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Yellowstone County Early Trails

Trails throughout the local regions have been around for a very long time. When exploration became serious, after the Louisiana Purchase, locations and names of places started to surface. As more explorers started to examine the region, names began to change “to suit” the new explorer. Probably not intentional since knowledge of other explorers/surveyors’ work was generally unknown to each other. It wasn’t until the Corps of Engineers started to compile the survey/exploration field notes and mapping details that the knowledge became available. Prior to the 1870’s it appears that the most accurately defined maps were strictly limited to the military, and the general public had no knowledge of their existence. Even the land surveyors who were commissioned had over-lapping areas of responsibility, and knew little or nothing about their companion’s work. For example: James Stuart in 1862 mapped Yellowstone Park area, and the following year Hayden did the same thing. When the map detailers compiled the field notes, they tossed out Stuart’s information since they thought he copied it from Hayden. After Hayden’s map was published, the truth came out that Stuart had naming rights to the features, which were all tossed out during the mapping process.


Trying to list the Yellowstone area trails is like trying to number the grains of sand at a beach! I will try to give some insight on the research materials that might assist one in locating where their ancestors might have traveled. Each trail encompasses about 100-pages of text/descriptions when expressed in depth. I will only be able to summarize. Most all trails here are defined in some detail in the War of the Rebellion volumes, military and geologial surveys, fur trapper’s event diaries, emigrant diaries, emigrant family histories, news accounts and Congressional Reports. Many of these files are available via the links established on the main page for research records.


The listing of surveys and explorations that occurred in the local and nearby areas in the early years by the military and scientific communities is contained in Survey Listings. That list refers to map sketches (created by Cleve Kimmel) plus maps published by the explorer in support of the survey. A sample of these maps / map sections / and sketches is shown below. Contact the webmaster for any sketch noted on the survey listing. There are over 20 of them. The map-code identification, if held by the webmaster can also be provided. Those codes were not originally posted on the listing.


One of the first mapping projects was published in 1795 by M Soulard: “The Upper Mississippi and Missouri” (ct00683.jp2). It was created without coordinate references, but shows the Missouri and other rivers connected into the Rocky Mountains as their sources, along with village and Indian camps indicated. In 1801, The Blackfoot Leaders created an obscure map: “An Indian Map of the Upper Missouri” ct000579.jp2. (Although not-to-scale, it depicts where major locations are located)



Skipping along, after the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the government sent many explores into that region. Virtually all were ‘tagged’ with the name “Yellowstone Expedition” thus creating more confusion than was needed. Omitted from the Survey List by the compiler, was the latest map of the area, the 1805 map of Louisiana (ct000654.jp2) created by Samuel Lewis and published a year earlier (1804). It shows the rivers and mountainous areas known at that time. There was no water-way shown to be connecting the two-halves of the United States. [Note: there are hundreds of very early maps under various names about this section of the United States available to the researcher. The map titles do not usually express the true map content.]



Following is a graphic summary of a few land searches initiated by the various governmental agencies or individuals noted in the Survey List.


1807-1810 – Manuel Lisa’s Fort & Bad Pass Trail

 Manual Lisa initiated a fur trade/trapping business in St Louis; and in the winter of 1807 (October) established a small fort at the junction[1] of the Yellowstone and Big Horn Rivers to service themselves and the local Indian population.

Extending from the fort, running along the west side of the Big Horn River is a trail leading to the North Platte River (a two-week journey by horseback.) This became known as “the Bad Pass Trail.” With Jim Bridger as guide for the Raynold’s Expedition in 1859, he led the survey group south along that trail to about Spotted Rabbit Crossing.


This trail is still visible in the river junction vicinity foothills. It is believed that this trail connected directly with the Lisa fort. The fort was reportedly located in 1953 by Owens, and was noted as being ¼-mile west of the Big Horn River west bank, and in the marshy area near the Yellowstone River, where NPR transferred dirt to build up their track bed in the 1920’s. Manuel Lisa & John Colter name inscriptions are still visible there, along side of the trail. The trail has two very old directional arrows carved into a large sandstone rock, marking the way north. This is a small segment of a much longer trail leading north.




The dotted trail shown at the SW corner joins with the route from Fort Custer to Junction City. It was sometimes noted as being the Outlaw Trail. It connects NW to Maginnis and north to Canada.













