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Centennial Series: A History of Glacier National Park’s Passes: Part II

Centennial Series: A History of Glacier National Park’s Passes: Part II

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Centennial Series: A History of Glacier National Park’s Passes: Part II

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Object Title: Centennial Series: A History of Glacier National Park’s Passes: Part II

Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering


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Created/Edited: Nov 27, 2008 / Jan 21, 2010

Object ID: 466660

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Sperry Glacier from Vaught
Comeau Pass and Sperry Glacier

In 2010 Glacier National Park will be celebrating its 100 year anniversary. I believe it is fitting to take a look back and celebrate the work of those who have made Glacier National Park the "Crown of the Continent".

Visit Glacier National Park just once and it will be easy to understand what drew man to this area for many centuries. Glacier National Park emanates wonder, it smells of natural history, it oozes geology and its beauty is like a Siren calling us to come closer and see more.

This place called Glacier has held many of us in its grasp and the allure of her peaks. Her passes and valleys have beckoned and call us back time and time again. It seems that we just can’t get enough of this place that is called “The Crown of The Continent”. I call it a “Glimpse of Heaven on Earth”.

Perhaps Dr. Lyman B. Sperry said it best. He wrote:

"Finding that a single day in this remarkable place could give but a taste of its delights, some of our party determined to visit again as soon as practicable.”

Dr. Sperry explored the area above Avalanche Lake and “discovered” the glacier above the lake that bears his name, Sperry Glacier.

The first article in this series, A History of Glacier National Park’s Passes: Part I, covered a portion of the fascinating history of Native American use of the passes in Glacier National Park. Part II focuses on the early exploration and discovery of the passes used in Glacier National Park by the European-Americans.

As word got out about this unique area in northwestern Montana influential men and a few women made long journeys west from the east coast to see and explore. Many of Glacier Mountains bear the names of significant explorers and influential leaders of the late 19th and early 20th century.


St. Mary s Valley
Glacier National Park

This article is the second of the series about Glacier National Park’s Passes.

There are at least 28 named passes in present day Glacier National Park. To write this article I have used the sources listed at the end of this article in the Resources section. I certainly will not be able to present all of the information that is available. Instead I have focused on the areas that present the richest history as well as what I have determined would appeal to the broadest area of interest to you as a reader.

The Historical Motivations for Exploration of the American West:

Three main factors motivated Europeans to push west after landing in the New World.

Search For The Northwest Passage

Early exploration of the New World was motivated by the belief that there was a Northwest Passage around or through North America. If the passage could be located trade routes between Europe and the Far East would be shortened therefore reducing the cost to ship goods. The English, French, Spanish and Portuguese were the main players in this search.

Until the “discovery” of the New World this point the only real option was to travel the preferred route around the Cape of South Africa. Traveling to the west through the Strait of Magellan around the tip of South America was problematic as it took Magellan 38 days to navigate through it. To examine all of the explorers and voyages are beyond the scope of this article. For those who are interested an internet search for New World Explorers could yield some fascinating reading. Unfortunately, the Northwest Passage was never discovered but it did open the American West to other opportunities.

Land and Ore

An additional motivation was a thirst for land and they almost immediately began pushing west to raise their crops and harvest the natural resources. In his book, Undaunted Courage, Stephen E. Ambrose writes that raising “tobacco represented an all out assault on the environment for the sake of the crop.” This lead to speculation on large portions of land and resulted in clearing of the forested valleys of the eastern seaboard. A growing nation would need more acreage to support its burgeoning population. Newly established trade agreements with Europe would also need more ground to grow crops that could be sold or traded. Europe also thirsted for ores such as gold, silver and copper and exploration of the Rocky Mountains led to discovery of vast amounts of minerals that were mined and sold for profit.

Fur Trade

In the late 1700s and early 1800s the westward movement was also motivated by Europe’s demand for goods from the New World, especially beaver. Explorers traveling through North America looking for the Northwest Passage reported back the incredible vastness of the American West and its immense resources spurned interest in using these resources.

