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Yellowstone County – Your Ancestral Past Trail Series

Out in the Boonies #4

Pompeys Pillar

By Dave Dodge




Billings – As It Was in 1956 or Earlier

Original Sign Research by Bill Beasley, Billings Gazette

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Take a trip through the Billings’ valley area and “pretend’ that you were there before the numerous settlements took over the land. Pretend that you can envision the scenes and the people of that era, and the turmoil or joy that they faced. Us a current city map to find the locations noted below, park your car and become one with the surroundings. Vanish the buildings, roads, trees and people from your mind, and “see’ the events of the time unfold. Wording on the signs is hopefully reported as originally spelled.

Before embarking on the vision trek, runoff copies of the sites history from the links provided, and read them as you visit each location. Please do not rush, but take time to enjoy and become one with nature as it was 70 to 150 years ago. The information links are provided to tickle the imagination, not define all of the truths. That will be left up to each of you who desire more from the past, than what is presented herein. Signs, their wording and their placement will always be a subject of debate. What is okay for one generation is totally unacceptable for a future generation. As civilization takes over, the neighbor to the sign will invariably say: “Not in my backyard!’ Thus they have to be torn down and replaced with books. Identifying the sites represented by the earlier signs is a difficult task; since many of the times the signs were incorrectly placed or identified an incorrect event mixed with emotion, fact and memory.

The Kiwanis Club [1] and DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) established pamphlets and posted signs and monuments defining important events that helped establish the history of the area, and promote tourism. Virtually all signs have long since vanished, only their words remain, hidden in obscure publications. As the years passed by, the efforts created by the concerned local citizens seems to have been lost into the “faded memory’ of our lives. The colorful language used was replaced by modern words with different meanings. The Chamber of Commerce was founded and later took over the management of the “points of interest.’ Later efforts added commercialism and soon the links to the past were entirely erased, signs torn down to make way for expansion, and sites destroyed to accommodate civic growth. Many of the places noted on this tour will only be “in memory.’ Enjoy the experience. The order for viewing is left to the visitor. The visitation can take many days for the serious journeyer.

Boot Hill Cemetery

Located at the corner of Exposition Drive and Route 318: near Main Street and Black Otter Trail

Boot Hill Cemetery was deeded to the City of Billings, on 6 December 1926 by ID O’Donnell. O’Donnell had acquired the land 20 years earlier from the Billings Land & Irrigation Company with the intent of maintaining the site as an historical monument. The cemetery runs 170 feet north and south, by 165 feet east and west (.64 acre). There were no tombstones placed on any of the plots, two monuments were later created, and a small pile of rocks added many years ago to denote some graves. When a person was buried, it was local practice to shove a small piece of sandstone from the nearby bluff, into the ground at either the head or foot of the grave. No permanent markers were made. A monument dedicating the site was made possible primarily through the efforts of Mrs. Henry Frith and Mrs. BF Shuart, and dedicated in 1921. Some wooden markers were placed on some gravesites during the dedication ceremony to denote grave positions, and known names from some references, but it is not known if the information was correct.  The dates on these wooden markers are not exactly correct in all instances. Sandra Collins, as part of the YGF transcription project, identified the grave plat layout in 1981. The cemetery stopped actively serving the community approximately five years after Billings was created. There are four rows of gravesites still visible. About 97 individuals were buried in the plat. Most are unidentified, including persons who died from diseases, Indians and military servicemen.

The Boothill Cemetery Sign

“In frontier days the average party’s demise was plumb abrupt and his interment more or less informal. The pioneers, being a vigorous breed and tough as tough as whang leather, were hard to kill with a 45-90 slug, let alone usual maladies. They regarded pestilence as trivial and lingering illness due to the ravenging bite of such nefarious critters as microbes and bacilli was practically unknown. So, when a gent was called he usually left in a cloud of smoke. Obsequies were sincere but simple. Whatever ιclat they lacked was largely due to shortage of facilities such as pipe organs and rubber tired hacks. Because of the occupants’ habit of fading out in their moccasins this necropolis has long been known as Boothill Cemetery.’

Presented by Billings Chamber of Commerce

Link to narrative about the burials. (YGF)

Link to cemetery overview by Suzan Kinsey-Cartwright

Immell & Jones Ambush – Indian Rock
[Located at the eastern end of the north rims, where 6th Ave and Highway 10 (Main Street) join each other, it was the landmark called “Indian Rock.’]

The massacre took place during the bonanza days of the fur trade in Montana, and centered near the area where “Indian Rock’ was located. The incident was so severe that it attracted the attention of the Prime Minister of Great Britain and a US Senate Committee. At one time the Chamber of Commerce had a sign erected on the Black Otter Trail near Alkali Creek to identify the ambush. Most people are unaware of the event and the affect it had on the two nations.

Immell & Jones Sign

‘In the narrow gap to the east on May 31, 1823, a party of trappers, under the leadership of Michael Immell and Robert Jones, was ambushed by the Blackfeet Indians and robbed of $15,500 worth of furs. After a heroic defense, the two leaders and five others were killed.’

