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# 14: From Fort Union to the Milk River (Heading to Fort Benton)

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.

August 10, 1853

Before leaving the Big Muddy[i], Isaac Stevens had “a long conversation with White Man’s Horse, chief of the war party of Blackfoot” as he had a thorough knowledge of the Bitter Root Valley through his practice of stealing horses from the Flatheads[ii]. White Man’s Horse told Stevens “I take the first Flathead horse I come across; it is sure to be a good one,”[1] then shared with him the best route and assured there would be no difficulty taking the carts and wagons through the mountains. White Man’s Horse and his group departed ahead of Stevens so they could carry the news of the surveying crews to their brethren. After sending dispatches to various points, Stevens’ and his teams set forth.

"Council with White Man's Horse" by J. M. Stanley. Plate 17.

Stevens describes the terrain in his journal as “broken and rolling, with occasional formations of the mauvaise terre [lake] and outcroppings of sandstone. The country is well grassed for all purposes of voyaging, and there are many tracts and swales of land on and in the vicinity of Little Muddy well adapted to cultivation.”[1]

They made camp at the Big Muddy and Mr. Stanley [artist] explored the buttes close to their camp and created sketches. There were what appeared to be, from a distance, bits of timber which, upon closer inspection, were sandstone formations lying upon the ground. Embedded in these formations they found particles of iron oxide about as large as canister shot, some as large as an inch in diameter. Some buttes were composed of clay with striations of sandstone of varying thickness; many discolored by iron and showing distinctive evidence of fire. Other buttes showed marked worn areas where flood waters had been washing through the gullies.

August 14, 1853.

The group departed the Big Muddy and continued to their next camp 11 ½ miles distant on the western side of Poplar river. Stevens described their encampment as “the most beautiful point, in the midst of luxuriant grass.” (Stevens 1853) The remained one night and spent the day traveling 18 miles to their next camp. Stevens decided to rest a day still trying to recover his health.

August 16, 1853

The journey covered 23 2/3 miles that day over the level river bottom of the Missouri. Stevens wrote “Timber in sight all day, the route running through timber for about one mile.” They set up their camp around 5 o’clock where there was “excellent grass, and abundance of timber” and the animals were well rested and in excellent shape. Some credit for the condition of the oxen and mules must be given for Stevens’ orders that every person, duties allowing, walk a portion of each day to preserve the animals’ strength and health for the trek through the mountains.

August 17th found them reaching the Missouri river after a 15 mile journey, again, over level river bottom. During these few days travels Stevens wrote that Lieutenant Grover, Mr. Lander, and Mr. Tinkham had performed meteorological observations and the a day guard was on duty to protect the animals while they grazed, unfettered. Unfortunately, one mule died despite the extra effort of care.

After a good night’s rest they journeyed through prairie dog villages and crossed the Porcupine river, then completing their 16 mile trek at the Milk river, where they decided to spend a full day. They determined to prepare charcoal for the blacksmith, and “to make observations for the geographical position of its mouth, which is considered a very important point in the survey.

"Milk River, Near Junction of Missouri" by John M. Stanley. Plate 18.

The camp “was surrounded by a large grove of cottonwood and near it was a delightful spring of water. The valley of Milk river is wide and open, with a very heavy growth of cottonwood as far as the eye can reach, which is also to be found along the adjacent shores of the Missouri. From the Big Muddy the road has been remarkably fine” with many little coulees along the route where streams run in the spring to the Missouri and its tributaries.”[1]

"A Cotton Wood Grove" by John M. Stanley. Plate 19.


[1] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 90.

[1] Ibid.


[1] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 89.

[i] The Big Muddy River flows more than 2,300 miles from Three Forks, Montana, to St. Louis, where it joins the Mississippi River. These waters continue on for another 1,500 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. [ii]The Flathead Native Indians was the term referred, by Europeans then other Native Americans, to any Native Americans who intentionally changed the shape of their heads to a flat, elongated profile. These tribes included the Coast Salish, the Chinooks, the Clatsop, Kathlamet, Killamuck, Winnapa, Cowlitz, Kwalhioquas and the Wahkiakum tribes.


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