Describes Military Exploration in Rocky Mountains|
Vast Region South of Glacier Park Is Mapped
Army Officer Tells of Hunter's Paradise as Found on His Several Trips;
Rendezvous for Bandits, Indians
Wilderness Visited by Major Ahern; He Writes for Tribune
Jim Hannon, Rugged Mountaineer and Trapper, Guided Young Lieutenant,
Made Possible Success of
Mission in Short Time
| Note The following article is a vivid
description of a vast unexplored wilderness in the Rocky mountains of Montana as found by Maj. George
P. Ahern, U. S. A., retired, when he made trips into a territory of some 10,000 square miles to obtain data
for military records on assignments of the adjutant general at St. Paul and the post commander at Fort
Shaw in 1888, 1889, and 1890. Major Ahern, now a resident of Washington, D. C., was a second lieutenant
with the 25th infantry at Fort Shaw. He has spent much time lately in writing on forestry conservation.
Deforested America, by Major Ahern was printed in 1929, and a work that has required
the last two years, Forest Bankruptcy in AmericaEach State's Own Story,
has just been completed and, it is expected, will be printed soon. The following story on his explorations
was sent to The Tribune for exclusive publication by Major Ahern and is entitled Montana's Last Exploration.
|EIGHTY-ODD years after Lewis and Clark blazed a trail
across the great northwest territory, the last large block of unmapped land was explored in Montana and
it was my good fortune to have that adventurous task assigned to me. Some 10,000 square miles of the
Rockies, extending from the Lewis and Clark trail to the Canadian boundary, were in 1888, terra incognita
to authorities governing the country.
Montana had been, even prior to the Lewis and Clark visit of 1805, the scene of
many thrilling adventures. It was, indeed, the greatest of all hunting grounds, drawing Indians and trappers
from the Pacific coast, from the Dakotas and territory to the south. The most picturesque figures playing in
this great drama were the couriers de bois, men of the north, who were gallant
French voyagers, trappers and explorers, who penetrated the country as early as 1743, when Chevalier de
la Verendrye reached Montana while looking for an available route to the Pacific. He had come from a
Canadian headquarters as Lake of the Woods. These brave men hailed the Indians as brothers, were
well received and, in some cases, joined the tribes. The American trapper or prospector from the south
and east was more aloof and independent, with a lack of cordialityan attitude that was not
understood by the Indians.
The Blackfeet, the great Indian warriors of western Montana, undertook to
maintain their hunting grounds for themselves and in doing so had clashes with the Nez Perces and
Flathead Indians from west of the main divide, as well as with Indians and whites from the east and south.
|Much Wild Game|
| Buffaloes in the dense herds roamed the plains, and antelopes, deer,
wolves and coyotes added to the hunter's bag. In the Rockies the mighty grizzly reigned supreme, and with
him were the cinnamon, brown and black bears, as well as elk and moose, big-horned sheep and goats,
mountain lions and huge timber wolves, not to mention beavers and otters, mountain grouse, salmon and
trouta hunters paradise.
The period from Verendrye's time to long after the Lewis and Clark visit was one of
romance and adventure. A typical episode, in fact an epic tale, is the story of a band of Iroquois Indians
journeying from the lower St. Lawrence to western Montana, arriving early in the 19th century. It took this
small band a couple of years to cross several thousand miles of unknown territory, and they were opposed
by hostile Indians, blizzards and raging torrents, finally reaching the land of the Flatheads, where they settled
in peace and harmony. What tales of heroism, loyalty, privation and endurance a Fenimore Cooper could
have gleaned from such a band!
Another thrilling epic is the story of efforts of the leader of this small band to get
missionaries for the Flathead Indians. He had told them of the black robes on the lower St.
Lawrence and fired the western Indians with the desire for their services. The story of three expeditions on
this quest to St. Louis and the success only after years of hardship on the trail and loss of life is intensely
In the eighties, when I was stationed at Fort Shaw on Sun river, the Indians still
hunted, fished and roamed, more or less under supervision, over the country. Raiding other Indian tribes
and white settlements was just going out of fashion.
| Early settlers, prospectors and trappers had seen an empire rise out
of the wilderness. Gold, discovered but 25 years earlier, had given a great impetus to the country's
development. The snow line covering the Rockies, some 50-odd miles distant, could be seen from our little
frontier fort even at night, so clear was the air, and it was hard to realize that at that time about 10,000
square miles of these mountains were indicated by a blank space on the map.
