Big Hole National Battlefield: A Second Look

Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield 9

On this wintery day I return to Big Hole National Battlefield, one of the most solemn and sacred places in Big Sky Country, out of a request from a MTSU graduate student who is trying to come to grips with western battlefields and their interpretation.  In 2013 I posted about the new visitor center museum exhibits at Big Hole, lauding them for taking the “whole story” approach that we have always attempted to take with our work in Tennessee through the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.

Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield

The Big Hole Battlefield exhibits, how at least 5 years old, do the whole story approach well, as you can see from the panel above where voices from the past and present give you the “straight talk” of the Nez Perce perspective.

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Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield 1

One of the most telling quotes on how the military viewed the original residents of the northern Rockies is not that of Sherman–damning enough–but the one above by General O.O. Howard, best known in the American South for his determination and leadership of the Freedman’s Bureau and its attempt to secure civil rights for the newly emancipated enslaved of the nation.

Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield 2

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The exhibit panels, together with a new set of exterior interpretive panels scattered across the battlefield, do an excellent job of allowing visitors to explore, reflect, and decide for themselves.  The more comprehensive approach to telling the story is nothing really new.  NPS historian Robert Utley called for it decades ago, and Marc Blackburn recently reviewed efforts across the country in his excellent book, Interpreting American Military History (2016).  For the Big Hole itself, all scholars can benefit from Helen A. Keremedjiev’s ethnographic study of this park and other military sites in Montana in his now decade old master’s thesis at the University of Montana.

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Of course Big Hole Battlefield is now part of a larger thematic effort, the Nez Perce Historical Park, to mark and tell the story of Chief Joseph and his attempt to find a safe haven in land that once the tribe had dominated.  These few images, which, as many of you regular readers know, can be enlarged and viewed intently, only start the exploration–you really have to go to the Big Hole to understand what the events of 1877 meant to the new residents flooding the country and those who had lived and thrived there for centuries.


Reserve, Montana: a Sheridan County Railroad Town

Sheridan Co Reserve 4

Readers of this blog have been generous, sharing thoughts, and history about the many fascinating places of the Big Sky Country.  Most recently I had an inquiry about a place that even most Montanans do not know about–Reserve, Montana.  When I earlier wrote about railroad towns in Sheridan County I briefly mentioned this place of a couple dozen residents today–and the inquiry has led me back to the images I took in 2012 and wish to share more about this place. The image above shows the town in its entirety–a rather common Great Northern town in the northern plains.

img_7471The town’s grain elevators really are its landmark–the town is along the railroad spur and sits off Montana Highway 16–without the elevators you might not even notice it.

img_7472Agriculture defines the use of the largest buildings of the town, and while it is a tiny place Reserve serves a much larger region of ranches located between Plentywood, the county seat, to the north and Medicine Lake, to the south.

img_7474This larger audience for services in Reserve helps to explain the survival of the Reserve Post Office–so many tiny Montana towns have lost the one federal institution that had been there since the town’s beginning.

img_7475But naturally I will urge you to make a stop, however brief, at the Reserve Bar.  This concrete block building, with its period glass block windows, is a friendly place, and a great way to talk with both residents and surrounding farmers.

Transformations of Montana Avenue


Billings c. 1882.  All historic images courtesy of Western Heritage Center.

At the time of my field work for the Montana state historic preservation plan in 1984, I had already gotten myself deep into one Montana place–Billings, the seat of Yellowstone County, and its early history.  I have to blame June Sampson, David Carroll, and Lynda Moss at the city’s Western Heritage Center for my initial immersion–they along with board members wanted a research report about both the town of Coulson, the short-lived precursor to Billings along the Yellowstone River, and the early history of Billings, the railroad town.


Billings birdseye view, detail, 1904.

Starting in 1982, I began  to drive to Billings, explore the landscape, dig into archives and museums, and talk to people, which of course meant in 1982, when the city was a mere 100 years old, there were a few children of the founders still around for interviews.

