This piece is the second in a series on the Stevens Expedition
When the U.S. Pacific Rail Road Survey was organized in 1853 by an act of Congress, two men were selected to fill the position of civil engineers for the examination of the northern route.
Both Frederick W. Lander and A. W. Tinkham appeared to be well-qualified candidates for the job, though they were exact opposites in character and style. Isaac Ingalls Stevens, the leader of the expedition, had hired both men to reconnoiter the unknown country from the Mississippi to the Pacific, while collecting data and selecting the best possible route for the railway.
Abiel Tinkham had worked with Stevens before, and by all accounts was a rather mild-mannered and inconspicuous man with seemingly little in the way of personal ambition.
In contrast, Mr. Lander was overflowing with self-importance, and seemed determined to make a name for himself, though his actual work on the railroad survey was oftentimes lackluster at best. He later became best known for his popular short cut on the Oregon Trail, which was appropriately called Lander’s Cutoff.
Considered by many to be vain and contentious, Lander was a large athletic man who was used to doing things his own way, at times settling difficult matters with an outlandish display of fisticuffs. Governor Stevens however, expected him to follow orders just as any of the enlisted men would, and at one point he kindly offered to “shoot him down like a dog” if he refused to pull his weight and pitch his own tent.
The expedition set out in May of 1853 from a camp situated just outside of Saint Paul, Minnesota, after having purchased a string of unbroken mules to pull the wagons and carry the men and equipment westward. Each man was required to break in his own animal, and some of the younger members of the party were thrown off several times before mastering their mounts.
As Lander’s party started out, he was instantly thrown by his unaccommodating mule, and Stevens says that during the fall Lander “had his shoulder put out of joint. It was brought back by the main strength of three men.” Later, as the expedition moved further west, many of the expedition members traded in their cantankerous mules for Indian horses, oftentimes forming a real bond with their animals.
Each of the engineers led their own small reconnaissance parties, which gathered an abundance of local lore, as well as geographical information, as they worked their way west.
Mr. Tinkham’s brigade followed the Milk River Valley, eventually crossing over the ‘Trois Buttes’ while exploring possible routes over the Rocky Mountains. This region of north-central Montana is known today as the Sweet Grass Hills.
In his report to Governor Stevens, Tinkham described the Three Buttes as a range of “isolated mountains from whose bases in every direction the prairie stretches in its almost unbroken monotony for long distances.” Another member of the expedition described the area with a slightly altered perspective. “On approaching the mountains, it is surprising how clearly the most distant objects can be distinguished. The atmosphere becomes so transparent, that it is only the curvature of the earth’s surface that limits the view from the highest points. The crevices and minute features of distant hills appear so well defined, that all previous ideas of distance are disturbed. Amusing mistakes are made by parties intent on exploring some interesting feature, apparently only a few miles off, but which, when tried, turns out to be a fair day’s journey!”
Following the Milk River to within thirty miles of the most easterly of the buttes, Mr. Tinkham’s men were able in a single days march to reach the base of the mountains, where they found “water, grass, and wood in abundance.”
Though they had reached the base of the easternmost of the Three Buttes, a suitable campsite was not found until after dark. The gathering rain obliged them to pitch their tents in a gully of eroded gray sandstone, and their animals were turned out to graze freely on a grassy slope above the ravine. At the lower end of the arroyo was a small spring that meandered out into the parched brown plains, defining a small green belt of vegetation that strung out onto the prairie until it was finally absorbed by the landscape and disappeared completely. The men had seen plenty of antelope during the day, and near camp they found wild cherries and black gooseberries to supplement their meal.
On the following day the party began their ascent of the mountain, and Mr. Tinkham noted that the steady rain, which had fallen through the early part of the night, had left its mark on the mountains.
