The first white men to enter Montana’s Bitterroot Valley were the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition, which arrived there on Sept. 4, 1805. They were heading westward to the Pacific Ocean, with 750 miles of the most rugged country in America still ahead of them.
The expedition started 15 months earlier at Camp Dubois near St. Louis where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned them to explore and map the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase territory, and find a practical route across the vast wilderness.
With them was Sacagawea, a Lemhi Shoshone Indian — the only woman in the party — and her baby, Jean Baptiste, born on the journey.
She’d been kidnapped by Hidatsa Indians when about 12 years old, and freed only after being bought by French-Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau, who took her as a wife.
The expedition hired them both as guide and interpreter.
On Aug. 8, 1805, Sacagawea recognized a familiar landmark — Beaverhead Rock, north of present-day Dillon, Mont.
A few days later, she had a joyful reunion with her people and her brother, Cameahwait, who had become chief. Proudly, she showed them her 7-month-old son whom Captain Clark nicknamed “Pompey.”
The Shoshones had horses and the expedition needed some to cross the rugged mountains ahead — and the Shoshones wanted guns. Lewis wrote that Cameahwait told him, “If we had guns, we could live in the country of the buffaloe and eat as our enimies do, and not be compelled to hide ourselves in these mountains and live on roots and berries as the bears do.”
The expedition was almost out of trade goods, but acquired 29 horses in poor condition for some old clothes and other items including a pistol.
Sacagawea helped close the deal.
Leaving the Shoshone behind, the Corps crossed the Continental Divide 1.3 miles northwest of Lost Trail Pass near today’s Missoula.
William Clark wrote in his journal, “We assended a mountain & took a Divideing ridge which we kept for Several Miles & fell on the head of a Creek which appeared to run the Course we wished to go…”
The party’s hunter killed a deer which they immediately cooked and ate. One of Lewis and Clark’s soldiers, Pvt. Joseph Field, noted in his journal that Sacagawea liked eating “the paunch and all the Small guts.”
On Sept. 4, as snow and cold were setting in and the expedition almost out of food, they descended into the Bitterroot Valley.
After arriving in the valley, Private Field wrote “We met a part of the Flathead nation of 33 Lodges (with) about 80 men” and a herd of at least 400 to 500 horses. “Those people received us friendly, threw white robes over our Sholders & Smoked in the pipes of peace.”
Lewis also noted the Flathead as friendly, describing them as “stout and light complected.”
The Bitterroot Flathead call themselves “Salish,” a term applying to several tribes who speak the Salish language. “Flathead” is a misnomer usually implying that they flattened the skulls of babies by tying the heads with boards. The Salish didn’t do it.
They were called “Flat head” because their heads were not pointed like some neighboring tribes who did practice head-binding.
“The Chiefs harangued untill late at night,” Lewis continued, “Smoked our pipe and appeared Satisfied. I was the first white man who ever wer on the waters of this river.”
They bought more horses from the Flathead and prepared to head west across the Bitterroot Mountains rising menacingly from the valley floor.
Led by an elderly Flathead named Old Toby, it took them 11 days to cross the Bitterroots, and they had to eat three of their colts to survive.
On the other side in Idaho they found the Nez Perce, who helped them build canoes for river travel ahead to the sea, and sold them more horses and agreed to care for them until the expedition returned eastbound.
Some 25 years before Lewis and Clark arrived, tragedy hit the Bitterroot Valley when smallpox decimated a group of Salish camped near today’s Missoula. The camp split up the families with smallpox from those who didn’t catch it. Only one boy survived from the group that went to the Bitterroot Valley.
The dreaded “white-man’s disease” killed one-half to three-quarters of the Salish and Pend Oreille bands. Adding to that problem, those generally peaceful tribes were plagued by the warlike Blackfeet who had guns and horses acquired from Canadian trappers.
Then after Lewis and Clark, fur traders came into the region, led by the great Canadian explorer David Thompson, who built trading posts at several sites, including Kullyspell House at Lake Pend Oreille near Sandpoint.
As more whites moved in, the Flathead Salish learned about Christianity from Iroquois Indian trappers employed by Hudson’s Bay Company. Twelve of the Iroquois who remained in the Bitterroot Valley were adopted into the tribe and married Salish women.
They taught prayers and hymns to the Flathead — and told them about the great power of the Jesuit “Black Robes.”
In 1831, the Salish sent a delegation of four to St. Louis to ask Black Robes be sent to them. They remembered their old friend William Clark who was living there and asked for his help, but he couldn’t find any Jesuits who were free to go.
Then all four of the Indian delegation died — two in St. Louis and two on the way home.
In 1835, a second group of Salish went to St. Louis, again asking for Black Robes and again couldn’t find any. The following year, a third delegation of four headed for St. Louis — never to be heard from again.
It wasn’t until the fourth delegation arrived and met Bishop Joseph Rosati in 1839, that the request was granted.
The next year, they sent Jesuit Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, accompanied by Fathers Nicholas Point and Gregory Mengarini and lay brothers William Claessens, Charles Huet, and Joseph Specht.
On Sept. 24, 1841, they arrived in the Bitterroot Valley with three carts and a wagon — the first vehicles to enter the area — and were greeted by a joyful crowd of 1,600. The Jesuits then built the Mission of St. Mary’s on the Bitterroot River at today’s Stevensville.
DeSmet made a trip to Fort Vancouver and returned with cattle, swine and poultry — the first in Montana. Then he went to Europe to raise funds and find Jesuits for the mission.
He found one in the multi-talented Father Anthony Ravalli, an Italian Jesuit who was also a physician, surgeon, pharmacist, architect, artist and sculptor.
The mission organized a band that played German and Italian music, built a grist mill and sawmill, taught the Indians Christianity and the three R’s, how to plow, plant, cultivate, irrigate and harvest crops and how to tend cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry.
Then in 1850, the mission was closed due to marauding Blackfeet Indians. That did not slow the intrepid Father Ravalli, who immediately went to Idaho and built the Cataldo Mission that today is the state’s oldest standing building.
Later, John Owen from Fort Hall, Idaho, bought the shuttered St. Mary’s mission for $250 (about $7,200 today), and with his Shoshone wife, Nancy, renamed it Fort Owen, a popular trading post and rest stop for fur trappers, traders, missionaries and explorers.
In 1852, gold was discovered and Bitterroot Valley boomed.
A new St. Mary’s was built a half-mile south of the original site in 1866 and still serves the community today.
In 1855, the Bitterroot Salish signed the Treaty of Hellgate, ceding most of their homeland to the U.S. government, with the understanding that they could continue to live there. That didn’t happen however — they were moved to a reservation north of Missoula — with the last Salish leaving their Bitterroot Valley homeland in 1891.
Nez Perce Chief Joseph and his Wallowa band refused to be exiled to an Indian reservation in Idaho and in 1877 headed for Canada, seeking asylum with Sioux Chief Sitting Bull.
For four months, Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard and his soldiers chased them across Idaho, the Bitterroot Valley and Wyoming until they were cornered at Bears Paw Meadows, Mont.
Chief Joseph surrendered just 40 miles shy of their destination, telling his people and America, “I will fight no more, forever.”
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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Memories of ancestral land…
“When we go home I think about our old people. I walk lightly when I walk around. The bones of my Grandparents and their Grandparents are all around here.
“We return to the Bitterroot each year on a Pilgrimage to honor our connection with our homeland. Also to ensure the preservation of our ancestors’ graves and sacred sites. In doing so we acknowledge the gifts left here by those who have gone on before us, gifts of language, songs, dance, spirituality. This way of life has been sustained for generations by our ancestors’ prayers.”
— Louise Vanderburg, Salish elder
Where’s Fort Clatsop?
“Today we recognize the Lewis and Clark Expedition as a turning point in the history of the United States. Regarding the Expedition, National Park Service historian John Hussey once remarked, ‘Its impact on the American mind and imagination is amply demonstrated by the way travelers to the Columbia River area, as early as 1811, went considerable distances out of their way merely to see where Lewis and Clark had wintered at Fort Clatsop.’”
Hussey noted that, as important and compelling as Fort Clatsop is as a historic site, there is no positive proof of the exact location of the Fort.”
Lewis and Clark artifacts…
A few artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expe4dition have been found:
• Jefferson Peace Medal found at confluence of Snake and Pelouse Rivers, Oct 16-17, 1805
• 1890s Lewis” branding iron found on the north shore of the Columbia River near Memaloose Island
• A battle axe believed originally traded to the Mandan Indians for corn was discovered along the Snake River around 1960 in a Nez Perce Indian campsite just 20 miles from a Nez Perce campsite seen by Lewis and Clark in 1806.
Wanted: Shoshone horses…
“The Indian woman recognized the point of a high plain to our right which she informed us was not very distant from the summer retreat of her nation on a river beyond the mountains which runs to the west.
“This hill she says her nation calls the Beaver’s Head, from a conceived resemblance of its figure to the head of that animal…as it is now all important with us to meet with those people as soon as possible I determined to proceed tomorrow with a small party…and pass the mountains to the Columbia; and down that river until I found the Indians…without horses we shall be obliged to leave a great part of our stores…”
— Meriwether Lewis, Journal, Aug. 8, 1805
John Mullan in Bitterroot…
Lieutenant John Mullan was stationed in the Bitterroot Valley at Fort Owen (formerly St. Mary’s Mission) from 1853 to 1854 by Washington Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens to explore the area and protect the Flathead Indians, who were saddened when he left. Five years later, Mullan began building Mullan Road from Walla Walla, Wash., through Idaho to Fort Benton, Mont.