Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


Sacrifice Cliff & Skeleton Cliff

Summary Details – Continuing Investigation


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

This section depicts various source material extracts relating to the identity of these two places and the smallpox epidemics that afflicted the Indians in or near to Billings, Montana. Please note that a great amount of detail work is still ahead to establish and verify the original sources of the names. There were no direct recorded uses of Sacrifice Cliff for Buffalo Jumps or Indian Sacrifices by the Crow Indians, according to Crow History research.




Lt. James H. Bradley[1] arrived at the lower end of Clark’s Fork Bottom on April 15, 1876 and from his Crow guides they explained in detail a story about a mass burial. Bradley was among a group of 207 men originally commanded by Captain Rawn (part of Colonel Gibbon’s Command) from Fort Shaw who were engaged in trying to locate members of the hostile Sioux.[2]  His account placed the year of the burial to be much earlier when the River Crows camped at the base of the north bluffs and a disease almost wiped out the entire group. His account said that two braves who remained with the sick jumped over the cliff to appease the evil spirit. Other Crows many years later placed skulls and bones of the dead on a natural shelf located about two-thirds of the way up to the high point of the north rims. He kept rough field notes on his journey to meet up with the 7th Cavalry, but after learning of Custer’s defeat, the notes were rewritten into a more finished form. During this literary effort he was called to assist in hunting down Chief Joseph. He was killed in the Battle of Big Hole, leaving his journal incomplete. His journal is probably the best single account of the Crow Tribes and their journeys through the Yellowstone regions. It is the first apparent written history of what we call Skeleton Cliff.


Southwest of Boothill is a place called “Skeleton”, or Bone Hill, as named by the local residents of Coulson. This was a favorite hunting ground for arrowheads and other souvenirs before the arrival of the railroad. Lt. Bradley’s journal account of the local area is as follows:                                  

Terry instructed Colonel John Gibbon, his subordinate commanding the District of Montana, to gather all his scattered detachments and begin a march from the west. Terry himself would command a column moving from the east. Each of these forces was to follow the Yellowstone River and unite. Meanwhile, Crook was to form his own column and march from the south. Together, all these separate operational plans constituted what has commonly been referred to as Sheridan's campaign plan, and indeed, all of them flowed logically from his instructions. However, the final pincer movement was never clarified in any set of orders. Sheridan's disregard for coordination between, his separate columns provide some indication of his contempt for the fighting capabilities of the Sioux. It was a contempt that would lead to ineffective combat operations throughout the winter and well into the summer of 1876.

Colonel John Gibbon's column arrived from Fort Ellis, departing on March 17th with four companies of the 2d Cavalry Regiment and five companies of the 7th Infantry Regiment, comprising a total of 450 men from nearby forts. Included were ten wagons. They marched down the Yellowstone River following the Bozeman Trail and briefly halted at a camp supply point a few miles west of Clark’s Fork River from April 9th through the 12th. On April 19th, Captain Rawn was snow-blinded and had to give up his command to Captain Freeman. [Lt. Bradley was assigned various tasks, but after reaching the supply point on the Yellowstone, he was given the task to lead the way, and seek out Sioux villages, should there be any on their march to the Big Horn River.] They marched on the north side of the Yellowstone as they passed through Clark’s Fork valley and arrived near the mouth of Tullock Creek on April 21st. It was here that Crook's movements far to the south affected Gibbons actions. Since Crook did not plan to take to the field until mid-May, Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry ordered Gibbon to halt until his movements could be coordinated with the other columns. Thus, Gibbon waited at the Tullock camp from 21 April to 9 May.

