12 February 2010

Lieut. John Mullan's Montana Explorations in 1853-54

Remarkable Work of Lieut. Mullan, Who Blazed Trails Ahead of Railroad; Called Pathfinder to Pacific Ocean. By Martha Edgerton Plassmann Daughter of Governor Edgerton.

Two men were examining the Mullan memorial at Missoula near the railroad station. One said: “Who was the Mullan; an Irishman, or a Scotchman?”

“I don’t know,” the other replied. “All I’m sure of is that he built the N. P.” [Northern Pacific]

This is about all the average person has learned regarding one of the most remarkable pathfinders that ever helped to make this region a charted locality, comprehensible to the rest of the world.

It was in the spring of 1853 that Governor Isaac I. Stevens of Washington territory received the appointment to head an expedition to find a route for a railroad from the upper Mississippi to the Pacific coast, part of his duty being to make a thorough examination of the Missouri and Columbia rivers, which were then comparatively unknown.

Governor Stevens and the greater part of his company, went overland from St. Paul, but a detachment was dispatched by the water route to Fort Union, at the mouth of the Yellowstone river, there to join the rest of the expedition. It reached the appointed rendezvous ahead of the overland party, and with this detachment went Lieutenant Mullan, the first we hear of him.

On arriving at Fort Benton, Governor Stevens decided to arrange for a council to be held with the Flathead Indians, and sent Lieutenant to act as his envoy, the first problem being to find the Indians. Naturally it would be expected that he would go west, to their little village of St. Mary’s, or its vicinity. Instead of this he forded the Missouri about 500 years below Fort Benton and then went south, skirting the Highwood mountains, to the foot of the Belt or Girdle mountains, following the Shonkin part of the way.

He crossed branches of Arrow river; six branches of the Judith river, and then followed the latter to its head in the Judith mountains but saw no Indians, although buffalo, ducks and geese were plentiful. Thirty miles from the Judith mountains he crossed the Muscle Shell and going down that river a few miles, found the Indians and arranged for the council.

Hunting Ground of Indians. From this can be seen what an extent of territory was ranged over by the Flatheads when in search of game, always more plentiful east of the Rockies, and what risk they ran of attacks from Blackfeet, Assinniboines or Crows.

Returning from his interview with the Indians, Lieut. Mullan went to teh head of the Muscle Shell, crossed a ridge, and then went down Smith river to the Missouri, and from thence to the Bitter Root valley, where Governor Stevens had preceded him.

At the conclusion of the council, Lieut. Mullan, and from ten to fifteen men were left in the Bitter Root to protect the Flatheads from the Blackfeet, who made forays into the western country, not for game, but for horses. A Blackfeet is recorded as saying “I take the first Flathead horse I come across. It is sure to be a good one.”

Lieut. Mullan established his camp ten miles above Fort Owen, that his men might be far enough away from the Indians, not to have trouble with them, and having arranged for the building of houses during his absence, he called the Indians together to assure them that although he would be away for a short time, his men would protect them from enemies, as well as if he were with them. He then set out on another exploding trip, up the Bitter Toot to its sources, and over the mountains to the Wisdom, and Jefferson rivers, and then returned to his camp, which he had named Cantonment Stevens.

Between the last of November and the middle of December, 1853, Lieut. Mullan followed this same route he had gone over in October, and then continued southward to Fort Hall, on the Snake river. He found little snow, except on the summits of the mountains; there was none in the valleys to his great surprise. on his way to Fort Hall he passed what he called Market lake, giving it this name for the following reason. The lake gave every indication of being recently formed; that whole region having subterranean streams that often came to the surface. It was also evident that at no distant period this had been a paradise for game. Before the lake was formed, whenever the supplies of the trappers ran low, they would say “Let’s go to market,” and hasten away to the spot now covered by the waters of the lake, where vast herds of buffalo and deer roamed, and the hunters would soon replenish their larders.

In 1863 our wagon train passed this same lake, which was covered with what we though were ducks. Anything in the way of fresh meat was a luxury after a prolonged diet of bacon adn ham, and our men joyously anticipated the meal they would provide for us. There was no trouble in shooting the birds, and camp was close at hand; but we had ham, and not duck for dinner, as the birds proved to be little else but skin and feathers covering a framework of bones. It was not Market lake for us.

