entering the mountains "issuing through a gap 15 miles wide." Doty made it apparent that he had discovered the "true Marias Pass," but he did not venture to see its western terminus because of a lack of time. Stevens regarded Doty's observations as a "thorough exploration," even though he regretted that Doty "did not continue on, and ascertain where the trail issued on the western side of the mountains." Doty's month-long expedition along Glacier's east side helped Stevens determine "the existence of a large body of agricultural land, and proper localities for farms, and the general capabilities of the land for settlement." But in the final report, Marias Pass (actually Cut Bank Pass) received an unfavorable recommendation for the proposed railroad route, and the "true Marias Pass" was ignored with the expectation that further investigation might find better passages through the rugged mountains. Marias Pass would not be considered again until 1889, when engineer John F. Stevens (no relationship to Governor Stevens) was sent to scout the area. Hired by railroad tycoon James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railway, John Stevens would verify its usability for the railroad crossing.

Governor Stevens agreed to try to keep the peace in the entire region. However, traditional hatred between tribes and new incursions by white interlopers caused continued unrest in the region throughout the 1850s and 1860s. (Courtesy of National Archives)

Exploration was not Governor Stevens's only concern. As Governor of Washington Territory, Stevens planned to insure peace among the various tribes for the expected influx of American settlers. In 1855, Stevens held a major conference with the Kalispel, Flathead, and Kutenai tribes and he convinced them to form a Confederation (called Salishan) and to consider accepting a reservation along Flathead Lake. Thus, the remainder of their territory, including Glacier's entire west side, became part of the public domain.

Stevens also met with the Blackfeet later in 1855 and explained to them that their territory should also be clearly defined. After negotiations were completed, Blackfoot territory included much of north-central Montana and all of Glacier's east side. In addition, a common range for buffalo hunting—open to all tribes—was to be located south of their lands to avoid any intertribal conflicts. Stevens also asked the Blackfeet to respect the rights of white settlers crossing their land, to permit road and communication line construction, and to cease any raiding upon the western tribes.

Upon hearing of this settlement, some of the western tribal leaders became indignant and refused to be excluded from their ancestral hunting grounds along the Milk River east of Glacier. Continual fighting raged between the Blackfeet and their western enemies for the next fifteen years. One example of their conflict occurred when Stevens sent Alex McKay and William T. Hamilton, disguised as trappers, into the Blackfoot country in 1858. These "spies" found a hostile attitude toward the white interlopers at the camp of Chief Little Dog. A Blackfoot attack left several Indians dead, and McKay and Hamilton hurried westward toward the mountains of Glacier and met a band of Kutenai Indians camping near St. Mary Lake. With the aroused Indians advancing, the white men, together with the Kutenai, immediately began a retreat over Red Eagle Pass; but their Blackfoot pursuers caught them and a battle ensued. The Kutenai, with Hamilton and McKay at their sides, inflicted numerous casualties upon the Blackfeet and then continued their retreat to the west side. This kind of hostility displayed the unsettled condition of Indian-white relations in the region and made agreements with the Indians just as essential to the future development of the area as exploration.

Isaac Stevens's survey and attempted treatymaking led the British to become concerned over their possession of the Canadian West. As historian Irene Spry noted, the Canadian West was endangered by "the rapacious talons of the American eagle." Sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society and given government financial support, the British North American Exploring Expedition, headed by Captain John Palliser, arrived in Canada late in 1857 and began surveying in the spring of 1858. The Palliser Expedition, similar to Isaac Stevens's survey, was to observe the "physical features" of the country, report on its climate and general conditions, and determine some possible "communication" routes to the Pacific coast. Locating passes for railroad use was not a specific objective but was certainly implied.

Chief Mountain
Chief Mountain (Courtesy of Doug Erskine)

In August 1858, Palliser himself traveled to the 49th parallel near Glacier's Chief Mountain. He declared: "I was most probably, the only white man that had ever been there." Accompanied by the French-Canadian guide, Batiste Gabriel, Palliser watched the sun set "gloriously" behind Chief Mountain, "a traditional landmark," and then returned to the north.

