#16 The Milk River (continued)

The end of August 1853 found Stevens and several of his teams continuing their journey to Fort Benton. In the last segment, stolen horses had become an issue for Stevens as well as the Gros Ventres. On the 28th, Stevens wrote that he was “much pleased with the good offices of The Running Fisher to-day, who brought into camp two of our missing horses.”[1] Stevens invited The Running Fisher to join them on their journey to Fort Benton.


According to information gathered from various tribes, their path to Cypress mountain was approximately 120 miles north using Indian routes, or, 80 miles in a direct line; in British territory. At this point, Stevens directed Lieutenant Grover and his teams, the first to cross the mountains by Cadotte’s Pass, to connect with Lieutenant Saxton and his Western Division. They were to make a survey of the upper Missouri to connect with that of Lieutenant Donelson, returning to Fort Benton between the Milk river and the Missouri. Their further duty was to make the best possible examination of the country, then starting from Fort Benton in the winter to cross the mountains with a dog train. This would allow him to gather statistics about the snows and winter climate between Fort Benton and Puget Sound.


Stevens noted the recent trails and roads were more challenging. The river bottom was dried up with deep cracks, and numerous holes made by prairie dogs were often the worse obstacles to their progress. The more visible presence of Indians was notable. Mr. Culbertson (Albert, Natawista’s husband) had first arrived in the region around 23 years prior to their current journey. Specifically, the Gros Ventres, Culbertson remarked that there were currently about 300 lodges, ten persons to the lodge, and with about 600 men and 1,200 women. When he first arrived in the region, there were about 400 lodges. Culbertson explained the loss of lodges was due to attacks (1838-1839) on both Julius and Cypress mountains in prior years by the Crees and Assiniboines. During the last attack only three men escaped, including Setting Squaw, who was mentioned earlier in Stevens’ narrative.


By August 30th they were within sight of Bear’s Paw, “quite a broad and rugged mountain upheaval, stretching from Milk river to the Missouri.” Stevens set Lieutenant Grover, Mr. Lander, and Mr. Stanley to “make an examination of the Bear’s Paw…by ascending one of its highest peaks, and also to sketch in the whole surrounding country, especially the portion between the Bear’s Paw and the Rocky mountains.


"Milk River - Bear's Paw Mountain in the Distance" Plate 22; by John Mix Stanley.


Recently, there has been a good bit about the Milk River so I thought it would be of interest to share an image of the very large map “Milk R. to the Crossing of the Columbia R. by Isaac Stevens, Governor of Washington Territory”. The map is close to four feet wide and three feet tall, difficult to photograph in its entirety.



With Bear’s Paw mountain in sight, Sevens, who had been riding in the ambulance due to illness, halted their journey for a couple of hours and then finished the last 18 miles on horseback to their camp off of a tributary of Box Elder creek. Box Elder is a tributary of the Milk river that has its source very near the Mississippi.


Their ascent heading upward toward Bear’s Paw and away from the Milk was not arduous. Stevens estimated that for close to 30 miles, while the water appeared only in pools, it was very cool, pure, running water. They also enjoyed an impressive view of the mountain. “Bear’s Paw itself presents a rugged, grotesque appearance, and it requires no great stretch of the imagination to see it in the paw of a grizzly bear, ready to spring upon the plain.”[1]



"Bear's Paw Mountain", Plate 23 by John M. Stanley


Steven’s recounted a story told to him be The Running Fisher:


The Bear’s Paw, as one would infer from its wild and stern appearance, has been a scene of Indian fight and massacre. Seven years ago a fight occurred in the Bear’s Paw between their [Gros Ventres], allied with the Blackfeet, and the Crows, in which he killed one of the later tribe. The Crows occupied an impregnable post, from whence they could shoot down all who approached within 20 paces. A Blackfood was shot in the head through a fissure in the rocks. The Gros Ventres then determined to surround and starve them out; at night the Crows got off with the loss of one man, killed by[1] The Running Fisher.


There was another conflict in 1849, again between the Gros Ventres and Crows. 22 Crows were well concealed in a hollow, not too far from where the survey party was dining for the evening. Their intent was to steal horses from the Gros Ventres’ camp. It was not shared how the hidden Crows were discovered, but they were discovered. The Gros Ventres party threw up fine dirt into the air and the wind carried it into the faces of the hidden Crows. A bloody fight ensued in which the Gros Ventres killed all of the Crows; including one whom they had been taken prisoner as a youth and lived among the Gros Ventres all his life but who had collaborated with the Crows. There was no one to return to the Crow camps with the news.


On September 1st, they had passed across Bear’s Paw and descended into the valley of the Teton and arriving at Fort Benton where they received a salute of 15 guns.

[1] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 96.

[2] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 97. [3] Ibid. Page 98.