The Missouri River in Missouri River Country
excerpted from the book:
Montana’s Missouri & Musselshell By Rick & Susie Graetz
CHARLES M. RUSSELL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
It’s uncommon country … at once stark, beautiful, imposing and inviting, this Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Time has left most of this remarkable landscape with the same appearance as when the indigenous peoples hunted and did battle here. And while some of the wildlife species have disappeared, notably bison and grizzly bears, other animals, including elk and bighorn sheep are coming back strong.
The CMR, as it is commonly referred to, occupies a large swath of Montana’s northeast quadrant and is in the center of some of the least inhabited country in the United States. The 1.1 million-acre refuge straddles part of the free flowing Missouri River and takes in the rugged Missouri Breaks, wild prairie grasslands and the 250,000-acre Fort Peck Lake with its 1,600 miles of shoreline. From the western boundary ten miles upstream of the Fred Robinson Bridge near Grand Island, a canoe will cover 150 miles by the time it reaches the spillway of Fort Peck Dam and the eastern perimeter of the refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages this animal haven.
In many places, the CMR’s broken and rough terrain is difficult to negotiate. Nearly 80 percent of the place is made up of steep ridges and a labyrinth of eroded coulees. In wet weather, the underlying shale turns to gumbo, and travel, either by vehicle or on foot, becomes almost impossible.
The mix of landforms of the CMR is impressive. Table-topped uplands give way to rugged ravines, wide and precipitous canyons (some 1,000 feet deep) and spectacular badlands. This much-dissected expanse of ground has been broken by flows of water, such as Seven Blackfeet Creek, Devils Creek, Snow Creek, Hell Creek, the Musselshell River and many smaller, more intermittent creeks. Hence the term “river breaks.”
Elevations and relief are low by Montana standards, but when looking up at some of the high points from the bottom of a gulch, the slopes appear as tough to climb as any mountain. When Fort Peck Lake is at full pool, the lowest elevation on the refuge is 2,246 feet. One of the loftiest spots is 3,241 feet on a divide just above the east side of Seven Blackfeet Creek, close to the center of the CMR.
An open forest of Rocky Mountain juniper, Douglas fir and ponderosa pines covers close to one-third of the refuge. Ponderosa, the dominant tree, is a stunted version of the taller pines that grow west of Montana’s Continental Divide. Wildlife use these woodlands for security, and the timber also protects the fragile soils from erosion. Sagebrush and grasslands intersperse the trees and comprise almost 60 percent of the land. Riparian habitats are found along the banks of the Missouri River and many of the smaller creeks.
When flying above the CMR, it is interesting to note that the tree coverage is far more extensive on the south side of the Missouri than to the north. On the south, the forests can extend up to ten miles inland, while in the north they are seldom much more than two or three miles in width. This is especially true east of UL Bend (a U and an L on its back with “feet” sticking up is the shape the river forms here). The slopes ascending from the south banks of the river accumulate more moisture, have better soils and provide a more suitable environment for tree growth than the breaks north of the Missouri.
Fox Hills sandstone and the Hell Creek geologic formations dominate the CMR beyond the southern edge of Fort Peck Lake and the Missouri. The north side of the water was glaciated about 15,000 years ago by continental ice sheets flowing into northeast Montana out of Canada. These glaciers pushed the Missouri River south out of its old channel to its present location (the Milk River now occupies the former Missouri River bed). Scouring glacial ice also removed the quality earth, exposing the fine textured clay-like Bearpaw Shale, which is less conducive to producing vegetation.
Through the centuries, much of the landscape in the southeastern environs of the refuge has been highly eroded by exposure to wind and water. The mudstone and other soils that have been uncovered contain ancient marine life and dinosaur bones. The area continues to yield some of the richest records of prehistoric life in the world.
Enormous expanses of mostly public land (more than two million acres) managed by the Bureau of Land Management surround the Charles M. Russell refuge. Primitive roads cross this BLM land and lead to the CMR.
Unlike most of the refuge, this outlying terrain is predominantly rolling prairie broken by shallow coulees and occasional buttes. Vegetation is predominantly sagebrush, prickly pear cactus and native prairie grass. Rocky Mountain juniper is widely scattered throughout. Drainages that make up the river breaks of the CMR get their start in small draws and deeper gulches of this higher ground beyond the preserve.
THE REGIONS OF THE CMR
The Missouri River flows freely in the western reaches of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Its meanders have created wide river bottoms and fertile ground for large stands of cottonwoods, willows and ash trees that provide good white-tailed deer environment. The slopes of the hills in this section are less angular than those farther east, and getting around on foot is easier here than it is downstream.
Large drainages, such as Rock Creek and Sipary Ann Creek, flowing south to the Missouri River from the Little Rocky Mountains and nearby terrain, have dissected the prairie in the northwestern province of the CMR into a north-south pattern of ridges and coulees. South of the Missouri, waterways, including Sand Creek, Two Calf Creek and Crooked Creek flow east to west. Primitive roads follow many of the ridges above these creeks, allowing good access to the protected lands.
In several places on the south side, steep winding roads descend to the river flood plain. As for the north fringe of the river, a road, starting at Hwy 191, parallels the Missouri for about 14 miles. Other byways head north beyond the river toward the Little Rockies and Malta.
In this area, just beyond the Sand Creek Wildlife Station, from a ridge high above the south rim of the Missouri’s canyon, on a clear day the horizons extend for up to 100 miles. Many of north central Montana’s “island mountain ranges,” including the Little Rockies, Big Snowies, Judith, Bear Paws and Moccasins are visible.
Primary access to the western part of the refuge is from above both sides of the Fred Robinson Bridge and Hwy 191.
About 18 miles east of the bridge, the Missouri’s progress is slowed as the waters of Fort Peck Lake begin to backup. The flood plain disappears and the river fills the entire channel. When the lake level drops, mud flats appear. Most of the original flood plain of the river is now under the waters of the Fort Peck Lake. At one time, these bottoms provided extensive stands of cottonwoods and riparian land covered by lush vegetation. Lewis and Clark found bison, elk and grizzly bears as they moved along the shore of the river.
From this point east, the river corridor begins to widen. Both sides of the waterway consist of countless coulees and open ponderosa pine forests. As the ebb of water nears the big bend, known as UL Bend, the surface on the north side becomes noticeably flatter and void of trees. Low hills separated by shallow draws blend with level ground; views are distant. As far as the eye can see in any direction, is one of the largest and least disturbed short-grass prairies in the nation. And it supports one of the world’s largest networks of prairie dog colonies. The existence of such great numbers of black-tailed prairie dogs on the UL Bend is sustaining the comeback of the black-footed ferret, an endangered and rare mammal. Ferrets need these prairie diggers to survive; they live in their burrows and prey on them. The “Bend” is also a good area to view the colorful mating rituals of sage and sharp-tail grouse.
The horseshoe-shaped landform that makes up the lower portion of the UL Bend region is about seven miles long, one mile across at its narrowest point and 17 miles around. Steamboats plying the Missouri in the mid 1800s let their passengers off on one side so they could walk across and get their “land legs” back after having spent many days on-board. The boats would continue around and retrieve them on the other side of the peninsula.
The UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge and UL Bend Wilderness are part of this remote area. Both are contiguous to and managed by the CMR through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Headwatering in the Castle Mountains of western Montana, the historic Musselshell River winds through its valley from the south, arriving at the Missouri across from the tip of the UL Bend.
East of UL Bend and the Musselshell, the country gets even rougher, the reservoir widens and more bays sculpture the shoreline on both sides of the lake. This is the mid-section of the CMR. Mickey and Brandon buttes, each about 2,900 feet in elevation and home to bighorn sheep, are landmarks on the north side of the water. On the same side of the river, but farther east, Iron Stake Ridge stands out at 3,140 feet and is the southern most reach of the Larb Hills, stands out. South of the river and lake, the sharp divides above Devils Creek, Herman Ridge and Seven Blackfeet reach above some of the most rugged landscape on the CMR. Relief is from 500 to 1,000 feet high.
The mass of the Larb Hills and the untamed geography across the river presents perhaps the most dramatic and beautiful display of upland prairie topography on the continent. Both sides of the river and lake in this span of the refuge create territory for mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep and antelope, as well as smaller critters. Here, nature also displays a fascinating collection of picturesque rock configurations – castles, monuments, towers, arches – all created by differential erosion, such as harder rock sitting atop a softer eroding stone pedestal.
Beyond the mouth of Seven Blackfeet, the inlets become wider and longer; now there is no mistaking the lake for a river. Snow Creek and Hell Creek bays, north of Jordan, both popular recreation areas, stretch south from the main body of water. This side of the lake remains broken and coarse. The north side of the shoreline in this region is extremely irregular. Narrow points of land separate at least ten bays and flat-topped buttes accentuate the ground above them.
Unusual and fascinating rock arrangements that look like toadstools or thin walls are scattered throughout a desert-like environment.
As the water spreads out and nears its widest expanse, the landforms on either side become more subdued. The highest hills are 2,500 feet to 2,600 feet above sea level; the relief is not much more than 100 feet. Because of the section’s sparse tree cover, elk are scarce. This rolling prairie and open terrain is habitat for the speedy pronghorn antelope.
The eastern edge of the lake takes an abrupt and lengthy turn to the south of the main body of water. Dry Arm, as it is called, (Big Dry Creek before the dam) stretches out for about 40 miles. This finger shaped extension of Fort Peck Lake is greater in length by itself than any other lake in the state. Very few people visit the western fringe of Dry Arm.
Badlands, make up much of the surface geology of the eastern part of this wildlife haven. Views here are austere and beautiful. The Sand Arroyo Badlands are the most distinguished of these dry land creations. Unusual and fascinating rock arrangements that look like toadstools or thin walls are scattered throughout a desert-like environment. Made of sandstone, they were created by wind blowing the finer material away from the rock, leaving the coarser stone standing above the surface.
Although the sunrise side of the CMR is the driest of all the preserve regions, in the Bobcat Creek drainage, pockets of perennial wet areas exist. Just below the surface soils, water moves laterally along impermeable coal seams and seeps out in some of the deeper coulees prompting the growth of green ash trees and other vegetation. In one coulee, aspens have taken hold and in another, black cottonwoods are growing. Usually found in cooler, wetter environs, it is rare for these two species of trees to be so far east of the mountains.
North of Sand Arroyo, the relief increases, dominated by 3,000-foot Deadman’s Butte, a promontory just beyond the eastern reaches of the refuge. The summit provides sweeping views of the immense expanse of sky, water and land spread out to the south, west and north. On a clear day, it’s possible to see 1,000 square miles of prairie and river.
Roads from Hwy 200 between Winnett and to the east of Jordan lead north into the central and eastern units of the CMR; these dirt roads are not usable in wet conditions. Travel is slow and 60 miles might take more than two hours of drive time. The most popular byways include the Crooked Creek road near Winnett and the route to Hell Creek out of Jordan.
On the eastern margin of the CMR, off of Hwy 24, several routes (dry weather roads) wind to the many recreation areas and boat launches on the Dry Arm. The best access to the northeast part of the Charles M. Russell is out of Fort Peck, just south of Glasgow.
The recorded history of the country now designated as the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge flows with the waters of the Missouri River. The Lewis and Clark Expedition moved west against its current, trappers and natives used it for transportation, steamboats carried life and people to a growing Montana and in the early 1900s, homesteaders settled along the river’s rich bottomlands.
Long before these first visitors though, and millions of years prior to the formation of the Missouri, other forms of life existed here. Evidence of their presence is found in the mudstones and other sedimentary formations that blanket the CMR. The Missouri River badlands of the refuge and beyond are producing new discoveries each year. Paleontologists have been provided with one of the world’s most fertile fossil sites and an outdoor laboratory to help them understand the evolutionary process.
Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, Albertosaurus, Mosasaurus, aquatic duck-billed dinosaurs and other giant creatures roamed, fought and populated this preserve area. Their remains are now being uncovered. In 1902, one of the first T-rex fossils ever found was discovered near Jordan in the Cretaceous era badlands of Hell Creek. In 1990, the most complete T-rex ever was unearthed here. Each year brings new finds, exciting information and enlightenment about what this land was like more than 70 million years ago.
Indian tribes from the upper Midwest, and farther east, were pushed west into this region by an expanding white population. By the late 1700s, a Plains Indian culture, centered on the movement of bison, had been established.
The original Plains Indians who used these lands, were the Shoshone, Flathead, Pend Oreille and Kutenai. Then the growing Blackfeet nation, especially the most feared Piegan Blackfeet, forced the others to the mountains. While the Blackfeet dominated this region, Assiniboine, Atsina (Gros Ventre), Cree, Absaroka and Sioux also hunted here. The river was supposed to have divided the hunting grounds, but rarely did it stand in the way of trespass, and many major battles were fought over hunting rights.
The first recorded documentation of this Charlie Russell Country began in 1805 with the journals of Lewis and Clark. In May of that year, they spent 16 days traveling through what is now the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Most of their campsites are presently under the waters of Fort Peck Reservoir, but three of the approximate locations are on the western end of the refuge and can be reached by primitive road.
On May 9, 1805, the Corps passed Big Dry Creek and camped near what is now Duck Creek. Lewis wrote, “today we passed the bed of the most extraordinary river that I ever beheld. it is as wide as the Missouri is at this place or 1/2 a mile wide and not containing a single drop of runing water.”
May 20, reaching the Musselshell River, they named it the “Shell River.” Camping here for the night, Lewis penned, “The hunters returned this evening and informed us that the country continued much the same in appearance as that we saw where we were or broken, and that about five miles ab[ov]e the mouth of shell river a handsome river of about fifty yards in width discharged itself into the shell river on the Stard (north ) or upper side; this stream we called Sah-ca-ger we-ah or bird woman’s River after our interpreter the Snake woman.”
Two days later, the explorers set up camp just below C K Creek on the north shore of the Missouri. Clark noted in the journals, “I walked out after dinner and assended a but[te] a few miles [off] to view the countrey, which I found roleing & of a verry rich stickey soil producing but little vegetation of any kind except the prickley pear, but little grass & that verry low” Clark was probably observing the gumbo soil prevalent on the CMR when it rains.
Fur trappers and traders followed the Corps of Discovery on the Missouri. Activity was minimal until the late 1820s when larger organizations like the American Fur Company moved into the area and established trading posts. Traders labored against the currents of the river with loads of bartered materials, then floated downstream with heaps of furs secured from the Indians and trappers.
After Lewis and Clark and the trappers, and up until the 1880s when the steel rails entered the territory, the Missouri was the main route of travel into Montana. Today’s wildlife refuge stretch of the Missouri, and the lands on both sides of the water, were host to everyone who added to the tales and legends of “the Wild West.” Rustlers, horse thieves, bank robbers, cattleman, vigilantes, cowboys, Native Americans, trappers, woodhawkers, wolfers, steamboat captains and the U.S. Cavalry passed through or lived here for a short spell. Very few areas experienced as much of the history of the early American west as did this place.
As the fur trade was dwindling in the 1850s, steamboats plying the waters of the Missouri brought legions of new people into Montana and created more access to lonely outposts along the river. The fast current, numerous sandbars and sawyers (submerged trees with lance like tips sticking out of the water) demanded the full attention of river captains. Scores of boats and cargo were destroyed by the river’s treachery.
As the water traffic increased, several river front settlements soon sprung up, such as Carroll in the western end of the refuge. At first a trading post, later it became a steamboat landing which enjoyed brief prosperity during the low water years of 1874 and 1875. Freight and passengers were unloaded here to continue the journey west by land over the Carroll Trail to Helena. This good fortune ended when the return of high water allowed the steamboats once again to continue upriver to Fort Benton.
