General View of Mountain Passes

Montana Settlement, Geology, Exploration, 1728-1862

Montana, mountainous or full of mountains 1 is a name, as herein used, no less beautiful than significant. From the summit of its loftiest peak – Mount Hayden – may be seen within a day’s ride of each other the sources of the three great arteries of the territory owned by the United States – the Missouri, the Colorado, and the Columbia. From the springs on either side of the range on whose flanks Montana lies flow the floods that mingle with the North Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of California, and the Gulf of Mexico. The Missouri is 4,600 miles in length, the Columbia over 1,200, and the Colorado a little short of 1,000; yet out of the springs that give them rise the Montana may drink the same day. Nay, more: there is a spot where, as the rainfalls, drops descending together, only an inch asunder perhaps, on striking the ground part company, one wending its long, adventurous way to the Atlantic, while the other bravely strikes out for the Pacific. These rivers, with their great and numerous branches, are to the land what the arteries and veins are to the animal organism, and whoso action is controlled by the heart; hence this spot may be aptly termed the heart of the continent. From New Orleans to the falls of the Missouri there is no obstacle to navigation. Wonderful river!

Could we stand on Mount Hayden, we should see at first nothing but a chaos of mountains, whose confused features are softened by vast undulating masses of forest; then would come out of the chaos stretches of grassy plains, a glint of a lake here and there, dark canons made by the many streams converging to form the monarch river, rocky pinnacles shooting up out of interminable forests, and rising above all, a silvery ridge of eternal snow, which imparts to the range its earliest name of Shining Mountains. The view, awe-inspiring and bewildering, teaches us little; we must come down from our lofty eminence before we can particularize, or realize that mountains, lakes, forests, and river-courses are not all of Montana, or that, impressive as the panorama may be, greater wonders await us in detail.

The real Montana with which I have to deal consists of a number of basins among these mountains, in which respect it is not unlike Idaho. Commencing at the westernmost of the series, lying between the Bitterroot and Rocky ranges, this one is drained by the Missoula and Flathead Rivers, and contains the beautiful Flathead Lake, which is at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, in latitude 48°. From the lake south for fifty miles is a gently undulating country, with wood, grass, and water in abundance, and a good soil. The small valley of the Jocko, which is reached by crossing a range of hills, is a garden of fertility and natural loveliness. But true to the character of this montane region, another and a higher range must be crossed before we can get a glimpse of the grander and not less lovely Hellgate 2 Valley, furnished also with good grass and abundance of fine timber. Branching off to the south is the valley of the Bitterroot, another fertile and picturesque region. The Hellgate and Bitterroot valleys are separated from Idaho on the west by the Bitterroot Range, on the lofty peaks of which the snow is from year to year. These mountains have a general trend southeast and northwest, and cover an area of seventy-five miles from west to east, forming that great mass of high, rough mineral country so often referred to in my description of Idaho, and which is covered with forest.

Passing out of the Bitterroot and Hellgate valleys to the east, we travel through the pass, which gives its name to the latter. This canon is forty miles in length, cutting through a range less lofty than those on the west. Through it flows the Hellgate River, receiving in its course several streams, the largest of which is the Big Blackfoot, which heads in the Rocky Mountains, near Lewis and Clarke’s pass of 1806. At the eastern end of this canon is Deer Lodge Valley, watered by the Deer Lodge River, rising in the Rocky Mountains south and east of this pass, and becoming the Hellgate River where it turns abruptly to the west after receiving the waters of the Little Blackfoot, and which still farther on becomes the Missoula. Other smaller streams and valleys of a similar character go to make up the northwestern basin, which is about 250 miles long by an average width of 75 miles. It is the best timbered portion of Montana, being drained toward the northwest, and open to the warm, moisture laden winds of the Pacific, which find an opening here extending to the Rocky Mountains.