Immell & Jones link about the event. YGF site.

Chief Black Otter

[Located at the eastern end of the north rims, where 6th Ave and Highway 10 (Main Street) join each other, it was near the landmark called “Indian Rock.’]

The Chippewa steamboat caught fire on June 22, 1861 [2] , on the Missouri River, about ten miles west of Poplar River, in Montana Territory. [Steamer Big Horn was left stranded a few years later at about the same place.] The passengers and crew got safely ashore and cast the steamer adrift before its cargo of gunpowder caught fire and blew up. [The Chippewa and the Key West were the first two boats to reach Fort Benton, its final destination on the Missouri River, in 1860.] Chief Black Otter was leading a party of Crow Indians in the area when the steamer exploded. [Frank L. Worden, co-founder of Missoula and Hell Gate, was among the surviving passengers [3] .] They went to the scene and began to salvage articles from the damaged boat. A Sioux war party took this opportunity to attack their enemy, the Crows, and during the battle, an arrow broke Chief Black Otter’s thigh. His brother-in-law came to his rescue, and was killed. The other members of the Crow party succeeded in driving off the Sioux, killing a large number of them, but during the battle, Chief Black Otter also was killed. Before he died he asked that he be buried in the heart of Crow Country, at a high point on the Yellowstone River (Elk River; e.g., E-che-ta-cos-asha), at the top of the high point of the rim rocks on the north side of the river. His tribal members took his body by Travois to this point “where his spirit could see west and east up and down the river.’ The burial place was not precisely known, but believed to be in a pine tree’s branches, at the peak of the north rims (Kelly Mountain), as was the current custom. The sign was posted near the summit

Chief Black Otter Sign

“Back in the days when Indians were industriously wafting arrows whiteman-ward instead of playing college football, Black Otter (Bay-poo-tay Spita-cot) was a Crow war chief. The Crows or Absarokas, as they called themselves, carried on a brisk and sanguinary feud with the Sioux. During one of these neighborhood clashes Black Otter’s medicine failed him and a Sioux arrow broke his hip. The wound subsequently sent him to join his fathers amidst the lamentations of his kin. The unfortunate casualty occurred several hundred miles from here. Before Black Otter departed for the Happy Hunting Grounds he asked his relatives to pack his body back to the rimrocks where his spirit could ever gaze over the tribal domains along the Yellowstone.’

Chief Black Otter Trail, which winds around the north side of the rimrocks from Boothill Cemetery to the airport, was named in his honor. Arthur J. Hart, printer for the Evening Journal, Billings, recorded the legend of Chief Black Otter. Hart resided among the Crows for a portion of his life before becoming a printer. Very little other information about Chief Black Otter’s life has been located.

Skeleton Cliff & Sacrifice Cliff

This Skeleton Cliff burial site is clouded in mystery, and is sometimes confused or used interchangeably with Sacrifice Cliff. The exact locations are still uncertain in many people’s mind. However, there are several references that help describe the locations, but the wording appears to be rather cryptic, and must be carefully examined. Skeleton Cliff is a modern name for Place of Skulls, so named by the Crow Indians (c1833) and is the high point located at the east end of the north rims [4] . It is also called Kelly Mountain. Sacrifice Cliff is on the south side of the Yellowstone River, across from the Skeleton Cliff, and is on the north edge of what is now called ‘4 Dances Natural Area.’ It is almost opposite of Josephine Park. This was a coined name, origin unknown, but probably emanated from the early 1880’s by residents of Coulson and the Crow Indian neighbors, based on a variation of the smallpox epidemic event stating that 40 warriors died from their sacrifice as they jumped from the cliff across the river. The event apparently took place about 1833. Sacrifice Cliff was named “Battle Mountain” in 1875 by Col Forsythe, and is displayed as such on early maps.

The Sacrifice Cliff sign, placed near Boothill Cemetery, stated:

“Plenty Coups, the last of the Crow chiefs, was born near the base of this cliff in 1848. Some years before that, while a large band of Crow Indians was camped in the valley below, an epidemic of smallpox broke out and practically decimated the tribe. According to one legend only two braves survived, the others having fled or died. These two then cast themselves from this cliff, so as to join their friends and relatives in the Happy Hunting Grounds. Another version says that after a large number of the tribe had died from this dreadful disease, the chief medicine man decreed that forty braves should offer themselves as a sacrifice to appease the anger of the Great Spirit. These young warriors adorned in their ceremonial finery, mounted their ponies and forded the river, then blindfolded themselves and their horses rode to their death from the top of the high bluff across the river.’

[1] Golden Guide to Billings, Montana

[2] “Movement of Sioux 1862’ as told by James Turning Bear

[3] Partoll, Albert J. (1949), "Frank L. Worden, Pioneer Merchant: 1830-1887," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 40(3), 189-202.

[4] The actual location is still unknown, and may well be on the lower cliffs behind where the Metra is currently located. This location however doesn’t agree with the 1876 Crow Indians reports told to the Col. Gibbon’s command members.


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