Missouri Headwaters are Central to Montana History (Part 2 of 2)

When the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis in September 1806, fur trappers already were on their way to the new country. In North Dakota, after meeting a group of trappers heading upriver, the Corps’ John Colter left the expedition and returned to the country he fondly recalled. In 1808, Colter and John Potts were trapping at the three forks when they encountered Blackfeet hunters and warriors. Potts was killed, and Colter was given a chance to escape. The Blackfeet took his clothes and allowed him to run for his life. Grabbing a spear from his closest pursuer, Colter was able to make a kill and create a diversion. Upon reaching the Madison River, he hid among driftwood. The Indians gave up the search, and Colter began a seven-day “walk,” minus clothes or footwear, to a trading post 200 miles away at the confluence of the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers east of modern-day Billings.


Despite this incident, Colter returned several times to the forks. In 1810, he was part of a group that established a trading post here. When Indians attacked the post and killed several traders, Colter left and vowed never to return.


In the early 1860s, Frank Dunbar built the first home in the Gallatin Valley at the headwaters. By 1863, settlers were arriving in the valley and Gallatin City came alive on the land between the point where the Jefferson and Madison already are joined at the Gallatin’s entrance. The goal was to make this a river “port,” but the founders didn’t consider, or know about, the five “great falls” well to the north that blocked steamboat traffic. When the pioneers realized their town had no future, they abandoned it. Then in 1865, Gallatin City II was established. A ferry crossing accessed the mining camps to the west. The town served as an agricultural center until 1883, when the railroad, coming through the Gallatin Valley, passed it two miles to the south. Even before that, Bozeman’s growing presence spelled the end to Gallatin City’s second try. For a while, it was the seat of Gallatin County and boasted a flourmill, stores, a stage stop and a hotel. Only the skeleton of the hotel remains.


During Gallatin City’s final years, a couple of miles to the south, Three Forks’ predecessor, called “an English Nobility Colony” in “Montana Place Names” – essentially a small group of cabins – sputtered, along with a toll bridge that spanned the area’s wetlands and the Madison and Jefferson rivers. In 1882, the present town of Three Forks gained a hold. When the rails reached it, the town’s future was secured.


The landscape at the headwaters has much the same appearance as when the Corps of Discovery and the fur trappers spent time here. One of Montana’s historical staging areas, those periods still permeate the atmosphere of this place. And there is nothing shy about it. The Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson come in with plenty of water and power to give the Missouri an enviable starting surge – no trickles, springs or snowmelt to kick it off. At the exact place where the big Missouri goes forth, there is no mistaking it for a stream – it is clearly a major river from the get go.


Where the Madison and Jefferson unite, just prior to the Gallatin merging in, is the point the U.S. Geological Survey considers to be the start of the Missouri. In their terms, the Gallatin is just another river entering the Missouri. History and contemporary feelings are that the waterway isn’t the Missouri until the Gallatin makes its contribution.


Today’s Missouri Headwaters State Park, which takes in the area surrounding the forks, was the idea of Clark Maudlin. While visiting the place with his family in 1928, he recognized its historical importance and set out to purchase the land. He then donated it to the state of Montana. The park opened in 1951.


Rick and Susie Graetz

University of Montana


Photo: The Madison River near Three Forks flows toward where the Missouri River starts with the Montana’s Spanish Peaks in the distance. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)