Friday, January 10, 2014

An old Indian Trail

It is now believed that Native Americans arrived in Montana about 12,300 years ago according to research done by Archeologist Leslie Davis (Bozeman Chronicle, August 10, 2013).
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation comprised of the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreilles also known as the Kalispel inhabited the area and lived as Plateau Indians. They traveled to hunting grounds and lived in tipis like the Plains Indians but also had access to reliable food sources like salmon and trout and gathered Camas Root, Bitterroot and fresh berries. The Nez Perce and Shoshone Tribes were also known to travel across the Bitterroot and Flint Creek area to reach the buffalo hunting grounds east of the Continental Divide. One of the trails used by the Natives became known as The Burnt Fork or Bitterroot Direct when the Mountain Men, Trappers, Traders and Miners began to inhabit the area.
The first documentation I have found of this route is described by Major John Owen in his "Journal of a trip to Fort Benton and return in 1855." (Dunbar and Phillips,  "The Journals and Letters of Major John Owen: 1850-1870", Volume I, p. 108, 1927).
Monday July 30, 1855...our trail took up the stream (Burnt Fork of the Bitterroot) which runs back of  the fort (Fort Owen) to the Mt. and crossed (Sapphire Range). Came down onto quite a good sized stream (Rock Creek) and camped. travld six hrs road Mts bad
Tuesday 31 started early trail bad travld five hrs & campd in prarie
Wednesday August 1st Moved over (probably up Willow Creek and across Marshall Creek Hill) on to Flint Creek & campd  5 1/2 hrs travel 
Thursday 2 Followed Flint Creek down and camped in sight of Flatheads travld today 5 hrs
Friday 3 Moved and traved but 2 hrs & campd on Hell's Gate River 

John Owen describes the route again on Tuesday August 17, 1858 with more precise descriptors:
 ...left for Fort Benton....5 1/2 hr travel over on to Close Creek ( Rock Creek). stopd to rest...after lunch travld 1 1/2 hrs making eleven crossings of Close Creek....camped on left bank.
Wednedsay 18th travld four hrs halted for breakfast. made ten crossings of Close Crik and left it taking up a Small branch (Willow Creek). after 2 hr rest ...crossed a low ridge and came down onto Flint Creek. in the saddle 3 1/2 hr & halted for dinner After a short rest moved on 1 1/2 hr  & camped low down on Flint Creek at the Corall Camp (this may be where Stuarts built a corral "three miles above where the town of Philipsburg now stands" to protect their horses from Blackfoot Indians in April 1858 [pg 135 Prospecting For Gold, Granville Stuart]).
Thursday 19th Off early followed down Flint Crk to its mouth Crossd Deers Lodge river and halted for breakfast.... (pp.201-202 Major John Owens Journals Vol I)

It is known that this route was used by many of the old timer's  in the Granite county area. The Haacke family originally lived in the Bitter Root and brought fall crops over this route to sell to the ranchers and inhabitants of Philipsburg and Maxville. The Hamm family that resided for many generations on lower Rock Creek moved all of their household items from the Bitter Root to lower Rock Creek via the Bitterroot Direct (Norman Bohrnsen). Red Potter used the trail to market horses he rustled on both sides of the Sapphire Mountains (Bob Gillies as told to him by father Joe Gillies). This trail was also discussed as a possible route when Highway 38 (Skalkaho) was first proposed in the early 1900's.  A hand drawn map of the trail is available on this blog in the Fred Burr section.
In the Spring 2002 the Aurora Magazine (published in Great Falls) printed a short story by Rod Johnson titled "This Cow's No Bear" in which Rod detailed a story about working for a rancher named Evans in the Bitterroot when he was in high school. They used the Bitterroot Direct to drive the cattle over to summer pasture in Rock Creek. The following is Rod's description of the trail.
The Bitterroot Direct offers a trail which cut the distance (75 miles through Missoula) to only 7 or 8 miles from the Mill's place, Evan's Burnt Fork ranch in the Bitterroot valley. The cattle were moved in the late spring from the ranch ten miles east of Stevensville and over the Sapphire Mountains to Rock Creek.
The trail was a gentle climb into the mountains from the ranch to the western edge of the Rock Creek valley, then it dropped sharply down a series of steep switchbacks into the creek bottom.  The cattle had to be herded single file down the narrow path. One or two men rode in front to keep the cattle from bounding too fast down the trail. Others were dispersed among the herd and a couple brought up the rear. It was late in the day by the time we had finished pushing the cattle across Rock Creek and into a meadow...
As this article demonstrates, this trail was still used for moving cattle from Ravalli county to Granite county in the early 1900's.