It was when Bradley’s small detachment passed through the Clark’s Fork valley floor that he was informed of the meaning of the place they just passed through. They had camped about a mile and a half downstream of where Colonel Forsythe turned the Josephine Riverboat around, west of Duck Creek, and abandoned his upstream journey on June 7th, 1875. They marched 17.3 miles from there to the campsite at the eastern end of the valley, near to where the fairgrounds (Metra) is now located. [Captain Grant Marsh was pilot of the riverboat on this trip.] As they marched down the valley floor they noticed the high bluffs to the north that rimmed the valley floor. His Crow Indian guides described the importance of the place[3]:

“The Crows call this locality ‘Place of Skulls’ and the name commemorates a most disastrous episode in their history. Something less than 100 years ago the Crows were living in two bands, the greater portion upon the waters of the Powder River, while the smaller band of 400 lodges (4,000 souls) were camped on the lower extremity of the Clark’s Fork Bottom, along the base of these bluffs. Here a terrible disease broke out among them, the victims covered from head to foot with grievous sores. The plains were covered with bodies of the dead, and the horses ran wild because there was no one to take care of them.  The few who escaped the disease fled to the Powder River camp. The skulls and bones from the bodies of the dead were many years later picked up and deposited on a shelf at the edge of the high cliff.

Many braves of this tribe lived upon the peak to guard the Crow Villages, and they were young, strong and knew no fear, so their hearts sang all the daylong. They did not fear the great sickness taking Sioux and Blackfeet as far down as the Missouri for the Great Spirit had been very kind to his Crow children. Then a warrior found his limbs heavy and tired, and red spots on his face, and body stung like a sting of a bee. He was carried to a sweat lodge so evil spirits could be sweated away and then bathed in cold water, but nothing they did was good. The Great Spirit could not seem to hear them. Medicine men danced and sang and beat tom-toms to no avail and the young brave was taken across the slippery log to the Happy Hunting Ground. He was bound to a tree on the side of a cliff with his war bonnet, tomahawk and war club; dried meat was left, and his horse killed and left on the ground below for his journey.

Soon another warrior was stricken, and more until the hunting village was in great fear of the evil spirit painting faces of the warriors as though for battle and making them like one who drank the white man’s fire water. After sweat lodges and baths many had terrible visions and talked strange talk before plunging knives into their heads to stop the pain.

The Crows do not desert sick brothers. The strong ones who carried the dead to sleep their last sleep sickened and also died until only two Crows were left. At last they were alone, with all others dead or gone, and one said to the other ‘It is better to destroy ourselves than die in this manner. We cannot escape – the Great Spirit is angry with the Crows and determined to remove them from the earth. Let us ascend the cliff and, throwing ourselves over, die like brave men.’ The other consented, and leaping over the precipice they were dashed in pieces on the rocks below.”[4]

Continuing their journey towards the camp, they passed a small pile of stones on the ground overlooking the Yellowstone, just below the Place of Skulls. Some of the Indian Scouts picked up a stone, spit on it, and then placed it onto a pile of other rocks already there, in a belief that this would give them good fortune in their enterprise. They stated this was a custom for many years, and the pile of stones was mainly formed this way. According to their tradition it was stated that these stone piles were landmarks created many years ago when they first arrived in the country. The same tradition asserts that the Crows left such piles scattered all along the route by which they migrated from the southeast, so they could find their way back if they ever desired to do so. The guides also asserted that even now they could follow the stone piles all the way from the upper Yellowstone to the Arkansas River. Some scouts pointed out where the next stone pile was to be found (knoll to the southeast, in the direction of the Big Horn Canyon.)

During this nineteen-day period, Gibbon sent out several reconnaissance patrols, most of which found no trace of the Sioux. However, in attempting to track Sioux horse thieves, Gibbon's chief of scouts, Lieutenant James H. Bradley, on 16 May located a major Indian village on the Tongue River. After learning of Bradley's find, Gibbon ordered his command to march down the Yellowstone, cross to the south bank, and attack the village. Unfortunately, Gibbon's men weren’t able to cross the Yellowstone. After unsuccessful attempts that lasted an hour, Gibbon canceled the attack. Following this failure, Gibbon reported to Terry but didn’t note Bradley's finding of the Sioux camp, nor his own failure to cross the Yellowstone and attack the camp. Meanwhile, this large Sioux village continued to send parties of warriors to harass Gibbon's camp until 23 May, when all contact with the hostile Indians ceased. They had moved their village. However, it was the enterprising Bradley who found the Sioux camped on Rosebud Creek, even closer to Gibbon's location. Once again, Gibbon reported neither the Indians' harassment of his camp nor Bradley's discovery of the relocated Sioux village[5] on the Rosebud.

