“Everyone thought we would be able to find nothing better anywhere else.” Journal of Father Nicolas Point, September 24, 1841
Each community across the nation is proud of its early beginnings, and Stevensville is certainly no exception. This Saturday, September 24 at 11 a.m., the 170th anniversary of the establishment of the first permanent white settlement in what is now Montana will be celebrated at St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville.
The history of the Bitter Root Valley is rich in Indian culture. For as long as the elders told their stories, the Salish Indians knew that from time beyond remembering this was their homeland, spitlemen meaning “the place of the bitterroot.” This was sacred land, where the spirits of their ancestors dwelled, where the earth nourished them, where the animals were their friends. Here, they raised strong energetic horses, greatly admired and coveted by other Indian tribes.
In the early 1800’s Iroquois Indians from Canada who were trapping for the Hudson’s Bay Company found their way onto the Salish lands, settled and intermarried. The Iroquois came from a nation which had been introduced to Christianity some two hundred years earlier. In the light of the campfire the Iroquois told stories of men who wore long black robes, the Jesuit missionaries, who prayed to the Great Spirit and had good medicine. The Blackrobes buried their dead and spoke of everlasting life. Impressed by this news, which suited their own faith and beliefs, the Salish Indians and their neighbors, the Nez Perce, were determined to have “blackrobes” of their own.
In 1831 a delegation of braves traveled by river and overland to St. Louis to ask for missionaries, but no Blackrobes were available. Over an eight-year period, the persistent Salish and Nez Perce sent a second, third and fourth group of men. Even when two of these traveling delegations ended in death, the fourth delegation of braves set out for St. Louis.
It was September 24, 1841, when Fr. Pierre DeSmet, together with his fellow Jesuit missionaries, Fr. Gregory Mengarini, Fr. Nicolas Point, Brother William Claessens, Brother Joseph Specht, and Brother Charles Huett arrived in the Bitter Root Valley. Their supplies were transported in three carts and a wagon, the first vehicles to enter this area. The first settlement and church were built on the east bank of the Bitter Root River.
In October of 1845, Father Anthony Ravalli arrived at the mission carrying with him two buhr stones, from which he, Brother Claessens, Brother Specht and millwright Peter Biledot constructed the first flourmill and sawmill in what was to become Montana. The mills were powered by water from nearby Burnt Fork Creek. Father Ravalli, priest, physician, pharmacist, architect, artist, mechanic, farmer, and educator, left the imprint of his genius on Montana.
As a priest he served the Indians here from 1845 to 1850 and again from 1866 until his death in 1884. The compassionate and caring man attended anyone who needed his services, be they Indian or white, Catholic or non, rich or impoverished. Fr. Ravalli traveled over an area of 200 miles during intense cold and summer heat, and over miles of rough terrain. Fr. Ravalli was the first to inoculate the Indians against smallpox, to amputate frozen limbs and set broken bones. This good man never accepted fees for his services, but turned all donations over to the mission. Father Ravalli’s contribution to Montana was also formally recognized when the 1898 Montana State Legislative Assembly named Ravalli County in his honor.
Remembered mostly as the first of many missions in the Pacific Northwest, St. Mary’s was much more: it was the first permanent settlement in all of Montana. Here the first gardens were cultivated and grown with the help of Montana’s first irrigation ditches. The first wheat was harvested and ground in Montana’s first flourmill. The first cattle were raised and marked with the “Cross on a Hill” brand. The first logs were sawn and Montana’s first clapboard buildings were assembled. Here was the first doctor’s office and dispensary for medicine. The first classes in reading, writing, and arithmetic were taught in the Salish language. The first band played numbers by German and Italian composers. Here the first church was built and the first pulpit placed for the teaching of Christianity.
As a mission, too, it was more than a first. St. Mary’s of the Rockies was known as the “Mother of Missions.” The Jesuit enterprises of the three Northwest states, an area as vast as western Europe today, with their handful of busy and talented missionaries, did more to transform this vast interior than any other group or force. St. Mary’s Mission was a “cradle of civilization” transcending the borders of Montana.
St. Mary’s Mission left a lasting imprint on the history of the state of Montana. Father DeSmet with his companions drove the first wagon into Montana and brought Christianity to the Rocky Mountains. Here, they taught the Indians to plow virgin grassland, to fence and irrigate, thus establishing the roots of agriculture in Montana. Corrals were constructed, cattle bred and nurtured, a brand registered, thus the beginning of the cattle industry in this state. The first school was instituted to educate the Indians.
Father Ravalli, who was also a doctor and pharmacist, practiced medicine here and opened the first infirmary and ride-up pharmacy, which can be visited today. Fr. Ravalli formed a lending library, planted an apple orchard and Italian herb garden, adapting Indian medicine into his own practice. In Missoula County the first conveyance of property in Montana is registered from St. Mary’s Mission to John Owen, in November of 1850. While serving as General Superior of the Rocky Mountain Indian Missions, and stationed at St. Mary’s, Fr. Joseph Giorda was named the first Chaplain of the 1866 Montana Territorial Legislature. In 1876 the first bridge was built over the Bitter Root River, two miles below Fort Owen.