Trappers sponsored by companies like The Hudson Bay Company, the Pacific Fur Company, the American Fur Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company pushed through the Great Plains into the Rocky Mountains in search of beaver. They established relationships with the Native Americans by taking Native American women for their wives and by fighting alongside of them with their enemies. They also established trading posts where not only white men could trade their beaver pelts and firs but the Native Americans could trade for goods, but more importantly weapons and ammunition.

Whiteman’s Exploration of Glacier National Park: 1800-1850

Views from Apgar
Lake McDonald

There is little written history regarding white man’s travels into the American West save a few journals and a lot of oral history that was passed down over the years. Eventually this too was recorded. Fact and fiction perhaps melded into a written history and the men behind the stories such as John Colter and Jim Bridger became larger than life heroes that through their exploits opened the American West.

David Thompson

British trapper David Thompson is regarded as the first European to record impressions of the area in the 1780s.

Although beyond the scope of this article Thompson's exploits are noteworthy. A suggested a book by another SummitPost member is Jack Nisbet for more information on Thompson.

The men mentioned in this article were heroes as well. Heroes they were but heroes of a different strain recorded with ink and paper. These heroes lead the way in opening one of the most fantastic areas in the world.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
Louisiana Purchase
Louisiana Purchase, Please Do Not Vote
Lewis and Clark
Lewis and Clark, Please Do Not Vote

Present day Glacier National Park was contained within the Louisiana Purchase. The Voyage of Discovery traveled along a river that actually came within 30 miles from the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park.

Lewis named that river “Marias River” (or something like that Lewis’ spelling was less than stellar). The Blackfeet called it the Bear River. Lewis was hopeful at first that it led further to the north past the 50th Parallel.

He wrote the following excerpt in his journal.

"The whole of my party to a man except myself were fully perswaided that this river was the Missouri, but being fully of opinion that it was neither the main stream or that which it would be advisable for us to take, I determined to give it a name and in honour of Miss Maria W____d. [Wood] called it Maria's River".

Camp Disappointment
Camp Disappointment, Please Do Not Vote.
Two Medicine Fight Location
Two Medicine River battle Location, Please Do Not Vote.

They spent an uncomfortable rain filled July 21-26, 1806 at a place called “Camp Disappointment” when Meriwether Lewis and his three men, George Drouillard and the Field brothers, Joseph and Reubin realized that the Marias River turned to the west towards present day Glacier National Park. Their journals spoke of meeting Blackfeet Indians that were not exactly friendly to their cause. On July 27th Lewis and his three men met a band of unfriendly young Blackfeet braves on the banks of the Two Medicine River.

Stephen F. Ambrose writes in Undaunted Courage that Lewis and his men were outnumbered at least 2 to 1. They agreed to share a camp together on the Two Medicine River and as long as Lewis supplied tobacco things went okay. Lewis learned that this band of Piegan had a trapper that lived with them as well as about the British Fort where the Blackfeet traded for guns, ammunition and other supplies such as alcohol. Lewis made a crucial mistake when he told them that their enemies the Nez Pierce, the Shoshones and others were part of an alliance with the Americans. This alliance would supply their enemies with rifles.

On the morning of the 27th of July the Blackfeet tried unsuccessfully to steal the explorer’s rifles and later tried to take their horses. Reuben Field stabbed one of the braves who died and then the conflict began in earnest when a brave raised his British musket to shoot at Lewis and Lewis fired and killed him. Things got out of control and eventually the braves fled on foot. Lewis ordered his men to pursue them rather than retreat.

Eventually Lewis decided to end the chase and returned to the Marias River and headed back down to meet Clark. In all, the losses that day were two young braves dead, another wounded and ruined relations with the strongest Native American tribe in the Northern Great Plains. Not one of the Corps of Discovery’s best days by far.
looking south from Mount Siyeh (10,014)
Lewis Range, distressbark photo

Lewis and his three companions traveled over 100 miles that day, found one of the food caches and camped on the shore opposite Blackfeet territory. Ambrose does an excellent job describing these events and the decisions Lewis made on pages 388-394. Perhaps it was this singular event that soured the Blackfeet toward the white man and made it so difficult to peacefully trap and explore in what is now present day Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park’s Lewis Range where Mount Cleveland is located as well as the Lewis Overthrust are named for Meriwether Lewis.

Lone Walker Mt
Lone Walker Mountain, Dottie Little Tent photo
Sinopah and Painted Tepee
Sinopah, FlatheadNative photo

Hugh Monroe

Hugh Monroe was a trapper from the Hudson Bay Company who initially started off on a task for his employer who was the director at Fort Bow in 1814. He was sent to learn the customs and language of the Blackfeet Indians.

He did this quite well and eventually became a member of the tribe when he married, Sinopah who was Chief Lone Walker’s daughter. He traveled with the Piegan band and traveled through Glacier’s passes with them. He also is reported to have traveled to the Flathead Valley. His relationship with the Piegan Blackfeet helped keep the peace between the white man and the Blackfeet Indians.

The Two Medicine Valley hosts two mountains that are named for Sinopah and Chief Lone Walker.

St. Marys Lake in Glacier National Park
St. Mary's Lake, csmcgranahan photo

Father Desmet

The Catholic Church was influential in introducing Native Americans to religion. Father Desmet was a Catholic missionary to the Salish in the 1840’s as well as had contact with the Blackfeet through Hugh Monroe.

It was Desmet who named St. Mary’s Lake in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Whiteman’s Exploration of Glacier National Park: 1850-early 1900s

Looking north into the park
Pumpelly Glacier, whiteroom 17 photo

Presidential orders to survey the 49th parallel which serves as the boundary between the United States and Canada surged an increase in exploration in Glacier National Park.

Men by the names of Elliot Cones and George Dawson explored, documented and drew maps of the mountains and valleys. U.S. Army troops passed over Cut Bank Pass in 1873 after traveling through the Flathead Valley. One of the men, Raphael Pumpelly, traveling in this group “discovered” a glacier and it was named after him. Pumpelly Glacier is located in the Nyack Valley.

Grinnell Lake, Gem Glacier
Grinnell Valley, bbbeans photo

George Bird Grinnell

Perhaps the white man with the largest influence was Grinnell. His efforts were instrumental in establishing Glacier National Park as the nations. Grinnell made frequent trips to explore and hunt in present day Glacier and his exploration of the Grinnell and Swiftcurrent Valleys lead him to “discover” Grinnell and Swiftcurrent Glaciers. George Bird Grinnell also became a member of the Blackfeet tribe and he was given the name “Fisher Cap” by the Blackfeet.

Areas in Glacier National Park that are associated with Grinnell include Mount Grinnell, Grinnell Point, Grinnell Creek and Lake and Grinnell Point.

Sperry Chalet
Sperry Chalet, FlatheadNative Photo

James C. Hill

As the founder of the Great Northern Railroad, Hill was influential in Glacier National Park due to a number of factors. His promotion of the park to grow his railroad business brought streams of influential people to the newly established park. He also funded the building of the numerous chalets that today’s visitors enjoy. The lodges at Lake McDonald, Many Glacier and East Glacier were built with funding by Hill. The backcountry chalets, Sperry and Granite Park we also part of his influence. They were used by backcountry trail rides that were prevalent in the early years of the park.

The Mountain Pass:

Pitamakin Pass  sign
Glacier National Park Trail Sign

Often overlooked and generally taken for granted are the mountain passes. We walk over them and rarely think about the men and women that have passed this way before us. Sure we might read a summit log and find that Mike from Pallukaville, USA was there last month, but how many of us truly appreciate the role that these places played in the 18th and 19th century?

A Pass according to Wikipedia is:

“In a range of hills, or especially of mountains, a pass (also gap, notch, col, saddle, bwlch, brennig or bealach) is a saddle point in between two areas of higher elevation. If following the lowest possible route through a range, a pass is locally the highest point on that route.

Topographically, a pass has the general form of a saddle between two mountains (the elevation as a function of two position coordinates is mathematically a saddle point). They are often found just above the source of a river, constituting a sort of "bridge" over to the headwaters of a different river. Passes may be very short, consisting of steep slopes to the top of the pass, or valleys of many kilometers, whose highest point is only identifiable by surveying.

Since many of the world's mountain ranges have always presented formidable barriers to travel, passes have been important since before recorded history, and have played a key role in trade, war and migration.”

Glacier National Park’s Passes:

Much of this early park history is woven around the use of or search for routes acr