Palliser selected his most obstreperous, recalcitrant expedition member, Lieut. Thomas Wright Blakiston, to further explore the southernmost mountains of the Canadian range. Blakiston's expedition brought him across the North Fork of the Flathead River and into today's Glacier Park on September 4, 1858. He camped on Kishenehn Creek for two nights because the weather turned bad and rain and snow fell. Then, in "raw, cold, and clouded" weather, Blakiston followed the trail of six Kutenai Indians north into Canada and over a pass to the east side (probably South Kootenay Pass). The Blakiston party traveled to Waterton Lakes and camped nearby. Blakiston reported: "The scenery here is grand and picturesque . . . [and] game was abundant, including grisly [sic] bears, and we obtained both fresh meat and fish. The Trout and Pike in the lakes were of large size." He also noted the existence of a "Flathead Pass" leaving the shore of Waterton Lake and crossing the mountains to the west, and he also observed Chief Mountain after riding several miles out on the plains. He further noted that "this corner of the mountains appeared to be a very windy spot" and, displaying a botanical interest, he recorded that he had been "fortunate enough to discover a stunted species of Pine" (most probably the whitebark pine). After camping for several days at Waterton Lake, his group journeyed northward again, located some "well behaved" Blackfoot Indians, and finally left the region.

In 1859, Capt. Palliser continued his survey westward into British Columbia to the vicinity of the Kettle River where he encountered an American boundary survey team heading east. Palliser then retraced his steps to the Milk River-Fort Benton region, completed his observations, returned to England, and made his final report. Palliser concluded that the agricultural potential of the region was substantial but the construction of roads or railroads through a plains and mountainous territory would be far too difficult. However, Palliser's negative report conflicted almost immediately with the Canadian-sponsored survey of S. J. Dawson and George Gladman which recommended the construction of an overland route from Lake Superior into the Canadian West. Nevertheless, the Palliser expedition attempted to bring greater definition to the entire region and also served as a political tool as "a gesture of official interest" in the area around the 49th parallel.

government agent
Early visitors to the region such as missionaries or survey parties, sometimes observed the silent evidence of the past. Just east of Glacier, this government agent discovered the remains of a Crow war party which had been decimated by the Blackfeet. (Courtesy of Glenbow-Alberta Institute)

As Palliser's survey reached its completion, two additional surveys, destined to enter Glacier, were just beginning. Following the 1846 boundary agreement between the United States and British Canada, no actual survey had taken place to mark the entire dividing line. Since a dispute over the ownership of the San Juan Islands arose in the 1850s, both the United States and Great Britain agreed that future disagreements could be avoided if surveys were conducted. In 1857, the American expedition, called the Northwest Boundary Survey, directed by Commissioner Archibald Campbell and led by Chief Astronomer Lieut. John G. Parke, began from the West coast and finally crossed Glacier's North Fork of the Flathead River late in 1860. The British Survey Expedition, led by Lt. Col. John S. Hawkins of the Royal Engineers, reached the mountains of Glacier during the summer of 1861.

Both groups were primarily interested in determining the exact location of the 49th parallel and constructing small monuments to mark it, but in the tradition of other 19th-century exploring expeditions, each group brought along some geologists, naturalists, and other scientists to survey and evaluate the adjoining countryside. Unfortunately, the final American survey report was not printed and was lost, so little is known of their impressions; however, the personal letters of expedition members told of the hardships of travel as their major concern. Travel along the 49th parallel was almost impossible in the heavily wooded region of the west slope and approaches had to be made by finding accessible routes along old Indian trails such as Kishenehn Creek, or along lake shores such as Waterton Lake. Even though little is known of their impressions, it is noteworthy that both survey teams entered the northernmost sections of Glacier and observed the Belly River, Waterton Lakes, and North Fork regions. After a rather grueling wilderness experience of several years duration, most members probably agreed with Lt. Parke's observation that "the entire region is eminently unfit for occupation and settlement."

Thus, by the time Americans became engaged in the Civil War, the mountainous region of Glacier had been discovered and explored. Fur trappers had crossed these mountains and some, like Hugh Monroe, continued to live nearby; missionaries visited the region; a major American railroad survey scouted possible routes through the area; a British survey team skirted the region; attempts were made to pacify the nearby Indians; and two official boundary survey teams came to mark the boundary line. However, their collective impact upon Glacier was negligible for the Blackfeet continued to dominate the region until the 1870s, deterring any influx of settlers or any other travel through the mountain passes. But as the Indian influence declined, greater interest, further exploration, and, finally, exploitation of its resources would follow.


Man in Glacier
©1976, Glacier Natural History Association
buchholtz/chap2b.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.