Discussing this matter during the summer of 1888 with the adjutant general of the
military department at St. Paul, he informed me that concern was felt at headquarters that such a large area
was still unknown. Unquestionably it formed the perfect hiding place for bandits, deserters, Indians and
others evading justice, for nothing was known at headquarters of trails and passes over the mountains.
One trail over Cut Bank pass had been mapped in 1885 by Lieutenant (now brigadier general, retired)
Biddle and Lieut. R. G. Hill, 20th infantry, who made a reconnaissance from Fort Shaw to Jocko agency,
but the rest of the region from Lewis and Clark pass to the Canadian boundary was unknown.
The unexplored area mentioned began near Lewis and Clark pass, some 50 miles
southwest of Fort Shaw, and extended about 150 miles to the north. The average width of the area was
from 60 to 70 miles. Approximately 30 miles south of the Canadian boundary the main range of the Rockies
bears a few more degrees to the west from its general trend of north, slightly west through the state, and
here in the extreme north is where there are, especially on slopes with northern exposures, a number of
glaciers, two or more miles in width at the base, with milk-white streams flowing from them. This last
mentioned region now forms the northern part of Glacier park and is sometimes called the
Switzerland of America. For seven or eight years preceding my visit, this section
had been visited by George Bird Grinnell of New York.
|90 Percent Forested
| The Mission range, in the southwestern part of the country explored,
extends from just east of Flathead lake to the south, parallel to the main range and 30-odd miles west. The
Blackfoot ridge, at the southern end of the newly mapped territory, extends from the Mission range to the
main range of the Rockies.
Forests covered more than 90 percent of the entire area, the agricultural land
being confined to comparatively small sections of bottom land. The country as a whole is more valuable
for forest than for agricultural purposes, and it is, therefore, fortunate that a large part of it is covered by
a national forest and a national park. Principal tree species found were western yellow pine, larch, western
white pine, fir hemlock, lodgepole pine and cedar. Cottonwoods were confined to bottom lands. Stands of
timber averaged from 10,000 to 20,000 feet an acre. Forest fires and lumbermen, even at that time, were
causing enough destruction to awaken my interest in forestry matters, which has been retained to the
I asked the adjutant general at St. Paul to take up with the commanding officer at
Fort Shaw the matter of having the region explored. I explained to him that exploring trips would be
discouraged by the post commander, due to his solicitude for the few government mules, our sole means
of transportation. In fact, all travel, all deliveries of supplies, even to water for domestic use, depended
upon the post's mules, a serious matter for a small garrison many miles from the nearest railroad station.
|Order Is Received
| The letter of instructions from department headquarters to the post
commander, however, was sufficiently explicit to pry loose for field work four mules. These post pets, which
fed bountifully and regularly each day on oats and timothy hay, found life quite different in the rough,
pathless Rockies, where the only forage at times consisted of shrubs and bark. Oats and hay were
but a memory. On emerging from the mountains after some 700 miles of hard mountain work on one
trip, we camped in a field of the finest buffalo grass, but to our surprise and amusement the mules scorned
this fodder and ran bawling to a nearby haystack protected by a barbed wire fence and demanded hay.
Shortly after returning to my post the following order was issued:
Orders No. 99
|Fort Shaw, M. T.,
Sept. 20. 1888.
| In compliance with letter of instructions
from department headquarters, Lieut. George P. Ahern, 25th infantry, with four enlisted men as escort, will
proceed tomorrow, the 21st inst., to the headwaters of the North Fork of Sun River to ascertain of there is
a practicable pass through the mountain range at or near this point. Upon completion of this duty,
Lieutenant Ahern will make a written report to this office, accompanied by a topographical map of
the country passed over. The quartermaster department will furnish the necessary transportation, etc.
