Road to the Buffalo

Buffalo Sign
In the fall of 2015 the historic travel route through western Sanders County along Montana Highway 200 was marked with the Road to the Buffalo signs like the one shown here. Montana Department of Transportation granted the funds for this project through their Community Transportation Enhancement Projects (CTEP). These signs were errected to notify travelers they are closely following a network of trails used by native people to reach buffalo hunting grounds to the east. For more information about this travel route see the Road to the Buffalo Brochure.

Over the past 200 years European presence has had a significant influence over and changed the area encompassed within the boundary of present Sanders County. The purpose for marking this historic route is to bring attention to the roll the English and French fur traders and later the Americans played in its early development.

Historically a number of tribes lived in and traveled through the Clark Fork River corridor. Among them were the Kalispel and Pend d'Oreille, the Kootenai, the Nez Perce, the Spokanes and the Coeur d'Alenes along with other Columbia River Plateau tribes as well as the Blackfeet whose territory was primarily to the east of the Rocky Mountains.

When David Thompson, fur trader and surveyor for the North West Company [NWCo.], entered modern day Sanders County in the autumn of 1809, he was traveling east along this aboriginal road which he called the Saleesh Road to the Buffalo. He had just completed Kullyspel House [NWCo. on map] on a peninsula in Kullyspel Lake (Lake Pend Oreille)—the first trading post west of the Rocky Mountains and south of the 49th parallel. He was looking for a site to establish another post to the east and was traveling along the Saleesh River (Clark Fork) before swinging north to meet James McMillan, another Nor'Wester, who was bringing supplies and trade goods into the new territory. For a detailed account of Thompson's travel route to meet McMillian, check 1809 trip to McGillivray's River
David Thompson

A segment of David Thompson's 1814 Map which he made for the North West Company.

The Road to the Buffalo was part of a major aboriginal road system in use for hundreds of years before the first Europeans ever reached the west side of the Northern Rockies. This historical route located along today's Clark Fork, Flathead and Jocko Rivers was used by travelers moving east and west along these river corridors.

buffalo hunters

Buffalo Hunt Chase Plate 6 (1844) artist George Catlin
One of many routes, the road was developed in part by buffalo hunters from as far west as the Columbia River Plateau who arduously made their way over the Continental Divide to the northern Great Plains to secure meat and robes. These hunting and often fighting pilgrimages were called, in the parlance of the nineteenth century, going to buffalo.

Journals from early travelers along this buffalo road provide an accounting of the area's history and happenings. David Thompson was the first to record his travels here.

One of the most traded for items was food. On his trip up the Saleesh, on October 12, 1809, Thompson wrote:

"...stopped at a strong Rapid [Heron Rapids] where we found 3 Tents of Saleesh fishing Herrings with a small dipping net...they gave us abt 20 of them for which I paid them a foot of Tob [tobacco]..."

Heron Rapids

Heron Rapids, c. 1930s

In this early photo of Heron Rapids the rocky river segment probably looked much the same as it did when Thompson was there nearly 100 years earlier.

Thompson stopped at the east end of present day Thompson Prairie near present day Thompson River. He planned to return to this area so he stored or cached items that were not needed for his trip to the McGillivray's River.

He returned to the site of his cache on November 9th and according to his narrative: "...we arrived as the place we had builded a Store, and were now to build a House...." The post he built was Saleesh House.

Bad Rock
Up stream from Saleesh House was probably one of the worst segments of the Indian road—Bad Rock. Many who crossed this precipice wrote about it in their journals.

Thompson remembered his travel through this area as, "...we have much bad Road & a very high Point of Rocks to go up & down..." Even though the road he was following had been used for centuries, the only method for clearing rock was done by the Indian women who would push them out of the way with sticks. Travelers simply stepped around those that were too large to move.

In 1841, Father Pierre-Jean De Smet made his way over Bad Rock with his "docile and kind" mule, Lizette. He described his crossing as, "I have before seen landscapes of awful grandeur, but this one certainly surpassed all others in horror. My courage failed at the first sight; it was impossible to remain on horseback..." Holding firmly onto the mule's tail, she pulled him to the top. On descending, he preceded her holding the mule by the bridle.

Father De Smet

Father De Smet and his mule, Lizette
Courtesy of Gonzaga University
Reports to Gov. I. I. Stevens found in the US War Department, Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Oceans (Washington, 1855) contain several accounts of the crossing of Bad Rock. These accounts are from that document.

Lieut. C. Grover wrote about his crossing of Bad Rock in his report dated Feb. 5, 1854:
"About the middle of the day we came to a place called "Bad Rock", where a mountain cliff crowds itself into the river, and the trail winds up its jagged side in a serpentine course to the height of about five hundred feet, and down an equally precipitous face on the other side. The ascent is bad enough, under the most favorable circumstances; but now, ice in the path made a portion of it impassable for animals without assistance; but ropes were made fast round their necks, and by dint of pulling from above and whipping from below, one by one we forced them up..."

On June 1, 1854, John Lambert recorded his crossing of Bad Rock although he called the site by another name, Fallen mountain:
"About midway through this magnificent gorge lie the remains of the 'Fallen mountain,' over which the trail leads as the only chance to proceed; the rudest kind of horse-track which even an Indian would construct winds deviously on either side from top to bottom, from rock to rock, the interstices being partially filled up with the smallest of fragments and detrites, but not so as to insure freedom from danger without the greatest circumspection. It takes half a day for a train of moderate size to cross, and this is rarely done without injury or loss of animals; indeed, it is still a mountain in its fall. At the end of this grand aggregate of everything that is sublime and beautiful in scenery, are a few square miles of sward and timber called Thompson's prairie..."

Rufus Saxton on Sunday, August 21, 1854, recorded his crossing of Bad Rock as follows:
"Crossed the Bad Rock, so called by the trappers; it is a compound of a mass of sharp, flinty stones—the termination of a high mountain which rises almost perpendicularly from the bed of the river to a great height. The feet of our animals were much injured in crossing it. Two pack-horses tumbled over the precipice and rolled down fifty yard into the river; one, rolling sideways, was but slightly injured; the other, going heels-over-head, was terribly cut and bruised. The men were about to put an end to his sufferings, but as he showed sights of life it was decided to give him a chance. Both followed on after the train, and will soon be able to resume their packs."

Today remnants of the Bad Rock Trail are still visible. Imagine what it must have been like trying to move men, women and children of all ages and often hundreds of horses and dogs laden with gear and baggage across such a place.
Bad Rock Trail

Trail up Bad Rock
Photo by Linda Haywood

Following are good examples of what remains of the actural tread. Sometimes there were remenants of pictographs.

Indian Road

Typical "u-shaped" tread of Indian road.
Photo by Linda Haywood

Pictograph along the Indian road.
Photo by Linda Haywood

Bad Rock

Actual tread across Bad Rock
Photo by Linda Haywood

"Ordinary history conveys information; extraordinary history conveys understanding!"
Stewart Edward White-1931