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The Elkhorn Mountains

The Elkhorn Mountains, with Casey Peak in the background, are shown covered in snow, as seen from McClellan Creek Road. 

The history of Helena goes back before the arrival of the Four Georgians in 1864. Native Americans occupied this area long before Euro-American settlers came to the area. Archaeological sites in the Helena area have artifacts that date from more than 10,000 years ago. These oldest artifacts are associated with the Folsom tradition. One of the interesting things about the Folsom people is that they predate the bow and arrow in this region. Thus, Native Americans at this time were hunting with spears, atlatls, and traps, but not the bow and arrow. The Folsom tradition gets its name from the town of Folsom, New Mexico, where an early Folsom site is located and was excavated in 1926. The Folsom tradition was widespread, similar artifacts have been found from northern Texas to southern Manitoba and from Wisconsin to Idaho. Two of the oldest Folsom sites in the country are located in the Elkhorns just south of Helena.

The area that is now Helena has been a crossroads for many different peoples. The Helena Valley and the nearby Continental Divide served as an important resource gathering area and travel corridor. One trail which exemplifies this function is the Cokahlarishkit trail. The Cokahlarishkit trail is an American Indian travel corridor most often translated as the "Road to the Buffalo."

The Lewis and Clark expedition recorded the Nez Perce's spoken name for the trail. But as often happened with Lewis and Clark, there was no agreed upon English spelling for the Native American terms. The journals display colorful spellings, which is often part of their charm. On July 3, 1806, Meriwether Lewis translated the name as "Co-Kah-lar coosh or buffaloe river." The next day Lewis translated the spoken word to "Cokahla-shkit R." William Clark wrote "8 Miles on a Buffalow road up Cokah-lahishkit river through timbered country." Patrick Gass, a member of the Corps of Discovery, translated the spoken work slightly differently "This north branch of the river is called by the natives Isquet-co-qual-la which means the road to the buffaloe." The Lewis and Clark expedition are most likely referring to the Nez Perce word “Qoq’aalx ‘Iskit” which translates to Buffalo Road. While the Lewis and Clark journals serve as an excellent source of information, it is important to remember that this trail and the Native American use of the area predates the Corps of Discovery. Today, the Road to the Buffalo is still visible in many places, particularly around Lincoln. The trailhead at Alice Creek has interpretive signage about the trail and offers more information about the history of this area.

One of the distinct features of this Native American trail is the high number of culturally modified trees with distinct scars or blazes. While some tree scars are from natural causes such as fire, lightning, and animal behavior, many are human made. The reason for blazing trees varies: food procurement, trail markers, property boundaries and survey markers are some of the most common. American Indians in this area peeled bark from trees to collect and eat the cambium layer. This peeling activity leaves a distinct scar which is low to the ground with a level base which tapers to a point at the top. Often there are still visible tool marks in the scar. Joseph Whitehouse, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, described seeing these culturally modified trees: “[We saw] pine trees pealed as far up as a man could reach We suppose that the natives done it to git the enside beark to mix with their dryed fruit to eat.”

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Ethnographic and historic information shows that the Cokahlarishkit trail was an important travel route for many people. The Flathead, Nez Perce, Blackfoot, Crow  and other groups used the trail. The Native Americans used it for regular travel back and forth across the mountains and onto the plains in order to hunt bison. The Road to the Buffalo was also a travel route used by Native Americans engaged in warfare or raids. The same trails initially made by Native Americans were later used by Euro-American explorers and settlers. Scientists have been able to date some of the cairns, hearths and other features along the trail. This offers us a glimpse of the time periods during which this trail received use. The earliest dates received were from 1340 BCE, while the most recent dates were 1940 CE. However, it is likely the trail was used earlier than 1340 BCE and the appropriate scientific research and dating has not yet occurred.

The creeks and rivers around Helena have been heavily traveled for thousands of years. Today, you can still find evidence of these campsites; however, many have been obliterated by the passage of time and construction. If you find archaeological artifacts when hiking, it is important to leave them where they are. It is illegal to remove artifacts from land you don’t own, including National Forest land. Additionally, once artifacts are removed from their setting, it becomes nearly impossible to recreate when or how that location was used. This destroys the potential for future scientific research at the site.

Laura Evilsizer works as an archaeologist for the Helena and Lewis and Clark National Forest. She grew up in Helena, and then attended Whitman College. She received her MA in Anthropology and Cultural Heritage from the University of Montana. She is on the Lewis and Clark Heritage and Tourism Council, which provides the monthly “Nuggets from Helena” column in the Independent Record.

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