The area around Headwaters State Park is a region which harbors an incredible wealth of natural and cultural history.


Cultural History

Native Americans have utilized the area for thousands of years as evidenced by the flint quarry above the Missouri River Headwaters.
Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through this area in July of 1805 and again in July of 1806. Upon their arrival, they encountered much evidence of the presence of Native Americans. Crow to the east, Shoshone, Flathead, and Nez Perce from the west, Blackfeet to the north, and warrior bands from even further east all used the area.

In 1805, Clark’s land based contingent of the expedition arrived on July 25. He followed the Jefferson fork for about 20 miles, and then came back down the Madison to rejoin the Lewis portion of the party.

Lewis arrived at the mouth of the Gallatin on July 27, He climbed the limestone bluff (today’s Lewis Rock”) above the Gallatin Junction and described and drew a map of the valley before him. On this same day Clark returned, and the co-captains discussed the landscape and named the rivers.
The Corp of Discovery camped about ½ mile above the Madison and Jefferson junction on the Jefferson River. Here they stayed for about 3 days, departing on July 30.

During their stay here they shot 20 deer (all white-tailed), 2 elk, 3 otter, 3 grizzly bear and a muskrat. Though they saw abundant bison sign, it was all old and they did not see any live bison.

During Clark’s return, on his way to the Yellowstone River, in July of 1806, they again encountered abundant wildlife. He describes immense numbers of beaver. Clark split his group in two at the mouth of the Gallatin, sending a portion of the group down the Missouri to meet Lewis and party.

Some of the interesting aspects of the journal entries for this area include descriptions and evidence of extremely clear water, abundant wildlife, the hydraulic influence of beaver, and presence of Native American trails. It was also at the precise location of their campsite that Sacagawea had been taken captive by Minetaree Indians as a young girl. This was her seasonal homeland.

Shortly after the passage of Lewis and Clark, the developing Rocky Mountain Fur Trade focused on this area. It is likely that this region had more beaver than any other area the members of the expedition observed. This is indicated as such in the journals, though not explicitly stated. We do know that former members of the expedition returned, along with other beaver hunters, over the next 5 years.

In 1807, Manuel Lisa established Fort Ramón at the junction of the Bighorn and Yellowstone Rivers. From this location, John Potts and John Colter (both former members of the L & C Expedition) made a trapping foray into the Headwaters area. Captured by Blackfeet, Potts was killed and John Colter made his famous “run” during which he killed a pursuer, escaped and traveled 280 miles back to Ft. Ramón.

In 1810 Andrew Henry and Pierre Menard came to the area with a sizeable party intent upon establishing a fur trading post. With them were George Droulliard (half-breed former hunter and interpreter for Lewis and Clark) and John Colter. Blackfeet Indians killed several (including George Droulliard) and harassed the group so much that the fort was abandoned.

Other cultural development eventually followed: the establishment of Gallatin City, later to be moved to a second location. The construction and establishment of several toll bridges (“Bridgeville”), Old Town, and eventually Three Forks.

Railroad history also runs deep here. The Northern Pacific, Milwaukee, and today’s Montana Raillink have all been instrumental in the development of the area. Downstream on the Missouri, the former site of Lombard on Sixteenmile Creek is a significant site.

Considering the ancient and historic trails, the passage of Lewis and Clark, the intense interest in the area on the part of the developing Rocky Mountain fur trade (Ft. Three Forks), the fact that it was here that Sacagawea was taken captive, George Droulliard and John Potts were both killed at the hands of the Blackfeet, and our developing contemporary culture exhibited such dynamic changes and investment, culturally the region is very rich. In my opinion, the region warrants National Park status, but the complexity of land ownership and cultural heritage (current Trident cement plant, old railroad beds) will probably always preclude that possibility.


Natural History

The journals of Lewis and Clark give us a very detailed description of the region. These notes provide us with a baseline of information regarding the plants, animals and ecosystems here prior to development by contemporary white culture. Grizzly bear, elk, wolf, beaver, river otter, deer (both species), bald eagle, and mountain lion were all present and mentioned.

Perhaps of even greater significance are the maps drawn by William Clark. Clark’s field maps and journal text describe the hydrologic state of the rivers, particularly the Gallatin. Beaver ponds and dams were abundant and had great hydrologic impacts. In addition, today, though somewhat changed, all three of the Missouri Headwaters Rivers still periodically flood. This maintains the abundant and lush riparian ecosystem. Irrigation water removal and returns and increased sediment loads have impacted the fishery and clarity of the water, but the riparian ecosystem is intact. Cottonwood, willow, and shrub communities support a healthy riparian system and attendant animals (beaver, mink, river otter, moose, deer, heron, pelican, crane, eagle).
There are simply very few places where we still have functioning riparian ecosystems. This in itself is the rarity. In Montana there are seven dams on the Missouri River alone. Downstream there are over forty dams on the Missouri.

The relatively rural regional economy, the diversity of cultural history and the diversity and pristine character of natural history result in this being a very rich area.