Plenty Coups, the last Crow Chief, retold his uncle’s story about the “Place of Skulls” to his friend Dr. Allen. He said that River Crows were big men, heap tall, heap strong, and proud of their long hair braided or wrapped around their heads for hunt or battle. They had no squaws. The River Crows were noted for making what he called ‘Guarded Villages’.  “The braves had lived upon the peak (Skeleton Cliff) to guard the Crow villages (camped below), and they were young, strong and knew no fear, so ‘their hearts sang all the day long.’ They did not fear the strange sickness taking the Sioux and Blackfeet as far down as the Missouri ‘for the Great Spirit had been very kind to his Crow children.’


Dr. Allen’s account, defining the origin of Sacrifice Cliff and the Smallpox Epidemic comes from an interview with Chief Plenty Coups as he talked about his uncle and the River Crows. Dr Allen, from his blacksmith shop in Canyon Creek[6] had noticed hawks and crows hovering over the rimmed sandstone cliffs, called “Skeleton Cliff”, a shale-ribbed butte tipped with pine trees. Following the birds he discovered bright colored cloth that was hanging from nearly every tree, and each of the trees held a skeleton, about 100 in total. The bodies were draped in bright blanket shrouds and bound to the trees with rawhide thongs, Property of the dead, found around the trees, included necklaces of elk teeth, moccasins, brass or copper rings and other articles. [This area must have been located between Sacrifice Cliff and the Indian Caves[7], where many trees still exist to this day.]


An 1883 account reported in “Guide to the Northern Pacific Railroad and Its Allied Lines” sets the date at 1813 for the smallpox epidemic. The pamphlet also stated that 40 young warriors sacrificed themselves by riding blindfolded over the cliff. This cliff was across the Yellowstone River, opposite of Kelly’s Mountain, and was called Skull Butte.


According to Crow Tribal history, smallpox decimated the Crow Indian tribes in the mid 1840’s. It was calculated that the disease killed over 8,000 Indians, reducing the membership to less than 1,000[8].


Plenty Coups was called Bull-Goes-Against-the-Wind when he was a youth. The year of his birth was probably earlier than 1848, [1844 estimated] but this is uncertain, as no census records exist for the Crows until after 1887. He told historian and biographer Frank B. Linderman that he was born "at the place we call The-Cliff-That-Has-No-Pass . . . not far from Billings [Montana]. My mother's name was Otter-Woman. My father was Medicine-Bird." From the beginning of his illustrious life, Plenty Coups was determined to protect his people. Born into the Sore Lips clan of the Mountain Crows.[9] Plenty Coups told Frank Linderman that he had been born "eighty snows ago" at the time of his interview in 1928. According to Lawrence Flat Lip, at Pryor, Montana, Crow oral history states that Plenty Coups was born four or five years before 1848 because by 1868 he was an official chief and twenty-four years old in 1868 when the Fort Laramie Treaty was completed. At approximately age 10 [c1854], he lost his mother, Otter-Woman, to a smallpox epidemic that nearly wiped out the tribe. After a short time, a party of Piegans killed his father, Medicine-Bird. Lawrence Flat Lip, Pryor, Montana, notes in the files of Chief Plenty Coups Museum, Chief Plenty Coups State Park, [Pryor, Montana].


[The early residents of Coulson, in placing their Boothill Cemetery at the junction of where the Tongue River Road [trail to Big Porcupine] and the Fort Benton Road [trail to the Blackfeet Nation] joined together at the base of Skull Mountain, discovered (or perhaps already knew) that there was a mass burial grave of Indians at the site. The date has not been established, but is probably 1854 or earlier, the time when the Crow Indians had their last great smallpox epidemic, and Otter-Woman died from the disease.] Refer to Boothill Story.


