Friday, March 7, 2014

Lander's 1853 route through Granite County

Frederick West Lander is one of the most famed of the engineers who surveyed possible routes for a transcontinental railroad just prior to the civil war. He was a member of the party led by Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens that surveyed northern railroad routes through Montana.
In the early fall of 1853 he led a small group over the continental divide at Lewis and Clark Pass (a short distance north of Rogers Pass), then downstream to the vicinity of Helmville (Stevens Prairie). Lander then crossed over the Garnet Range to the Clark Fork (Hellgate) River valley. This route is likely the same as the route taken by a band of "renegade" Nez Perce Indians who were attempting to return to Idaho in 1878 after the defeat of the Nez Perce during the war of 1877.

When the Lander party reached the Hellgate/Clark's Fork river, probably at the mouth of Bear Gulch, they turned east, even though their destination, Fort Owen, was in the Bitterroot Valley to the southwest. This turn has led several commentators to state that the Lander party was "lost".  Yet the Lander party was guided by Hugh Monroe, a famed and intrepid mountain man and scout.  In fact Monroe guided them on a shortcut up the Flint Creek valley and then over the Sapphire Range to Fort Owen (at Stevensville).
A second surveying party, traveling west down the Hellgate, found a note left by Lander where he cut off the Hellgate River trail. Thinking Lander must be lost, they sent Fred Burr and an unnamed guide in pursuit to warn him of his error. Burr followed Lander for a ways before the guide would not continue owing to the poor condition of their horses. At this point Burr ascended a peak, and, looking to the north, described a valley which in context must be the lower Flint Creek Valley. We think it likely that the peak ascended was Sunrise Mountain.
In the report of the Stevens expedition it states that Flathead Indians with Mullan explained to him that Lander was taking a route known to the Blackfeet Indians -  a route taken by the Blackfeet on raiding expeditions to the Bitterroot. Hugh Monroe had lived a very long time with the Blackfeet and had apparently become familiar with trail either from descriptions or actual travel prior to 1853.
In any case the Lander party arrived at Fort Owen two days ahead of the balance of the surveying party. This route is highlighted on a portion of the map of the survey, shown below, along with the title block, which shows the scale.

The route as shown on the Stevens map is little difficult to reconcile with the actual geography. However it seems after reaching the Clark Fork, Lander traveled about 10 miles east before reaching Flint Creek. That would mean he descended Bear Gulch below Garnet when he crossed the Garnet Range. He then traveled 15 miles or so up Flint Creek before turning west. That would place him near Maxville and would indicate he turned up Smart or Henderson Creeks. However, we believe the main Indian trail likely turned west at Philipsburg, based on a close reading of John Owen's description. In any case he got a view of the Philipsburg valley because it shows up a little south of the excerpted part of the map as "prairie as large as the Deer Lodge, not surveyed". See our blog post on Fred Burr for that section of the map. Lander then took a version of the Bitterroot Direct trail west into Fort Owen. In his report, Stevens states that the horses were badly "jaded" by this difficult, cross-country excursion, one of several complaints Stevens has about Lander's work for him on the survey.

Lander's clashes with Stevens stem in part from a disagreement over the suitability of the northern railroad route they were surveying. Lander was later responsible for convincing Congress that the best route for the transcontinental railroad was the Central Route, through Salt Lake. He then joined the Union army and quickly rose to the rank of General. His promising career was cut short when he got sick and died in 1862.  (see Frederick W. Lander, The Great Natural American Soldier, by G. Ecelbarger for a good recent biography).

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