The countryside is beautiful. Prairie rolls off into the distance. The highway crosses rivers and streams lined with trees. Many ponds border the road and horses and cattle are frequent sights. Snowcapped mountains in the distance bracket the scenery and feed the waterways.
Beautiful though all this is, we’re not here for sightseeing; we’re here to learn more about Blackfeet history. Several years ago, the tribe erected 15 attractive wooden signs with historical information along a route stretching south and east from Browning. Each sign told of things which happened at or near each of the markers.
The historical route spans 70 miles of mostly paved roads, yet goes fairly unnoticed by travelers. A few years ago while I was traveling the route I was amazed at the lack of information provided for the signs - even in Browning where the tribal headquarters is. However, the tribal planning department has since created a brochure that highlights the 15 signs while adding another 13 points of interest.
The route begins south of town. The first sign is where Two Medicine River passes beneath the highway. It’s a small river, flowing from the mountains and was so named because in the late 1800s two sun dances were held at the same time by feuding Piegan bands, rather than separate times as was normally done. It was also along this river, although not at this spot, where two young Blackfeet were killed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the only Natives to be killed during that expedition. That site is now on private land and not accessible to the public.
The second sign tells of the change to ranching in the early 1900s. A small haystack and remains of a barn indicate that ranching is still part of life in this area.
A coyote lopes away as we approach the third sign, at the bottom of a ravine. Horses graze nearby. The sign documents the beginning of the fur trade in the 1830s. Badger Creek is running bank high on this June day as snow in the mountains is rapidly melting. This and other creeks were the source of beaver for trade with the Hudson Bay Company.
The Old North Trail is highlighted at Trail Sign #4. The trail is not visible here but passed nearby. The trail dates back many centuries and was used by migrations from the far north all the way to Mexico and followed the east slope of the Rockies through Montana. Local tribes, including the Blackfeet also used this trail. The trail is not visible here but passed nearby.
Signs #5 and #6 are together. The first tells of a man, Big Crow, who attempted suicide by jumping from a cliff nearby, likely only important locally but noted regardless. The second sign notes stone tipi rings nearby. The ground here is level and very rocky, full of yellow flowers in June, but the large circle of stones shows clearly where a tipi had been erected in years past. Beyond that the field leads to a cliff behind a line of trees.
The next three signs are about six miles farther along and deal with aspects of the Old Agency - the second Indian Agency on the Blackfeet Reservation, which was built in 1879. Buffalo were nearly gone by then and the tribe was dependent on rations from the agency to survive. Six hundred starved to death one winter. A few buildings are nearby but nothing is left of the Old Agency.
Sign #10 recognizes these deaths and the name for this area became known as Ghost Ridge or Country of the Dead. Today, a dozen homes are within sight but even the farmland looks rather poor, unlike other areas we’ve passed.
Here the route turns north on a paved road and again crosses Two Medicine River. We almost immediately turn east, which takes us into very different terrain. The river flows to the right of the road, and the location is filled with trees, while to the left a cliff runs for about a mile. Rocky spires and hoodoos along its rim add a special flair. It was along this ridge, back in the time before European occupation, that herds of buffalo would be run from the prairie above and over these cliffs to their death. It remains a beautiful drive but the buffalo are long gone. Sign #11 commemorates this location.
The next sign is not far beyond and has a bit of a twist as it tells of James Willard Schultz, not a Native American. Schultz came here in 1870 at the age of 17 but later wrote 36 books, mostly about the Blackfeet. An old house remains here with rail corrals and sheds and a couple of horses were grazing in the field nearby as we passed, evidence of some continued use.
The 13th sign documents a major change in life with the introduction of the Catholic religion in 1889. A mission boarding school was opened and remained open till the 1940s. The beautiful building remains and is still used as a church. An old barn still stands in the adjoining meadow and remnants of two smaller buildings are also visible.
The Fort Shaw-Fort MacLead Road was opened in 1874 and passed through here as noted on Sign #14. Immediately beyond, and only a couple of hundred yards from the Catholic Church, is Holy Family Cemetery. It rests on a plateau above the road with views back past the old barn to the church. The cemetery is still in use and on this visit, soon after Memorial Day, many of the grave sites were adorned with flowers and other mementos.
Numerous other historical points are located within the reservation. They aren’t part of this tour but tell of the history should visitors want to investigate further. Camp Disappointment is one such site, the northernmost point the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached. The Lewis and Clark fight site is another. Other signs are located where beautiful sights are found, such as a scenic view of the Rocky Mountains, or Red Blanket Ridge.
Browning itself will be included on a visit to the Blackfeet Reservation. The Museum of the Plains Indian should be on visitors’ to-do list and it’s just a short walk from Glacier Peaks Motel. Other lodging is available but Glacier Peaks is quite new and the largest. A more unique option is the Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village where visitors can spend the night in a tipi. The town is near the eastern border of Glacier National Park, once Blackfeet territory, and rooms tend to fill rapidly during summer months so it’s wise to reserve a room in advance.