1805 – Larocque Yellowstone Expedition


After arriving in the local area, he essentially followed an Indian Trail leading up to the Yellowstone River and beyond. The major portion of this trail up to the Big Horn River crossing became part of the Bozeman Trail. The portion from there to Pryor Creek was used by John Bozeman and his wagon team followers in 1864-65. From that crossing Bozeman went essentially west to Sacrifice Cliff (Belle Butte), and descended to the flat land below.


Bear in mind that this expedition took place before Clark descended the Yellowstone River. After reaching the Yellowstone River he crossed it, and followed the Indian Trail leading to Big Porcupine (Route to Tongue River. Surveyed in 1860 by Maynadier)









1833 – Maximilian Expedition Route to Fort McKenzie




1831 – Jedediah Smith Pryor Valley (Jim Bridger---Guide)


During the winter of 1830-1831 Smith’s fur trapping party stayed the Powder River Basin area, and trapped alongside of the various streams. When the weather cleared in April, 1831, Jim Bridger led them to their rendezvous area in Idaho passing through the Pryor Valley floor. This later became one segment of the Bozeman Trail route created by the military in 1865, and which was used by various wagon teams until closure.













1859 – Snowden Yellowstone Expedition– Search for Headwaters of the Shayene River (October-November)


Michael Boyer was guide, while Snowden was attempting to locate the source of the “Shayene River”. They started out from Deer Creek Crossing (which later was the crossing for the Bozeman Road), and returning to the Wagon Hound Crossing used by some that later followed the John Bozeman Trail.


The first part of the trail follows the Raynolds/Bridger (Old Indian Trail) route (Bozeman Trail segment) surveyed earlier in 1859 by Raynolds with Bridger as guide, and the return follows through the center of the mountain valley (John Bozeman Trail segment).









Trails Specific to Local Areas – c1850 to 1900’s


Beginning with the emigrant routes leading to the gold fields (Fisk Train-NPR Military Support and other eager persons) and the three significant routes from the Platte River (Bridger Trail, Bozeman Trail and John Bozeman Trail), trail expansion quickly took place as settlers arrived in droves prior to & after the land surveys (1877-1911). There are hundreds of these trail segments abounding throughout the region; most of which have been obscured by modern farming, construction and highways. Samples of some reference maps are:


Historical Map of Yellowstone County, by C Adrian Heidenriech (MSU-Billings 2005)


This map shows an overview of trails, major site locations, post offices, railroad sidings, etc, with an index, and an overlay of 13 trails in the northwest. This inset shows where some landmarks are located.














1909 Coulson Location Relative to Billings (City of Billings)


In 1909 the Billings City Engineering Department integrated Billings & Coulson locations into one map. Shown in the center of Coulson (inset at the left) is the inlet (raceway) for the water-power plant being constructed by the Yegen Bros.  These street accesses no longer exist, and the interstate runs through the town center. In the 1930’s the abandoned area left by the raceway was used in part for refuse burial. The west-bank used to be lined with old cars to prevent erosion. My father worked for the city, and was a guard at the site for several years until about 1938. It was a wonderful place to visit; but I wasn’t permitted to take anything from the ‘dump’. In 1937 numerous grocery stores brought truckloads of canned goods and other items destroyed or damaged by the flood. My father dug a large pit (about 20-feet in diameter) and burned each load to ashes so as to prevent any potential disease from spreading. The Pierce Packing Company was located just north of this view. In the 1930’s my father, working alone, built the very large adjoining stockyards that spread over into the former Coulson. The land was very sandy and he could dig and set large post supports very fast. I tried, and it took me an extremely long time.









South Hills Trails


Three scaled maps, prepared c2003-6 identify the main travel routes in detail used by travelers in the c1865-1902 time frames. They were constructed from the GLO/BLM microfiche records of each township within the area between the Big Horn River and the Yellowstone River. The current roadways & trails noted on land ownership property maps were checked against these surveyed trails and found be a virtual ‘overlay’, indicating that many trails were still in use today, and the many extensions have bee added for access to ranches, etc. Construction of paved roads follows approximately the original trail routes, but cannot be used as ‘exact’ locations for the past. When the first paved/gravel “Pryor Road” was created, the construction cut through and eliminated the Indian Trail leading to Wyoming, generally referred to as the Trail to Mee-Tee-Tse on early maps and diaries. Distances, directions, stopping points and landmarks noted in various diaries were used to plot the actual routes used by travelers who passed through the area. These diary route distances agreed with the map representations to within a 0.1 mile variance over a 65-mile trek; as an average. In creating the route treks, the original map was about 7- feet x 15-feet in dimensions before being reduced to a manageable size of two-feet x five-feet.


