#22. Lt. Saxton Reaches the Marias River

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.

No date is given in the notes as to what date Lieutenant Saxton’s group left Pend d’ Oreille lake, but they traveled sixty-five miles along the valley of Clark’s Fork over somewhat challenging, difficult trails with sharp rocks that caused injury to their oxen, mules and horses. The land was heavily forested with most of the grasses burned away. This lack of grass forced the animals to go without grazing for two nights. Fortunately, on August 21st, they reached Thompson’s Prairie[i] where there was a “fine tract of meadowland, hemmed in by the mountains, where the excellent grass makes it a favorite camping ground for the Indians, and where the Hudson Bay Company formerly had a trading post, which was abandoned on account of the hostility of the Blackfeet.” (Stevens 1853)

From the 21st through the 28th as they progressed on their journey, they enjoyed “excellent prairie camps, and crossing Clark’s Fork on a raft”; all the while Antoine (the guide) had been observing the tracks of Blackfeet but was confident they were not intent on war, merely looking for horses to steal. The group made a camp at St. Mary’s (or Flathead) village in the Bitter Root Valley where the awaiting the eastern surveyors under Mr. Tinkham.

In his report to Stevens, Lieutenant Saxton described the village as having been “laid out by the Jesuit missionaries, who introduced much instruction in agriculture and other arts of civilized life…” The work of building and farming was done by “forced” Native American labor and the men of the tribes resented being made to do the women’s work of farming. The Jesuits deserted the area before completing the village. No further explanation was recorded in Steven’s journal. A “Mr. Owen” completed the construction, but it was recorded that the “Flatheads have a considerable village of log-houses around Fort Owen, and own a large number of cattle, raising also wheat, potatoes, poultry, &c.” (Stevens 1853)

Lieutenant Saxton determined to send as many men as could be spared back to Fort Vancouver and placed Lieutenant Macfeely in charge of the group, to conduct them by the southern Nez Perces route across the Bitter Root mountains near the Koos-koos-kia river. In all there were twenty in the group with twenty-three day’s provisions. Lieutenant Saxton, with seventeen men and the guide, Antoine, believing it was unsafe to travel across the mountains in such a small party, departed for Fort Benton on September 2nd. During the journey along Blackfeet Fork and passing “Hell Gate,” Saxton wrote: “I think it decidedly a misnomer to call this beautiful region by so unholy a name. The sun does not shine on a better spot on earth, and I found that my previous ideas of the Rocky mountain range were, as far as this section is concerned, entirely erroneous. Instead of a vast pile of rocks and mountains almost impassable, I found a fine country, well watered by streams of clear, cold water, and interspersed with meadows covered with the most luxuriant grass.” (Stevens 1853)

Saxton’s group encountered Lieutenant Grover’s upon which he learned of Stevens’s safe arrival at Fort Benton. They two groups merged and finished the journey to Fort Benton, arriving on the 12th of September.

Mr. Tinkham and Mr. Stanley (the artist) were traveling somewhat parallel and not too distant from one another; Tinkham to perform surveys, Stanley to record the landscape and all it held. As with Stevens, they, too encountered the beauty and the dangers of the journey of the journey crossing the Milk River, dry prairies and the relief of water and grasses found near Elder Creek and other branches of the Milk. They also passed along the Three Buttes; peaks “standing completely isolated, have long served as watch-towers and landmarks to the roving tribes that range over the country for a thousand miles around. Assiniboines, Crows, and Blackfeet, have marked their summits with monumental heaps of stone, and retained their lodges, in which war parties have awaited the favorable moment to pounce down upon the unguarded wanderer in the plains below.” In addition to describing the vegetation and animals living in the region, they also came across beds of lignite; a soft, brown, combustible, sedimentary rock formed from naturally compressed peat. It does not produce a great deal of heat so is considered the lowest ranking of coal.

By the 7th of September, they reached the Marias river, about seventy miles from its mouth. At that southerly region of the river they were about “two or three hundred feet below the prairie level,” decently wooded. A good deal of “milky” frothing was seen due to the pebbly river bed under the swift current. “It resembles the Missouri in its character of interval and high, steep bluffs, where the main train crossed it at its mouth, and is reported by competent judges to be capable of improvement, so as to be navigable by light steamers for fifty miles.”

General Report Plate XXVI by J. M. Stanley

“Marias River”

[i] Thompson’s Prairie: what remains of the prairie in the easternmost region (Wisconsin) is under the protection of the Nature Conservancy.