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
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
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 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
A Chronology of Early Bitter Root Valley History
||It is possible that the La Verendrye brothers were the first
white men in the valley. Historical data shows them traveling through southeast
||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.
||David Thompson builds the Saleesh House trading post at Thompson Falls.
He mapped the country and kept a journal.
||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
||John Work, trapper for Judson Bay Co. kept a diary which listed a trip
through the Lolo trail.
||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
||Father De Smet establishes St. Mary's Mission in present day Stevensville.
||Father Ravalli comes to St. Mary's Mission, establishes a flour mill,
and grows wheat and potatoes.
||Major John Ownens purchases the Mission property and starts building a
fort and trading post.
||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.
||Governor I.J. Stevens negotiates Council Grove Treaty (near Hell Gate),
with the Salish Tribes.
||Frank J. Woody and others bring an ox team and wagon over the trail.
||Daughter is born to Mrs. George Dobbin near Stevensville.
||Montana Territory is created. Sidney Edgerton is appointed Governor.
||Tom Harris settles in a ranch at Three Mile District, northeast of Fort
||W.N. Smith settles at Sweathouse Creek (present site of Victor)
||Battle of the Big Hole
||The first train chugged into Victor. It was a steam engine pulling a tender,
superintendents private car, and a passenger coach with 25 aboard.
||Marcus Daly founds Hamilton
||Calamity Jane runs a cafe on Main Street.
||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
* Research for these articles through
"It Happened in the Bitter Root" by Ada Powell.
Available at the Hamilton Library.