Native Americans

Timber and land ownership are important elements of valley history and are closely woven together. Historically, they have had a large impact on water quality in the Swan watershed and are critical to the future. The Swan Valley, except for higher elevations, had heavy forest cover from the time of its first use by Native Americans until relatively recently. Areas within the valley were periodically burned by lightning-caused fires or natives and attacked by wind and insects, but Euro-American visitors in the mid-1800s usually reported dense stands of timber. These forests of pine, fir, larch, and cedar grew well in the moist valley soils. Heavy timber, deep snow, and short growing seasons discouraged most settlement by homesteaders of the 1800s except at the north end of the valley near the present Bigfork. Homesteading required the clearing of land, but timber beyond that necessary for homesteader building needs involving much work without reward as there was no market for logs until almost 1900.

It is not known how long humans have been in the Swan Valley. Some believe humans may have been passing through this area for at least 10,000 years. Migration south from Alaska had certainly occurred well before then, and the glaciers on the Swan Valley floor would have already melted. Archeologists have found evidence of Paleo Indians dating some 8,200 years ago near Waterton, just across the Canadian border, and some believe there is similar evidence in the South Fork of The Flathead River. The first citizens to live in what is now called the Flathead Valley are believed to be the Koyokees, savage and warlike people dating back to Pleistocene times.[1] The main evidence of early human activity in the Swan Valley is trails, which continued to be used by natives during the Euro-American settlement period and are still in use today. The valley was not home to permanent settlement by natives, as its long winters with deep snows were too brutal for more than seasonal use and travel by even these hardy people.

The first tribal group to use the Swan Valley for more than transit appears to be the Kootenai, (spelled Kootenay in Canada) whose proper anthropological name is Kutenai. Their homeland was centered in the Tobacco Plains country of northwestern Montana (near present day Eureka) and southeastern British Columbia by the Kootenai River. Tribal population increases over time led to the separation of bands that migrated into previously unsettled areas nearby. It is believed that one such band moved to the Flathead Lake area in the 1800s, late in the history of the tribe. The area around Flathead Lake and the Swan Valley was already well known to the Kootenai and other tribes as they came for seasonal hunting or gathering activities and for transit to buffalo country.[2]

The Kootenai were closely aligned with the Salish (or Flathead) tribe, as well as with the Pend Oreilles (Kalispel) by overlapping territories and intermarriage, but they did not share a common language. Their lifestyle depended on hunting, fishing, and gathering of starchy roots or bulbs and berries – including huckleberry, serviceberry, and chokecherry. The inner bark and moss from trees were also used as food. They had a semi-nomadic culture, with permanent winter villages near good fishing sites and a social structure of extended family groups. Lodges were conical huts consisting of pole frameworks covered with rush mats or hides.[3] Such villages existed along the Shore of Flathead Lake, and these natives used the Swan Valley in season.

Echo Lake, northeast of Bigfork, was a popular area for Kootenai camping and a junction point for their trails through the Swan Valley. Trails came to this point from the south along both sides of Flathead Lake and the west where they connected to other trails. A short trail connected Echo Lake to a major Kootenai camp at the site of present Bigfork where the Swan River flows into Flathead Lake. One trail led from Echo Lake up the Swan Valley floor, and another went to the south fork of the Flathead River, passing over the Swan Range at Birch Lake – just below Mount Aeneas. This imposing mountain was named for Chief Aeneas Paul, also known as Big Knife II, who was of the Dayton Creek band (also known as Ksanka meaning Fishtrap People) of Kootenai and believed to have been an interpreter for Father Pierre Jean DeSmet.[4]

The Kootenai normally followed the Swan Valley trail south to Goat Creek where they crossed the Swan Range via Inspiration Pass to the South Fork of the Flathead River. Trails up the South Fork led over the Continental Divide to buffalo hunting grounds. Several trails lead from the Flathead Valley below Flathead Lake up over the Mission Mountains to the Swan Valley. One route was up Mission Creek, through Elk Pass, and down the South Elk to the Swan. Another major trail went over Piper Crow Pass and down Piper Creek, while a third followed Mollman Creek through Mollman Pass and then down the North Fork of the Elk. These three trails came to Holland Lake, from which a single trail led over the Swan Range at Gordon Pass and down to the South Fork of the Flathead. This trail is still in use today and is a very popular way to access the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area from the Swan Valley.[5]

Some of these trails existed before the natives used horses, but their number and usage multiplied rapidly when they acquired this transport system. Although the Kootenai and their allies were the primary users of the trails, these paths also provided access to the Flathead region for the Blackfoot tribes. Known as the most aggressive of natives in the area, the Blackfeet would conduct raiding parties from the trails, stealing horses or capturing women and children. The Blackfoot name for Swan River was “Sweat House River” because of the many Kootenai sweathouses along the stream.

