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.

Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield 6

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

Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield 3

Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield 7

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.

Beaverhead Co, Big Hole Battlefield 30

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.


Travelers Rest: New State Park Jewel in Missoula County


One of the most significant developments in Montana historic preservation has been the verified location of “Travelers Rest,” outside of Lolo in Missoula County.  Here is where the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped along Lolo Creek in 1805. During my state historic preservation plan work of 1984-1985, we agreed on the general location–the property had been listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a National Historic Landmark for years.  In fact, as indicated in the marker above, the Daughters of the American Revolution had also marked the place as early as 1925.  But one was convinced that the campsite had been definitely located. Not until archaeology in 2002 had the actual campsite been proven, and by the time I visited Missoula County in 2006 I happened to arrive on the day a celebration for the new Travelers Rest State Park was underway. The park was not yet finished but the Travelers’ Rest Preservation and Heritage Association wanted to host an event during the Lewis and Clark bicentennial period.  It was exciting to see the launch of this new, important historic site not only for Missoula County but the state and nation as a whole.


Move forward almost ten years to the completed Travelers Rest State Park.  It is one of the best interpreted sites along the entire length of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. It doesn’t have grand monuments–but it does have a walking trail that gives you different vantage points on the camp site.  Although not far from U. S. Highway 12, it is quiet, peaceful, and you can imagine what the expedition members thought about this landscape some 200 years ago.

The interpretive markers do not overwhelm the site.  But by text and illustration, along with use of primary documents, the markers tell an inclusive story, one that draws you into the landscape by reminding you that generations of Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Nez Perce people used these resources long before Lewis and Clark arrived in the fall 1805.


IMG_2159Since I last visited in 2012 efforts have been underway to secure additional acres and to preserve a buffer around the property since growth and highway expansion between Missoula and Stevensville has engulfed Lolo.  The park now has 51 acres and represents quite an achievement by the non-profit Travelers Rest Preservation and Heritage Association, local government, and Montana State Parks.

Beaverhead’s Mountain Passes

IMG_3417Beaverhead County’s history has deep roots, perhaps never deeper than at the high mountain passes that divide it from neighboring Idaho.  We have already taken a look at Monida Pass, but now let’s shift to the western border and consider Lemhi Pass (Lemhi Road is the image above) and Bannock Pass, both at well over 7000 feet in elevation.


IMG_3427Lemhi Pass is a magnificent place, reached by a wide dirt road that climbs up to 7300 feet.  The roadbed is modern, and lies over a path worn by centuries of Native Americans who traveled this path between mountain valleys in present-day Montana and Idaho.  That deep past is why the more famous Lewis and Clark Expedition took this route over the Bitterroot–and the Corps of Discovery connection is why the pass has been protected in the 20th century.  The pass is also connected with Sacajawea, since her tribe, the Shoshone, often used it to cross the mountains.

The pass is one of the infrequently visited jewels of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, a place that the expedition used and probably would have never “discovered” if not for the prior Native American use.

IMG_3433This kiosk by the U.S. Forest Service is part of the new public interpretation of the property, both at the start of the pass to the top of the mountain itself at the Sacajawea Memorial Area.

IMG_3429Bannock Pass, comparatively has received little in public interpretation.  Unlike Lemhi, it is not a National Historic Landmark associated with Lewis and Clark.  For today’s travelers, however, it is a much more frequently used way to cross the Rockies despite its 300 foot higher elevation.  A historic site directional sign leads to one interpretive


marker explains that railroad engineers used the pass to connect Dillon and Idaho in the early 20th century, changing the ancient appearance of the pass, used by Native Americans for centuries to connect the high plains of Montana to the rich valleys of Idaho.  The marker also describes the use of Bannock Pass by Nez Perce led by Chief Joseph in 1877, as they escaped back into Idaho after the Battle of Big Hole. The Nez Perce National Historic Trail is more closely associated with Chief Joseph Pass, located to the north.

IMG_2893It was a snowy Memorial Day when I crossed Lost Trail and Chief Joseph passes on my way to Big Hole Battlefield.  Once again I was impressed by the recent efforts of the U.S. Forest Service to interpret the epic yet tragic journey of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce in 1877, especially the Trail Creek Road that parallels Montana Highway 43.

Kudos to the National Park Service for its new visitor center, exhibits, and interpretive markers at the battlefield–the finally the whole story of the Nez Perce campaign is explored through thoughtful public interpretation, centered on the Nez Perce perspective,

those who lived here until the military force led by Col. John Gibbon thought it could surprise and rout the Indians.  Rather the Nez Perce counter-attacked forcing the soldiers into surrounding woods.  The trek of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce effort to find safety in

IMG_2919Canada was underway. Today the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and Park mark that journey into history. The park today is frankly an amazing transformation, from a preserved battlefield in the early 1980s that only hinted at the true facts of history to a modern of battlefield interpretation, one that does justice to history and to the Nez Perce story.  One only wishes that more western battlefields received similar treatment.