The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
Visit North-Western Montana as member of a Forestry Expedition under Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the Forest Service of the United States.—Meet with Siksikakoan, an Indian Scout.—He invites me to go with him to his home among the Blackfeet.—Our journey eastward through the forests up the western slope of the Rocky Mountains.—We cross the Continental Divide by the Cutbank Pass.—Flora, birds and Fauna of the mountains.—Magnificent scenery.—Many glaciers and snowcapped peaks.—Enter the Blackfeet Country by an old Indian war-trail.—First glimpse of the tribal camp of the Blackfeet on the plains.—Siksikakoan introduces me to the leaders of the Blackfeet.—Meeting with Chief Mad Wolf.—Novel experiences in the big camp.—Accompany Siksikakoan to his home on Cutbank River.—My first summer among the Blackfeet.
I FIRST visited the country of the Blackfeet as a member of a Government expedition under Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the Forest Service of the United States, which had been sent into the north-west by the National Forest Commission, to report upon the advisability of forming certain national forest reserves.
Siksikakoan (Blackfoot-Man), also known as William Jackson, was a noted Indian. scout, who had served in the Indian campaigns under Generals Miles and Custer. He related to me the thrilling story of his escape through the Sioux lines, at the time of the disastrous battle of the Little Big Horn, June 25th, 1876, when General Custer and his battalion of the 7th U. S. cavalry were annihilated by the Sioux. 1 Siksikakoan was attached
as a scout to Major Reno's battalion, co-operating with General Custer's. During the first confusion of Major Reno's attack and repulse in the first day's fighting, First Lieutenant De Rudio, Interpreter Girard, Private O'Neal and Siksikakoan were cut off. 1 Under cover of darkness, Siksikakoan ventured upon the battle-field and stripped from the dead Sioux sufficient leggings, moccasins and blankets to disguise themselves. Then, in the dead of night, on the 26th, he led his companions safely through their sleeping enemies, to the bluffs north of the river, to which Major Reno had retreated for safety. During the movement Siksikakoan answered the challenges of the Sioux by giving satisfactory replies in the Sioux language.
Siksikakoan continued his scouting service until the close of the Indian wars on the northern plains, when he returned to his tribe on the Blackfeet Reservation. He erected a cabin on Cutbank River, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. He gradually built up a well-equipped ranch, and owned large herds of cattle and horses. He lived there till the winter of 1899, when he died, as the final result of injuries received during his life of adventure and hardship as a scout.
When the forestry work was completed and my Government associates had departed, Siksikakoan and I were camped together in the forest country of the Flathead Indians, on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. One evening, by our camp-fire, I agreed to his proposal that we should return to the Blackfeet Reservation on the eastern side of the range; "for
there," said he, "I have many horses and cattle. The mountains are not far distant, where the hunting is good, and the lakes and streams are full of fish. We
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CAMP ON WESTERN SLOPE.
shall be in the midst of my people, and I will introduce you to the leading chiefs of the Blackfeet."
It was at the beginning of summer, when we started on our journey across the Rocky Mountains, toward the country of the Blackfeet. Our outfit was carried on
the backs of pack horses. The trail was difficult and overgrown and frequently blocked by windfalls. Siksikakoan led the way with his axe, while I followed driving the pack horses. On the western slope of the Rockies the forests are very dense, because of the mild climate and abundant rainfall. The trees grow to a large size and the undergrowth is luxuriant. We rode
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RIVER ON WESTERN SLOPE.
through glades, where the rank masses of weeds and grasses were shoulder high, and passed chains of beautiful lakes, hidden in the gloomy recesses of the forest, where huge tamaracks, firs and spruces grew to the water's edge, and extended high up on the sides of the mountains This was the haunt of deer, wapiti and moose, many of their tracks being visible in the soft ground along the lake shores.
A botanist would have been delighted with the
great numbers of wild flowers in full bloom. I saw magnificent specimens of bear grass (Xerophyllum Douglasii), growing to the height of five feet. Their stalks were surmounted by dense caps of white flowers, each flower on an ascending pedicel an inch or more long. The leaves at the base of the stem were narrow and stiff. The root is used by the Blackfeet as a
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remedy for fractures and sprains. The leaves of a similar species are used by other Indian tribes in making baskets. There was also a great profusion of pink twin flowers (Linnaeus borealis), with its vine of shiny dark green leaves, also bishop's caps, light yellow adders’ tongues and flowering dogwood (Cornus canadensis).