Because the Blackfeet acquired guns through trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company as early as 1780, they were a formidable threat to the Kootenai and their allies with stone-age weapons as they traveled into the plains in search of buffalo. This situation changed by the 1830s when the Kootenai acquired guns and became a more equal adversary. The plains-oriented Blackfeet were reportedly uncomfortable in dense forests, and the Kootenai were superior fighters in the mountains. Trails to the plains were used by Kootenai buffalo hunters until the late 1870s when the buffalo had been effectively decimated by Euro-Americans.

The Flathead Reservation was created through the Hellgate Treaty of 1855 as a “home” for the Kootenai, Bitterroot Salish, and Pend d’Oreilles tribes. Consisting of 1,938 square miles, it borders the Swan Valley at the crest of the Mission Range and includes a large portion of Lake County and most of Flathead Lake. In this treaty, the tribes retained rights to hunt, fish, and gather in their aboriginal territory outside the reservation, and continued to use the Swan Valley for these purposes. After Montana became a state in 1889 it established hunting and fishing regulations that conflicted with these practices and contributed to the infamous Swan Valley Massacre.

In 1908 a hunting party of eight Pend d’Oreille natives including women and children entered the Swan Valley from their reservation west of the Mission Mountains. They had purchased Montana hunting permits, even though this was not required by the Hellgate Treaty, and had gained permission for their hunt from the reservation agent. A state game warden entered their camp several times, checked licenses, and later told them to leave the next day. The natives attempted to comply but were delayed in catching horses and breaking camp. The game warden returned with a deputy and began shooting. In the resulting melee, the warden and his deputy killed four natives and the warden was killed. The deputy left the area and was never prosecuted. [6]

This conflict reduced native interest in traversing the Swan Valley, which was by this time becoming settled by Euro-Americans. Early settlers reported that the natives who came through the valley were “mostly friendly,” although the Blackfeet retained their bad reputation.


Baker, Paul, The Forgotten Kutenai, Mountain States Press, Inc. Boise, ID 1955

Boas, Franz, Kutenai Tales, Smithsonian Institute Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 59, 1918

Fahey, John, The Flathead Indians, The University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK, 1974

Fahey, John, The Kalispell Indians, The University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK, 1986

Graham, Clara, This was the Kootenai, Evergreen Press, Vancouver BC 1963

Johnson, Olga, Flathead Kootenay, the Arthur H. Clark Co. Glendale CA 1969

————Kutenai and the Salish Family, US Dept of Interior, 1910

Linderman, Frank B., Montana Adventure, ed by Harold Merriam, U of NE Press, Lincoln, 1968

Linderman, Frank B., Kootenai Why Stories, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1926

Malouf, Carling and White, Thain, Early Kutenai History, Montana Magazine of History, No 2, April 1952

Phillips, Paul C. History of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, U of Montana, 1952

Smith, Allen, Kutenai Indian Subsistence and Settlement Patterns, US Corps of Eng, Sept 1984

Turney-High, Harry Holbert, The Flathead Indians of Montana, American Anthropological Association, 1937

[1] ——-, Northwest Montana Centennial Program Book, O’Neil Printers, Kalispell,Mt, 1964

[2] Flanagan, Darris, Indian Trails of the Northern Rockies, Stonydale Press Publishing Co. Stevensville, MT, 2001

[3] Snow Owl, The Kootenai Indians of the Western Rockies,, September 2004

[4] Hammer, Keith J., The Lineage of Chief Aeneas, A History of People and Place, Swan Valley Coalition, May 2005[5] Flanagan, Darris, Ibid[6] ——–, Swan Valley Massacre,