Col. Forsythe and Col. Grant, commanding the Josephine River Boat, passed through “Hell Gate Rapids[10]”, two miles further upstream of Belle Butte, which leads into Clark’s Fork Bottom, on June 6, 1875. Col Forsythe referred to this section of the Yellowstone River as “Hell Roaring Rapids”, and is at a point where the Yellowstone-Clark’s Fork Valley ends. JM Hanson described the location of the rapids as “Hell’s Roaring Rapids” and being just before the boat tied up for the night on June 6th. This rapid was also identified by Captain Grant Marsh “as being at the foot of Belle Butte”, immediately west of Bitter Creek[11]. On the 7th they continued upstream until it became obvious that it was fruitless to continue. At this point [west of Duck Creek] he turned the boat around and headed back to Bismarck. This location is also recorded in Lt. Bradley’s journal of April 14 & 15, 1876. Some members of the Billings City Council want to change the name of Riverfront Park to Josephine Park in honor of its passage through the area to its final destination at Duck Creek (now Stillwater County).


The Crow population is vaguely estimated during the early years, but appears from various reports on Tribal Studies to be:


Pre 1800
May include other branches of the tribe or simply over-estimated (See 1975 estimate)
Smallpox epidemic (thought to be transmitted by contact with horses taken from the Shoshones and carrying them first to the Mandan (Fenn)
Pre 1800
Number estimated by Lodge Grass Public Schools examination of Crow oral & written history- 1975
Remaining after smallpox – Lodge Grass Schools
Tribal membership increased
After 1833
Under 3,000
Smallpox epidemic (Estimated to be the date Place of Skulls was named)
Tribal membership increased (estimate appears to be too high)
Mid 1850
Under 1,000
Smallpox epidemic
Estimated by Joseph Medicine Crow
Census (Note: After WWI the full-blooded membership dropped to about 25%.)

From the census table, it would appear that the event leading to the “sacrifice” would have been during Chief Plenty Coups’ uncle’s life, and must have been during the 1833 time period. This agrees somewhat with the Crow guides explanation of the date during the 1876 campaign. In 1998 it was proposed that the Sacrifice Cliff area be made public domain, and the 765-acre plot of land was purchased by the BLM for $867,000. $600,000 was contributed from the Federal Land and Water Conservation fund, $267,000 came from a land exchange. It was advertised as being an “outdoor environmental educational classroom”, and renamed as “Four Dances Natural Area”.


On 27 February 1920, the Yegen Family (Christian & Laura, Peter & Margareth) donated 358.9 acres of land[12], indicated by the yellow boundary in the picture, to the City of Billings for creation of “The Yegen Park.” This gift later became the top half of the 4-Dances area. In the formation of the new area, or the actual park, the Yegen Family wasn’t credited with their initial magnificent gift to the City. [Details are available in the Court House Records WD #73 approved 1 March 1920 by the City Council.]


During the time that Henry Villard was president of NPR, the military still provided some protection for the construction effort. When the bridge crossing the Yellowstone at Coulson was being made, and for a few years later (approximately 1881-1883), they encamped on top of the area defined as The Yegen Park, and it was called “Camp Villard.”


Prior to the creation of the Four Dances Natural Area, a “Sacrifice Cliff Park” was created in the Heights area, and listed as a Community Natural Area. Records are not readily available to identify its true location, and haven’t been researched.

“In the 1840s, an increasing flow of emigrants to Oregon and California brought cholera, smallpox, and measles to the as well as accelerated buffalo hunting for the fur trade. This caused hostility and some attacks against the emigrants and traders. In 1849, the US military took the post over and renamed it Fort Laramie.[13]

“The winter of 1837-38, one of the coldest experienced, also was remembered for an outbreak of smallpox that moved upriver on the Missouri with settlers and was then transmitted to some Blackfeet and other Indians when they crowded around a boat at the Mandan's village. News of the disease caused panic among all the tribes who then scattered to isolated areas to avoid contamination. The severe weather was a great hardship to the buffalo herds. They sought the trapper's camps and then competed with the horses for the cottonwood bark and branches the trappers fed to their animals. Camps were moved frequently south and west to their planned rendezvous location of the Wind River - Big Horn junction.[14]