“The morning sun discovered the overhanging peaks of the buttes glittering with a pure white covering of snow, stretching far down the slopes, and contrasting brilliantly with the dark masses of evergreen growth. Occasionally riding, but more often walking and leading our animals, early in the afternoon we gained as near the top as it was desirable for the whole party to go. Leaving the animals and most of the party to proceed over to the western slope, I made my way to the tops of the two principle summits.”
Their gradual ascent of the butte had been one of continued excitement and interest. For months now they had been confined to the smooth bleak prairie, all the time longing for the trees and hills and brooks that they were accustomed to seeing. Now, they were suddenly thrown back amongst a more welcoming environment, and Tinkham says that their “spirits were strangely exhilarated, and every familiar stone and shrub possessed a rare charm.”
From the top of his lofty perch Tinkham noted that, “the view from the two summits is of vast extent, and embraces objects of striking interest. Here we had our first view of the Rocky Mountains, one hundred or more miles distant. They terminated the view from northward to southward, gradually falling towards the horizon. The snow of the previous night had evidently extended to them, and the imposing mass, abruptly opposing itself like a forbidding wall, was gorgeous with its glittering peaks and flashing snowfields, lit up with the brilliancy of the evening sun. It is characteristic of the mountains that at first view they generally present a seemingly unbroken front, though a nearer approach discovers openings hid from view in the distance. At the Three Buttes, too far distant to detect any such favoring gaps, the mountains were before us an unbroken and apparently impenetrable barrier.”
The sun had already set before they left the mountaintop, and the air was growing cold and chilly, and Tinkham’s thermometer read 37 degrees Fahrenheit. A check of the barometer showed the mountains to be around 3,300 feet above the level of the plains below, or roughly 6,700 feet above sea level. Even though the readings were made over 150 years ago, they came very close to matching the actual elevations. East Butte is listed today as being 6,958 feet above sea level.
When speaking of the Three Buttes Tinkham says, “To me they are objects of singular curiosity. Distinct from each other, and isolated from any mountain group, they have been thrown up high above the surrounding country, and have long served as watchtowers and landmarks of the roving tribes ranging for a thousand miles distance north, south, east, and west. Assiniboines, Crows, and Blackfeet, all know them well in their geography, and their summits are marked with their monumental stone heaps, and retain the lodges where some war party has waited the favorable moments to pounce upon the unguarded and isolated wanderer of the plain below.”
Scrambling down the backside of the mountain as fast as the steep slopes would allow, Tinkham and his men made it into camp just before dark, where the curling smoke and bright firelight revealed their cozy location. Tinkham says, “The night was clear and frosty, and the clear sparkling brook washing the small stones in its bed, with the wooded and dark slopes shutting us in, made our encampment strangely unlike the bare prairie to which we were accustomed.”
On the following day they completed their descent, and passed between the two remaining buttes, coming to a halt after dark on the smooth prairie once again, without wood or water. Game was plentiful during the day, especially buffalo, however, the ominous aura of the Three Buttes seemed to follow them out onto the plains, and some of the more superstitious members of the troop continued to reflect upon the unsavory nature of the isolated mountain retreat.
It was on this night that Mr. Tinkham lost his horse. One of the men had been extremely uneasy during their stay on the buttes. Tinkham says that an old mountain man had come along as an interpreter in case the company met any bands of Blackfeet during their reconnaissance, and he “hardly seemed to act or breathe freely until we were again on the prairie with an unobstructed sight. Passing so much of his life among the Indians, and recalling every story of combat and murder connected with these mountains, his mind seemed confused under the dread that weighed upon him, and he acted with more than ordinary forgetfulness. Riding side by side, his rifle must have been cocked, and the motion discharged the gun, the ball passing into my horse just back of my leg. I was obliged to abandon her on the spot.”
The horse was a fine mare, and was considered by Mr. Tinkham to be more of a pet than a beast of burden. As he looked back upon the spot where she had laid down, now completely exhausted after struggling to keep up with the other horses, Tinkham suddenly felt the sinking desperate sadness of a man who had just lost a cherished and affectionate old friend.
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