McAdow store 2011

At first the competition between Coulson and Billings captivated me, particularly the efforts of regional merchant Perry W. McAdow to transfer his business dominance from Coulson to the new city of Billings by placing his store on Minnesota Avenue, on the south side of the Northern Pacific Railroad, rather than on Montana Avenue, on the north side of the tracks, where development was controlled by one of the west’s leading capitalists, Frederick Billings.

Perhaps it is symbolic, or even appropriate, that McAdow’s first store on Minnesota Avenue still stands–but its best days long ago passed away, leaving it today as a junk store in 2011, or in 2015 the Big Sky Blue Gallery.  While, on the other hand, a grand statue of Frederick Billings–who never lived here but did come to visit his son Parmly–stands on the north side of the tracks, and helps to mark Montana Avenue as the predominant commercial street in Billings.



No doubt, Montana Avenue, and the north side of the tracks became the public face of Billings.  Not only did a range of two to three-story commercial blocks populate a long stretch of the street, here too was the grand Classical Revival styled passenger depot of the

Billings 2006 002 NPRR depot

Northern Pacific Railroad.  And when U.S. Highway 10 was designated through the city in the 1920s–first known as the Yellowstone Trail–it used Montana Avenue to pass through Billings.  The bright, shiny, and busy appearance of Montana Avenue in this second decade of the 21st century, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon.  When I did the bulk of my research in Billings from 1982 to 1992, there was not much going on, outside of the Rex Hotel.  The depot was boarded up, and falling apart.

Listing Montana Avenue as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s began to change the street’s fortunes, along with the development in that same decade of the Western Heritage Center as a real cultural anchor and heritage tourism lure, and then the investments by new entrepreneurs who convinced city officials to revisit sidewalks, add plantings, and make the street more pedestrian friendly.  It has been a bit amazing to see this transformation in the past decade as Montana Avenue became an “it” place–and shed its forgotten, tired past as a railroad corridor.


Livingston’s Mountain View Cemetery

img_3013On the northwestern outskirts of Livingston is Mountain View Cemetery, another of the historic properties that certainly existed when I carried out the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the Montana state historic preservation plan, but since it was a cemetery, we as a field gave it, or any cemetery for that matter, little consideration thirty years ago.


As soon as you get past the 1966 entrance gates, you find a cemetery that is certainly historic–established as the town was beginning in the 1880s and still used by community over 125 years later.  Mountain View is also aesthetically interesting in its overall plan, with its intricate pattern of curvilinear drives and well-ordered arrangement of graves, then several of the grave markers themselves are impressive Victorian statements, of grief, of family, and of pride of accomplishment.

The section set aside for Union veterans of the Civil War was the most interesting historic feature to me.  As explored in other posts over the last three years, Montana has many reminders of the Civil War era within its built environment. Clearly in the early decades of the cemetery, this section with its separate flag pole and government-issued grave markers was very similar to what a national cemetery might be.  The generation that established the cemetery also wished to remember and signal out for praise the veterans of the great war that had just consumed the nation.


Within this section of Mountain View are also grave markers that are not government issued slabs of marble but that are more expressed of the sense of loss felt by the family. Below is the granite pulpit, with a bible resting on top, for Frank Baker, who died in 1896 but, as the marker notes, was a veteran of Company I of the 49th New York Infantry.


The David K. Buchanan marker, of the stone masonry type associated with the Woodmen of the World in other Yellowstone Valley cemeteries, dates to 1907, and records the calvary career of this Union veteran from Pennsylvania in the “civel war.” (original spelling)

Mountain View has several impressive examples of these Woodmen of the World grave markers that have a floral tree motif, with limbs sawn off to suggest how the body of society was lessened by the individual’s death.

Of particular interest is the marker for the Rickard family where the two trees, one for each spouse and one child , are linked together, symbolizing a family tightly intertwined in death as they were in life.


