The confluence of the Yellowstone and Powder rivers in Prairie County, Montana, is among the most important places of the American West. Thirty years ago, in my work for the Montana state historic preservation plan, I went to that spot, easily viewed from old U.S. Highway 10, and found only a couple of lonely graves–marked by the county historical society–of buffalo hunters who had ranged this land in the late 1870s. That night, at my public meeting at the Prairie County Museum in Terry, I brought up that place to the folks gathered there, chiding gently, I thought, that there should be some highway markers to direct visitors to that spot, that it was very important and quite a compelling view of the landscape itself. What happened next was a laconic comment that I have told on myself ever since: one community member just replied: “Son, we know where they are.” Of course–I have never forgotten that lesson–locals do know where their history took place; markers are necessary, not for them, but for us, the outsiders, the visitors.
Fast forward 30 years, and the confluence is no longer neglected–now it is one of the best interpreted landscapes in eastern Montana. The Prairie County Grazing District worked with the Montana Department of Transportation and other partners to create a graveled pull-off from the old highway, and then installed not only an appropriate fence around the graves, but also several interpretive signs that tell the multi-layered history of the site.
The story here is big, and the markers do a solid job of capturing it, from the early Native American history to the coming of Captain William Clark during the Lewis and Clark expedition, the later fur trading era of the mid-19th century, and then the marks you can still see on the landscape made first by the Northern Pacific Railroad in the early 1880s and from the federal highway era of the early 20th century. It gives particular focus to the Sioux War of the 1870s and how this spot served as a base–known as the Powder River Depot–for 1876-1877 military actions by Terry, Crook, Custer, and others. A good way to access the river is by the Powder River Depot Fishing Access site.
Nearby, back on the highway, is a key transportation landmark, the Northern Pacific Railroad bridge over the Powder River–it was the railroad that introduced a new era of settlement and development into this region. And I will return to the theme of the railroad and its significance as we continue westward to Miles City.