History and Culture of the Bitterroot Valley

Historic Plow from Past Farming Practices

 "In 1864 the pioneers found the Bitterroot Valley a desolate place. There was no irrigation, and since the grasshoppers had visited the country that summer there were no signs of vegetation. Buffalo grass and wildsage covered the ground. There were no roads, railroads, bridges, telephones, or telegraph." Taken from the Missoulian newspaper "When Pioneers First came to the Bitter Root Valley" by the publication "Some Bitterroot Memories 1860-1930".

Bitterroot in flowerThe Bitterroot Valley was used by the first Euro-American explorers to the western United States, including Lewis and Clark. Following the Lewis and Clark expedition, fur traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company entered the Bitterroot Valley to secure furs from the Indians and establish forts and missions. The oldest consistently occupied town in Montana was initially established at the present day site of Stevensville by Catholic missionaries in 1841 (Stevensville Historical Society 1971). At the request of four separate Indian delegations from the Salish tribe, Father Pierre De Smet came to the valley from St. Louis in the late 1830s. De Smet and other priests were eventually joined by Father Anthony Ravalli in 1845. Named St. Mary’s Mission, this community kindled additional settlement in the region. St. Mary’s Mission was closed in 1850, and the community was renamed Fort Owen, and then later Stevensville, after Isaac Stevens, the first Governor of the Montana territory.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot in flower The vicinity of Stevensville was the center of social and economic life for the Salish. Most tributaries in the Bitterroot Valley had one or more families inhabiting it. The alluvial fan at the mouth of North Burnt Fork Creek (partially on refuge property) was also home for a considerable number of Salish families. JoAnn BigCrane, a Native American historian, visited this part of the refuge in August 1990 (refuge annual narrative) and agreed that a seasonal encampment was here at one time. North Burnt Fork Creek doubled as a highway of sorts for Native American travel to the Clark Fork Valley over the Sapphire/Rock Creek divide. This was the shortest route requiring only one night of camping.

Malouf (1952) noted that the intermountain areas of western Montana were the last areas of the United States to be settled by whites. Many traits of aboriginal times survived through this period without influence from Euro-American culture.

Willow catkins After the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, pressure increased for the removal of the Salish from the Bitterroot to the Jocko Valley on the Flathead Reservation. In 1872, General James Garfield presented the three Salish Chiefs Charlo, Arlee, and Adolf, with a second treaty which Charlo refused to sign. Charlo remained in the Bitterroot for 20 more years until he and his band were escorted from the valley by General Carrington in October 1891.

There is overlapping cultural, historical information on these other webpages: Changing the Land, Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, Nez Perce National Historic Trail, People of the Bitterroot and the Whaley Homestead.

Extensive historical, cultural treatments outside of this webpage are found in these publications:

Cappious, S.L. 1939. A history of the Bitter Root Valley to 1914 [master’s thesis]. Seattle, WA: University of Washington. [Pages unknown].

Clary, J.; Hastings, P.B.; O’Neill, J.; Winthrop, R. 2005. First roots: the story of Stevensville, Montana’s oldest community. Stevensville, MT: Stoneydale Press Publishing Company. 251 p.

Malouf, Carling I. 1952. Economy and land use by the Indians of western Montana, U.S.A. [Unpublished]. Missoula, MT: University of Montana. 63 p.

Popham, C. 1998. Early days in sagebrush country. Missoula, MT: Pictoral Histories Publishing Company. 130 p.

Some Bitterroot memories, 1860-1930 : a homey account of the Florence Community, 68 p. illus., Missoula, Mont. Published by Gateway Printing, [n.d.]

Stevensville Historical Society. 1971. Montana genesis. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 289 p.

Ward, Linda. 1973. Prehistory of the Bitterroot Valley [master’s thesis]. Missoula, MT: University of Montana. [Pages unknown].

Woodside, Gail J. 2008. Comparing native oral history and scientific research to produce historical evidence of native occupation during and after the Missoula floods [senior thesis]. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University. <http://hdl.handle.net/1957/8746> accessed September 27, 2010.