In all of the justified and well-meaning excitement for a Great Falls of Missouri heritage area–an effort I fully support as an administrator of a statewide heritage area in Tennessee–let’s always remember the western end of Cascade County where so much started. The First Nations Buffalo Jump State Park at Ulm is the reminder of the centuries old Native American shaping of the landscape. Here, on a graveled road within a working ranch, stands another key National Register site where Catholic missionaries attempted to build a new world with Blackfeet Indian–St. Peter’s Catholic Mission.
Just getting there is awe-inspiring as the road winds its way around Crown Butte and through dazzling landscape of where the plains meet the mountains in Montana. St. Peter’s did not become a major settlement, despite its early founding–it seems in the middle of nowhere today, which it is, but in the mid-19th century it was right where it needed to be, at the intersection of Native American and white missionary culture.
The church itself is an unassuming log building, c. 1878, with a frame bell tower later later. But it was an outpost in that missionary effort among the Blackfeet 150 years ago. I wrote about this place and the later Holy Family Mission on the Blackfeet Reservation in en essay “Acculturation by Design” years ago so I won’t belabor the success and failure of those efforts here. You can see for yourself. Other remnants of the old mission school survive,
some barely hanging on, as they are still part of a working ranch. The cemetery high above the church, and every other part of the old mission, is probably the most compelling site. And a perfect place today, or any day for that matter, for contemplation of the story of men, culture, faith, and history on the northern plains.