Rocky Point, in the western part of the Russell Wildlife Refuge, was a tough frontier town from the 1860s until the turn of the century. Serving legitimate ranchers and businessmen, as well as the thieves and outlaws, it became the rendezvous and center of trade for wood choppers, trappers, miners, cowboys, whiskey traders and all manner of desperados, including the infamous Kid Curry and his gang. Rocky Point also served as a steamboat landing, with infantry companies occasionally stationed to guard government freight.
Remnants of Rocky Point, like those of Carroll and other riverbank towns, have been washed away, leaving little evidence of their one-time existence.
Perhaps the most fascinating time of the old west and the Missouri River Breaks was in the early 1870s. Western Montana stockmen ventured into the lush river bottoms and tall grass of the north central part of the state. The land was unfenced and un-owned. Pioneer institutions – big outfits such as the DHS Ranch and the Circle C Ranch – ranged their livestock through what is now the CMR. And big cattle drives, up from Texas were brought north into the area to feed on the nutritional grasses.
Outlaws, rustlers and thieves took advantage of the open range and the somewhat easy practice of stealing horses and cattle. They had their favorite haunts and would hole up in the many coulees of the badlands along the Missouri until they could safely dispose of the stolen goods. These outlaws and others on the run from the law hung out in places like Carroll, Rocky Point and Musselshell. Signs of their camps and corrals that held stolen livestock can be seen in remote areas of the refuge.
In 1867, a northern Pony Express route came through what is now the Wildlife Refuge. Starting at Fort Union on the Missouri and close to today’s Montana/North Dakota line, the trail follows Hwy 2, reaching the Missouri River again at Fort Peck (the eastern end of the CMR). Riders stayed on the north side of the Missouri until they reached Fort Hawley, on Hawley Creek west of the UL Bend. Here they crossed the Missouri and headed southwest to the Judith Mountains and Helena. Mail service on this route lasted for just one year.
Where the Musselshell River emptied into the Missouri was a significant intersection in the time of cattle barons and earlier. Here, vast herds of bison crossed the river on their annual migrations, and as a major fording point for the Indians of eastern Montana, battles and skirmishes often occurred there with the white man. A succession of fur trading posts, wood yards, military camps, ranches and homesteads at one time or another occupied the area.
The confluence was also a gathering place for rustlers and other outlaws. Organized horse-stealing rings tormented ranchers in the Missouri Breaks in the late 1800s. Raiding ranches in Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and southern Canada, bandits drove the livestock to remote areas of the Breaks, “worked the brands” and drove them to Canada for sale, repeating the process with stolen Canadian livestock on the return trip.
One of the most famous incidents of “vigilante justice” occurred in 1884. Granville Stuart, operator of the DHS ranch, led a group of local stockmen to the Musselshell area to clean out a large horse-thieving ring. Two outlaws were hanged there and two more suffered the same fate at Rocky Point. A few days later, these stockmen, who became known as “Stuart’s Stranglers,” apprehended more horse thieves at an abandoned wood yard at Bates Point, 15 miles below the mouth of the Musselshell River. Five outlaws were killed in the ensuing gun fight; seven others managed to escape, but five of these were later captured by soldiers in eastern Montana and returned to the vigilantes, who decided their fate would be death by hanging. The vigilante actions received considerable condemnation, but the organized horse rustling business ended in the Missouri Breaks.
The heyday of the wide-ranging cattle industry was about to come to an end. The tough winter of 1886-87 caused heavy livestock losses and began the decline of the big cattle operations. Life in the Missouri Breaks calmed.
Homesteaders, lured to the Montana plains by glowing railroad reports touting prospects of riches to be reaped from the soil and a 1909 liberal homestead law, began making inroads on the eastern Montana prairies. Some settled along the lush bottomlands of the Missouri River. For the most part, the lands that would eventually be set aside for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge weren’t suited for agriculture and the majority of homestead claims were made along the river.
Small hamlets grew along the Missouri to serve those homesteaders who did settle in the Breaks. At one time, there were 16 post offices located throughout the river country.