Followed De Smet’s Trail. On his return journey, Lieutenant Mullan passed, at High Bank creek, through the same canyon traversed by Father De Smet in 1840. He also went into the Deer Lodge valley, so named because of the many deer seen there , as well as antelope, while on the hillsides were mountain sheep and goats. It was a beautiful sylvan scene that Lieutenant Mullan gazed upon. Civilization has changed all this, destroying the luxuriant vegetation, poisoning the soil, and establishing a prison there.

This journey to For Hall and return to Cantonment Stevens occupied forty-five days, in which time a distance of seven hundred miles was covered; the mountains crossed four times, and this by four different passes, during the months of December and January, 1853-54.

It has been asked “Did Lieut. Mullan ever pass through what is now the site of the city of Great Falls?” The answer to this question is contained in the record of his explorations.

Learning from the Indians and others of a pass leading directly to Fort Benton over which wagons could be taken, Lieut. Mullan determined to try it. He left the Bitter Root March 2, 1854, going up the Hell gate to its junction with the Little Blackfoot and from there to the Missouri, and along the left bank of the latter to the Gate of the Mountains, where he crossed the Missouri on the ice. From this point he followed the right bank of this river to Fort Benton. He found the road good to the Gate of the Mountains, but from there it was hard traveling. This route must have taken him through or in the immediate vicinity of Great Falls.

Two days after reaching Fort Benton, he started back to the Bitter Root, going up the left bank of the Missouri to Sun river, thence to the Dearborn and Little Blackfoot, finding the road excellent all the way. Among other parts of Montana explored by Lieutenant Mullan during the following month was the Flathead river, and north to the Canadian line. this accomplished, he went into Idaho, then a part of Washington territory, of which his chief, I. I. Stevens, was governor. Either on his way to or from the clearwater, he passed by Lolo Hot Springs.

Tribute to Mullan. Governor Stevens states that he was most favorably impressed by the manner in which Mullan carried out the orders given him, and concluded by saying “Not one unpleasant thing occurred during his (Mullan’s) year’s sojourn in the wilderness which marred the propriety of the intercourse of his party with the Indians, or tended to diminish his influence over them.”

That the Indians did not like to have Lieut. Mullan leave the Bitter Root is undoubtedly true. But not altogether because of the well-merited affection they had for him. His presence there was a protection against the Blackfeet, who “were always the aggressors” and not withstanding the recently concluded peace with them, could not be trusted to abide by it.

In 1858 the government decided to build a wagon road from Walla Walla to Fort Benton, and Lieut. Mullan was chosen to put it through.

These explorations of Mullan’s may be tiresome reading for any who are unable to visualize this region as it was at the time they were undertaken. I can recall no wagon train from Fort Benton to Bannack in 1864, ten years after these journeys of Lieut. Mullan. Those who made the trip went on horseback, through the Prickly Pear canyon, Malcolm Clarke’s ranch, near the entrance to the canyon, was one of the stopping places eagerly anticipated.

All this country was a wilderness, relieved by a few missions, and the trading posts of the fur companies dotted hear and there. The Blackfeet, Assinniboines and Crows were powerful tribes, and none too friendly to whites. They roamed wherever their fancy led them. The Blackfeet went to the Judith Basin for game and berries; and into the Flathead domain to steal horses. The other tribes did likewise, only with a change of name of the invading territory and its occupants. Even at Indian agencies, those who had them in charge ere not safe.

How old-timers regarded the position of Indian agent at that time is illustrated by an anecdote. A pioneer was told of one agent who on a salary of $1,500 a year, managed, in the brief period of two years, to accumulate a fortune of $250,000. “that man had wonderful financial ability,” said the narrator.

“Well,” the other replied, ”when a man had a place like that he took his life in his hands, and had to do something to get even.”

Into such surroundings came Lieutenant Mullan, and bravely undertook the task alloted to him, carrying it through successfully often at a season when other men would have stayed in camp.

By studying his itinerary it will be seen that, although he did not build the Northern Pacific, those early explorations greatly excited its building, and also to construction of the Great Northern. [Montana Newspaper Association 4 Feb 1924 The Grass Range Review]

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