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Missoula in the Making: A brief history of the community.

A Brief History of Missoula, MT, And its Environs, to 1860

Missoula’s earliest known inhabitants were members of the Salish (Flathead), Pend d'Oreille, and Kootenai (Kutenai) nations. Here in the mountain valleys of western Montana these Tribes harvested the plant and animal resources of the region. Among the many plant familiar to the area’s Native American peoples was the bitterroot.

Each spring as the bitterroot's vibrant pink and white flowers splash across the green canvas of Montana's prairies and foothills like drops of paint from an artist's brush, one is reminded that Montanans made a wise choice with their decision to adopt the bitterroot as their state flower. Indeed, the very name bitterroot is firmly rooted with the land, history, and myth of Montana.

The bitterroot not only gave its name to a mountain range, river, and valley, but took its scientific name, Lewisia, from the explorer, Captain Merriwether Lewis. On July 1, 1806, while pausing at the mouth of Lolo Creek, near Traveler's Rest, Captain Lewis collected a specimen of the bitterroot. After a journey of some 3,000 miles the specimen reached the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where noted botanist Fredrich Pursh formally christened the bitterroot, Lewisia rediviva Pursh. The French Canadians who hunted and trapped throughout the Northwest, being far more descriptive and down-to-earth than eastern academicians, simply named the plant raceme amere, which literally meant bitterroot. Both David Thompson, a geographer and explorer in the employ of the North West Company, and David Douglas, pioneer botanist of the Northern Rockies, noted that the bitterroot was highly prized as a food-stuff by Native Americans throughout the region. At a somewhat later date, Montana's grandfather, Granville Stuart, wrote that although he, himself, only ate it when very hungry, many of the region's pioneer Euro-American inhabitants were extremely found of the bitterroot.

Of course, no one was more familiar with the bitterroot than were the various Native Americans of the region. The Flathead People, who perhaps valued the bitterroot more than any other tribe, tell of the time when they first came to learn the secrets of this beautiful, edible plant.

Once, while living in what is now known as the Bitterroot Valley, the Flatheads suffered from a great famine. One old woman who had no meat or fish to feed her grandchildren, no longer able to look at their starving faces, went down the bank of the river. There she sat alone, weeping, and began to chant her death song for she believed her grandchildren to be dying of hunger. The Sun, hearing the woman's song and took pity on this good mother. The Sun instructed a Red Bird to fly to the woman and to provide her with food to nourish her starving people and with beauty to nourish their spirits. "Grandmother," announced the Red Bird, "A new plant will be formed from your sorrowful tears which have fallen to the ground. Its flowers will wear the red of my wing feathers and the white of your hair. Your people will eat the roots of this plant. Though it will be bitter from the tears of your sorrow, it will be good for them and nourish them." And so the Sun caused the bitterroot to grow from the seeds of the good grandmother's tears.

The bitterroot was the most important root crop of the Flathead and Kutenai peoples of western Montana. The Kutenais dug their annual supply at Tobacco Plains and along the Little Bitterroot Valley. Because they lived in the Bitterroot Valley, the Flatheads had access to the best bitterroot grounds in the region. Each spring, the allied tribes of the region--members of the Flathead, Kalispell, Pend d'Oreille, Spokane, and Nez Perces nations--gathered along the Clark Fork River, near present day Missoula, to harvest bitterroots. Usually, this was a time to renew old friendships, cement alliances, and celebrate the departure of winter and the arrival of spring. Sometimes, it was not. Occasionally, warriors of Blackfeet Confederation, knowing that many of their enemies would be at the bitterroot grounds, rode over the mountains and raided the camps along the Clark Fork.

Angus McDonald, who in 1847 established Fort Connah in the Flathead Valley for the Hudson's Bay Company, described one such raid. According to McDonald, a band of Flatheads were camped on the flats at the mouth of Hell Gate Canyon when their scouts spotted four buffalo grazing on slopes above the canyon. Immediately, the Flathead men mounted their buffalo ponies and thundered out of the camp in pursuit of this unexpected bounty. When, however, they reached the spot where their prey had been observed they found no buffalo, only the tracks of Blackfeet moccasins. Fearing the worse, the Flathead warriors desperately raced back to their camp, only to find that the deadly raid was over and that their foe had escaped into the hills.

