Saturday, February 7, 2009

Archaeology in Montana, 1805-1930

From Lewis and Clark in 1805 until the WPA in the 1930s

[This section will be continually expanded as more information is gathered.]

Lewis and Clark and Archaeology

During their exploration up the Missouri River in 1805-1806, Lewis and Clark traveled through Montana and recorded many sites. Most of them were occupation sites, ceremonial structures, and buffalo kill sites. Some were abandoned villages that were still standing, including conical lodges covered with bark. They have over 100 such references in their journals. When they reached Great Falls, the wood used in these structures changed from cottonwood to willow. Willow was considered to be a Shoshonean trait. Ceremonial structures. Near Cascade Lewis and Clark found over 80 lodges, but mainly large heavy cottonwood log structures, 60 ft in diameter. In 1806 they encountered another large ceremonial structure on an island near Clark's Fork – Yellowstone. Details- buffalo skins, feathers, buffalo skulls. Prob. Pre-Sun Dance lodge.
Fortifications made of log and stone in Plains area, used by all tribes

Buffalo jump at Arrow Creek, 100 dead animals stinking, unused, many scavengers. (
This was located in Choteau County, "about 1-1/4 miles downstream from the mouth of Arrow Creek on the opposite, or north, bank of the Missouri River and approximately 9 miles by river upstream, or west, from the mouth of the Judith River."

At this site, in the beautiful White Cliffs section of the Missouri Breaks, discussed elsewhere in this volume, the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition were probably the first U.S. citizens to see and record a buffalo jump site where the dead animals were still in place.

Before the advent of the steel-tipped arrow and lance and the rifle-musket, it was difficult for Indians to kill buffalo. A particularly fruitful method in the high Plains country was mass killing by the use of "jumps." These were located where buttes, eroded cliffs, and river gorges provided sufficient drop to kill or maim the beasts. The Indians enticed a herd within a short distance of the jump, and then started a stampede that carried the animals to the brink. There, the pressure of those behind forced those in front over the edge.

On May 29, 1805, on the westbound journey, the Lewis and Clark Expedition came upon such a jump. It was on the north side of the Missouri along the base of a 120-foot-high cliff that came almost to the water's edge. The men observed and smelled the carcasses of more than 100 dead and rotting buffalo, which wolves were devouring. Likely, some Blackfeet Indians, whose 2-week-old campsite had been discovered near the mouth of the Judith earlier that day, had conducted the jump. The explorers later appropriately named modern Arrow Creek, a little more than a mile to the west and flowing in from the south, as "Slaughter Creek."

The site was identified in 1963 as 24CH240 by a team from the Missouri Basin Inter-Agency Archeological Salvage Program, which surveyed sites in this part of the river. Even at the time Lewis and Clark passed by, the waters were eroding away the dead buffalo at the stream's edge. In the intervening 170 years or so, floods and erosional action have removed nearly all archeological evidence of the jump. The salvage team found only two pieces of bone fragments, some others of which the private owner had also observed.

On the return trip in 1806, Clarks saw petroglyphs on Pompey’s Pillar. Petroglyphs are designs incised into the rock; if the stone was sandstone, lines could be scratched into them, while other types of stone were harder and required designs to be pecked into the rock surface. In contrast, pictographs were drawings made with pigment, such as iron oxide.

Montana Archaeological Sites associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition (sites mentioned in the journals)

Beaverhead Rock State Park (near Dillon) (also see Rattlesnake Cliffs, below)

Bozeman Pass

Buffalo Jump at Arrow Creek

Camp Disappointment

Junction of the Marias and Missouri Rivers

Gates of the Mountains

Great Falls Portage

Lemhi Pass, Idaho-Montana border

Lewis and Clark Pass

Lewis' Fight with the Blackfeet Site

Lolo Trail

Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument

Pompey's Pillar (Pompy's Tower) National Monument

"Rattlesnake Cliffs" = locals call this "Beaverhead Rock", and the Beaverhead Rock near Dillon as "Point of Rocks"

Ross' Hole (near Sula)

Three Forks of the Missouri (Missouri Headwaters State Park)

Travelers' Rest (near Lolo)


Petroglyphs preceded in observation by Francois LaRoque in 1805 similar along Yellowstone
Artifacts use- Shoshone steatite vessels
LaRoque- Canadian Fur- also steatite vessles. Near mouth of Bighorn more pictures.

1801-1802 w/ Kootenai. LaBlanc, LaGasse killed.

1808-1812 Thompson trading at Salish House – nothing to say about arch remains [but mention of Blackfeet moving south after acquiring guns, invading Shoshoni lands)
W. A. FERRIS, Fur trapper

LIFE IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS: A Diary of Wanderings on the sources of the Rivers Missouri, Columbia, and Colorado from February, 1830, to November, 1835. By W. A. FERRIS, then in the employ of the American Fur Company.

In 1830-1835 W.A. Ferris (trapper) 15 mi below Beaverhead, green pipestone. Point of Rocks on Beaverhead River. Flint Creek.

Aug. 24:
"On the 24th we passed between two high rocky points jutting into the [Salmon] river, and came out into an open plain two miles wide. Near the entrance, is a bed of stone, which is frequently used as a substitute for soap. It is but little harder than chalk, of the same color, and when manufactured into pipes, and burnt, becomes a fine glossy jet color, and equally hard as stoneware."