During our forest journey I recognised many birds
native to my home in the east. When passing lonely lakes, I heard the wild, laughing cry of the loon, and olive-backed thrushes singing along the shores. In the lofty pines were chicadees, winter wrens, hermit thrushes, and myrtle warblers. In the open glades were robins, doves, ruffed grouse, chipping sparrows, flickers, juncos, and tree swallows. Here I first became acquainted with the Macgillivray warbler, his little gray
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A MOUNTAIN LAKE.
head frequently peering out shyly from the willows along the streams. I found the nest, with four eggs, hidden away in some blackberry bushes, close to a lake. In the bushes were vireos, fly-catchers, and yellow warblers, and, in the deep woods, woodpeckers, red-breasted nuthatches, and golden-crown kinglets.
We surprised a large bear sunning himself in the trail, but he quietly and quickly disappeared into the
forest. The trail led through a broad valley and along the bank of a swift mountain stream, climbing continually upwards towards the Continental Divide. When we reached a high altitude, the trees became gnarled and stunted, and we were frequently enveloped in heavy clouds. Here were many tracks of big-horn, and we saw a band of Rocky Mountain goats high
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“WE ENTERED A HUGE BASIN SURROUNDED BY TOWERING PEAKS.”
up on the mountain side. Hoary marmots, or whistlers greeted us from the cliffs with their shrill calls, but they were so timid that they quickly disappeared on our approach. We entered a huge basin, surrounded by towering peaks—a superb and vast amphitheatre about four miles wide from side to side. At the bottom was a sparkling lake, with wooded shores, surmounted by a circular mountain wall with a sheer
height of 3,000 feet. It was fed by many streams, which had their sources in the glaciers and fell over precipitous cliffs with a constant roar, reverberating like thunder from the surrounding walls of rock.
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The Indians have given to the main range of the Rocky Mountains the appropriate name "Backbone-of-the-World." Standing on the summit of the Cutbank Pass (7,861 feet), we were surrounded by dazzling
glaciers and stupendous mountains mantled with snow. The intense brightness of the snow-fields was relieved by the dark green covering of forests, which lined the valleys far below. Four miles to the north lay the Triple Divide—the Crown of the Continent, where the water-shed divides between the Pacific Ocean, Hudson Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. Directly south was the sharply-pointed Flinch's peak, which lifted its towering mass like a cathedral spire 5,000 feet above the valley. It is impossible from the illustration to realise the sheer precipitousness of this peak.
On the west were Mt. James (10,155 feet), Mt. Pinchot (9,332 feet), and Ram Mountain, so called because frequented by many Rocky Mountain rams. To the north-west was Mt. Blackfoot (9,591), and the magnificent Blackfoot Glacier, a vast expanse of ice and snow. Beyond rose the summit of Mt. Jackson 1 (10,023), and under its shoulder the Harrison Glacier, with its wonderful ice cascades. Turning farther to the north, we could see a multitude of peaks. Among them were Mt. Siyeh 2 (or Mad Wolf, 10,004); Little Chief 2 (9,542); Going-to-the-Sun (9,594); Four Bears 2; Almost-a-Dog 2 (8,911); Mt. Grinnell (8,838), and the Grinnell Glacier; Mt. Red Eagle, 2 and the Red Eagle Glacier, which is the source of Red Eagle Creek. The Grinnell Glacier is fenced on the west by a remarkable, serrated ridge of the Continental Divide known as "The Garden Wall."
In close proximity are the Gun-sight Pass (its contour resembling a gun-sight), and the Sperry Glacier; the Sexton Glacier, with its half mile of ice front, and the Swift Current Pass. Words fail to describe the
magnificence of the glaciers and waterfalls, and the majesty and impressive beauty of the numerous high peaks and stupendous mountain ranges. Although this country is practically unknown, the difficult trails being frequented only by hunters, trappers, and Indians, its scenic wonders are probably unsurpassed by any within the United States. The region should be
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“A mass of rock towering 5,000 feet above the valley.”
reserved by the Government as a National Park and Game Preserve. 1
From the summit of the Pass, Siksikakoan pointed out the course of our trail eastward, following the Cutbank River through a long, winding valley, with high, snow-covered mountain ranges on either side. Beyond stretched the tawny plains—the country of the Blackfeet, resembling a distant ocean in its level
expanse, and extending eastward many hundreds of miles into the dim and hazy horizon. We descended from the summit of Cutbank Pass between two small
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THE CUTBANK TRAIL.
(Ancient Indian route of travel.)
glacier lakes. In their dark and still waters, the surrounding crags and mountain walls were clearly reflected and many miniature icebergs were floating,
having fallen from the fronts of the overhanging glaciers.
The travelling on the eastern side of the Rockies was much easier and in marked contrast with our difficult ascent of the western side. We now followed a trail, worn deep into the ground by generations of Blackfeet and other Indian tribes, when they crossed and recrossed the Rocky Mountains on their war and hunting expeditions. We entered a forest at the head of the canyon,
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EAST CUT-BANK CANYON.
where the snow clung heavily to the balsams and pines. As we descended, the snow disappeared and the air became balmy.