Hell Gate Canyon, a passage carved by the Clark Fork River through the Mission-Saphire mountain range did, indeed, live up to its rather fearsome name. Hell Gate owes its name to the warriors of the Blackfeet Nation who often lay in wait along the canyon’s walls, to ambush the Salish People (and their allies) as they journeyed through the gorge towards the buffalo grounds of eastern Montana. Fearing this dark and bloody passageway, the Flatheads named the area "Ne-Missoula-Takoo" (Nemissoolatakoo)," a place of fear by the water." French trappers. In turn, called the canyon, Port d'Enfere, which means "gate of hell." Hell Gate Canyon remained a most dangerous site until 1855, when the Flatheads and Blackfeet signed a treaty. Missoula, incidentally derives its name from the Salish name for Hell Gate, the word having been simplified (corrupted) by Neo-Europeans to Missoula.

Although Lewis and Clark came through the Missoula Valley in 1805, there was no significant Neo-European presence in the region until the early 1820s. At that point in time, the Missoula area along with much of the Pacific and Rocky Mountain northwest, became the battleground for a diplomatic struggle waged between the United States and Great Britain. The one casualty in that diplomatic war? The Beaver.

In 1818 and again in 1823-24, Great Britain had expressed its willingness to yield to the United States its claims to a sizable portion of what was then known as the Oregon Country. Britain's offer included that part of Oregon which lay to the south of line extending along the 49th parallel to the Columbia River and down that river to the sea. Well aware of its government's intentions, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) launched a campaign to exterminate the entire beaver population of the southeastern quarter of the Oregon Country. The HBC not only desperately wanted to harvest these beaver before American trappers and traders arrived on the scene, but hoped in so doing to create a "fur desert," a cordon sanitare, to protect their valuable fur-monopoly in the Pacific Northwest. In 1824 Sir George Simpson, governor of HBC's Columbia Department, described the Northern Rockies ecosystem as "a rich preserve of Beaver . . . which for political reasons we should endeavour to destroy as soon as possible."

To implement its "scorched earth" policy, the HBC relied upon the Snake River Brigade system, an institution inherited from the old Northwest Company (NWC). From 1818 to 1821 Donald MacKenzie led these year-long trapping expeditions from the NWC's advance base at Fort Nez Perces into the upper Snake River country. After taking over the NWC in 1821, the HBC relocated the brigade's base of operations to Flathead House, near present day Thompson Falls, Montana. From 1822 to 1824 Michel Bourdon, Finian McDonald, and Alexander Ross led large brigades of "engag├ęs" and free-trappers from Flathead House into the central Rockies. Typically, the brigades departed Flathead House in mid-winter and followed the Missoula (Clark Fork) River upstream to the Bitterroot before crossing Gibbons Pass into the headwaters of the Missouri (a blatant incursion into American territory), all the while harvesting as many beaver as possible along the way. From the Three Forks country, the brigades crossed into the Salmon River drainage, via Lemhi Pass, then to the Big Lost River and, finally, to the Snake River where the spring hunt commenced. The brigades trapped the rich beaver streams of southeastern Idaho or worked westward along the Snake to the Boise, Payette, and Weiser rivers. In November, their circuit complete, the brigades returned to Flathead House to turn in their beaver and re-equip for the next expedition.

Although profits under the leadership of Messrs. Bourdon, McDonald, and Ross were respectable, over 4,000 beaver were taken in 1823, Governor Simpson believed that too little was being done to hasten the region's beaver along the path to extinction. The Governor, accordingly, placed the Snake Brigade under the command of the most ruthless and dedicated man in HBC's employ, Peter Skene Ogden. From 1825 to 1832 Ogden and his successor, John Work, transformed the Snake River Brigade into a highly profitable commercial enterprise and powerfully effective political tool. Every year from 1825 to 1832 the Snake River Brigade, generally consisting of at least 100 men and 300 horses, departed Fort Vancouver, Fort Nez Perces, or Flathead House in the late summer or early autumn. Although the brigades often ranged far afield, in 1827-28 for example Ogden pushed as far south as the Gulf of California, the brigades always returned to the Snake River country and, always stripped the region bare of beaver.

