Forest Prehistory

First AmericansNative American peoples first settled the region we now call Montana and the Helena National Forest at the close of the last Ice Age (Pleistocene), some 13,000 to 11,000 years ago. These first Montanans were hunter-gatherers who evolved into the many individual cultures that today we generically call American Indians. This human migration was facilitated by a land bridge between Asia (Siberia) and North America (Alaska). The thousand-mile land bridge was created when continental glaciers “locked up” huge amounts of ocean water, dropping the sea level by 300 feet or more. But indigenous people may have also arrived in the western hemisphere at other times and at different entry points.

These first pioneers of the North American continent were adept hunters who depended on large Ice Age mammals (extinct types of bison, mammoth) for their livelihood. Plant foods, eggs, and small game were also important to their survival. A signature artifact of these early peoples is beautifully-made chipped stone points, which where used on the tip of spears or darts. Several early “paleoindian” sites are known in the Elkhorn Mountains near Helena but Mother Nature, time and recent human activity (particularly hydraulic mining) have conspired against the survival (and discovery) of many late Ice Age or early Holocene camps.

By 8,000 years ago, Indian groups had adjusted their hunter-gatherer lifeways to meet the requirements of a warming (Holocene) climate. The Ice Age mammals were extinct. Using the throwing board (atlatl) and dart, as well as nets and snares, Indian groups hunted both large and small game. Large game animals, particularly bison but also deer and mountain sheep, were hunted communally using sophisticated hunting blinds, traps, impoundments and “jumps”. The size of a hunting-gathering band was likely influenced by the number of people required to operate a successful communal bison hunt—from 70 to 100 persons. About 2,000 years ago, the bow and arrow replaced the older throwing board and dart, increasing effectiveness in hunting and perhaps warfare.

A wide array of wild plant foods—greens, roots and berries—was also gathered, processed and used for food or medicinal purposes. Plants were collected in season throughout all environments—from mountain meadow to sage-covered foothill to valley floor. Bitteroot, biscuitroot, slimleaf goosefoot, and prickly pear cactus were popular plant foods in the Helena Valley area. These were either baked in roasting pits (lined with sedge, rushes and grasses) or cooked over an open fire. Cottonwood, willow and sagebrush (and probably bison dung) were used for fuel. Wild plants were also dried, ground and stored for use as nourishing “flour” in gruels and stews, particularly during the long winter months. Cooking was done in skin bags into which hot rocks were dropped to cause the water to heat and boil. Pottery was not widely used by Montana Indian groups until relatively late in prehistory.

Bone, antler, stone, wood, reeds and grasses, hide and shell were used to produce the necessities of life: tools, weapons, clothing, shelter and ornaments. Indian bands quarried the abundant local chert found in the Madison Limestone and other geological formations in the Helena Valley and surrounding area. The large holes left by these ancient miners can easily be mistaken for more recent pits and spoils piles left by historic or modern-day prospectors. Indian groups traveled to the Yellowstone Park area, or traded with people who lived there, to obtain sharp, glassy obsidian. Obsidian from sources in Idaho was also in common use.

Dog TravoisThroughout this long time period, all travel was by foot and the necessities of life were transported by dogs and dog travois. A travois consists of two trailing poles to which a platform or net was attached for carrying baggage. It was harnessed to a single or several dogs. When on the move, hunting and gathering groups averaged 5 to 8 miles a day. Shelter was provided by skin lodges (tipi), wood and brush shelters (wickiups), caves and rockshelters. The pithouse, which was widely used on the neighboring Columbia Plateau, saw limited (winter) use in the Northern Rockies and adjacent Northwestern Plains. A pithouse is a shallow pit covered by timber framing overlaid with hide and earth.Dog Travois

The acquisition of the horse by native peoples in the early 1700s irrevocably altered this ancient pedestrian lifeway. The horse allowed Indian groups, such as the Salish, Kutenai, Blackfeet and Shoshone, to become highly mobile and roam over a large territory. Travel distances expanded to 15 to 30 miles per day depending on need and circumstances. The horse and travois enabled individuals to transport six to eight times more supplies and food than was possible during “dog days”. Except for horse-poor families, most men, women and children were able to ride (or be transported on travois) than walk. The use of dogs did not become obsolete, particularly among the poor and during the winter months, but their importance as primary beasts of burden and hunting companions was greatly reduced. The hide-covered tipi came into wide use nearly year-round, and caves and rockshelters were used mainly as camps for hunting or war parties.