By order of Lieut. Col. Van Horn.
|EDWIN F. GLENN,
|1st Lieut. 25th Inf., Post Adjutant.
This is typical of some five other orders received during 1888, 1889, and 1890,
varied by instructions as to the region to be visited and allowing me, at times at my urgent request, to go
without soldier escort.
|Engages Jim Hannon|
| In my first exploration I met Jim Hannon, a
prospector and trapper who roamed the mountains drained by the various upper waters of Sun river and
the Flathead. Hannon prospected for gold and maintained himself by hunting. Every few months he would
return to the settlements with his five pack horses loaded with furs of beaver, otter, mountain lion, bear, elk,
moose and goats. He would exchange pelts for food and other supplies.
We arranged a partnership for exploration. I offered to supply the food and pack
mules and he would assist in supplying game and in finding practicable routes over the unknown mountains.
Hannon liked the idea of prospecting in new territory. The trails found were those made by game, as the few
Indians and white men entering the country were not, as a rule, sufficient to leave lasting traces of their
presence. Game trails were utilized where possible, but it was when none were available that Jim Hannon's
woodcraft and uncanny knowledge of mountain travel helped us to cut through to the next game or Indian trail.
For such hazardous travel in very rough country, light and compact packs were
necessary. The Arapejo pack saddle was considered too wide and the sawbuck saddle was preferable,
especially in working through dense lodgepole pine. Each pack was light in weight and very compact to
enable the pack mule to negotiate steep and dangerous rock slides and ledges. The mule is surprisingly
agile and clever in getting through difficulty country, losing his head only on swampy ground. At one point
our progress was halted; it was either take the back track or descend for 1,000 feet an exceedingly steep
slope that would make an Alpine expert hesitate if he had no rope or other equipment. Jim Hannon looked
the ground over and said:
We might make it, but how about the mules?
Jim, you are going to learn something about mules. Take a short hold on
your riding mule's halter and follow me.
My riding mule, registered in the quartermaster's record as Stonewall Jackson, 19
¾ years old, wise, cautious and surefooted, looked long and seriously at the slope. I patted him and in a tone of confidence said:
It's all right, come on.
He bunched his four feet together and, sitting on his haunches, edged his way
behind me. It was slow work, as I had to steady myself by clinging to shrubs, bunchgrass and projecting
rocks with one hand and guiding Stonewall with the other. The two pack mules followed. We reached the
bottom safely. When so far from home and in a wild country nothing can separate the oldtime pals of a
quartermaster's corral. Dan, my lead pack mule, was at that time 24 years of age, having had 20 years
of army service.
At this point, it may be interesting to state why so few signs of Indian travel in the
high mountains were in evidence. Some say Indians are afraid of bad spirits in the mountains
but I believe the fierce grizzly bear furnishes the bad spirit. I had traveled and hunted with Cross Gun, son
of the Blackfeet chief, but could not prevail upon him to enter the high mountains. He said he was afraid of
the big bear, meaning the grizzly. Investigation will find that the Indians use, as a rule, the broad, well
traveled mountain passes. The Stony Indians of the far north in Canada, are an exceptionmore
of them later.
Our packs contained only essentials, the minimum of cooking utensils. There was
a frying pan, coffee pot and one kettle and the army tin cup, knife, fork and spoon and the meat ration can.
No such luxury as a pillow was carried; a saddle sufficed. We had tea, coffee, flour and a little bacon, but no
canned goods. As a rule we traveled without tent. No forage was taken for the animals. When we decided
to stop for the night, packs were unloaded and mules hobbled and turned loose.
Hannon and I divided the work. I looked after the mules and the water. Hannon
took charge of the supplies and the cooking. Not having a tent, we spread blankets near the fire and when
snow fell we tucked our rifles and other precious belongings under our blankets, as a heavy fall might hide
articles not in the packs. At crack of dawn and often before I brought in the mules and soon breakfast was
served. When packing I had my place on the mules' offside and it took but a few moments to fasten our
small compact packs by the diamond hitch.
|Goat's Desperate Leap
| Instrument equipment consisted of a prismatic
compass, a cylindrical thermometer, three aneroid barometers and a watch. Distances were reckoned by
pacing man or horse. Barometers were read every few miles.
