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By Rick and Susie Graetz
University of Montana 

Missouri Headwaters are central to Montana History


April 10, 2019

The rivers that birth the mighty Missouri are visible in this aerial image. (Photo by Larry Mayer)

A labyrinth of channels, willow bottoms, islands and a general mix of wetlands interact to piece together the headwaters of the Missouri River.

The point where the three forks – the Jefferson, Gallatin and Madison rivers – join as one, the great Missouri River begins an odyssey, heading out as having had the starring role in the creation of a state. As a route of western expansion, the Missouri River had few equals. Missouri Headwaters State Park, at the three forks, documents the river's illustrious past in the chronology of our Montana through interpretive signs and displays.

History is vivid at the union of the three rivers. Long before whites trespassed, the place was a natural crossroad, camping spot, hunting area, meeting place and battleground for Native people, including the Hidatsa, Blackfeet, Shoshone, Crow, Nez Perce, Kootenai and Salish. Much blood was shed at the Missouri's birthplace. Today, faint pictographs – the only physical evidence of the passing of indigenous cultures at the forks – are found in a small cave.

Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery were the first documented white travelers to see the area. By the time they reached the headwaters, the explorers already had spent three months in what would become Montana. Time was running short, and anxious to trade for horses to enable them to cross the mountains, they had hoped to encounter the Shoshone Indians by now.

On July 25, 1805, Clark, in spite of feet painfully blistered and ravaged with prickly pear thorns, was traveling overland and a couple of days ahead of Lewis, when he arrived at the joining of the three rivers. Quickly choosing to explore the "North fork" (soon to be named Jefferson's River), which in his estimation was the route to the Columbia, he left a note for Lewis and spent the next two days in search of the Shoshone. Instead he contracted "a high fever & akeing in all my bones." Finding no sign of the natives, he reluctantly turned back, crossed over to the middle fork (to be named the Madison) and camped for the night explaining, "I continue to be verry unwell fever verry high." Clark spent the nights of July 25-26 at two separate camps on "Philosophy River" (Willow Creek) near the present village of Willow Creek, just a few miles southwest of the Three Forks town site.

On the morning of July 27, Lewis and his men met up with Clark at the three forks. Lewis' journal entry for that night read, "the country opens suddonly to extensive and beatifull plains and meadows which appeared to be surrounded in every direction with distant and lofty mountains; supposing this to be the Three Forks of the Missouri I halted the party." Lewis then walked about a half mile up the Gallatin and "ascended the point of a high limestone clift (Lewis's Rock) from whence I commanded a most perfect view of the neighbouring country." The explorer was beholding the Spanish Peaks and Madison Range to the south, the Gallatin Range to the southeast and the Tobacco Root Mountains to the southwest. He could also see the Bridger Range directly to the east. In between was the lush, wide valley of the Gallatin River.

Good news came as Sacajawea recognized the area and informed them that this was the exact place her people were camped when the Hidatsa had captured her five years earlier.

There was no question in the two leaders' minds that this was the headwaters of the Missouri. On July 28 Lewis wrote, "Both Capt. C. and myself corrisponded in opinion, with rispect, to the impropriety of calling either of these streams the Missouri and accordingly agreed to name them ... we called the S.W. Fork, that which we meant to ascend, Jefferson's river in honor of Thomas Jefferson. the Middle fork we called Madison's River in honor of James Madison, and the S. E. Fork we called Gallitin's river in honor of Albert Gallitin."

When the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis in September 1806, fur trappers already were on their way to the new country. In North Dakota, after meeting a group of trappers heading upriver, the Corps' John Colter left the expedition and returned to the country he fondly recalled. In 1808, Colter and John Potts were trapping at the three forks when they encountered Blackfeet hunters and warriors. Potts was killed, and Colter was given a chance to escape. The Blackfeet took his clothes and allowed him to run for his life. Grabbing a spear from his closest pursuer, Colter was able to make a kill and create a diversion. Upon reaching the Madison River, he hid among driftwood. The Indians gave up the search, and Colter began a seven-day "walk," minus clothes or footwear, to a trading post 200 miles away at the confluence of the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers east of modern-day Billings.

Despite this incident, Colter returned several times to the forks. In 1810, he was part of a group that established a trading post here. When Indians attacked the post and killed several traders, Colter left and vowed never to return.

In the early 1860s, Frank Dunbar built the first home in the Gallatin Valley at the headwaters. By 1863, settlers were arriving in the valley and Gallatin City came alive on the land between the point where the Jefferson and Madison already are joined at the Gallatin's entrance. The goal was to make this a river "port," but the founders didn't consider, or know about, the five "great falls" well to the north that blocked steamboat traffic. When the pioneers realized their town had no future, they abandoned it. Then in 1865, Gallatin City II was established. A ferry crossing accessed the mining camps to the west. The town served as an agricultural center until 1883, when the railroad, coming through the Gallatin Valley, passed it two miles to the south. Even before that, Bozeman's growing presence spelled the end to Gallatin City's second try. For a while, it was the seat of Gallatin County and boasted a flourmill, stores, a stage stop and a hotel. Only the skeleton of the hotel remains.

During Gallatin City's final years, a couple of miles to the south, Three Forks' predecessor, called "an English Nobility Colony" in "Montana Place Names" – essentially a small group of cabins – sputtered, along with a toll bridge that spanned the area's wetlands and the Madison and Jefferson rivers. In 1882, the present town of Three Forks gained a hold. When the rails reached it, the town's future was secured.

The Madison River near Three Forks flows toward where the Missouri River starts with the Montana's Spanish Peaks in the distance. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

The landscape at the headwaters has much the same appearance as when the Corps of Discovery and the fur trappers spent time here. One of Montana's historical staging areas, those periods still permeate the atmosphere of this place. And there is nothing shy about it. The Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson come in with plenty of water and power to give the Missouri an enviable starting surge – no trickles, springs or snowmelt to kick it off. At the exact place where the big Missouri goes forth, there is no mistaking it for a stream – it is clearly a major river from the get go.

Where the Madison and Jefferson unite, just prior to the Gallatin merging in, is the point the U.S. Geological Survey considers to be the start of the Missouri. In their terms, the Gallatin is just another river entering the Missouri. History and contemporary feelings are that the waterway isn't the Missouri until the Gallatin makes its contribution.

Today's Missouri Headwaters State Park, which takes in the area surrounding the forks, was the idea of Clark Maudlin. While visiting the place with his family in 1928, he recognized its historical importance and set out to purchase the land. He then donated it to the state of Montana. The park opened in 1951.


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