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Bitterroot Valley

The Salish and Pend d’Oreille Indians tell of living in this valley since the beginnings of human time, the valley known as Spe’tlemen in their language is the heart of their ancestral homeland. Through this broad, fertile valley flows the river the Salish call In‐schu‐te‐sche, the River of Red Willows”.

Between May 1804 and September 1806, 31 men, and a young woman with a baby, traveled from the plains of what is today North Dakota to the coast of the Pacific Ocean. They called themselves the Corps of Discovery. In their search for a water route to the Pacific Ocean, they opened a window into the vast expanse of western North America for the young United States.

The Corps of Discovery on two occasions traveled through the Bitterroot Valley, following the river, and very likely walked right by the future location of our Sweet Bitterroot Home in what is today Hamilton, Montana.

Lewis and Clark arrived in September 1805, marking the beginning of Euro-American contact with Native Americans in western Montana. Fur traders soon followed. Contact with Iroquois fur traders convinced the Salish to request Jesuit priests to be their teachers in the late 1830’s. The priests arrived, and in 1841 St. Mary’s Mission was established by Father DeSmet and others. The settlement of St. Mary’s Mission became a catalyst for the creation of Fort Owen and the eventual renaming of St. Mary’s Mission into the town of Stevensville, the first town in Montana.


The Bitterroot Valley was used by the first Euro-American explorers to the western United States, including Lewis and Clark. Following the Lewis and Clark expedition, fur traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company entered the Bitterroot Valley to secure furs from the Indians and establish forts and missions. The oldest consistently occupied town in Montana was initially established at the present day site of Stevensville by Catholic missionaries in 1841 (Stevensville Historical Society 1971). At the request of four separate Indian delegations from the Salishtribe, Father Pierre De Smet came to the valley from St. Louis in the late 1830s. De Smet and other priests were eventually joined by Father Anthony Ravalli in 1845. Named St. Mary’s Mission, this community kindled additional settlement in the region. St. Mary’s Mission was closed in 1850, and the community was renamed Fort Owen, and then later Stevensville, after Isaac Stevens, the first Governor of the Montana territory.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot in flower The vicinity of Stevensville was the center of social and economic life for the Salish. Most tributaries in the Bitterroot Valley had one or more families inhabiting it. The alluvial fan at the mouth of North Burnt Fork Creek (partially on refuge property) was also home for a considerable number of Salish families. JoAnn BigCrane, a Native American historian, visited this part of the refuge in August 1990 (refuge annual narrative) and agreed that a seasonal encampment was here at one time. North Burnt Fork Creek doubled as a highway of sorts for Native American travel to the Clark Fork Valley over the Sapphire/Rock Creek divide. This was the shortest route requiring only one night of camping.

Malouf (1952) noted that the intermountain areas of western Montana were the last areas of the United States to be settled by whites. Many traits of aboriginal times survived through this period without influence from Euro-American culture.

Willow catkins After the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, pressure increased for the removal of the Salish from the Bitterroot to the Jocko Valley on the Flathead Reservation. In 1872, General James Garfield presented the three Salish Chiefs Charlo, Arlee, and Adolf, with a second treaty which Charlo refused to sign. Charlo remained in the Bitterroot for 20 more years until he and his band were escorted from the valley by General Carrington in October 1891.

Bitterroot Valley

The Bitterroot Valley is located in southwestern Montana, along the Bitterroot River between the Bitterroot Range to the west and Sapphire Mountains to the easr, in the Northwestern United States.


The valley extends approximately 95 miles from Lost Trail Pass in Idaho, where it is narrow, to a point near the city of Missoula along I-90 where it is wider and flatter. To the west is the Bitterroot Range and its large Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area, and to the east is the smaller Sapphire Mountains and their Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area. The Bitterroot Range has steep faces, deep canyons, is heavily forested, and is within the Bitterroot National Forest. The Sapphire Mountains are more rounded, drier, and much less forested.

The southern end of the valley is split into the East and West Forks of the Bitterroot River, and the northern end has the confluence of the Bitterroot River with the Clark Fork River. Connecting into the west side of the valley are numerous deeply carved granite canyons, including scenic Blodgett Canyon and Lolo Creek’s canyon.

Highway 93 runs through the center of the valley, exiting to the south over 7014 foot Lost Trail Pass. U.S. Highway 93 is the main travel choice through the Bitterroot Valley but East Side Highway also runs through the valley, being much less traveled.


Communities within the valley include: Lolo in Missoula County; and Florence, Stevensville, Victor, Corvallis, Hamilton, Darby, Conner, and Sula in Ravalli County.

Hamilton, the largest town and the county seat of Ravalli County, is located at an elevation of 3570 ft with a population of 4,000. Business opportunities within these cities include manufacturing, agriculture, craft breweries, wineries, recreational services, and many entrepreneurs.


The valley was the ancestral home of the Salish tribe of the Flathead nation.

In early September 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition crossed Lost Trail Pass from present-day Idaho in order to connect with the overland route through the Rocky Mountains. Passing down Camp Creek and the East Fork, they followed the Bitterroot River northward to the point where it connects with the Nez Perce Trail and Lolo Creek. Before continuing their difficult journey to the west, they named their camp Traveler’s Rest.

Returning to this site in early July 1806, they split their Corps of Discovery, furthering their explorations. Meriwether Lewis explored to the northeast and William Clark explored to the south.

The first ‘white’ settlement in the valley was the founding in 1841 of St. Mary’s Mission, near present-day Stevensville, by Father DeSmet. Fort Owen was established nearby in 1850. In 1877 Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce tribe passed south through the Bitterroot Valley, fleeing the U.S. Army. They exited the East Fork via Gibbons Pass, near where they fought at the Battle of the Big Hole. Difficult relations occurred between white settlers and the Salish until 1891, when the native tribes were relocated to the north.

The Bitterroot Valley had nearly a million apple trees in the early 1900s, and was one of the world’s largest producers of MacIntosh apples at that time. Irrigation was provided by about 80 miles of canals. Although the Bitterroot Valley’s orchards became less competitive with apple orchards in Washington State after hailstorms in 1922 and 1923, it is still home to one of the nation’s largest cider orchards.

Settlement has continued since that time. The population of Ravalli County in the 2000 census was 36,070, and 40,212 in the 2010 census. The major industries are ranching, agriculture, forestry, and tourism.


The Bitterroot Valley offers many recreational activities, including: hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and rock climbing in the surrounding mountains; and birding and fishing along the Bitterroot River. The valley is popular with hunters, for big game, upland birds, and waterfowl.