The climate east of the mountains is more severe, because subject to extreme changes of temperature. Hailstorms are frequent, and snowstorms often occur in midsummer. In winter there are terrible blizzards, during which the thermometer drops to 50° below zero, (Fahrenheit).
We camped after sunset in a beautiful, natural park of luxuriant bunch-grass, fragrant with wild flowers and surrounded by forests of spruce and pine.
Early next morning—our last day in the mountains—we again took up the trail through the canyon of the Cutbank River. As the sun's rays entered the canyon, the massive walls of rock, towering overhead, became a brilliant red, while the high peaks glistened with colours as varied as the rainbow's. In crossing the summit of a high rocky ridge, we had an extended view of the forest-covered valley below, and the course of the river winding through open glades and grassy meadows, until it passed through the entrance of the canyon. Beyond were the foothills, or high, grass-covered ridges, lying in front of the canyon entrance, like a mighty barrier. Here the luxuriant vegetation of the mountains abruptly ended and the dry grass of the prairies began.
After riding through the foothills, we crossed an old trail, running north and south, now overgrown with grass. Siksikakoan explained that it was the Old North Trail. It is no longer used by the Indians, its course having been broken in many places by the fences and towns of the white man's advancing civilisation. Yet the old horse trail and travois tracks were still plainly visible, having been worn deep by many generations of travelling Indians.
We rode out over the treeless plains until, from the crest of a ridge, about twenty miles from the main range of the Rockies, we looked down upon a scene, which I will never forget because of its novel and exceeding beauty. In a luxuriant tract of meadow, and on the shore of a lake, lay the tribal camp of the Blackfeet, pitched in the form of an enormous circle.
[paragraph continues] The undulating ridges, which surrounded it were brilliant with blue lupines and velvet-leaf sun-flowers: Great herds of horses were contentedly feeding on the rich bunch grass. Smoke from the evening fires was rising from the lodges. A faint breeze, laden with a pleasant fragrance from the meadows, brought distinctly
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VELVET LEAF SUNFLOWERS ON PRAIRIE.
the sounds of an Indian camp, the shouts of men and women, the crying of children, the barking of many dogs and the slow, measured beating of Indian tom-toms in dances and ceremonial gatherings.
After entering the Blackfeet camp, I accompanied Siksikakoan while he visited the lodges of the different chiefs. As we sat smoking a friendly pipe together. he
explained to them that I had come from the Great Father (President of the United States), for the purpose of protecting the forests of their country, that they might be preserved for future generations. In this way I first met Chief Mad Wolf (Siyeh), their greatest orator, the high priest of their Sun-dance and the owner of the Beaver Medicine Bundle (an important ceremonial). This was the beginning of a mutual bond of sympathy and attachment, unusual between an Indian and a
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TRIBAL CAMP OF THE BLACKFEET.
white man, which developed gradually into a strong and lasting friendship.
On my first night in the Blackfeet camp, I chose to sleep outside the camp circle in a meadow, not far from Mad Wolf's lodge, because the weather was clear and warm and I had no fear of being molested by the Indians. I was within hearing of any ceremonials that would take place in Mad Wolf's lodge and nothing of moment could occur in the encampment without my knowledge.
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MY OWN DECORATED TIPI IN THE BLACKFEET CAMP
I placed my blanket-bed on the prairie-grass, and, instead of the lodge covering for a roof, I had the magnificent canopy of the night-sky, spangled with an innumerable multitude of stars. On account of the clearness of the atmosphere over the plains, these sparkling orbs of light shone with a rare brilliance and splendour, and appeared lower down in the horizon than I had ever seen elsewhere. Lying on my back and gazing up into the wonderful beauty of the heavens gave me an overwhelming sense of the infinity of God's universe and my own littleness by comparison.
I was not, however, to be entirely free from disturbance. While lying upon my blankets, my attention was attracted by two wandering Indian boys, who had been startled by the weird and ghostly appearance of my bed. They were standing at a short distance conversing together in awed whispers. When I gave a sudden jump and rattled the white canvas covering, they took to their heels, believing that I was a ghost. During the night, I was again aroused by the hot breath of a large animal upon my face. Being awakened from a deep slumber, I imagined that it was a grizzly bear standing over me. Jumping from my blankets with a yell, I found that it was an Indian horse, which had been standing quietly, with lowered head, over my bed. My outfit had aroused his curiosity, but my actions were so precipitate and my appearance, clad in white, so startling, that he quickly stampeded with frightened snorts.