”In the 1830s a large Crow Village was camped in the vicinity of the fairgrounds when smallpox broke out. Most of the people in the camp died from the disease. In the midst of the raging disease, two warriors mounted a white horse and plunged over the north cliffs to their death. These cliffs are called "Where the White Horse Went Down". Survivors buried the dead warriors in the crevices of the cliffs where present day Sixth Street and Main Street in Billings converge. The Crow named these cliffs "Where There Are Many Skulls" or "Place of Skulls".[15]

In 1837, steamboats brought smallpox upriver and, as a result, between 60,000 and 150,000 Plains Indians died in the following several years from smallpox. The whites at Fort Union were forced to hide behind the walls of the fort because of the anger of the Indians who survived the virus.[16]

A party of an hundred was here organized, with Mr. Fontenelle and Carson for its leaders, to trap upon the Yellowstone, and the head waters of the Missouri. It was known that they would probably meet the Blackfeet in whose grounds they were going, and it was therefore arranged, that, while fifty were to trap and furnish the food for the party, the remainder should be assigned to guard the camp and cook. There was no disinclination on the part of any to another meeting with tile Blackfeet, so often had they troubled members of the party, especially Carson, who, while being magnanimous towards an enemy, would not turn aside from his course, if able to cope with him; and now he was in a company which justly felt itself strong enough to punish the' thieving Blackfeet," as they spoke of them, he was anxious to pay off some old scores. They saw nothing, however, of these Indians; but afterwards learned that the smallpox had raged terribly among them, and that they had kept themselves retired in mountain valleys, oppressed with fear and severe disease. The winter's encampment was made in this region, and a party of Crow Indians, which was with them, camped at a little distance, on the same stream. Here they had secured an abundance of meat, and passed the severe weather with a variety of amusements in which the Indians joined them in their lodges, made of buffalo hides. These lodges, very good substitutes for houses, are made in the form of a cone, spread by the means of poles spreading from a common center, where there was a hole at the top for the passage of the smoke. These were often twenty feet in height, and as many feet in diameter, where they were pinned to the ground with stakes. In a large village the Indians often had one lodge large to hold fifty persons, and within were per formed their war dances around a fire made in the center. During the balmy days of the British Fur Company, in a lodge like this only made, instead, of birch-bark, [Washington] Irving says the Indians of the north held their "primitive fairs," outside the city of Montreal, where they disposed of their furs. There was one drawback upon conviviality for this party, in the extreme difficulty of getting food for their animals; for the food and fuel so abundant for themselves did not suffice for their horses. Snow covered the ground, and the trappers were obliged to gather willow twigs, and strip the bark from cottonwood trees, in order to keep them alive. The Indians when reduced to extreme want eat the inner bark of the cottonwood. Beside, the cold brought the buffalo down upon them in large herds, to share the nourishment they had provided for their horses. Spring at length opened, and gladly they again commenced trapping; first on the Yellowstone, and soon on the head waters of the Missouri, where they learned that the Blackfeet were recovered from the sickness of last year, which had not been so severe as it was reported, and that they were still anxious and in condition for a fight, and were encamped not far from their present trapping grounds. Carson and five men went forward in advance "to reconnoiter," and found the village preparing to remove, having learned of the presence of the trappers. Hurrying back, a party of forty-three was selected from the whole, and they unanimously selected Carson to lead them, and leaving the rest to move on with the baggage, and aid them if it should be necessary when they should come up with the Indians, they hastened forward, eager for a battle. Carson and his command were not long in overtaking the Indians, and dashing among them, at the first fire killed ten of their braves, but the Indians rallied, and retreated in good order. The white men were in fine spirits, and followed up their first attack with deadly result for three full hours, the Indians making scarce any resistance. Now their firing became less animated as their ammunition was getting low, and they had to use it with extreme caution. The Indians, suspecting this from the slackness of their fire, rallied, and with a tremendous whoop turned upon their enemies. Now Carson and his company could use their small arms, which produced a terrible effect, and which enabled them again to drive back the Indians. They rallied yet again, and charged with so much power, and in such numbers, they forced the trappers to retreat. During this engagement, the horse of one of the mountaineers was killed, and fell with his whole weight upon his rider. Carson saw the condition of the man, with six warriors rushing to take his scalp, and reached the spot in time to save his friend. Leaping from the saddle, he placed himself before his fallen companion, shouting at the same time for his men to rally around him, and with deadly aim from his rifle, shot down the foremost warrior The trappers now rallied about Carson, and the remaining five warriors retired, without the scalp of their fallen foe. Only two of them reached a place of safety; for the well-aimed fire of the trappers leveled them with the earth. Carson's horse was loose, and as his comrade was safe, he mounted behind one of his men, and rode back to the ranks, while, by general impulse, the firing upon both sides ceased. His horse was captured and restored to hunt, but each party, now thoroughly exhausted, seemed to wait for the other to renew the attack came in sight, but the Indians, showing no fear, posted themselves among the rocks at some distance from the scene of the last skirmish, and coolly -waited for their adversaries. Exhausted ammunition had been the cause of the retreat of Carson and his force, but now with a renewed supply, and an addition of fresh men to the force, they advanced on foot to drive the Indians from their hiding places. The contest was desperate and severe, but powder and ball eventually conquered, and the Indians, once dislodged, scattered in every direction. The trappers considered this a complete victory over the Blackfeet for a large number of their warriors were killed, and many more were wounded, while they had but three men killed, and a few severely wounded. Fontenelle and his party now camped at the scene of the engagement, to recruit their men, and bury here their dead. Afterward they trapped through the whole Blackfeet country, and with great success; going where they pleased without fear or molestation The Indians kept off their route, evidently having an acquaintance with Carson and his company enough to last them their life time. With the smallpox and the white man’s fire the warriors were much reduced, and the tribe which had formerly numbered thirty thousand, was already decimated, and a few more blows, like the one dealt by this dauntless band, w(uld suffice to break its spirit, and destroy its power for future evil. During the battle with the trappers, the women and children of the Blackfeet village were sent on in advance, and when the engagement was over, and the braves returned to them so much reduced in numbers, and without a single scalp, the big lodge that had been erected for the war dance, was given up for the wounded, and in hundreds of Indian hearts grew a bitterer hatred for the white man. An express, dispatched for the purpose, announced the place of the rendezvous to Fontenelle and Carson, who were now on Green River, and with their whole party and a large stock of furs, they at once set out for the place upon Mud River, to find the sales commenced before their arrival, so that in twenty days they were ready to break up camp.[17]