In 1988, St. Mary’s Mission was the site of the Montana Statehood Centennial Celebration.
The Salish Indians, themselves, are a tribute to the lasting effects of the early efforts of the Jesuit Fathers to prepare the Indians for the onslaught of the western migration, which so decimated the tribes when two cultures clashed. Among all the tribes in Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation are unique in their independence, in governing themselves,
educating their children and maintaining their culture and reverence for their ancestors. The Salish return each September to honor their ancestors who are buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Historic St. Mary’s Mission tells a story of dauntless courage and perseverance. Visitors are amazed to see the incredible artistic and creative skills of Fr. Ravalli, a true Renaissance man. An apple tree, a remnant of Fr. Ravalli’s orchard of the 1870’s, continues to blossom each spring, and reminds visitors of the enduring spirit of the Salish Indians and the Jesuit missionaries. The historic buildings are furnished with many original pieces and share remarkable stories.
In 1941, the centennial of the mission was celebrated in a colorful and impressive memorial service in Stevensville. In the presence of many state and church officials, the Apostolic Delegate to the United States celebrated Mass honoring the memory of Montana’s first missionaries. An amphitheater seated thousands while hundreds more stood throughout the ceremony.
A highlight of this year’s event is a twenty-minute skit in which several people in period clothing and native regalia will perform a re-enactment of the founding of St. Mary’s which took place 170 year ago on September 24.
Stevensville Civic Club member and local book publisher Dale Burk agreed to spearhead the effort and did the bulk of the historical research that went into writing the skit. Burk said that the skit was not an exact re-enactment of what happened, like the re-enactments of certain Civil War battles that take place across the country, but it is a skit designed to convey the significance of that day that is historically accurate.
“We have a written record,” said Burk. He said in the journal left by Father Nicholas Point there is an account of the events of that day in 1841 when a cross was “planted” on the east bank of the Bitterroot River commemorating the founding of St. Mary’s, the first white settlement in what was to become the state of Montana, the settlement we know today as Stevensville. Burk said that early photographs are also available that document the occasion.
The idea of performing a skit at the annual Founders Day celebration also, it turns out, has some historical precedent, as a skit was performed at the 1941 celebration.
Burk said that this new skit was designed to give representation to the three major parties participating in the original event. That includes the Jesuit priests, the white settlers, and the Native Americans.
The white settlers are represented by the character of Thomas Fitzpatrick, a trapper, Indian Agent, and well-educated frontiersman, called “Broken Hand” by his Indian friends. His part will be played by George Knapp, a professional actor. Historical research shows that Fitzpatrick visited the Bitterroot Valley twice previously on trapping expeditions.
Representing the Jesuit priests will be Father DeSmet, played by Dave Weisbeck, Father Nicolas Point played by John Winthrop and Father Gregory Mengarini played by Fr. Joe DiStefano.
Representing the Native Americans, which included Salish, Nez Perce and Iroquois, will be two Salish Indians played by Stephen Smallsalmon and Mike Lozar. Smallsalmon will speak in both Salish and English.
There will be several other participants, and Burk said that he will serve as narrator, and dress for the part of “Bitterroot Star territorial reporter.” There will also be animals and an old fashioned two-wheeled cart to add to the ambiance.
The cart, constructed with a $500 grant for materials from the Stevensville Community Foundation, was built by Bitterroot Woodwright Chris Weatherly. Its design, although based on historical blueprints for a Red River cart, differed from those in that local woods were used instead of the recommended oak and iron to attach the axle to the cart, and a frame to hold the canvas cover and a small metal step was added to the rear of the cart to make climbing in a little easier. The metal work was done by Phil’s Machine and Repair and the canvas cover is being made by Cranston Plastic.
“This skit will be true to the tenor of what happened that day,” said Burk. “It will be very positive, very celebratory.” Burk said that the gist of that day was that, “After a long and arduous journey, the group arrived at a place that, as Fitzpatrick put it, ‘We could find no better.’ That describes exactly how many of us today came to be here in the Bitterroot.”
Burk said that a couple of prominent citizens, Dan Severson and Bill Perrin, will speak to the importance of commemorating history and keeping history alive in our community.
Burk said that community was the key to the whole program. He said that getting the community to identify with the effort and come and take part was essential. In that respect, he said, the school has stepped forward with fourth and seventh grade art classes participating in a poster contest in which prizes will be awarded. The business community is also participating. He said Charbonneau’s Chocolate Factory in Stevensville had produced some Founders Day Fudge commemorating the event, which will be available that day.
The Stevensville Community Foundation donated funds for production of the skit as did others. Cake will be served courtesy of the New Coffee Mill. The Knights of Columbus will be offering free barbecue sandwiches for kids and sandwiches for sale to adults. Guided tours will also be conducted following the ceremony.
The founding of the Stevensville community is based on unique happenings and events, events that began 48 years before Montana became a state, events that establish Stevensville as “Montana’s oldest town.” The first rare event occurred when the Indians invited white men to come into their world.
One hundred and seventy years later, the Stevensville Civic Club and Historic St. Mary’s Mission hope to once again give these early events the recognition and honor they deserve at Saturday’s Founders Day celebration. They hope you’ll be there too.