At first I was at a loss to know how to secure suitable board and lodging in the Blackfoot camp. Their diet of dried meat and meat stews was to me neither appetising nor sufficiently nourishing. The difficult problem was, however, solved for me in a very satisfactory
way by my friend Big Eyes. I had gained the good will of himself and wife through the interest I had taken in their children. To show their appreciation, his wife, Ips-e-nik-ki, who was skilled in the making of lodges, presented me with an Indian tipi, decorated with pictographs of interesting events in her husband's life. With the acquisition of a tipi, I had my own home in the camp, but it was necessary to do my own cooking and to care for my own Horses and outfit, for the Blackfeet have no servants, and I had not taken a wife.
I soon discovered that my diet of bacon, cereals, and dried fruits was no more pleasing to the Blackfeet than theirs was to me. After Spotted Eagle, the medicine man, had dined with me, he said that he had never been able to understand how people could live on the food eaten by white men. He told me of a journey he had once taken with some officers of the United States Army, "with whom he could stay no longer than a week, because of the strange food they ate."
When the Sun festival was finished and the Indians separated, I accompanied Siksikakoan to live on his Blackfoot ranch, not far from Mad Wolf's home on Cutbank River. I found him to be a man of fine mind and practical common sense, resourceful and fearless in emergencies and thoroughly equipped in all that goes to make an ideal guide and companion in the wilds. Under him I learned woodcraft, the handling of the broncho, the mysteries of the "diamond hitch" and the location of the old Indian trails leading across the plains and through the mountains. He was a natural orator and had standing and influence in the councils of his tribe. He spoke English fluently as well as the Blackfoot and Sioux tongues, and was thoroughly
familiar with the ancient customs and traditions of his people. It was under his influence that I became deeply interested in the Blackfeet, and through his friendship that I was gradually brought into an intimate association with their leaders.
During my first summer among the Blackfeet, I rode over the reservation, visiting them in their camps and in their homes. Many interesting subjects crowded themselves upon my mind and enlisted my energies. I carried a medicine case containing simple remedies with which I was sometimes able to relieve the sick and help the injured. I endeavoured in every way to aid their advancement towards the white man's civilisation, helping in the cultivation of the ground, herding horses and cattle, and cutting timber in the mountains for building their cabins, fences, and corrals. When the sun was hot in midsummer, I helped them to make hay in the luxuriant meadows of the river bottoms. Although that kind of work was hard, it never seemed to dull my mind to the wonderful and ever-changing beauty of prairie, river, and distant mountains. In the clear days of autumn, when the bite of frost was in the air, I joined their hunting expeditions across the broad plains and into the Rocky Mountains.
I now look back with the deepest pleasure upon the freedom of that life, the delight of living and of working in that exhilarating mountain atmosphere. Those who spend sleepless nights, because of the absorbing and nerve-racking occupations of modern civilisation, may well envy my nights of refreshing sleep, while wrapped in my blankets beside some swiftly flowing mountain stream, or on the plains under the open sky. The life of the Indian, so close to the heart of nature, the companionship with inspiring mountains, sunlit
plains, lakes and rivers, the ceaseless, but ever beautiful succession of lights and colourings, while day waned into night and night gave place to day, and the wonderful colour transformations, which came and went with the changing seasons, all these fascinated and held me with an irresistible grip.
It required, however, a long period of cordial relations to overcome the natural prejudice of the Indians against a white man, but I gradually gained their confidence, which I was careful never to abuse. I lived with them, not merely for pleasure and adventure, but chiefly for the purpose of gaining as full a knowledge as possible of their characteristics and customs, their traditions and religion. I realised that I had an unusual opportunity of studying a remarkable race of people, who properly belonged to the Stone Age, whose religion and social organisation had come down from a distant past, free from contact with any other religion, or culture. The younger generation were indifferent to their ancient customs and religion and it seemed that this primitive and most interesting people must soon lose their identity and disappear for ever.
6:1 The Blackfeet tribe of Montana and Alberta should not be confused with the Sioux Blackfeet of Dakota who fought against General Custer in the battle of The Little Big Horn.
7:1 "During the night Lieutenant De Rudio, Private O'Neal, Mr. Girard, the interpreter, and Jackson, a scout, came to our line. They had been left in the river bottom when Major Reno made his retreat." (Extract from Capt. E. S. Godfrey's "Custer's Last Battle," Century Magazine, volume 43, p. 379, Jan. 1892.) The same incident is referred to in the report of Gen. W. T. Sherman, Secretary of War, 1876, p. 33.
14:1 Named after Wm. Jackson (Siksikakoan).
14:2 Name of a Blackfoot chief.
15:1 See Appendix.