The steamship Saint Peter, coming up the Missouri River in June of 1837, brought the smallpox virus with it. When it stopped to unload at Fort Union, in an area that would become the Montana/North Dakota border, the disease spread to those Indians who were camped in and around the trading post. Infecting many tribes, some such as the Mandans, were almost completely eliminated. It was reported that only about forty-three adults and seventy children survived. Other tribes lost close to fifty percent of their numbers. The Sioux (Dakota) for the most part avoided the epidemic. As word got out, the Crow left the area and were only lightly touched by the malaise. Later, other outbreaks, including scarlet fever, influenza and another smallpox epidemic, decimated the Crow. Numbers vary according to the records, but by the mid-1840s, the Crow population is estimated to have been between 6,000 to 8,000 strong; however, various ailments soon dropped that count to less than 1,000 survivors. The Crow’s enemy, the Sioux, being relatively untouched by illnesses, grew in numbers and as hostilities increased, became even more of a threat to the Crow existence.[18]

“In 1837, steamboats brought smallpox upriver and, as a result, between 60,000 and 150,000 Plains Indians died in the following several years from smallpox. The whites at Fort Union were forced to hide behind the walls of the fort because of the anger of the Indians who survived the virus.[19]

“On one particularly disastrous trip being made by the steamboat St. Peters in 1837 [American Fur Company]. Several people on this boat came down with smallpox before the boat reached the Mandan country and the disease spread like wildfire among the Indians. The Mandan tribe was particularly hard hit; indeed the tribe was nearly annihilated by the disease to which they had no immunity. But the disease also took a heavy toll among the Aricaras, the Assiniboines, the Blackfeet and the Crows. Estimates of the number of Indians killed by this smallpox plague vary widely, but even the most conservative estimate puts the number killed at more than 15,000.”[20]

