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#18. Marias Pass and Reports

For readers who have missed earlier portions of this series, we are reviewing the final report of the explorations (1853-1855) made by and the teams under the direction of Isaac Stevens to determine the practicability of the northern route for a railroad to the Pacific. The report was submitted to the Secretary of War, Honorable John B. Floyd.

Following receipts of reports from several other teams, Stevens wrote “Indeed, I am now impressed with the opinion, which I have got from various sources, that there is a large extend of country, cultivable, both north and south of the Missouri, especially as you approach the mountains in the neighborhood of the Yellowstone and its tributaries, particularly the tributaries flowing into the Yellowstone from the south side, until you reach the South Pass emigrant trail.”[1]

Based on Dr. Evans’s report of the grates of the route between the Milk and Missouri rivers, Stevens ordered a run of a line of levels be made as he believed “a good practicable route might be found that would considerably shorten the distance of the route pursued” by them. He further directed Mr. Lander to prepare a party to survey the Marias Pass [near Glacier National Park, Montana] as reports provided information of a pass in that area. From Little Dog, a prominent chief of the Piegan tribe, and a man of character and of probity, I got a very particular description of the Marias Pass”. There is a very complicated and often violent history between the Kalispel (also Pend d'Oreille), Blackfeet, Flatheads and other indigenous peoples around and through the Marias Pass. The Kalispel, Flatheads, and Kutenai complained to Stevens about the unrelenting Blackfoot raiding. “The western tribes were even described as having been "decimated" by these repeated attacks, and they demanded that Stevens prevent the Blackfeet from raiding before an effective settlement could be reached. Stevens assured the western tribal leaders that he would provide a peaceful solution to the constant Blackfeet threat, but in doing so he made them forego any claims to the northern Rocky Mountain passes or plains.”[2]

(Photo of Marias Pass from “Trains Magazine”

Stevens’ noted that since he had focused his attentions to the “passes of these mountains, I have been greatly impressed with the fact, from the course of the streams and the general deportment of the country, that there must be a good and practicable pass leading from some branch of the Marias; and at this time I was sanguine that we should find there the best solution…”[3]

Stevens resolved that he would move the main train along a route which was based on definite information, making observations and run lines, that would allow him to connect with other teams dispatched to other regions.

September 7-8, Stevens was occupied with administrative paperwork, preparing individual survey team orders, and reporting to the Ware Department and the Indian Commissioner. At this point in the journey, in order to accomplish all that he had been tasked to do, the project incurred a deficiency (monetarily and time). Stevens’ operated in the belief that incurring the deficiency would be approved by Congress and the War Department, so he forged onward. Stevens wrote that his instructions “required me to examine into the question of the snows on the route, into the freshets[i] of the streams, and the period of time they were locked up by the ice…”[4]. Such efforts required establishing winter posts at Fort Benton and in the Bitter Root Valley; which would also necessitate support of the Indian Council. Stevens pointed out that the Council would have a “weighty influence in the whole question of emigration on this route, and of any operation which might be undertaken by the government and its citizens, either in the way of wagon roads or railroads.”

September 9th. Stevens, Landler and Lieutenant Donelson all set forth on their assigned journeys. Included in Stevens’ party was Albert Culbertson (special agent), John Stanley (artist), and Augustus Hammell (interpreter). Their day’s journey ended on the Teton, about fourteen miles from Fort Benton. After erecting their camp, they were joined by a large part of the Blackfeet with principle men, the Little Dog, the Three Bears, and the Wolf that Climbs.

Their travels began again in the early morning of the 10th of September. They journeyed about three hours before they reached a “fine spring, with excellent grass, at a celebrated landmark known by the name of the Rotten Belly rocks.” Rotten Belly rocks is a formation of sandstone and characteristic of the Mauvaises Terres [bad lands]. “Columns with capitals, resemblances to the human figure, &c., &c., abound”. It was called Rotten Belly in remembrance of the Crow chief Rotten Belly [Sore Belly] who was killed during an “encounter between one hundred of his braves and eleven well-armed Gros Ventres of the Prairie.” (Stevens 1853)

They traveled well into the afternoon crossing over “a rolling country, tolerably grassy, occasionally crossing hollows where water runs in the spring”, until they reached their camp site on the Marias. The morning of the 11th they traveled until mid-day and stopped at a spring to procure water. Stevens noted that it was at that spring that he lost his Colt revolver, but they continued toward Fort Benton. Shortly after leaving the spring he was intercepted by Baptiste Champagne with an express from Lieutenant Donelson which included a brief report from Lieutenant Grover.

“Lieutenant Grovers Despatch - Return of Governor Stevens to Fort Benton” by John M. Stanley.

[1] [1] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 104. [2] National Park Service, Glacier National Park. Man in Glacier (Chapter 1) ( [3] Ibid. Page 104. [4] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 105.

[i] Freshets; Stream flow tracks rainfall pattern. Although year round orographic rainfall is the primary source of stream water, localized heavy rainfall and storms passing through the islands cause frequent flooding, called freshets or spates.


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