The George Gannon grave marker is a variation on the Woodmen trees, where a logs carved in stone serve as a base for an open book that tells his story.  Victorian era cemeteries are often very expressive, and the Mountain View Cemetery in Livingston has many other


interesting grave markers scattered throughout its grounds. The cemetery, with its beautiful setting, well-kept grounds, and expressive memorials, give night to the historic people of Livingston in a way that streetscapes and historic houses rarely capture.


Billings’s historic cemeteries

For 90 years, Billings residents have marked and told the stories of its first cemetery–that of the short-lived Yellowstone River settlement of Coulson (c. 1877)–and of those early pioneers buried on the southern rimrocks overlooking the valley.  This early effort of preservation and interpretation was led by leading Billings civic capitalist, I. D. O’Donnell, himself one of the first settlers of the region.  He led the creation of both the monument

to Luther “Yellowstone” Kelly (a project that now is getting a major renovation) and the monument to the Coulson, or “Foothill,” Cemetery.

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In the 1920s, after his retirement as the chief of irrigation for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, O’Donnell took up a greater interest in local history.  He interviewed many of his fellow early citizens, creating the collection Montana Monographs that you can still read at the Parmly Billings Library, and taking steps to restore the forgotten Coulson cemetery and Kelly gravesite.

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The obelisk monument made of river rock became the city’s initial historic site–or historic spot as the monument stated–and it fed right into the romance of the west as portrayed in movies, popular fiction, and radio:  the image of “Foothill,” where men died


with their boots on, from gun fights or other stereotypical frontier violence.  The reality was far different–most, such as Ellen Alderson, the wife of early merchant and hotel operator John Alderson, died from diseases, accidents, and not violence.

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In the last 30 years, the sprawl of the modern city to the east has surrounded what was once a quiet, even forlorn space. Efforts from the city to provide improved parking and walkways in recent years are positive improvements at the cemetery.

The historic driving tours of Billings always include a stop, or at least a mention, of the Kelly grave and Boothill Cemetery.  But on the eastern side of town, along Central Avenue, is just as important of a historic cemetery, the Mountview Cemetery–which expanded c. 1920 out of the earlier Billings Cemetery, established during the town’s initial settlement in 1882.

Many visitors appreciate the beauty and landscaping at Mountview Cemetery but it seems that few consider it to be a historic site.  But to my mind, it is certainly the most significant historic cemetery in Billings for here lie the graves–many understated to be sure–of a group of civic capitalists who built not only Billings but led the development of the Yellowstone Valley in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


O’Donnell (d. 1948) is buried here as is his grand collaborator in the early 1900s Preston B. Moss (d. 1947)–their homes still stand next to each other in downtown Billings as does the home of Henry W. Rowley, the engineer who came with the Minnesota and Montana Land Company to build the Big Ditch in 1882 and who stayed to work with his colleagues to build the city.  A. L. Babcock was not tight, let’s say, with O’Donnell, Moss, and Rowley, who brought the Billings Sugar Company into existence in the first decade of the 20th century, but Babcock was a Republican political leader and major investor in his own right, as downtown landmarks attest.

In the earlier Billings Cemetery you find the Civil War veterans markers for Alonzo Young, whose Young’s Point was an early Yellowstone River landmark (now approximately the location of Park City) and the previously mentioned John Alderson, who ran the National Hotel, the two-story log building that put Coulson “on the map” back in 1878. The contributions of Young and Alderson, buried here side by side, are forgotten today–which is truly unfortunate.

The defined family plots, either by property cast-iron Victorian fences or by low stone walls, are a key architectural feature of the earlier cemetery, as well as some of region’s famous stone carved Odd Fellows grave markers, such as that for the Bundys, located just beyond the grave of early settler Thomas McGirl.

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This brief overview does not do justice to the  city’s historic cemeteries.  Certainly I gave Boothill consideration in the 1984-1985 and even wrote about it in both of my books on Billings history.  But Mountview is a historic landscape that only now I recognize–and I hope to do more exploration in the future.