Under this unceasing pressure, HBC's plans came to fruition. The impact of a dozen or more years of relentless trapping drove the beaver population of the Northern Rockies ecosystem to the brink of extinction. Ironically, in other lands under its control the HBC practiced strict conservation policies. The Company prohibited its trappers from returning to a stream for two or three years after they harvested its beaver, a rotation policy that seemed quite adequate. Modern studies have shown that if disease or habitat destruction are not a factor, beaver are able to repopulate a depleted watershed within three to five years. The Company's ruthless exploitation of the beaver resource in the Northern Rockies, did indeed, create a barrier that prevented American trappers from entering the Pacific Northwest. One American fur-entrepreneur, William Ashley of the Ashley & Henry Company, estimated that the HBC harvested over 85,000 from the Snake River drainage during the mid 1820s. The HBC's success was, however, a relative one. By the early 1830s just as the Snake River fur desert came into being, the bottom dropped out of the beaver market and in 1846, with the signing of the Buchanan-Pakenham Treaty, Great Britain ceded over half of the Oregon County to the United States and the HBC was forced to abandon its operations south of the 49th parallel.

By the winter of 1859 the Neo-European population of western Montana had reached such numbers that some manner of responsive local government was required to meet their needs. That year twenty-seven men, presumably citizens of the United States, dispatched a petition to the territorial legislature of Washington requesting that a county government be organized in their home-region. In December 1860 the legislature obliged the petitioners and created Missoula County, Washington Territory. Missoula County in 1860 encompassed nearly all of what is modern day Montana lying west of the Continental Divide. For purposes of judicial administration, Missoula was linked with its neighbor to the west, Spokane County. Missoula's first county seat was located at Worden and Company's trading post at Hell Gate. The county held its first election of local officials in June or July of 1861, seventy-four ballots were cast.

By the time Missoula's next election rolled around, the work crews engaged in the construction of the Mullan Road had moved on and, thus, only 30 ballots were cast in 1862. Granville Stuart, who had been voted in as county commissioner, noted: "We held an election today. Great excitement but nobody hurt except with an overdose of whiskey."

Despite the presence of from 30 to 70 registered voters in Missoula County, not everyone believed that Western Montana's future was insured. In 1859, the Commander of the Department of Oregon, Brigadier General W.S. Harney, expressed strong doubts over the regions prospects. Harney predicted that the lands lying in the upper Clark Fork River Basin, along the Bitterroot River, and in the Big Hole Country:

. . . will not be occupied by the whites for at least twenty-five years. It is difficult of access, and does not offer the same inducements to the settler that are everywhere presented to him on the coast.

In all likelihood, Harney's prediction would have ran true, were it not for the subsequent discovery of gold in Montana's stream beds.

In the early 1860s as the community that would one day become Missoula struggled to find it economic base, one impediment to growth was the absence of a mill to serve the community's demand for flour. As late as 1866 the only flouring mill in Montana west of the Continental Divide was a mill constructed by Father Ravalli at St. Mary's Mission (present day Stevensville). Francis "Frank" Lyman Worden and C.P. Higgins, pioneer merchants and venture capitalists, decided to erect a mill on the Clark Fork. Deciding to construct a mill or any other mechanized facility in Montana in the 1860s was simple part, obtaining the machinery and equipment was a whole other matter. Messrs. Higgins and Worden mill works was shipped up river by paddle wheeler from Kansas City to Fort Benton late in 1863 and reached Missoula via ox cart the following summer. It was not until 1866 that the mill was in place and operating.

The flour mill remained in operation until 1877 when the operation was abandoned. The mill sat idle until the spring of 1908 when flood water demolished much of the millhouse and, incidentally, swept away the Higgins Street bridge. After the flood waters subsided the remnants of Missoula' first flour mill was dismantled and carted away and the mill stone was transported to campus of the University, where it can still be viewed.

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