At first, these newcomers did well with their crops. In 1917, though, drought set in and worsened during the next three years. This natural calamity, coupled with several severe recessions, destroyed the dreams of many who came to settle in the soon-to-be CMR. Most were forced to leave their places to the wind and let nature reclaim the land. Postal locations such as Round Butte, Big Dry, Wilder, Trenton and Bervie all disappeared.
Those ranchers and farmers who were successful in establishing places along the river and withstood the drought were, in the 1930s, bought out by the U.S. Government as a prelude to the building of Fort Peck Dam.
With the completion of the dam, the river behind it deepened and spread, covering the cottonwoods, floodplain and history alike. The smooth waters have brought a sense of tranquility to the land, drowning the voices of the past. But oftentimes, as the wind rustles across the grass and through the trees, very faintly, those ancient whispers can be heard.
FROM FORT PECK TO THE YELLOWSTONE AND NORTH DAKOTA
The Missouri River hasn’t seen a town since Loma, 281 miles ago. In 1876, near the site of today’s dam, Colonel Campbell Peck and Commander Durfee of the U.S. Army established an Indian Agency and a trading post for the Assiniboine and Sioux people. In the fall of 1933, with the commencement of the dam project, Fort Peck town site, planned and built by the Army Corps of Engineers to house its employees, began its orderly development.
The construction spawned shanty boomtowns that were scattered around the work area. These places disappeared almost as quickly as they grew. Some, including New Deal, are now covered by the lake.
Fort Peck Dam is one of the largest earth-filled river impediments in the world. Its original purpose was not only to control floods, but also to create jobs in a depression saddled economy. At that time, the undertaking was the nation’s largest public works project. Completed in 1940, during its peak of activity in 1936, it provided 10,456 jobs. The head gates of the dam were featured on the first cover of Life Magazine.
The Missouri River leaves Fort Peck Lake through the dam’s spillway and runs clear again much as it did from its birthplace. Before the dams, and in its natural state, the river was known for its silt and mud. Estimates were that at one time for each one million gallons of water, 120 tons of silt were suspended. Steamboats plying the river had to continually clean mud from their boilers.
Within ten miles of exiting Fort Peck and after regenerating a channel, the Missouri meets the Milk River. The extremely silt-laden waters of the Milk are pushed aside by the stronger flow of the Missouri as it fights to keep the murky color at bay. The intense contrast of the two flows creates a light colored banner along the north bank until finally, the Milk gives up and succumbs to the mightier Missouri.
Meriwether Lewis, May 8, 1805, wrote, “the water of this river posseses a peculiar whiteness, being about the colour of a cup of tea with the admixture of a tabelspoonfull of milk. from the colour of it’s water we called it Milk river. we think it possible that this may be the river called by the Minitares (Hidatsa) ‘the river that scolds at all others’ …” Lewis also noted the Milk River Hills that rise almost 700 feet above the floodplain of the Milk and Missouri. These can be ascended on their south side and reached via MT Hwy 24 across Fort Peck Dam. From these points one can view much of the terrain Lewis and Clark described, both along the Missouri on the north side of the hills and southwest out over Fort Peck Lake.
As the river rolls eastward, the meanders increase, as do the sand bars and islands. While the Missouri is dynamic through its final 185 miles, it doesn’t have the strength it had before Fort Peck Dam was completed. And it only drops 220 feet in these last Montana miles. Looking a bit more civilized than the segment between Fort Benton and Fort Peck, it is still, for the most part, void of people.
“The country we passed today … is one of the most beautiful plains we have yet seen, it rises gradually from the river bottom … then becoming level as a bowling green … as far as the eye can reach.”
– Meriwether Lewis
On May 7, southwest of the small community of Frazer, Lewis gave praise. “The country we passed today … is one of the most beautiful plains we have yet seen, it rises gradually from the river bottom … then becoming level as a bowling green … as far as the eye can reach.”
Poplar, just off of the Missouri River, serves as headquarters for the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, and was named for the widespread stands of poplar trees on the riverbanks. Here, the Poplar River comes in from the north and the Redwater River adds a small amount of moisture on the south. The southern boundary of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation is defined by about 130 miles of the Missouri extending from the mouth of the Milk to the Big Muddy River.