We usually traveled until a fair stopping place appeared about 3 or 4 p.m. It was
not deemed wise to take a chance on finding a suitable place to stop for the night after that hour because
we might get caught on a rock slide or other inhospitable place.
Game was abundant. Elk, moose, deer and mountain grouse were ever at hand,
not to mention bears, mountain lions, timber wolves, beavers and otters. Rivers abounded in trout and
whitefish. It was not necessary to take time off for hunting or fishing. The time taken to kill and prepare
the game was ample for rest and change of interest during a day's march. Pages could be filled with such
stories. Jim Hannon got 11 bear on the last trip; my bag included 5. He made moccasins from moose hide.
One season we specialized in yearling elk for meat.
Never shall I forget the desperate leap of a Rocky Mountain goat facing me on a
narrow rocky ledge as I was crossing the main divide. His only escape was to plunge to a rock slide 40 feet
below. An instant's hesitation and he jumped, landing successfully on his rubber cushioned feet. It was, for
him, liberty or death. The shock of the fall required a second or two for him to recover before he could make
the next jump. It was just long enough for me to get a good aim, but as my finger pressed on the trigger a
flash of appreciation of the goat's grit forced me to put down my rifle and watch his getaway with keen enjoyment.
On one exploring trip over Cut Bank pass, with my horse as sole companion, several
mountain lions, evidently attracted by my little fire, came close to us in the night and gave forth a few unearthly
howls. I awoke to find my horse standing over me and trembling. As I made no move to get up, he took
my sleeping blanket in his teeth and shook it, evidently anxious to move camp. I sat up, patted him and said:
It's all right, old boy; I'll take care of you.
|Horse Crushes Leg
| His dependence on me in this situation was
quite touching. He became quiet but remained close to me for the rest of the night. Owing to the deep
snow, I had made my bed on the trail where passing game had made some depression. I was probably
interfering with traffic and thus aroused howls of protest. Even in civilized centers similar protests arise,
but not quite as bloodcurdling.
The same horse during an exploration earlier in the year fell on me while crossing
a stream filled with large boulders. My leg was so crushed in the fall that it was all I could do to cling to the
saddle until the crossing was made. I then fell to the ground and remained disabled almost 24 hours. I had
sent the train and party ahead. The party found me the next morning and took me to their stopping place.
The horse remained close to me during the entire time. It was near the main divide and big game was
abundant, but I was not disturbed.
Two of the three expeditions in 1889 covered the territory drained by the upper
waters of the North and South Forks of Sun river and the various branches of upper Flathead river. New
Moon and Lewis and Clark passes were covered on these two trips. During the last exploration in 1889
Jim Hannon and I were caught in two blizzards and were reported in the newspapers as lost. We simply
sought a protected spot and waited for the storm to blow over. This happened during the second week in
November of 1889.
Snow begins to fall in the northern Rockies early in September and by November
traveling in the mountains is slow and hazardous. Fortunately, I had anticipated such difficulties and had
copied and taken with me notes describing Lewis and Clark pass. The description of the country was
sufficiently detailed and accurate to enable me to travel safely.
Upon my return to the post the commanding officer informed me that hereafter a
soldier escort would accompany me. He did not realize how much that added to difficulties. At this point
may I add the following note?
Marias pass, southeast of Cut Bank pass had been used by Flathead and
Blackfeet Indians for many years. Lewis and Clark had heard of the pass, but its location was not definitely
known at military headquarters in 1888. I heard of the pass from various sources in 1889 and 1890. I had
been in the vicinity of the pass during my work along branches of Flathead river, but as I can find but one of
my six exploration reports, I am unable to state anything more definite.
Jim Hannon and I crossed the main divide south of Marias pass about Nov. 15,
1889. My report on this trip, dated Dec. 8, 1889, was just three days before John F. Stevens, employed by
the Great Northern railway, stood at the summit of Marias pass. He brought back topographical notes and
was the first person to definitely locate that pass.