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The northeast portion of Montana, 3 bounded by the Rocky Mountains on the west, the divide between the Missouri and the river system of the British possessions on the north, and by a broken chain of mountains on the south, is drained toward the east by the Missouri River, and is a country essentially different from the grassy and well-wooded regions west of the great range. It constitutes a basin about 400 miles in length and 150 in breadth, the western portion being broken occasionally by mountain spurs, or short, isolated upheavals, such as the Little Rockies, the Bear Paw Mountains, or the Three Buttes, and taken up in the eastern portion partly by the Bad Lands. Its general elevation is much less than that of the basin just described, 4 yet its fertility is in general not equal to the higher region west of the Rocky Mountains. There is a belt of grassland from ten to twenty miles in width, extending along at the foot of the mountains for a hundred and fifty miles, backed by a belt of forest on the slopes of the higher foothills. The lower plains are for some distance along the Missouri a succession of clay terraces, entirely sterile, or covered with a scanty growth of grass of inferior nutritive quality. Through this clay the rivers have worn canons several hundred feet in depth, at the bottom of which they have made themselves narrow valleys of fertile soil washed down from the mountains, supporting some Cottonwood timber and grass. Higher, toward the south, about the heads of the tributaries of the Missouri, there is a region of good agricultural and grazing lands lying on both sides of the Little Belt and Snow Mountains. The scenery of the upper Missouri also presents, for a hundred or more miles, commencing below the mouth of the Jefferson fork, a panorama of grandeur and startling effects, the Gate of the Mountains, a canon five miles in length and a thousand feet deep, being one of the finest river passes in the world in point of beauty.

General View of Mountain Passes
General View of Mountain Passes

South of the vast region of the main Missouri are three separate basins; the first drained to the east by the Jefferson fork of that river, and by its branches, the Bighole 5 and Beaverhead, the latter heading in Horse Prairie, called Shoshone Cove by Lewis and Clarke, who at this place abandoned canoe travel, and purchased horses of the Indians for their journey over the mountains. They were fortunate in their choice of routes, this pass being the lowest in the Rocky range, and very gentle of ascent and descent. The Beaverhead-Bighole basin is about 150 miles by 100 in extent, containing eight valleys of considerable dimensions, all having more or less arable land, with grass and water.

East of this section is another basin, drained by the Madison and Gallatin forks of the Missouri, and. having an extent of 150 miles north and south, and 80 east and west. In it are five valleys, containing altogether a greater amount of agricultural land than the last named.

Last is the Yellowstone basin. It contains eight principal valleys, and is 400 miles long and 150 miles wide. The Yellowstone River is navigable for a distance of 340 miles; there is a large amount of agricultural and grazing lands along its course, and between it and the Missouri, with which it makes a junction on the eastern boundary of Montana. About the head of this river, named by early voyageurs from the sulphur tint of the rocks which constitute its banks in many places, cluster a world of the world’s wonders. The finger marks of the great planet making forces are oftener visible here than elsewhere. Hundreds of ages ago about these mountain peaks rolled an arctic sea, the wild winds sweeping over it, driving the glittering icebergs hither and thither. When the mountains were lifted out of the depths by volcanic forces they bore aloft immense glaciers, which lay for centuries in their folds and crevices, and slid and ground their way down the wrinkled slopes, tracing their history in indelible characters upon the rocks, while they gave rise and direction to the rivers, which in their turn have scooped out the valleys, and cut the immense canons which reveal to us the nature of the structure of the earth’s foundations.

Volcanic action is everywhere visible, and has been most vigorous. All the stratified rocks, the clays and slates in the Yellowstone range, have been subjected to fire. There are whole mountains of breccia. Great ravines are filled with ashes and scoria. Mountains of obsidian, of soda, and of sulphur, immense overflows of basalt, burnt out craters filled with water, making lakes of various sizes, everything everywhere points to the fiery origin, or the later volcanic history of the Yellowstone range.

