People of the Bitterroot Valley

People of the Bitterroot Valley 495x329

The respect and love for the Bitterroot can be summed up in the words of Louise Vanderburg, a Salish elder: “When we go home I think about our old people. I walk lightly when I walk around. The bones of my Grandparents and their Grandparents are all around here. We return to the Bitterroot each year on a Pilgrimage to honor our connection with our homeland. Also to ensure the preservation of our ancestors’ graves and sacred sites. In doing so we acknowledge the gifts left here by those who have gone on before us, gifts of language, songs, dance, spirituality. This way of life has been sustained for generations by our ancestors’ prayers.”

Overview of Prehistoric Occupation

The cultural sequence for prehistoric occupation in this area is split into three major subdivisions based on Malouf (1956) including Early Hunter (10,000 to 6,000 before Christ [B.C.]), Middle Period (6,000 B.C. to Anno Domini [A.D.] 800), and Late Hunter (A.D. 800 to 1870). 

Early Hunter

Woodside (2008) examined oral histories and other documentation to propose the presence of Paleo-Indians in Oregon and Washington prior to the flooding of Glacial Lake Missoula. Paleo-Indians, or Paleoamericans, is a classification term given to the first peoples who entered, and subsequently inhabited, the North American continent during the final glacial episodes of the late Pleistocene period. Woodside examined the Native American oral history of tribes in Oregon and Washington that described the cataclysmic flooding of Glacial Lake Missoula and how the tribes survived this event, dating about 15,000 years ago. Her research did cover other areas impacted by Glacial Lake Missoula, including the refuge. Ryan (1977) recovered two Cascade Points (projectiles) while performing archaeological research along the Clark Fork River west of Missoula. These points are indicative of this period and definitive evidence of Paleo-Indian presence. Ryan hypothesized that the Clark Fork Valley was an important corridor connecting the Columbian Plateau and the Northern Plains. Ryan also found an abundance of sites containing prehistoric activity. Alternately, Ward (1973) found a small number of archaeological sites in the Bitterroot Valley; many were pictographs only and not considered evidence of this period, nor did they date to this period of time.

Middle Period

Glacial Lake Missoula receded about 12,000 B.P., according to Alt (2001). Eventually native people occupied the new valleys formed by this event. Ward (1973) searched the Bitterroot Valley for middle prehistoric evidence of occupation. She found 19 sites no older than 5,000 B.P. None contained the traditional pottery, roasting pits, tipi rings, battle pits, rock piles, or fishing gear associated with this time period. Many had pictographs, which connect site occupation to the middle period. Ward refers to other work including that done in 1951 by Carling Malouf and his University of Montana archaeology class who found jasper and flint chips at the mouth of the North Burnt Fork Creek (a small occupation site on the refuge) (Malouf 1952).

Late Hunter

Malouf (1952) notes that in A.D. 1730 the Shoshoni of Idaho gave horses to the Salish of this area. This significantly changed the culture of the Salish people. Malouf stated that the Salish have occupied western Montana for several centuries dating back at least A.D. 1700. He cites tribal myths of animals that occupied this area, specifically coyote, beaver, otter, jay, and owl. 

Protohistoric and Early Native Americans

The protohistoric period is the period of time between the arrival of horses and manufactured goods but before the arrival of Euro-American traders and explorers. This time period lasted only about 70 years due to the arrival of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. Malouf (1952) noted that these 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. When early Euro-American explorers arrived, the area of western Montana was occupied primarily by three tribal groups: the Flathead and Pend d’Oreille (both considered Salish) and the Kutenai. In 1855, Governor Isaac Stevens stated the tribal population in western Montana to be 2,750 (Ryan 1977). 


In an unpublished University of Montana paper, Malouf (1952) reconstructed economy and land use by these tribes in western Montana using ethnographical and historical data. All tribes were hunters and gatherers, and as such they did not allow for the accumulation of surplus food and supplies. However, famines were rare. Approximately 28 species of plants were the main sources of foods, medicines, cookware, and housing. The root of the bitterroot plant was a central dietary feature. One of the best places to dig the root was a mere 3 miles north of the refuge boundary at the mouth of Eight Mile Creek. Families could dig 50–70 pounds of bitter-root in late March or April. Arrowleaf balsamroot, an abundant plant in most elevations of western Montana, was also extensively eaten. Stems were typically peeled and eaten raw before flowering, and later roots were harvested and cooked. Ponderosa pine provided four forms of food: inner bark, sap between woody layers, cone nuts, and moss hanging from branches. Narrow leaf willow, a pioneer species on river gravel bars, was used in the construction of sweat lodges and baskets for cooking (sealed with gum). Most of the common mammals present today in western Montana were hunted including white-tailed deer and mule deer. 


References and further extensive historical, cultural treatments:

Alt, D.B. 2001. Glacial Lake Missoula and its humongous floods. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 208 p.

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.

Ryan, Michael Jerome. 1977. An archaeological survey of the middle Clark Fork River valley: Missoula to Superior, Montana [master’s thesis]. Missoula, MT: University of Montana. [Pages unknown].

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. <> accessed September 27, 2010.