Flathead Development

This was Indian country before the arrival of the white man. Blackfeet Indian country was to the east. Flathead Indian country extended from the valley to the west. These two tribes could never be considered very friendly or congenial toward each other and often met in pitched battles in this mountainous country. The Blackfeet had an abundance of buffalo to supply their wants, while there were no buffalo west of the Continental Divide, north of the state of Utah. The Flatheads crossed the mountains to secure their buffalo. The Blackfeet entered the mountains to their west to fish the mountain streams.

There are brief reports of major battles between these two tribes. David Thompson, one of the earliest white fur traders in the area (about 1811), mentions one battle that took place near the mouth of Morrison Creek on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. In this skirmish the Flatheads, supposedly, lost heavily. A major battle took place in the 1840's in what is now the Bob Marshall Wilderness, in the vicinity of Camp Creek, above Big Prairie, on the South Fork of the Flathead River. The Flatheads had been to the prairie east of Augusta on a buffalo hunt and were returning with their meat and a few extra ponies. They were camped where the present Basin Creek landing field is located. Scouts had been left behind to report on any activity or to ascertain if they were being followed by the Blackfeet. Soon one of the scouts charged into the encampment to announce that a large number of hostile Blackfeet were approaching the Divide from the east.

The Flathead broke camp immediately. Women and children moved the camp down the South Fork to the open meadows near the present site of the Big Prairie Ranger Station. The warriors and braves moved back up the creek, stationed themselves in strategic positions on either side of the canyon, and awaited their foe. When the Blackfeet arrived, on a signal from their chief, the Flatheads opened fire from ambush.

Taken by complete surprise, the Blackfeet were almost annihilated. A few Blackfeet raced back over the Divide in panic. Ranger J. R. Hutchinson told me this story in 1934, while we were on a snowshoe trip on game studies in this area.

Camp Creek seems to have been a favorite camping site for the Flathead Indians. There were several prominent tepee rings on this flat. They were destroyed during the building of the present airfield in the early 1930's. Many Indian artifacts have been found in this vicinity.

Large scars on many ponderosa pine trees are further evidence of the presence of early-day Indians. These scars are usually on the south or west side of the trunk of the tree, from 5 to 9 feet in height and encompassing nearly one-third of the trunk. The sapwood was never disturbed; only the bark was removed. None of the trees were ever girdled so as to cause them to die. There are many such scars on ponderosa pine in the Swan Valley, below the mouth of White River, Murphy Flats, and at other locations. There are some on the Spotted Bear River trail between Flat and Bent Creek. There have been several reasons advanced for this work. Perhaps the most acceptable is the one in the Lewis and Clark Journals that mentions the Indians used this thick, inner bark (cambium layer) for food during periods when there was a scarcity of other foods.

There are Indian paintings at several locations just outside the Bob Marshall. Paintings at the junction of the North and South Forks of the Sun River appear to depict a symbol representing the Sun. Perhaps this is how the river got its name.

There is a cave at the base of Union Peak, just southwest of the present Schafer Station, that has the appearance of having been inhabited—smoky ceiling at the entrance. There is no record of this cave having been studied by archaeologists. The last time I was there (1944), the entrance was nearly closed by talus.

Indians used many different routes to the buffalo country on the prairies. One main route was retraced and posted in 1932 by Supervisor Kenneth Wolfe. This route is over Inspiration Pass from Goat Creek, from the Swan Valley, down Bunker Creek to Meadow Creek, down the South Fork, to the mouth of the Spotted Bear River, up the Spotted Bear and over Gunsight Pass, down Minor Creek, up Morrison, Lodgepole, over the Divide east of Big Lodge Mountain, down the Badger to the plains south of East Glacier. The route is still marked by a wooden sign near the mouth of Morrison Creek. There is also evidence today of the old Indian trail from the Flathead Valley over the Swan Divide; it crosses just south of Mount Aeneas, near Birch Lake.

Mining and agriculture brought the first settlers to western Montana. Strangely enough, most of the early arrivals came from the west and south, not from the east as would be expected. There was little of mineral significance ever found in this area. There were "colors" found in many of the streams, some copper stains as well as a few small traces of galena and veins of coal, but nothing to encourage anyone except the more ardent prospectors. There is one active mineral prospect in the Wilderness on a 160-acre barite claim in section 16, township 23N, range 13W, P.M.M. (unsurveyed) on Black Bear Creek of the South Fork. It is about 27 miles from the end of the road at Spotted Bear. The claim was filed in 1958 by Levi Gaustadt. Material from this claim assayed as highly productive. By 1964, this claim was not patented, although Gaustadt has been doing his assessment work.

The Forest Service frowns on such activities in a Wilderness, but their control is limited. Claim patents are administered by the Bureau of Land Management, U. S. Department of the Interior. No commercial loads of barite had been removed by the end of 1963. There is a very small vein of galena about 100 yards southeast of the Bungalow Lookout house. Some exploratory work has been done on this vein, but it is considered too small for commercial purposes.

It is rather strange that a large mountainous area, the size of Flathead Forest, would have such a small amount of commercial mineral. Perhaps, the largest claims were the silver claims in Logan Creek of the South Fork. Also, there was a vein of coal near the mouth of Logan Creek which was flooded by the Hungry Horse Dam reservoir. A coal vein on Coal Creek in the North Fork has had some commercial activity, but nothing during the past 20 years.