#27 Conference with the Flatheads
The earlier editions of this series can be read on our website: www.thejamesmadisonmuseum.net.
In the prior segment, Stevens’s narrative was shared but it does not cover all of the surveying teams’ experiences. Included in the main narrative, Steven includes Lieutenant Mullan’s report of the journey from Fort Benton to the conference with the Flatheads, thence on to Fort Owen where several of the surveying teams would meet. The area they are traversing is in Montana and Dakotas. I’ve tried to provide the more informative and pictorial segments of Mullan’s report.
GR Plate 31 “Victor’s Camp, Hell Gate Ronde” Both Stevens and Mullan’s teams had spent time at Victor’s Camp.
Mullan’s team left Fort Benton on September 9th and took a southerly course to the foot of the Belt mountains, approximately 22 miles distant. Originally, they were named the Girdle mountains after the belt or girdle of rocks surrounding them. Later, they were renamed Belt after the Belt Butte. Mullan describes part of the journey as running along a “small, shallow, and winding stream called Shonkee creek; which, however, showed signs of being sometimes thirty feet in depth. Grass was luxuriant in its valley, and at its head pines of large size were abundant. The first spurs of the range known as the Highwood are a thousand feet in height, and abundantly wooded.”
Their journey over the next several days crossed all six branches of the Judith river and up to the Judith mountains. “Small tracts on some of the branches of Judith river had the desolate character of the Mauvaises Terres [the “Badlands”], particularly on Arrow river, where the ravines were perfectly awful to behold, descending to the depth of many hundreds of feet; the cliff black, barren, and destitute of timber, being composed of sand and clay, the latter predominating. Granite and sandstone of excellent quality exist in the Girdle mountains, and a bed of salt was seen near their bases.”  Mullan’s did mention that the climate was comparable to that of Virginia in May “and frequent rains, chiefly at night, were beginning to renew the growing season and the verdures [lush, green vegetation] of the plains.” (Stevens 1853)
The whole country was found to be beautiful; a level plateau between the Girdle and Judith mountains, traversed by the numerous branches of Judith river and covered with excellent and high grass. Innumerable herds of buffalo were feeding near the mountains, and the small ponds swarmed with geese and ducks.
Back to Stevens and the Flatheads. The 14th of September (1853) found them in a beautiful valley and in search of the Flathead camp or a trail to lead them in the right direction. They had a Piegan guide who located traces of a recently occupied Flathead camp, indications lead them to believe the camp had moved to a different location. Another fifty miles along, south of the Muscle Shell, they again found beautiful prairies dotted with pristine lakes, they finally located the Flathead camp, along with Lieutenant Mullan’s team. Fortunately, since their Piegan guide could not speak the language, the Flathead could speak French, making it possible for Stevens to have direct conversation. All were received with hospitality and civility.
Stevens described the conference that occurred on September 30-October 1, 1853. The delegation of Flatheads included the principal men: “Pacha, Finissant, and Palassois, three Flathead chiefs, and Cohoxolockny, a Nez Piercés.” The conference business was rather brief and took place after a sharing of the pipe. In short, Stevens informed them that the Blackfeet had promised to cease waging war and stealing, and, would endeavor to restrain their young men from such activities. Delivering that message, Stevens assured them he would see the in the morning before they all departed and left the chiefs to confer with one another.
Finissant and Palassois are relatives. They are old sages. Palassois is a great hunter. He has kept the party supplied with game. He goes, also, in advance of the party in the morning, and at noon awaits them with a string of trout. All are Christians and never eat anything without offering up a blessing, and never rise without praying.
After the traditional trading and gifts, Stevens informed his hosts he would be leaving Mullan with them to “see to their wants” and also that their rights were not invaded. I told them that their rights were the use of their own lands, and that the Great Father desired them to be at peace with themselves and the whites, and to remain so forever. The Great Father wishes you to raise more wheat and potatoes, and to collect more meat and skins, that you may not suffer from want. He sends to you traders, so that you may not be compelled to go a great distance to procure blankets and such things. We will leave Lieutenant Mullan with ten or fifteen men to protect you from the Blackfeet; but they have promised not to disturb you, and I believe that they mean to abide by it.
After promising to return in the following Spring, Stevens addressed concerns expressed by the principal men that they were still concerned that the Blackfeet would continue to wage war and steal their horses. It appears that Stevens tried to sooth their concerns based on the conference with the principal men of the Blackfeet; however, he added that they might consider going to Fort Benton to meet with the Blackfeet to hear assurances for themselves. Eventually, the chiefs gave assurances that they would not meet the Blackfeet with violence unless it was their obvious intent to do harm to them.
Stevens, Isaac I. “Narrative of the Final Report of Explorations For A Route For A Pacific Railroad, Near The Forty-Seventh and Forty-Ninth Parallels of North Latitude, From St. Paul to Puget Sound, by Isaac I. Stevens, Governor of Washington Territory, 1855”. Published in 1859 by the Secretary of War, Honorable John B. Floyd.
 “Narrative of the Final Report of Explorations For A Route For A Pacific Railroad”, Isaac Stevens, Page 121.  Ibid.  Ibid.  “Narrative of the Final Report of Explorations For A Route For A Pacific Railroad”, Isaac Stevens, Page 124.