#15 The Milk 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. The report was submitted to the Secretary of War, Honorable John B. Floyd.


While the majority of Stevens’ report features details of the geography, weather, plant and animal life, and the indigenous peoples, there are the less colorful comments with regard to government communications and some of his thoughts with regard to his decision-making about various assignments. One such entry addressed his surprise at Lieutenant Donalson’s protest, written to Stevens, with regard to being assigned serve as “executive officer of the expedition; to take general charge of all the observations…to get longitudes by lunar distances” etcetera. Stevens expressed his surprise at the protest and wrote further “My statement I reaffirmed in a letter to the Secretary of War, and in one to Lieutenant Donalson, for whose truth and honor no man has a higher opinion or greater confidence than myself. I expressed surprise at the terms of his protest. My written instructions, however, show conclusively that Lieutenant Donalson was in error, and that my original statement is fully borne out by the written orders; the only error in the statement being that the order was written at Camp Atchison, instead of Fort Union; but the verbal instruction was given at the Big Muddy river.”[1]


While such details are not necessarily as engaging as the more picturesque entries, they do remind us that this was a government directed expedition replete with administrative issues and red tape.


August 20, 1853. The expedition departed from Camp Atchison (named so for the acting vice president), traveled some 15 miles before arriving at a pleasant camping site that provided good grasses, wood and water. On the 21st, Stevens described the morning as “clear, cool, pleasant, and delightful for moving.” The road traveled was considered excellent and he had sent forth a party “across the Milk river to Panther Hill to observe the country”.



"Milk River to Panther Mountain" by J. S. Mix; Plate 20.


Stevens continued his entry, “Game was very abundant; plenty of buffalo, antelope, and beaver. A heavy rain and thunder storm occurred about noon. I finally concluded to abandon the instrument wagon, which had delayed us very much yesterday and to-day, in consequence of breaking down, and transfer the baggage to other wagons. Wild horses were reported as having been seen to-day by the reconnoitring parties. A fine eagle was shot and brought in to Dr. Suckley, our naturalist. To my exceeding regret, I found that there were points arising regarding the relations of army officers and civilians, and I concluded that the only way to overcome all difficulty was to pursue a firm, steady course, according to the terms of my written orders. The distance today was seventeen and two-thirds miles.”[1]


As they traversed toward, then crossing the Milk River, Stevens noted that there were intermittent spurs and shingles[i] and that they passed the first sage in small quantities. By this point, passing through a large herd of buffalo was no longer a momentous occasion. Stevens noted that the Milk river had a very gradual descent and a somewhat sluggish current. Camp was established after a nineteen mile journey, about a quarter of a mile after crossing the river. The usual entry of what types of grasses, wood and water were written, this time, poor water and grasses.


August 23rd was a date with some deal of activity. The mule teams established a camp in a hollow of the Milk river where they found “a deputation of Gros Ventres [also known as Astina, lived in what we call Montana], consisting of seven of their chiefs and principal men, five of whom were accompanied by their wives. Among these were the Eagle Chief and his son, White Eagle, and the Little Soldier. The wife of the son of the Eagle Chief was a very pretty woman. Her name was White Antelope. They welcomed us in the most cordial manner and were dignified in their deportment, which was marked by the strictest propriety. We were invited to visit their camp…as it was my desire to exhibit to them our confidence and wish to enter into perfectly friendly relations, I invited them to join the gentlemen of the party assembled around a large camp fire. After smoking and talking for some time, lunch was served up about dusk, consisting of coffee, rice, &c., after which they made us presents of horses, giving one to myself and two to Mr. Culbertson, to whom they seemed to be much attached. There was a large tent put up for their accommodation, and a supper was provided about ten o’clock.[2] Over several days of travels, there were additional friendly engagements with the Gros Ventres (Astina) as well as entertaining.


Thus far, Stevens’ had recounted non-violent, non-confrontational interactions with the indigenous peoples encountered. There had been rumors of unrest, but nothing noted in his narrative reveal that anything negative had occurred through the surveying journey. Things were not always uneventful, though, as there was a feud that had erupted between the Gros Ventres and Blackfeet tribes. Stevens wrote that it was worthy of note in part “to commemorate the heroine who figures in it…” (p. 93). The woman was a Blackfoot married to a Gros Ventres. On their journey her husband was attacked and killed, and a fleet horse (fast running) was stolen. The killer immediately proposed marriage to the wife and suggested she travel north with him, keeping the news of the murder from the Gros Ventres peoples. She agreed and riding his slow horse, began their journey. They eventually stopped for water and after she collected her water she encouraged her now husband to get some of the good water himself. Once he had distanced himself from her, holding the horses, she mounted the fleet horse and took off in the opposite direction. She reconnected with her people and provided all of the details of her husband’s murder as well as the direction of her husband’s killer.