A map of Montana by the Surveyor General in 1867 shows a trail from Philipsburg to Fort Owen. This seems to be the route taken by John Owen in his trips to the Flint Creek Valley. The 1869 Surveyor General's map (hat tips to Sally Thompson and Terri Wolfgram) shows a route crossing just south of Sunrise Mountain and descending Henderson Gulch to Emmetsburg at the mouth of Henderson in the lower Flint Creek Valley. This would likely be the route taken by Lander in 1853.  The Nez Perce band who passed through here in 1878 are known to have come up Lower Willow Creek, and then crossed into Upper Willow Creek. It would seem their route would have passed near or through the Eyebrow flint quarry from Lower Willow Creek to Henderson Creek. Perhaps this was the main Indian trail through the area.

An early appearance of a trail route from the Bitterroot to Rock Creek is on an 1872 township survey of the Burnt Fork area (hat tip to Gary Little on the township survey, and thanks also to Milo McLeod for some guidance on trail locations). The surveyors label the trail the Bitterroot Direct. This trail, later known as the Alder Creek trail,  also shows up on the USGS topo map of the Sapphire range made in 1907, as shown below. It appears likely that the original Indian trail through this part of the Sapphire Range closely followed this route.


  1. Has anyone a reference to "Horse Thief Pass"?

    1. The reason I asked, my father's mother said she knew a fellow who served time in the pen for horse rustling, stealing horses from the Bitterroot and driving them over what she referred to as Horse Thief Pass, probably the Bitterroot Direct. Grandmother stated that this unnamed convict never revealed any associates, but she knew that my mother's great uncle, Col. Morse was complicit in at least using stolen horses on his cattle operation of several hundred head, which was the first ranch on Upper Willow Creek (established in 1871). The Col.'s brand was 17 and is recorded in the first brand book (which is available on line). I was delighted with learning of the Bitterroot Direct trail and hope to explore it some day.

  2. I have never heard of any of the passes referred to as "Horse Thief Pass" but have heard the story that Red Potter used the Bitterroot Direct to transport his stolen horses. Joe Gillies told his son Bob that Red trained his pack string to go in front of him instead of being lead and that he would put the stolen herd of the pack team. He was never caught because when he heard anyone coming he took off and the pack horses would always wander back to their camp before nightfall. Also Frank Brady cached his stolen horse herds in Gilbert Gulch very close to the mouth of Rock Creek and when the weather was right would take them up the Blackfoot to the Seeley Lake area and then into Canada to sell them. There are references in the Philipsburg Mail about men being caught in the Bitterroot when they tried selling the horses stolen in Granite County. The horse thief mistakenly tried to sell the horses to the Missoula County sheriff.

  3. Replies
    1. In my Books "Mettle of Granite County" I spoke of Colonel George Morse in Book One concerning his politics and in Book Three mostly about his family and ranch. Do you have records that show when the ranch was bought? I never went to the Court House. The information I used was from Newspapers and family documents from Sandy Barker. According to John Hagg's obituary they were originally partners in the ranch. If you and your family would be interested I would do a blog post about Colonel George with any new information you could provide me. Contact me