Mission Complex, Cross on a Hill brand at St. Mary's Mission
Stevensville, Montana site of Historic St. Mary's Mission
Where Montana Began
Email: stmary@cybernet1.com
The Salish were the first recorded inhabitants of the Bitter Root Valley.

They are related to the Coastal Salish, as a small band they traveled East from the Columbia Basin area.

Originally called the Flatheads by Lewis and Clark, the tribe's name for itself was and is Salish, which means The People.

The Bitter Root Valley became the primary wintering grounds for the Salish and other smaller tribes.

Their first contacts with white men went well

1805 and 1806 -  Lewis and Clark Expedition

1812-1820’s - Fur Trading

By 1812 - Hudson’s Bay Company in the Bitter Root Valley trapping beaver

1820 Hudson’s Bay Company brings Iroquois Tribal members from Canada
Some remain and are adopted into the Salish Tribe

Iroquois introduce Christianity to the Salish and Nez Perce

Between 1831 and 1839 Salish Chief Tjolzhitsay (Big Face, baptized Paul) sent four delegations to St. Louis requesting the Blackrobes as their teachers.

September 24, 1841, Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, together with his fellow Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Gregory Mengarini and Nicolas Point, and three Lay Brothers arrived in the Bitterroot valley.

Late in 1841, Chief Tjolzhitsay dies at 90

Victor becomes Chief of the Salish (Little Bear Claw, Slem-cry-cre)

Problems began with the white settlement of the Valley and the Salish joined other tribes in the negotiations of the Hellgate Treaty of 1855 (aka Council Grove Treaty)

Hellgate treaty was understood by the Salish to mean the Bitter Root Valley would stay in the hands of the Salish and white settlement would be limited.

Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Isaac Stevens, voiced his intent to obtain cession of ownership by the Salish in favor of expanded settlement by "Americans".

Chief Victor resisted and language was inserted that defined the Bitter Root Valley as a "conditional reservation". Victor made his mark, believing that the treaty would support "The People" in what they considered their homeland and would limit settlement by others in the Valley.
Born in 1790, Chief Victor died of an illness on July 4, 1870 on a buffalo hunt at the Three Forks of the Missouri River.

Upon Victor’s death his son Charlo (Little Grizzly Bear Claw, baptized Charles) was elected chief.

The Hell Gate Treaty was "renegotiated" by president-to-be James Garfield. (Garfield Agreement of 1872) The Bitter Root Valley was removed from federal protection and support. Large scale settlement had already begun.

Chief Charlo fought bitterly against the new wording, but during the signing ceremony Arlee, a fellow chief assured the attending officials that Charlo was in agreement and the treaty was approved. Arlee then took the offer made by the government and moved to the Jocko (Flathead) reservation with more that 60% of the Bitter Root Salish people. U.S. officials name Arlee chief of the Salish.

Chief Charlo, with the remaining band, continued to resist moving and kept his small band in the area of St. Mary's Mission. Life was difficult, railroad tracks were run through their lands and the only support was primarily from the Jesuit Missionaries.

October 15, 1891 due to the hardships forced upon his people, Chief Charlo and last of the Bitter Root Salish Tribe leave for the Jocko Reservation.

Chief Charlo died on January 10, 1910.

The Salish as a group, did not return again until October 11, 1911.

The annual pilgrimage to St. Mary’s Mission continues today.


The Salish has about 6,800 members, with approximately 4,000 currently living on the Flathead Reservation.

Their predominant religion is Roman Catholic.

Ten elected members make up the Tribal Council that governs the tribe.

The Salish, Kootenai and Pend d 'Oreille Tribes form a Confederated Nation, collectively known as the Flathead Nation. St Mary’s Mission flies the flag of the Flathead Nation.

The seat of the Tribal government is in Pablo, Montana

The tribes own and operate the Salish Kootenai College, a heritage museum called "The People's Center”, the hydropower Kerr Dam, and the KwaTaqNuk Resort in Polson.

They are exploring extractive (coal, timber, methane) industry growth.

SK (Salish/Kootenai) Industries is a viable and thriving business.

Bitter Root Salish History

Salish History   -   Chiefs   -   Tipi   -   Buffalo   -   Education   -   Garfield Agreement   
Salish History   -   Chiefs   -   Tipi   -   Buffalo   -   Education   -   Garfield Agreement   
Last Update: 8/24/2016
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