One of the many reasons to visit Montana is its long and rich history. Some of the best places to explore that history in Southeast Montana are the state parks and national monuments. And you can also discover history of a different kind: natural history and geology.
The Long History of Southeast Montana
Montana’s history stretches back to prehistoric times and to the arrival of European pioneers. The area was first explored by American settlers when the Lewis and Clark Expedition charted the Yellowstone River in the early 19th century. The discovery of minerals (gold, silver, coal and – more recently – oil) encouraged settlement and led to conflict with the Native Americans. And, of course, there was the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Much of this history was played out in the southeast corner of Montana, and can be explored in the places where it actually happened. I was able to explore four of these sites – two state parks and two national monuments – all within easy reach of Billings, the main city in Montana. Each one offered an insight into the history of the region and its geology and natural history. And they all had fabulous views!
My visits to Pompey’s Pillar and the Little Bighorn Battlefield were courtesy of historicwest.com. Chip, our guide, was a 4th generation Montanan whose great-grandfather had been herding cattle the day that General Custer died. With that kind of pedigree he had a lot of history to share, and he used it to bring the places to life.
Pictograph Cave State Park
Start at the Pictograph Cave State Park, home to some of Montana’s very earliest residents. Archaeological evidence shows that human beings lived here as much as 9000 years ago. The caves in which they lived have been excavated, and thousands of primitive artefacts uncovered. The points of historical interest for today’s visitors are three visible caves, one of which – the Pictograph Cave – is still full of prehistoric rock paintings.
The pictures in this cave are up to 2000 years old, and show images of people and animals. Others are more recent. A line of rifles was added around 250 years ago, and illustrates the beginning of interactions between Native Americans and European settlers.
Another cave is called the Ghost Cave. In fact, before the site was excavated, the whole area was known as the “Indian Ghost Caves”. The Crow Indians believed that the paintings were the work of spirits as well as of living people. And tales of supernatural occurrences continue until this day!
Exploring the Pictograph Park
The Visitor Centre has lots of information about the caves and their history. You can then explore for yourself by following a ¼ mile loop trail (a bit steep in places). Note that visibility of the rock art varies according to weather conditions, and binoculars are recommended to get the best view.
As you walk look at the landscape around you. This is a haven for wildlife and plants. I only managed to spot a long grey snake (probably a yellow-bellied racer) and lots of grasshoppers. But I did hear a distant rattle that reminded me that there must be more exotic snakes in the undergrowth… The geology was interesting too: the caves are formed from the local Eagle Sandstone, with lots of weird formations including the round concretions in the Ghost Cave.
Pompeys Pillar National Monument
Pompeys Pillar is a National Monument, and also a stop along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. It is on the Yellowstone River, and is one of the places where William Clark stopped during his exploration of the region in 1806. He recorded the site in his journal and – more significantly for visitors – he carved his name into the rock, leaving tangible evidence that he had passed that way.
Pompeys Pillar is a massive sandstone formation that Clark named after the youngest member of his party, a child nicknamed Pomp. When you visit the site a series of information boards chart the route and the history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a detailed exploration of previously uncharted territory. You start to realise how intrepid the explorers were, and how remarkable it was that they managed to endure considerable hardship over thousands of miles with only one fatality.
Historic Signatures at Pompeys Pillar
But the history of Pompeys Pillar is about much more than just Lewis and Clark. It is also the story of those who came before, and those who followed afterwards. Before the arrival of American explorers the geology and the strange rock formations attracted the Native Americans. And the place where the plains met the river was fertile ground for hunting animals. People who came later included trappers, gold diggers and soldiers.
All of this history is reflected in the markings on the rock. When Clark carved his signature he chose a place close to the Native American rock drawings. This was a way of communicating with the local people, with whom he wished to establish friendly relations. Later visitors added their own signatures, creating a valuable record of the people who passed by. Unfortunately those later carvings had the effect of obscuring the Native American rock art, but you can still see some of the original red pigment, and I managed to make out a stick man and a bird.
Natural History at Pompeys Pillar
Pompeys Pillar is also remarkable for its natural environment. Plants are labelled and there are lists of animals to look out for. I saw garter snakes, grasshoppers and butterflies. I also encountered mosquitos – don’t forget the insect repellent!
A highlight of any visit is climbing to the top of the Pillar (steps and a boardwalk mean that, unlike Clark, you don’t have to scramble up the rock). Once you have looked at the signatures stop to take in the view across the Yellowstone Valley. Even today it is an empty landscape, but try to imagine it as William Clark would have seen it: a vast wilderness, with great herds of elk and buffalo on the plains.
Little Bighorn Battlefield
The Little Bighorn Battle of 1876 is the most written about battle in American history. It is also the most mythologised, and continues to fascinate people. There’s no better way to separate fact from fiction than by visiting the place where the battle was actually fought.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield is a National Monument within the Crow Reservation. When I visited it was raining too hard to explore on foot, so we toured by bus, joined by a guide – Marvin – who was a park ranger and a member of the Crow Nation. We passed the major points of the battle, including Last Stand Hill, and Marvin gave us fascinating insights into the progress of the battle at each point.
Close to the battlefield is the Custer National Cemetery. This includes those who died during the Battle of the Little Bighorn, as well as veterans from later campaigns.
Before you leave you may wish to visit The Trading Post, where you can buy books, Native American art, and much more. I didn’t have time to try the café but it is reputed to be excellent (and I can vouch for the quality of their delicious fry bread…)
Chief Plenty Coups State Park
Chief Plenty Coups State Park is where history moves into the 20th century. Located within the Crow Reservation, the park was the home of Plenty Coups, the last chief of the Crow Nation, who gifted his homestead to the people of Montana when he died in 1928.
The Visitor Centre has displays showing the history of the Crow people and of Chief Plenty Coups, who was instrumental in preserving the rights and traditions of his people while at the same time co-operating with the US authorities. Then you can walk around the grounds, to see the sacred spring, Plenty Coups’ log cabin and his memorial/ burial place. You can also follow a ¾ mile nature trail around the grounds. It is a good spot for birdwatching, and information boards tell you what to look out for. Just don’t step on a rattlesnake…