(August 25th) They reached the Gros Ventres camp in midafternoon and due to the large population of the tribe had a difficult time establishing a camping site; even more difficulty finding grazing grass for their animals as so many other camp animals had been feeding in the area for several weeks. Stevens described the camp:


The camp consisted of 300 lodges, at least 1,000 horses, and over 2,000 Indians, men, women, and children. We were soon waited on by others of the tribe, dressed in their finest costumes, among whom I would name The Cloudy Robe, who presented me with a horse, The Eagle, Big Top, The Discoverer, or Ball in the Nose, The Man Who Goes on Horseback, The White Tail Deer, The Running Fisher, The Two Elks, The Wolf Talker, The Bear’s Coat, White Bear, The Clay Pipe-stem Carrier, The Old Horse, The Setting Squaw, The Little White Calf.[3]


Earlier, it had been requested of Stevens that only principal members of his party visited their camp and he complied. Stevens wrote the details of that afternoon visit:


… visited their camp and the lodges of the principal chiefs, at all of which we were treated with the utmost kindness and hospitality. In the first large lodge, specially prepared for their visit, over sixty individuals were seated. We smoked, drank, and ate, and talked some time, and then visited the lodges spoken of. I was much struck with the prominent characteristics of this tribe. Polygamy is universal, several of the chiefs above named having four, five, and even six wives, one of whom is the especial favorite and mistress of the household.[4] Here his descriptions become negative; judgmental of the women themselves as “simple-minded”, “filthy”, and “improvident”. How his observations were worded, how he viewed their culture - what was normal to his cultural background - formulated his opinions. That is something to bear in mind when reading primary source documents - every individual’s experiences, their truth, is based on their culture, education; it all influences how they perceive, how they formulate their opinions.


On the 26th of August there was a great feast after the arrival of the Pembina and main trans. Stevens noted the “high glee” of the Indians who passed the time in “singing their songs, accompanying them with rattles made of the hoofs of antelopes strung very fancifully upon a piece of wood about a foot long, with which they marked time.”[5]


Shortly following the feast there was a council between the chiefs and principal men of the expedition with Mr. Culbertson acting as interpreter. The chiefs, still angry against the Blackfoot about the murder of one of their own and the attempted theft of his fleet horse, were fitting out war parties of their young men to cut off Blackfoot stragglers and steel their horses. Stevens proposed, through Culbertson, that rather than war they should settle with that Blackfoot tribe for the delivery of the killer, or an appropriate reparation. He further explained that there was much to be lost and little to be gained in the proposed war. Further that “it was the desire of the Great Father at Washington that all his children should be at peace with each other; that while war parties of both tribes were scouring the country the road was dangerous to the whites who should go there, and it was my [Stevens’] duty to demand that they should not act as to endanger the life of a single man of my [Stevens’] own party, or of any white man who should hereafter travel through this region.” [6]


He continued:


No idle curiosity brings me here, no mere desire to see the country or the Indians, but I am charged with a great public duty, to deliver to you a message of peace and assure you of the kind feelings entertained by the Good Father at Washington, [President Franklin Pierce] of his desire to learn the wants of his children, and to make inquiry as to what might be done to ameliorate your condition. To secure the continuance of his good wishes you must be at peace with one another. Some of you were present or know of the treat of Fort Laramie. On that basis I wish to make a treat of peace between the Gros Ventres, Blackfeet, Piegans, and Bloods, and between these and the Indians of the west of the mountains who resort to the plains of the Missouri to hunt the buffalo.”[7]


Following the speech, he enumerated the benefits they would receive from the government directly (what they were currently obtaining from other Indians): goods, provisions, &c., in the way of annuities; could keep their horses, instead of being obliged to go with their horses and purchase of other Indians, at an increased price, what the liberality and benevolence of the Good Father, in his fostering care over his children, would at once free and abundantly supply on them. [8] He bade them to set aside the desire for war and send principal men with him to Fort Benton to settle their differences; that failing, the “Good Father at Washington, will settle all our differences at a council of tribes to be held next year.”[9]


Following a consultation amongst the chiefs and principal men, the proposal to accompany Stevens to Fort Benton was agreed and the rest of the day was spent in friendly conversations and demonstrations, at both camps, of various weaponry and horsemanship. It was approximately 5 o’clock that afternoon at Stevens’ camp that presents, especially designed for the Gros Ventres, were distributed: “blankets, shirts, calico, knives, beads, paint, powder, shot, tobacco, hard bread, &c.” The gifts were graciously received and the remainder of the evening was spent in smoking and talking, and watching a brilliantly shining comet and an “appearance of a beautiful aurora borealis. The evening came to an end at 9 o’clock.



"Distribution of Goods to the Gros Ventres" by J. S. Mix. Plate 21.


[1] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 91-92. [2] Ibid. Page 92. [3] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 93. [4] Ibid. Page 93 [5] Ibid. Page 94 [6] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 94. [7] Ibid. Page 94. [8] Ibid. Page 94. [9] Ibid. Page 96.

[i]Spur - a lateral ridge or tongue of land descending from a main crest of a ridge, or hill or mountain. Shingle - deposit of flattened or disk-shaped pebbles or cobbles.