Fort Union remained a thriving trade center until smallpox swept through the local tribes. The epidemic went on to kill over 50 percent of Blackfoot Confederacy members. The first wave of the epidemic began in 1837 when the crew of the steamboat "St. Peter" brought the disease down river to Fort Union. Assiniboine and Blackfeet traders then took it back to their tribes and the lack of natural resistance caused it to spread rapidly. A second wave of the disease struck the Crow and Assiniboine in 1857. Expansion from the east increased pressure on the tribes, leading to several outbreaks of hostility. Despite the construction of U.S. Army Fort Buford down river from Fort Union, maintaining safety in the area became impractical. The coming of the Civil War shifted attention from the West and Fort Union fell into disuse. It was abandoned finally and scrapped in 1867. Its lumber was used to complete Fort Buford.[21]

Bad as Pierre's Hole had been for the defeated Gros Ventre, the worst was yet to come. Continuing their travel home,[July 1832] they [Bill Sublette’s party] now moved east of the Continental Divide, into the Absaroka Range, heartland of their bitter hereditary enemies, the Crow. At least 40 Big Bellies left their bones in Crow country, and many of those who did get home did not survive long. Only a few years after the Pierre's Hole fight, deadly smallpox swept through the Gros Ventre, killing many members of the bands who had fought so well against Sublette's men. It was the beginning of a sad end for a tough, proud people.[22]

“When all had arrived at Lexington, we went on to Independence, near which Mr. Sublette and his party were in camp. And on meeting him he readily consented that we might join them on this condition: that we should travel fully under his command and directions, and under the most strict military discipline; take our due part with his people in guarding camp and defense in case of attack by the Indians, which he rather expected, from a personal dislike they had to him. They charged him with leaving the year before a horse in the country packed with infected clothing, to give them the smallpox. I hardly think he could have been guilty of it. We then traversed the country and purchased horses and mules for our journey over the plains and mountains. Rigged them with saddles for riding and packing, made up those packs by sorting out the goods, for Wyeth's party had brought on much more than they could pack. But for myself I had brought but little so had nothing to throw away. But Wyeth would start with so much, that he had to drop some things by the way. Among them a small anvil and blacksmith's tools.[23]” [Member of Nathaniel Wyeth's 1832 expedition to the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest.]

 The treaty of Fort Atkinson was signed with the Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache in 1853. Good behavior, the inviolability of the plains traffic, and the right to establish military posts and railroad depots was pledged in exchange for an annual payment of $18,000 for ten years in "strips of red calico, red blankets, red beads, copper kettles, butcher knives, and hatchets [but no guns]." But "irresponsible Indians and evil white men soon violated every pledge made. Smallpox and Indians made freighting hazardous in 1854. Insolent Indians accosted many trains begging for whisky and tobacco. They were inveterate thieves, and this often led to casualties, but some traders formed bands to oppose them effectively. In some cases the Indians were quite as eager to trade. One old freighter believed that bright silks attracted them as strongly as scalps.[24]

Lewis and Clarke, and some other travelers, speak of friendly Indians,- of their kindness and hospitality, and expatiate on their amiable disposition, and relate instances of it. Yet after all, this Indian friendship is very like the affection of the Negroes in the Southern States for their masters and mistresses, and for their children, the offspring merely of fear. There can be no friendship where there is such a disparity of condition. As to their presents, an Indian gift is proverbial. They never give without expecting double in return. What right have we to fit out armed expeditions, and enter the long occupied country of the natives, to destroy their game, not for subsistence, but for their skins? They are a contented people, and do not want our aid to make them happier. We prate of civilizing and Christianizing the savages. What have we done for their benefit? We have carried among them rum, powder and ball, smallpox, starvation, and misery. What is the reason that Congress, -the great council of the nation, - the collected wisdom of these United States, has turned a deaf ear to all applications for establishing a colony on the Oregon River? Some of the members of that honorable house of legislation know that the district in question is a boisterous and inclement region, with less to eat, less to warm the traveler, and to cook with, than at the mouth of any other known river in the United States. We deem the mouth of the river St. Lawrence as eligible a spot for a settlement of peltry merchants as the mouth of the Columbia. When Lewis and Clarke were on that river, they had not a single fair day in two months. They were drenched with rain day and night; and what added to their comfortless condition was the incessant high winds, which drove the waves furiously into the Columbia river with the tide; and on its ebb, raised such commotion, and such a chopping sea, that the travelers dared not venture upon it in their boats; yet the Indians did, and managed their canoes with a dexterity which the explorers greatly admired, but could not imitate. The boisterous Pacific was among the new discoveries of our American adventurers. Had their expedition been to the warm climate of Africa, or to South America, they would have been sure of plenty to eat; but in the western region, between the Rocky Mountains and the great river of the West, the case is far otherwise.[25]