The Corps of Discovery overnighted at present day Poplar on May 3, 1805, and the Captains named the “Porcupine (Poplar) River,” because of the multitude of needled creatures inhabiting the place. Lewis penned that night, “the country in this neighborhood of this river, and as far as the eye can reach is level, fertile, open and beatifull beyond description.”
They also christened the present Redwater River, “2000 mile creek,” estimating it was 2,000 miles from St. Louis. Many of the place names Lewis and Clark designated lost the original names owing to the delay in the publishing of their journals. Others who followed, not knowing the sites had a label, gave them different monikers.
There are several accounts of how Wolf Point, the next burg on our trip, took its name. The most accepted version was that during a cold late 1860s winter, “wolfers” killed several hundred gray wolves that froze before they could be skinned for their pelts. The hunters stacked the carcasses in high piles at their camp along the Missouri waiting for the spring thaw. Indians took over the landing and camp before the skins could be removed; the putrid piles remained. They became a visible landmark, especially to the steamboats coming upriver in that spring.
Documentation of Wolf Point’s exact beginnings is hard to come by. An 1834 map noted an Indian fort at the location. As a settlement, it was probably first established as a trading post for the fur trade. It grew to a cow town when huge cattle herds, up from Texas and elsewhere, came through on their way to the rich and tall grasses of northern Montana. The place was a genuine frontier outpost and featured a dugout hotel along the river.
In 1914, Wolf Point attained a growth spurt brought on by the arrival of farmers when Congress opened up the Fort Peck Reservation to homesteading by non-Indians.
The Big Muddy slowly works its way south from Canada to join the Missouri near the town of Culbertson. The settlement, named for Alexander Culbertson, an early-day fur trapper from the American Fur Company, got its start about 1888, and is considered one of the oldest towns in eastern Montana.
A couple of miles southeast of Culbertson, the Hwy 16 bridge crosses the Missouri. The sweeping river view from here is a favorite of photographers. Beyond the bridge, with 34 miles left before the Missouri prepares to leave Montana and take on the Yellowstone, it rolls through a beautiful mix of bluffs, canyons and badlands. Continually impressed with the pleasant appearance of the landscape, William Clark declared, “the Countrey on both Sides have a butifull appearance.”
The Mandans and Hidatsa had warned of the ferocious white bear the Expedition would encounter. Lewis took this admonition lightly, assuming that their superior firepower (the natives didn’t posses guns) would more than compensate. On April 29, sometime during midday, before reaching today’s Culbertson Bridge, Lewis met his first grizzly. He shot the animal, which then pursued him for almost 80 yards before the second bullet killed it. Lewis, who now gained a new respect for this “furious and formidable anamal that will frequently pursue the hunter when wounded,” stated, “these bear being so hard to die reather intimedates us all; I must confess that I do not like the gentelmen and had rather fight two Indians than one bear.”
MONTANA’S FIRST WRITTEN HISTORYt
A few miles before leaving the state, the Missouri passes Snowden Bridge and the site of the former village of Nohly. Here, Lewis and Clark and their crew on April 27, 1805, spent their first night in what would become Montana. As Lewis began writing in his journals that night, the words he put on paper represent the first written history of Montana. “This morning I walked through the point formed by the junction of the rivers … here a beautifull level low plain commences and extends up both rivers for many miles, widening as the rivers recede from each other, and extending back half a mile to a plain about 12 feet higher than itself; … on the Missouri about 2 1/2 miles from the entrance to the Yellowstone river, and between this high and low plain, a small lake is situated about 200 yards wide extending along the edge of the high plain parallel with the Missouri about one mile.” He is noting Nohly Lake, in close proximity to the town of Fairview.
Once this historic spot is passed, the Missouri appropriates the Yellowstone River, just beyond our border with North Dakota. As the river takes leave, it continues to carry the direction and determination it had when it left Three Forks. It still has a long way to go before catching the Mississippi, but it has left the finest landscapes of its journey behind in Montana.