Bison huntingBison, the principle food source, could now be aggressively sought out. Rather than using the ancient methods of traps and jumps, bison were now hunted by Indian riders on highly trained horses (“buffalo runners”) who charged into the herd to make individual kills. Increased hunting effectiveness and horse transportation with saddle packs, bags and travois enabled the accumulation of food surpluses (dried meat), hides for larger tipis and an array of leather and other goods. The processing of bison hides for use and trade became a work focus of Indian women. The pivotal importance of the horse in this changing lifeway precipitated an emphasis on horse raiding, trading and warfare. Success in these pursuits brought status, prestige and wealth on Indian men, and their families, clan, band and tribe. 

Horse raiding was part of Indian culture long before miners came to the Helena Valley in the 1860s. The first horses arrived on the northwestern Plains in the early 1700s via the Comanche and Shoshone, who raided and traded with Indian peoples and Spanish settlements on the southern Plains. The Spanish refused to trade or sell weapons to Indian people. But British and Americans traders gladly traded guns, ammunition, iron tools and pots, cloth and ornaments for beaver pelts and bison hides (leather was in high demand for machinery belts and other industrial uses on the East Coast and England). Some tribes became highly involved in the beaver and bison trade while others were intermittently interested or hostile to it.Horse travois

With both horses and guns, the Blackfeet became the predominant military power along the east front of the Northern Rockies by the late 1700s. The Shoshone, who had acquired horses early on but few guns, had previously expanded their territory northward to as far as the Milk River. But the Blackfeet had been pushed them back to the far corner of southwestern Montana and southeastern Idaho (their ancient homeland) by the time of their encounter with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805. The Salish (Flathead) bands likewise once resided on the front range of the Rocky Mountains but by the early 1800s were primarily located in the mountain valleys of western Montana.

For mutual protection against the Blackfeet, consolidated groups of Shoshone, Flathead, Pend O’reille and other groups annually traveled through the Northern Rockies and onto the Plains to hunt bison. The “great Salish road to the buffalo” followed the course of the Blackfoot River through the modern town of Lincoln. The trail then follows east along the Lander’s Fork and over the Continental Divide through Cadotte, Lewis and Clark and other mountain passes. Another popular route was located well to the south through mountain passes (Bannack, Lemhi, Monida) in the Beaverhead Range near the community of Dillon.

The horse, gun and other desired trade items were a mixed blessing for Indian peoples. While these transformed an arduous pedestrian lifeway into a highly mobile and materially rich one, they were the harbingers of change resulting from the Euroamerican settlement of the American West. The settlement of the continent by non-native peoples led to the demise of American Indian populations through disease, warfare, harsh military and frontier treatment, poverty, racism and government indifference. This difficult chapter in American history has been followed by political, economic and cultural renewal among Montana’s first inhabitants. Today, Indian peoples live in rural areas, towns and cities throughout Montana, as well as on reserves in northern, central and southern Montana, and nearby Idaho.

Heritage - WikiupArchaeological sites documenting prehistoric American Indian hunter-gatherers are abundant on the Helena National Forest. Such sites include rockshelter and cave habitations; wood lodges or wickiups; the remains of skin lodges or tipi rings; game drives and buffalo jumps; raw tool stone quarries; old trails and travel routes; and spiritual sites such as this vision quests, and paintings on cliffs and cave walls (pictographs). These archaeological sites are fragile and irreplaceable sources of information about past human culture and environment in Montana. They are protected under federal law, including the Antiquities Act of 1906 and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979.

During your visits to the forest you may encounter archaeological sites—ancient pictographs or chipped stone tools and waste flakes that are the remains of ancient camps. Enjoy looking at these ancient places but please leave everything as you found it. It is illegal to remove, deface or destroy archaeological resources.

Remember: The Past Belongs to Everyone

Some archaeological sites in Montana that are open to public visitation include: