Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park


From prehistoric days to the present, the area's claim to fame has been its beauty and its trade routes. The American Indians knew the region's passes and trails and used them to journey from one hunting ground to another. The eastern prairies of Montana and Alberta were home to great herds of American bison, which are also known as buffalo. Bison were a primary food source to many American Indians in the region. These people also fished and hunted other animals in the mountains.

The Blackfeet people of the northern plains dominated "The Backbone of the World" long before any European explorer confronted the area now known as the Rocky Mountains. The Blackfeet were aggressive and protected their east-slope buffalo hunting grounds from incursion by the western tribes of the Kalispell and Kootenai, and interlopers from the south such as the Crow, Sioux and Assiniboine. These other tribes visited the mountains of Glacier and Waterton as well, since many of them venerated the spirits of creation, weather and knowledge who were believed to be living there. 

The mountains also contained the routes these tribes could cross on their own buffalo expeditions. The Blackfeet, in turn, chased the hunters back over the passes when they found them, or crossed the passes themselves to raid and intimidate their neighbors.

American Indian Beliefs

The region's American Indians believe that spiritual beings or values live in every feature of the land. Animals not only symbolize characteristics, such as gossip in the raven or strength and wisdom in the grizzly bear, but are also the embodiment of spirits who can teach those qualities to humans. As one Blackfeet elder put it, everything under the sky has a voice to speak with and knowledge to tell.

Thus, according to many tribes' philosophies, humans are just one instrument in an ongoing orchestra of life. They are responsible for keeping themselves in tune and playing correctly. To that end, almost every aspect of tribal life has a spiritual ritual attached to it, from the way a tipi is set up, to the way a hunter requests an animal's forgiveness before he kills it to feed his family.

Because the mountains of Glacier and Waterton are thought to be home to spirits, members of many area tribes journey there on vision quests. Chief Mountain, in the northeast corner of Glacier, was—and still is—widely revered as the home of powerful medicine. Its authority is easy to recognize, given its unusual appearance. It stands in the prairie away from the rest of the mountains, like a warrior chief leading his tribe to the rising sun. 

The First European Explorers Arrive

Many French and English (and even a few Spanish) trappers passed through the Glacier and Waterton area in the late 1700s, seeking furs and trade routes. British trapper David Thompson is generally credited as the first European to record his impressions of the area in the 1780s. Of the towering Rocky Mountains, he wrote, "(T)heir immense masses of snow appeared above the clouds and formed an impassable barrier even to the Eagle."

Lewis and Clark's famous expedition across the American West took them very near Glacier in 1806. Captain Meriwether Lewis took three men with him to find the headwaters of the Marias River on the east side of the Rockies, but the weather was overcast, and they had little idea of what lay around them. The clouds blocked their view of Marias Pass, which, had they found it, probably would have simplified their journey over the mountains. 

Other Europeans and Americans traveling the area in the early 1800s were mostly fur trappers seeking beaver skins for fashionable top hats. Blackfeet raiding parties from the east-slope tribe protected their valuable lands by attacking neighboring tribes and the occasional foreign traveler.

To the north, John Palliser's 1858 British expedition was scouting a route to the Pacific Ocean for the Hudson's Bay Company. Lieutenant T. W. Blakiston penetrated the Waterton area and began bestowing names, including Waterton Lakes, in honor of English naturalist Charles Waterton. Although Waterton never visited the lakes, his reputation for bold and eccentric globe-trotting lent the area an exciting aura.

The Ride of the Iron Horse

Hints about a perfect mountain pass to run a railroad over the Rockies kept explorers searching around Glacier for many years. Although many of the region's American Indians knew the location of Marias Pass, it wasn't well known by American explorers because the Blackfeet guarded it closely. Railroad scouts asked American Indian guides for clues and were generally led over safer, but steeper mountain routes.

In the 1850s, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens started to negotiate treaties with the various tribes, hoping to pacify the area's residents so his explorers could find a railroad right-of-way.

In 1889, an explorer for the Great Northern Railway named John F. Stevens finally figured out where the vital Marias Pass lay. Marias was important because it is the lowest mountain pass between Canada and Mexico, so its low altitude and easy grade made it perfect for trains to cross the Continental Divide.

Stevens' good fortune was at the expense of the Blackfeet, who, by the 1880s, were devastated by smallpox epidemics and frequent persecution by the U.S. government. The railroad line crossed the mountains in 1891, spawning a number of work camps. Two of them eventually became the towns of Belton (West Glacier) and Midvale (East Glacier).

The Blackfeet

About this time, word began to spread about the plight of the Blackfeet. With the last bison in the area killed in 1882, there was rampant starvation on the Blackfeet Reservation during the winters of 1883 and 1884. James Willard Schultz, an American who had long traveled with them and had become a full member of one band, decided to help his friends. He wrote to George Bird Grinnell, the influential editor of Forest and Stream magazine. Through his magazine and his powerful government friends, Grinnell helped increase government aid to the Blackfeet. 

Grinnell was introduced to the area by Schultz and he declared it, "The Crown of the Continent." Visiting many times between 1880 and 1900, he initiated the movement to declare the area a national park. Grinnell is celebrated today as the "Father of Glacier National Park." 

Fool's Gold

As more Americans and Canadians became aware of the area, rumors spread about vast gold, copper and oil deposits in Glacier. Prospectors rushed in, drilling oil wells and sinking mine shafts. In spite of the feverish interest, prospectors found no commercial quantities of oil or minerals.

National Park Status

By the turn of the century, 10 years of active lobbying by George Bird Grinnell created the momentum needed to make Glacier a national park and attracted the attention of the U.S. Congress. On May 11, 1910, President Taft signed the bill creating Glacier National Park, which comprised 1,600 square miles. Glacier's first superintendent, William Logan, spent that first summer attempting to control numerous forest fires. 

Across the border, thanks to the efforts of conservationist Frederick Godsal, the Canadian Parliament approved Waterton Lakes Forest Park in 1895. Later, it was renamed Waterton Lakes Dominion Park. Timber and mining interests there restricted the size of the park to just 13.5 square miles. Then, in 1914, a reorganization of the Canadian forest preservation system resulted in the expansion of the park to almost 500 square miles. Reshuffling of government boundaries changed the park's size three more times, eventually placing the park at its current 203 square miles.

The Parks Today

In 1995, Waterton-Glacier was named the world's first international peace park World Heritage Site, a designation that honors parks for their outstanding natural and cultural values.

Recognizing that Glacier and Waterton are not self-contained ecosystems, park managers work together to protect the parks and help shape the growth of surrounding communities. Administrators for both parks maintain a spirit of cooperation that is unusual between government bureaus, let alone separate countries. Together, they are setting an impressive example for the future.