A third trip in this year was made alone over Cut Bank pass. Our garrison had
made a march of more than 100 miles from Fort Shaw to the entrance to the pass. The commanding officer
had promised me that I could use the period to be spent in camp at this place for a trip over the pass and
that the civilian scout with the command could accompany me. When we were ready to start over the pass,
the colonel said we both could not go, as a heavy snow had fallen, we were 40 miles from the nearest road
and we were the only men who knew the way back. If anything happened to us, the command might meet
difficulties in locating the homeward trail.
He offered me a soldier escort but I declined, as the heavy snow had added much
to difficulties of the trip and I did not wish to be hampered by soldiers who were not experienced in mountain
work. This trip, a strenuous and hazardous one, due to deep snow, took me over the pass to Middle Fork of
Flathead river. At the summit of the pass, although it was a bright, sunny day in August, my fingers were so
stiff from the cold wind that I was unable to make a note until I had dropped down the trail a few thousand
feet. While standing at the summit one foot rested in snow that drains into the Atlantic, the other foot
rested on the Pacific slope, and just ahead of me was the head of St. Mary's river that flows into the Hudson bay.
|Sent to Flathead
| Due to the deep snow and my lack of knowledge
of the country, it was difficult at times to follow the trail. Along a particularly difficent [sic] place I was aided by fresh
bear tracks. It was evident to me that the bear was proceeding leisurely, as we met large fallen trees lying
across the trail and footprints of the bear's forefeet were evenly outlined and not another bit of snow was
disturbed as he vaulted over the logs. We did not meet the bear. If we had, the chances are he would
have taken one look and moved away. All big game are wont to leave if not menaced or wounded.
The summer field work with the troops detained us from further exploration work
until early in August of 1890. Aug. 6 orders directed me to examine the country in the Flathead river region.
Three enlisted men were sent as an escort. An escort wagon accompanied me as far as Cut Bank creek.
Transportation for mountain work consisted of three riding horses, three riding mules and four pack mules.
The escort wagon gave our supplies a lift of more than 100 miles and enabled our party to reach the St.
Mary's lake country and begin our mountain work in a few days.
We visited the upper St. Mary's region, the pass at Upper Swift Current creek, and
then moved to the Canadian boundary, where, from a boundary monument, a sight was taken due west so
as to make certain that our party would keep within United States territory. Belly river, flowing due north, was
struck a short distance to the west. That was followed to its headwaters, some 10 or 12 miles south.
|Ahern Pass Discovered
| At this point packs were unloaded and mules
turned out for two days, during which time approaches to the main divide were looked over for a possible
crossing. A small band of Stony Indians from the far north in Canada were hunting in the region. I made
friends with their leader and loaned him my Winchester rifle, which he admired. In discussing possibility of
crossing the main divide, he pointed to a glacier west some 2,000 feet above our camp, and said he had
crossed the divide south of the glacier.
Hannon and I accompanied the Indians to the point designated and found the
pass practicable if about a dozen steps could be cut on an inclined rocky ledge close to the glacier. We
cut the steps and on the third day of our stay at this place crossed the pass. The ledge was too narrow
to permit animals to turn back and a drop of almost 2,000 feet on the lower side made the passage one
of anxiety, fearing that one of our animals would become frightened, stop in the trail and in the jam
endanger the pack train. The trip was made safely. We camped that night, Aug. 22, 1890, by headwaters
of a branch of McDonald creek on the Pacific slope.
From this point we traveled to the foot of MacDonald lake and then to the vicinity
of Swan lake. Our route continued up Big Fork of the Flathead and over the Blackfoot divide to the head of
the Clearwater branch of the Big Blackfoot river. We visited the Jocko Indian agency to confer with the
agent and Indian hunters concerning the country over which we proposed traveling. We then struck east
and found a practicable route over Priest pass to a branch of South Fork of Sun river and finally arrived at
Fort Shaw, completing an itinerary of 705 miles in 57 days of travel, with men and animals in good condition.
The reconnaissance maps made during the trips were compiled by me at St. Paul
in the winter of 1890-91 and later incorporated in the Department of Dakota map of 1891, thus completing
another of the many tasks assigned to the army as an advance guard in settlement and development of the
| Great Falls Tribune 26 April 1931|