The Master Title Patentee Map (3ft x 5ft), defining Townships 1-9S, Ranges 25-28E during the original homestead application era in the South Hills depicts the roads, land ownerships, and referenced landmarks. It is part of the Trails and Tales Book. Monica Weldon created the map. It is a vital piece of history to anyone desiring to learn about family history from within this area.


Montana Territory, Sawyer’s Expedition & Bozeman Military Trails (Jan 18, 2003 by Kimmel, wagon inserts by Vernon Drake)

Various wagon trails used to connect with Indian Villages, ranchers, stage coaches and supply deliveries are depicted as “=======” lines, and represented in part by a wagon symbol #2. These routes do not identify any specific usage.


Trail #1 is John Bozeman’s wagon train trips to Virginia City. It crosses the Big Horn about one mile downstream of War Man Creek, and traverses the land to Sacrifice Cliff; and then west to its terminus. His travel route from the Yellowstone River to the Big Horn is not shown, but it went from Sacrifice Cliff west to the Big Horn, arriving just downstream of the Little Big Horn.


Trail #3 is Sawyer’s Expedition’s first attempt to reach Virginia City. He tried to follow John Bozeman’s Trail in 1865, but got lost in crossing Big Woody Creek (his second time at being lost). He veered off towards the Billings Hill Climb area and created a roadway to the bottom with his plows (graders). After reaching the bottom, he connected with John Bozeman’s trail, and followed it into Virginia City.


Trail #4 is Sawyer’s Wagon Train 2nd route and is basically on the Bozeman Trail (Wagon Road to Virginia City) created by the military in 1865 as denoted on current BLM maps. This is the route section Jim Bridger laid out that year for Col Carrington that went through Prior Valley. It crosses Clark’s Fork at Edgar. Highway 19 is plotted as ‘-----‘ on the map for comparison with its relative location to the original trails.


Trail #5 is the Bozeman Trail location as defined on the original GLO survey map sections. It runs along the edge of South Hills; and is usable year-around. It has the same distance as Trail #4. It crosses Clark’s Fork at Silesia, as do trails #6 & 7.


Trail #6 is the Jim Bridger Trail originating off North Platte River, and passes on the west side of the Big Horn Mountains, and cuts through Pryor Gap.


Trail #(not Noted) is the Jim Bridger Cutoff Trail leading north from Big Horn Basin. It follows Trail #6 for a short distance, but bypasses Pryor Gap, and crosses Clark’s Fork at the town of Bridger.


Trail #7 is the Bozeman Military Road, and follows Trail #5 which crosses Pryor Creek at Hay Creek Junction, following Monument Trail up to the South Hills plateau, and along the edge of the plateau.


Trail #8 is the Monument Trail. Monuments (rock Cairns) marked the route which appears to lead directly to Monument Peak in Wyoming. In the hilly areas northeast of Monument Peak are stone rings with directional arrows along the early trail pointing towards that peak. [All rings are on private land.]


Pryor Valley and South Hills Three-D Trail Map (Kimmel)

This map was created to show a perspective of the local area and the trails used for emigrants and various forms of transportation through the area. It was on display at the Parmly Billings Library in 2008, along with note cards depicting early important events. The insert below shows the location of Twin monuments.










Yellowstone River Crossings & Land Ownerships (Kimmel)


This map shows the locations of early homesteaded land, the NPR 1882 track, Road to Tongue River and the local area river crossings. The Sawyer’s 1866 train descending from the hill climb area is shown.


A – Original South Bridge (wood) in use from Dec 6, 1894 to 1905. Originally a toll bridge it was reinforced with steel supports in c1905 and used for a while afterwards.


B – B W Osten’s Ferry in operation from c1892 to 1894. Later renamed Cummings Ferry. (Was replaced by South Bridge)


C – Steel Bridge at the old South Bridge Site, came from Huntley and replaced the former South Bridge.