The valley of the Yellowstone where it opens out presents a lovely landscape of bottom-lands dotted with groves, gradually elevated benches well grassed and prettily wooded, reaching to the foothills, and for a background the silver-crested summits of the Yellowstone range. As a whole, Montana presents a beautiful picture, its Bad Lands, volcanic features, and great altitudes only increasing the effect. In its forests, on its plains, and in its waters is an abundance of game, buffalo, moose, elk, bear, deer, antelope, mountain sheep, rabbits, squirrels, birds, water-fowl, fish, 6 not to mention the many wild creatures which civilized men disdain for food, such as the fox, panther, lynx, ground-hog, prairie-dog, badger, beaver, and marten. The natural history of Montana does not differ from that of the west side of the Rocky Mountains, except in the matter of abundance, the natural parks on the east side of the range containing almost a superfluity of animal life, a feature of the country which, taken in connection with the hardy and warlike indigenous tribes, promises well for the prosperity of the white race which unfolds therein.

As to the climate, despite the general elevation of the territory, it is not unpleasant. The winter camps of the fur companies were more often in the Yellowstone Valley than at the South Pass or Green River. Here, although the snow should fall to a considerable depth, their horses could subsist on the sweet cottonwood, of which they were fond. But the snow seldom fell to cover the grass for any length of time, or if it fell, the Chinook wind soon carried it off; and it is a remarkable trait of the country, that stock remains fat all winter, having no food or shelter other than that furnished by the plains and woods. 7 Occasional ‘cold waves’ affect the climate of Montana, along with the whole region east of the Rocky Mountains, sometimes accompanied with high winds and driving snow. 8 But the animals, both wild and tame, being well fed and intelligent, take care to escape the brief fury of the elements, and seldom perish. 9 This for the surface, beneath which, could the beholder look, what might he not see of mineral riches, of gold, silver, and precious stones, with all the baser metals I Montana is the native home of gold. Nowhere is it found in so great a diversity of positions; in the oldest igneous and metamorphic rocks, in the micacious slates, in alluvial drifts of boulders and gravel, sometimes in beds of ferruginous conglomerates, and infiltrated into quartz, granite, hornblende, lead, iron, clay, and every Kind of pseudomorphs. In Montana quartz is not always the ‘mother of gold,’ where iron and copper with their sulphurets and oxides are often a matrix for it. Even driftwood long embedded in the soil has its carbonaceous matter impregnated with it; and a solution of gold in the water is not rare. 10 The forms in which the precious metal exists in Montana are various. It is not always found in flattened, rounded, or oval grains, but often in crystalline and arborescent forms. 11 The cube, octahedron, and dodecahedron are not uncommon forms, the cube, however, being most rare. Cubes of iron pyrites are sometimes covered with crystals of gold. 12 Beautiful filaments of gold frequently occur in quartz lodes in Montana, and more rarely spongiform masses. 13 Curiously exemplifying the prodigality and eccentricity of the creative forces, cubes of galena, strung on wires of gold, and rare tellurium, are found in the same place in the earth.

Silver is present here, also, in a variety of forms, as the native metal, in sulphides, chlorides of various colors, antimonial silver, ruby, and polybasite, with some rarer combinations. Gems, if not of the finest, are frequent in gulch soils where gold is found. By analogy, there should be diamonds where quartz pebbles, slate clay, brown iron ore, and iron sand are found. Sapphires, generally of little value because of a poor color, beryl, aquamarine, garnet, chrysoberyl, white topaz, amethyst, opal, agate, and moss-agate are common. Of these the amethyst and the moss-agate are the most perfect in points of fineness and color. Of the latter there are several varieties, white, red, black, and green, in which the delicate fronds of moss, or other arborescent forms, are defined by the thin crystals of iron oxides, manganese, or other mineral matter in the process of formation; crystals of epidote, dark red and pale green, form veins in the earth; calcite, of a beautiful light red color, marbles, tin ores, cinnabar, magnesia, gypsum, and fire clays, base metals, coal – these are what this Montana storehouse contains, waiting for the requirements of man.