“Significant events that led to the development of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Reservation.[26]

1787 Congress passes Northwest Ordinance declaring that the "land and property [of Indian tribes] shall never be taken from them without their consent."



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[1] James H. Bradley, The March of the Montana Column: A Prelude to the Custer Disaster (1896; reprint, Norman, 1991), 57; An Illustrated History of the Yellowstone Valley (Spokane, Wash., [ca. 1907?]), 256. [Was 1st Lt in 18th US Infantry on July 1866. Fought Indians at Crazy Woman’s Fork and near Pryor, MT before retirement.]

[2] Atlas of Sioux Wars, Compiled by Dr. William Glenn Robertson, Dr. Jerold E. Brown, Major William M. Campsey, and Major Scott R. McMeen

[3] Journal of Lt Bradley, March of the Montana Column, Edited by Edgar I. Stewart, 1961, 1st Edition

[4] There is no apparent record of how this single event was recorded, since they are listed as the last ones. Horses were not reported to be a part of the sacrifice.

[5] This eventually led to the Battle of the Rosebud on 16 June 1876 that involved General Crook.

[6] Blacksmith shop faces southeast. [He must have been looking up Bitter Creek valley towards the Indian Caves.] The recollection of the event is not compatible with the reasoning that the bodies were on top of Skeleton Mountain, nor were there sufficient number of large trees to accommodate a mass burial such as the one he described. It is also inconceivable that by this time any remains would still be in existence since settlers were living directly below and alongside of the cliff. It had been reported that soon after Coulson was created, townsfolk scavenged about for artifacts in that area.

[7] Renamed Petroglyph Caves.

[8] Heart of the Crow country, by Joseph Medicine Crow, 1922 pg 42.

[9] Encyclopedia of North American Indians

[10] “Ramsey’s Rapids” so named by Coulson Residents located between Bitter Creek and the east base of Sacrifice Cliff. Disappeared by 1923

[11] War Department Report Expedition Up the Yellowstone River – June 1875. Rapid is “Ramsey’s Rapids.” Disappeared by 1921.

[12] Warranty Land Record Deed #73, Yellowstone County.

[13] History of Oglala Lakota Sioux, by cante kola Jan

[14] Jim Bridger’s Later Years, by Robert Covington, 1999



EA Number: MT-010-0-39; published 1991(Verification of source information not provided)

[16] Pierre-Chouteau-Fort Union Historie,

[17] Life of Kit Carson: the great western hunter and guide, by Charles Burdett– published 1869.

[18] Graetz, Rick, and Susie Graetz. Crow Country: Montana's Crow Tribe of Indians. Billings: Northern Rockies Publishing Company, 2000

[19] National Park System, Fort Union History Center – undated.

[20] BOONE'S LICK HERITAGE Volume 5, No. 2, June 1997 Boonslick Historical Society's Quarterly Magazine, Boonslick Historical Society

[21] Lewis & Clark - Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, 2002 Travel Montana

[22] Battle of Pierre’s Hole, By Robert Barr Smith (1999 Far West Magazine)

[23] Autobiography of John Ball, Grand Rapids, Mich., The Dean-Hicks Company, 1925.[

[24] Freighting: A Big Business on the Santa Fe Trail, by Walker Wyman November 1931 (Vol. 1, No. 1), pages 17 to 27


[25] NOTES AND ORAL INFORMATION, OF JOHN B WYETH, July 1832 (Oregon expedition – published 1833)

[26] Fort Peck Reservation History Timeline References, Official Release, 2002