D – The East Bridge was built c1905, and crossed just north of the 1882 NPR track location. McAdow’s ferry (operated by John Shock) was at this location, until NPR moved their bridge north, and a new road bridge had to be installed. (Dates not researched)


Not coded: A ferry operated just north of Bitter Creek, and there is a steel ring imbedded into the sandstone face of Sacrifice Cliff, that probably was used to hold the ferry. On the west side of the river were large Cottonwood trees of 24-inch diameters. At this site is was reported that the riverboat, ‘Josephine’ docked here while servicing the Coulson Residents 1878-1880. Joseph MV Cochran completed all homestead application requirements and filed for his 150.78 acres of land in Section 16 on April 2, 1880. [This is the site of where the Josephine’ docked on June 7, 1877 during its second trip up the Yellowstone River in this area. The tree it tied to was called “The Josephine Tree”. This site has nothing to do with its 1875 journey where it tied up across from Sacrifice Cliff (called Belle Butte, eg., beautiful mountain, at the time) just after clearing the rapids at Bitter Creek. Joseph lost his land title the same month when it was discovered there was gravel under the land surface. He then relinquished that land and acquired 160 acres in Section 10. He moved his cabin from Section 16 to 10. All costs for homesteading and filing were returned to him.


During construction of NPR and the Yellowstone Bridge, Camp Villard was established by the military on top of Belle Butte. It was in operation c1881-1883. Coulson residents supplied food and services to that command.


1877 Nez Perce Attack on Local Area Settlers, September 13th (Kimmel)



This map was created from extensive congressional documentation regarding Indian Depredation Claim 2891 administered by the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. The claim, about five-inches thick, was filed by Joseph MV Cochran for losses sustained when the Advance Guard members of Chief Joseph’s small band ransacked his belongings (some $550.50 worth of goods). Multitude, a member of the Advance Guard, admitted their involvement and validated the depredation. The documentation disclosed where each of the four main bodies of the Indian Band was located during the pre & post battle conditions with the military. This claim was investigated for several years, and at each step in the review process the various government agencies verified the accounts as being true. Not wanting to pay the fully approved claim, the Speaker of the House held the claim folder contents in his clerk’s office until after 1905, when it seemed to have disappeared. The file folder held by the Department of the Interior, was empty of all claim documents!


Briefly, the Advance Guard was sent out in advance of the main body movement, which started after 10am when they broke camp. They followed Canyon Creek towards the river and turned northeast on the Tongue River Road (Trail to Big Porcupine) that passed between the north and south rims in Billings. They encountered Cochran’s homestead, killing two trappers staying there, and ransacked Cochran’s supplies. Next they located Perry McAdow’s tent (homestead) and an adjacent Liquor Store (tent). That tent they ransacked, and then they moved on towards Huntley before turning around and headed back, arriving before dusk, and joined in the ensuing battle.


Chief Joseph and five personal guards, shortly before noon, arrived at the mouth of Canyon Creek, discovered a group of white men (Cochran and others) cutting trees across the river. After being surprised by seeing white men in the area, Chief Joseph quickly decided to change his route from the northeast and decided to move up river along Canyon Creek and head for Canada via that route.


Leaving the Cochran camp, Chief Joseph found that his camp leader, followed by the main body of the band, close behind, told them to turn around and get into the canyon foothills quickly. This was probably a wise action to take, but his escape route was noted by the military as they crossed the Yellowstone River, and the battle began. During the interim, between 10 am and 11 am, his rear guard was scouting the area to the southwest, discovered other homesteads along the river upstream of Canyon Creek. They set fire to Bela Brockway’s hay, and fired a few shots at 11am. The local residents fearing for their lives, hid in the wild rose brambles.


Land Ownership in 1912 along the Billings Bench and Rim Locations (City of Billings)


This is the only map held by the City Engineers of Billings, depicting non-NPR ownerships in the northern area of Billings.  It is simply a ‘snapshot’ in time. It depicts the RR Lines and routes that existed then. (File # 14-1originally stored in Drawer 18)







Brazwell Summit – PO Location and Others 1879-1909 (Kimmel Sketch)
This small sketch identifies the routes and land ownerships available prior to 1909 in the southern end of South Hills. It was used in the reconstruction of the Twin Monuments.
These and many other maps & sketches were created to establish specific events that occurred in the short period between 1877 and 1911, and recorded on this and the MTYGF sites.
Cleve Kimmel – (

Original Release Date: January 31, 2010
Refer to MTGenWeb Site for additional details on propriety rights.

Referenced documents that contain current copy rights cannot be copied and submitted in their entirety – only granted excerpts. No file that is downloaded to a recipient can be utilized in multiple-mailing lists; or for a fee or profit. Files downloaded are for the expressed usage by the recipient in pursuit of historical information or genealogical background.


[1] The location is as noted on this and other early maps. Some later researchers put the fort on the east side of the river by mistake in understanding the meaning of upstream in documents (west).

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