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Early Years in the Bitterroot

By Connie Delaney

Arrival of Father Ravalli

The St. Mary's Mission, in Stevensville, is one of the earliest landmarks of European settlers in the Montana territories. Father DeSmet, a Jesuit priest who helped found the mission, sowed the first wheat crops there in 1841. Four years later, in 1945 Father Ravalli arrived with stones to build a flour mill for grinding the wheat into flour. A friend in Belgium had given Father Ravalli two 12-inch burr stones for his mission in the new world. The stones were shipped up the Columbia drainage to Lewiston, Idaho, and then brought over the mountains by mule trail into the Bitterroot Valley to the Saint Mary's Mission.

After his arrival, Father Ravalli started building his flour mill with an over shot water wheel to turn the stones by water power. Lumber for the mill was whip-sawed. The stones were put in place and the first flour ground that year. A French-Canadian named Biledot was the first mill wright for the new mill which could produce four bushels of coarse ground flour a day.

In 1852 the mission and mill was purchased by Major John Owens who made a notation in his journal that he had ground 175 pounds of flour in 6 hours. By 1857 John Owens started constructing a new mill, and the old stones were sent to St. Ignatius.That mill was still being operated until October 1865, and it burnt down in 1889.

First White Women

The first white woman to settle in the valley was Mrs. George Dobbins who arrived in 1861. A daughter, Lauretta, was born to the Dobbins in 1862.The Dobbins ranch was located in present day Stevensville.

In 1864 the R.W Nichols family came over the Gibbons Pass trail from the Big Hole country. This family was late in leaving Bannock because of a delayed wage payment, and they were caught by a snow storm which turned the four day trip into 16 grueling days of snowcovered steep trails. The Nichols pitched their tent at the south edge of present day Hamilton. They were in rough shape and low on supplies. James Tolton, was the first settler they encountered. He told them about the John Owen's grist mill in Stevensville. Two of the Nichols party undertook the journey to Stevensville for supplies, which took eight more days. They returned with 23 pounds of flour and 15 pounds of bran at a price of 15 cents a pound.

The family built a cozy dirt-roof log cabin and settled in for the winter. Game was plentiful, and there was plenty of grass for their livestock. This seems to be the first record of an settler in what we now know as Hamilton Montana.

Early Census Information

in 1860 the U.S. Census lists 258 people living in 53 households as "free inhabitants" in the Bitterroot Valley. The "Bitter Root" valley was then in the county of Spokane, territory of Washington. Most of the men listed themselves as farmers, but there were also packers, herders, Indian agents, black smiths, millers, harness makers, a tinsmith, and Jesuit missionary. French-Canadians were many, and there were also southern Indians, and quite a few folks from Ireland.

In 1864 a territorial census was taken before Montana was divided into districts. The Bitterroot Valley was then Missoula county, and census toll was 450. Taking the census was quite a job as the census taker, James Tufts, had to travel, mostly by horseback and mule, finding the scattered inhabitants such as miners and prospectors seeking gold. The end result was really an estimate of population.

By 1890 the first Federal census was taken in the area and found 1,377 people living in Corvallis, and the Skalkaho township totaling 1,045.

A Rand McNally map of 1890 shows the following populations:

  • Como - 60
  • Darby - 20
  • Florence - 40
  • Grantsdale - 500
  • Hamilton - 50
  • Riverside - 50
  • Stevensville - 400
  • Victor - 200

Old Fashion Romance

In 1871, on a sunny afternoon near Ophir, Utah a young Irish foreman was working for the Walker Brothers of Salt Lake City. He was showing recently discovered diggings to a crowd of miners. A young lady by the name of Margaret, a daughter of one of the miners, was very curious to see the samplings and edged herself too close to the ridge edge. She leaned too far over the edge and slipped right over, landing in the arms of the unsuspecting Irishman.

The result was red faces and apologies, but it lead to a wedding in 1872 in Salt Lake City. Marcus Daly and Margaret Evans were married at the Joseph Walker home.

This storybook marriage lasted until Marcus Daly died in 1900. They had three daughters and a son, and became the founders of present-day Hamilton, Montana. Marcus's pet name for his wife was "Maggie," and he dooted over her his whole life.

Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane was once a "Bitterrooter". Calamity Jane was Jane Burke, born Mary Jane Canary in Missouri in 1852. An article from the Bitter Root Times of 1896 recounts that Jane Burke and her husband ran a cafe on Main Street. A few days before leaving town Calamity had a good fill of whiskey and got involved in a big fight where she broke windows, kicked over tables and blackened both eyes of her cook. She boasted that she wanted to take on the strongest and biggest "Bitter Rooter!"

A Chronology of Early Bitter Root Valley History

1743 It is possible that the La Verendrye brothers were the first white men in the valley. Historical data shows them traveling through southeast Montana.
1805 Lewis and Clark come into the valley over Lost Trail Pass. They work their way down the Bitterroot River to present day Lolo, and head out of the valley up Lolo Pass.
1809 David Thompson builds the Saleesh House trading post at Thompson Falls. He mapped the country and kept a journal.
1824 Alexander Ross, a Hudson Bay trapper comes up the Bitter Root river from Hell's Gate (present day Missoula). They traveled up the Bitterroot valley, through the Sula basin heading for the Snake river. Men, women and children in the party were stranded by snow in what came to be know as "Ross's Hole". They called the valley, "The Valley of Troubles." Ross's diary describes the trip, including the Medicine Tree on the East Fork.
1832 John Work, trapper for Judson Bay Co. kept a diary which listed a trip through the Lolo trail.
1833 Warren Angus Ferris, trapper with the American Fur Co. wrote a series of articles on the Northwest. He describes the Medicine Tree on the East Fork.
1841 Father De Smet establishes St. Mary's Mission in present day Stevensville.
1845 Father Ravalli comes to St. Mary's Mission, establishes a flour mill, and grows wheat and potatoes.
1850 Major John Ownens purchases the Mission property and starts building a fort and trading post.
1952 Captain John Mullan establishes winter quarters near Corvallis. He grazes stock in the winter used for the Gov. I.J. Stevens road survey from he Atlantic to the Pacific coast.
1855 Governor I.J. Stevens negotiates Council Grove Treaty (near Hell Gate), with the Salish Tribes.
1956 Frank J. Woody and others bring an ox team and wagon over the trail.
1862 Daughter is born to Mrs. George Dobbin near Stevensville.
1864 Montana Territory is created. Sidney Edgerton is appointed Governor.
1866 Tom Harris settles in a ranch at Three Mile District, northeast of Fort Owen.
1868 W.N. Smith settles at Sweathouse Creek (present site of Victor)
1877 Battle of the Big Hole
1887 The first train chugged into Victor. It was a steam engine pulling a tender, superintendents private car, and a passenger coach with 25 aboard.
1890 Marcus Daly founds Hamilton
1896 Calamity Jane runs a cafe on Main Street.
1897 February 27: the Bitter Root National Forest, comprised of 1,155,868 acres was created. It was one of the first National Forests to be created in the United States.


* Research for these articles through "It Happened in the Bitter Root" by Ada Powell. Available at the Hamilton Library.

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