Carver's Map, 1778
Carver’s Map, 1778

There have been those who talked of catacombs in Montana, of underground apartments tenanted by dead warriors of a race as far back as one chooses to go. However this may be, it is certain that in the mauvaise terres, or bad lands of the early French explorers, are immense catacombs of extinct species of animals. These Bad Lands form one of the wonders of the world, which must be counted since the discovery of this region to be at least eight. The region is geologically remarkable. Under a thin gray alkaline alluvium, which supports only occasional pines and cedars on the banks of the streams, is a drab-colored clay or stone, which covers, in most places, beds of bituminous coal, or lignite. The soil is interspersed with seams of gypsum in the crystalline form, which sparkle in the sun like necklaces of diamonds upon the hills and river-bluffs. Other seams consist of spar iron, carbonates of magnesia, and deposits of many varieties of the spar family in beautiful forms of crystallization. In the alluvium are boulders of lime and sandstone, containing as a nucleus an ammonite, some of which are five feet in diameter, and glowing when discovered with all the colors of the rainbow. Fossil crustaceans also abound in the shales, their shining exposed edges making a brilliant mosaic. Beds of shells of great depth, and of beautiful species, are exposed in the walls of canons hundreds of feet beneath the surface. Balls of sandstone, in size from a birdshot to half a ton’s weight, are found on the Missouri River, the centre of each being a nucleus of iron. Bones of the mammoth elephant, of a height a third greater than the largest living elephants, and of twice their weight, are scattered through the land, together with other fossils. In some localities the country is sculptured into the likeness of a city, with narrow and crooked streets, white, shining, solitary, and utterly devoid of life – the most striking picture of desolation that could be imagined. Fancy fails in conjecturing the early developments of this region, now dead past all resurrection. 14

It is worthy of notice that the shining appearance of the Bad Lands, which the Indians of Montana described to the tribes farther east, and they to others in commercial relations with the French in Canada, and which became mingled with descriptions of the great mountain range, should lead to a journey of exploration in search of the Shining Mountains, where diamonds and gold abounded, by the Canadian French.

For the progress of these mercurial people since 1728 westward along the line of the Great Lakes, for the lies of Baron La Hontan, the adventures of Verendrye 15 the journey of Moncaht Apé, the explorations of Lewis and Clarke with the names of the first white men in Montana 16 and the doings of the fur hunters 17 and missionaries in these parts, the reader is referred to my History of the Northwest Coast, in this series. 18

Rector's Map, 1818
Rector’s Map, 1818

The first actual settlers of Montana, not missionaries, were some servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company and all foreign-born except the half-breeds. These men seldom had any trouble with the Indians, with whom they traded and dwelt, and among when they took wives. 19 They were protected against the Blackfoot tribe by the Flatheads, whom they assisted, in their turn, to resist the common foe. But there was not the same security for other white residents. In 1853 John and Francis Owen, who bought the building of St Mary’s mission, and established themselves, as they believed, securely in the Bitterroot Valley, were unable to maintain themselves longer against the warlike and predatory nation from the east side of the Rocky Mountains, and set out with their herds to go to Oregon, leaving their other property at the mercy of the savages. They had not proceeded far when they were met by a detachment of soldiers under Lieutenant Arnold, of the Pacific division of the government exploring expedition in charge of  I. I. Stevens, coming to establish a depot of supplies in the Bitterroot Valley for the use of the exploring parties which were to winter in the mountains. This fortunate circumstance enabled them to return and resume their settlement and occupations. 20

Lewis and Clarke's Map, 1806
Lewis and Clarke’s Map, 1806

Since the explorations of Lewis and Clarke, no government expedition had followed the course of the Missouri in Montana, if we except some geological researches by Evans, until the railroad survey under Stevens was ordered; and to this expedition, more than to any other cause, may the gold discoveries in Idaho and Montana, and the ultimate rapid settlement of the country, be credited. 21 Stevens left at Fort Benton, and west of there along the line of exploration in Montana in the winter of 1853-4, one of his assistants, James Doty, to study under Alexander Culbertson the character and feelings of the Indian tribes of the mountains, preparatory to a council of treaty with the Blackfoot nation; Lieutenant Grover, to observe the different passes, with regard to snow, during the winter; and Lieutenant Mullan, to explore for routes in every direction. These officers and Mr Doty seemed to have failed in nothing. Mullan travelled nearly a thousand miles, crossing the divide of the Rocky Mountains six times from October to January, passing the remainder of the winter at Cantonment Stevens in the Bitterroot Valley. Grover on the 2d of January left Fort Benton, crossing the Rocky Mountains by Cadotte’s pass on the 12th, and finding the cold severe, the temperature by day being 21° below zero. On the 16th, being on very elevated ground, at sunrise the mercury stood at 38° below zero. In the Hellgate and Bitterroot valleys it was still from 10° to 20° below zero, which was cold weather even for the mountains. On the 30th he left Fort Owen for Walla Walla, having warmer weather, but finding more snow from Thompson prairie on Clarke fork to Lake Pend d’Oreille than in the Rocky Mountains, and arriving at Walla Walla on the 2d of March.

Finley's Map of 1826
Finley’s Map of 1826

Meantime Stevens had gone to Washington City to advocate the building of the Northern Pacific railroad and the construction of a preliminary wagon-road from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla, On receiving the reports of Grover and Mullan the following spring, he directed Mullan and Doty to continue their explorations, and their efforts to promote peace among the natives, especially between the Blackfoot and Flathead tribes. Of the temporary failure of the scheme of a wagon-road, through the combination of the southern tribes for war in 1855, the narrative has been given. After the subjugation of the natives, Mullan was permitted to take charge of this highway, which played its part in the early history of the settlement of Montana, and its trade and travel. The road was first advocated as a military necessity to save time and money in moving troops across the continent, and shortening land travel for the annual immigrations. The rumored discovery of gold in some places 22 along the route, with the natural spreading out of the mining population, attracted first to the British Columbia and Colville mines, together with the requirements for the transportation of military stores during the Indian war, completed the chain of sequences which led up to actual immigration 23 and settlement.

One of the projects of Stevens and Mullan was to induce owners of steamboats in St Louis to send their boats, which had never run above Fort Union, 24 up the Missouri as far as Fort Benton. The Robert Campbell in which a part of Stevens’ expedition ascended the Missouri, advanced seventy miles above Fort Union in 1853, when her course was arrested by sand bars. 25

Map of Trading Forts, 1807 - 1850
Map of Trading Forts, 1807 – 1850

In 1858 and 1859 a steamer belonging to the firm of Chouteau & Company of St. Louis ascended to Fort Benton and Fort Brulé 26 to test the practicality of navigating the Missouri in connection with the military road, the construction of which was commenced in the latter year.  In 1860 the further test was made of sending three hundred soldiers, under Major Blake, recruits to the army in eastern Washington and Oregon, to Fort Walla Walla by the River route and the Mullan road, which was so far completed that wagons passed over it in August of that year, conveying the troops from Fort Benton to their destination. 27 By the time the road was quite finished, which was not until September 1862, such changes had taken place with respect to the requirements of travel that a portion of it was relocated; but its existence was of great temporary benefit to the whole country. 28

The time had now approached when this montane region could no longer remain the common ground of Indian tribes and white traders, where a travelling party was a notable event, and a steamboat a surprise. The genii of the mountains could no longer hide their secrets, and their storehouses once invaded, all was turmoil.


Bancroft, Hubert H. Bancroft Works, Volume 31, History Of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-1889. San Francisco: The History Company. 1890.

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