Subscribe for 33¢ / day

"In prayerful remembrance of the brave hearts sleeping in the shadow of St. Mary's Mountain."

- Sign marking the Salish burial ground at St. Mary's Mission

STEVENSVILLE - When the Salish make their annual pilgrimage to St. Mary's Mission this weekend, tribal members will find a new level of recognition for the mission's historical and cultural significance.

After four years of work by a number of local and state contributors, the site was recently named a National Historical District.

"It's definitely an honor to have our entire complex be designated on the National Register of Historic Places," said mission director Colleen Meyer. "To be encompassed into a Historic District is exciting for us and I believe brings more national recognition to the significance of the site."

St. Mary's Mission, which sits just west of downtown Stevensville, is recognized as the oldest European settlement in Montana, having been founded in 1841 by Jesuit Father Pierre Jean DeSmet.

In 1845, the Italian-born Father Anthony Ravalli arrived, giving the area its first physician, surgeon and pharmacist.

Two buildings on the site - the circa 1866 Catholic chapel and Father Ravalli's log cabin and pharmacy - have been included on the National Register since 1970, but the recent "boundary increase" now adds a number of other structures, monuments and even a few historic trees to the designation, warranting the Historic District moniker.

Now included in the site's listing is Chief Victor's cabin, built in 1862 by John Owen and Father Ravalli, and which served as the Salish leader's primary residence in his older age.

"His people didn't necessarily approve of him living in a permanent structure because they went on seasonal hunting trips and didn't understand how he was going to take it with him," Meyer said. "It certainly didn't inhibit his days of hunting because he continued on the buffalo hunts."

Also added to the Register were two still-blooming historic trees: a crabapple tree believed to have been planted in 1869 by Father Ravalli as part of an orchard and herb garden complex and a Wolf River apple tree planted around the same time by the mother of Marianne Combs, a Salish girl who accompanied the tribe on its forced move to the Flathead Reservation in 1891.

The St. Mary's Cemetery was also added to the Register, including a Salish burial ground which holds an unknown number of graves.

The St. Mary's Parish Church - a more modern Catholic church built in 1954 - was added for its "logical historic continuation of the original mission history," as was a stone survey marker.

"It's this great stone that's in the ground and was one of the original survey markers that, I believe, they surveyed the town from to the east," Meyer said.

Scratched into the north face of the small stone are the letters "IBP" which, Meyer said, stand for Indian Burial Plot.


As part of the designation process, a committee with the Montana Historical Society visited the site a number of years ago to determine if it was eligible for the Historic District designation.

Not only did they decide that it was eligible, but the site was unanimously approved by the Historical Society in May, meeting all four of the principal criteria for a historic designation: cultural and historical significance, association with a person of significance, architecture and archaeological potential.

Meyer said that throughout the process, members of the St. Mary's Mission Board of Directors worked with representatives from the Historical Society, primarily interpretive historian Ellen Baumler, to negotiate the complicated research needed for the application - a nearly 70-page behemoth.

Soon after the state designation was approved, the national designation - done through the National Park Service - followed.

As part of the application process, Baumler researched and wrote an in-depth report analyzing the historical significance of the mission and its people.

She wrote: "The divergence of cultures, the physical and cultural impacts of western migration on the native people, and the growth of settlements are rarely evident all in the same built environment. St. Mary's Mission, a microcosmic community that interprets these facets of Montana's heritage, is a rare exception. Jesuit priests and lay brothers founded a mission, which was the first in the Northwest, near the present mission site in 1841. St. Mary's Village evolved into the town of Stevensville."

The entire report can be read online with this story at

For Meyer, the designation speaks volumes about not only the local value of the mission, but the role that it played in the integration of cultures in the Northwest.

"The blending of European culture with Indian culture is remarkable and the mission represents that so well with structures such as Chief Victor's cabin and Father Ravalli's cabin," she said. "To have both of their cabins, and in such good condition through all the years, is remarkable."

The Salish make their annual pilgrimage to St. Mary's Mission on Sunday, Sept. 19, where a formal announcement regarding the new designation will be made.

For more information on St. Mary's Mission, visit

Reporter Will Moss can be reached at 363-3300 or