Chapter XXXI, Sept. 20: "Fifteen miles below Beaver Head, is a quarry of green stone, that is semi‑transparent, and easily cut with a knife. It is highly prized by the Indians, for manufacturing into pipes. It is situated in a bluff, on the west side of the river; over‑looking the plain." (Ferris, Life in the Rocky Mountains, Chapter XXXI)

Chapter LIII: "I observed during our stay on the Sararah, that the Indians had two kinds of arrows in their quivers, one of which was made of a single hard stick, feathered and pointed with transparent flint, artfully broken to a proper shape, and firmly fastened to the end of the arrow with sinews and glue. The others were made of a hollow weed, having six or eight inches of hard wood nicely inserted, and firmly glued into it; to the end of which the stone point is fastened, and is poisoned with venom from the fangs of a rattle snake. Hence the slightest wound from them is certain death. These arrows may be known at sight, by the natural joints of the cane; and the artificial one, where the wood part is inserted. They are not solely used in battle, as some have asserted; but are equally advantageous in hunting, for the slightest wound causes the animal to droop, and a few moments places it within the power of the hunter. The flesh of animals thus poisoned, is harmless in the stomach."

Chapter LXIII: "Their weapons are bows, arrows, and war-clubs, and are of their own manufacture. Their bows never exceed two and a half feet in length, and are made usually of the rib bones of the buffalo, two of which, in the construction of this weapon, are neatly jointed, glued together, and wound with thongs about the joint; it is gradually tapered from the middle toward each end, is polished, and rendered more elastic by sinews glued on the back, from end to end, over which rattle snake skins are sometimes cemented for ornament. The string is always composed of sinews, twisted together into a cord. Bows are made sometimes of elk horn, and sometimes of wood, but are always strengthened by adding sinews to the back, and not, as an eminent western writer has observed, "by adding buffalo bones to the tough wood."

Their arrows (except the poisoned ones of the Sann pitches) are made of wood, slender, never above two feet in length, and are pointed with sharp transparent flints, neatly broken to a dagger-blade shape, from half to three-fourths of an inch in length, which never exceed the latter. These points are ingeniously inserted in a slit in the end of the arrow, are fastened by sinews wrapped around it, and are rendered less liable to damage by being covered with a coat of glue. They have three or four distinct feathers, six or seven inches in length, placed opposite to each other, remaining parallel, but turning gently on the arrow, in order to give it a spiral motion, which prevents its wavering, and enables it to cleave the air with less resistance.

They manufacture spears and hooks, also of bone, for fishing, but they are not to be compared to the same instruments made of metal by the whites. But they have been supplied by the traders with light guns, spears, and iron arrow points, which have in measure superseded their own weapons; still, however, bows and arrows are most frequently employed in killing buffalo."



1833 Maximillian, Prince of Wied. 2 large piles of elk antlers not far from confluence of Yellowstone and the Missouri. 80 miles above Ft. Union, 15 ft high, 30 ft diameter. No skulls. Strength of party red strokes. In 1830 no one could remember anything about the piles. Completely destroyed by river boat crews after the 1850s.



1862 first professional anthropologist in Montana, Lewis Henry Morgan, but no interest in archaeology, mainly kinship terms. At Fort Benton he saw a lodge, 6-sided made of horizontal cribbed interlocked logs.


1866 Montana settlers- J.A. Hosmer traveling Yellowstone, conical lodges, one found lodge but tore it down for firewood. Rock markings, pictograph paintings on a log.

1870s. “Battle lodges” some still used, cone-shaped. Description by Yellowstone Kelly- sweat lodges, platform burials. Conical structures, and rock fortifications on hilltops.

1879. First archaeological report by P.W. Norris, superintendent of Yellowstone Park. Stone piles on prominent points, flint quarries along the upper Yellowstone near Emigrant. Long lanes of rock piles. Responsible for idea of “Sheepeater Indians.”

Also an article in the Helena Herald mentioning the Hellgate Gulch Pictographs near Townsend (

1892. Indian remains on upper Yellowstone. Col. William Brackett for Smithsonian. Indian semicircular forts from square rocks. 4 feet high near Emigrant. Completely destroyed. Fine buffalo jump- sketches.

Garrick Mallery mentioned in the BAE report on pictographic writing near Fort Assiniboine south of Havre, but no detailed information on site and still not located today.

So far most descriptions of Indian sites were from eastern Montana. Nothing really from western Montana until Professor Elrod 1908 brief description, photo of large panel of pictographs near Rawlins on Flathead Lake. The pictographs were badly weathered, almost imperceptible. He thought they were Indian writings. Risky business to put yourself into someone else’s mind [Taylor]. Some frequency so can guess, as marks llllll might be day counts.

American Museum of Natural History, NY, sent ethnographers- Lowie, Wissler, others in the early part of the 1900s, and they commented on remains they encountered.

But really the first scientific descriptions and archaeological research in Montana came from Brown and Nelson.

Barnum Brown was an old time naturalist who dug into a jump near Emigrant, and described stratigraphic levels.

Nels C. Nelson, (1875-1964) considered father of stratigraphic excavation in the New World. In 1917 over near Pryor Gap, Nelson found rock piles, and systematically peeled off rocks, but found nothing inside. "Nels Christian Nelson was a Danish-born archaeologist, who conducted archaeological work on shell mounds in California and the American southwest as well as in his native Denmark and Spain during the early decades of the 20th century. He worked on refining the stratigraphic methodology begun by researchers of the 19th century, and is probably best remembered as the person who fired the interest of later investigators such as A.V. Kidder in the prehistoric pueblos of the American southwest. "
Nelson's work in the Pryor Mountains was mostly in the 1940s for the American Museum of Natural History; he did a series of popular and scientific articles on his excavations there (


Of course there were many collections of artifacts made by amateur enthusiasts, farmers, and ranchers. But otherwise not much happened until the 1930s, when the Depression resulted in creation of government work agencies like the WPA and CCC.

(SOURCE: Dr. Dee Taylor's Lectures; Vol. 3, no. 2 Archaeology in Montana “Short History of Montana Archaeology”)

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