The Old North Trail
America’s earliest highway

Marcella Sherfy

My father once told me of an expedition from the Blackfeet, that went south by the Old Trail to visit the people with dark skins.… They were absent four years. It took them twelve moons of steady traveling to reach the country of the dark skinned people, and eighteen months to come north again.… Elk Tongue brought back the Dancing Pipe. He bought it nearly one hundred years ago and it was then very old. The South Man, who gave it to him, warned him to use it only upon important occasions, for the fulfillment of a vow, or the recovery of the sick.

Brings-down-the-Sun, quoted by Walter McClintock in The Old North Trail.

I wish I could tell you what a prehistoric teenager’s life was like. I can’t. We haven’t a clue what a sixteen-year-old, standing on the slopes of the Rocky Mountain Front 8,000 years ago wanted, dreamed about, or feared. We don’t know what he did for fun or what he wore or what he said or what he thought of his parents.

However, archaeologists do have some evidence that suggests how that teenager’s family spent some of their time, where they moved, what they saw, what they relied on for shelter, and what they ate—the mechanics of prehistoric living. But we could not produce a People magazine article about that prehistoric family. We have only a glimmer of the human nature stuff such as emotions and relationships.

We know next to nothing about Montana’s prehistoric past compared to what we want to know. How did a prehistoric family survive here? How could they make a living? What did they value, mourn, and celebrate? What, if anything or anyone, threatened them? Did they want to know more or to travel? How did the landscape of “last best place” affect their lives?
Even if we cannot answer those big questions, they are worth keeping in mind as we learn more about the details of daily life. Why should we ask unanswerable questions about a prehistoric teenager? Because they are the questions that are important to us. Those unknown people who have left traces in the landscapes around us are ancient versions of ourselves.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition twice traveled what we now call the Lolo Trail, a historic and likely prehistoric “buffalo road” spanning the Bitterroots between Idaho and Montana. It proved among the most difficult and miserable experiences of their trip. Continued use of the trail by Indians, miners, and then hikers has helped to preserve evidence of long human use.

One way to proceed is to take one aspect of life—travel, for example—and see what we can find out and how some answers emerge. It is just possible that our teenager, standing on the Rocky Mountain Front 8,000 years ago, was traveling by foot on this continent’s major prehistoric interstate: the Old North Trail. If you unfold a map of North America, you’ll see that the Continental Divide, what Blackfeet people call the “Backbone of the World,” runs from the Arctic through Mexico. It’s a series of scattered ranges that we’ve labeled the Rocky Mountains.

A growing number of archaeologists join native people in believing that humans began traveling along the eastern edge of the Rockies at least 12,000 years ago. The ice fields of the last major Ice Age were still melting and receding all across North America. The east-facing slopes of the Rockies, then, like now, enjoyed warmer Chinook winds that had created an ice-free corridor from the far north into Montana.

Foothills are an “edge ecosystem” between forests and plains, with characteristics of both. Because of this they have a wider array of plants and animals than either the forest or the prairie and they are a good source of wood, water, and shelter.

The Old North Trail was located in an edge ecosystem but it was not a single-lane highway. It would have been a braided path like intertwining game trails until the late 1800s, when settlers began to fragment the route with newer roads, forts, railroads, and ranches. For 12,000 years, the Old North Trail was a true transcontinental highway over which people traveled the length of the continent to exchange goods and, perhaps, customs. Human feet provided all locomotion until 2,500 hundred years ago when dogs and dog travois began to carry some freight. Horses would not have stepped onto the Trail, at least in this region, until roughly 250 years ago.

So picture our prehistoric teenager traveling from Calgary to Mexico City. Picture him on the road for months or years, seeing everything from what we think of as Glacier National Park to the volcanoes of Mexico. Picture him transporting obsidian from Yellowstone National Park south to trade for coastal shells. Picture him traveling away from the Trail more than twenty miles to hunt antelope or elk for food and skins. Picture him helping his family set up a conical shelter of branches.

Do we know enough to trust such pictures? What do we know? How do we know it?

Archaeologists periodically find prehistoric hearths (cooking and heating fires) inside and outside tipi ring sites. Intense fire spalls (cracks) rocks, creating specific fracture patterns that make them look different than their unbaked neighbors. Here, rain has turned the ash below the rocks into hard, oxidized earth. Hearth areas sometimes contain bone fragments and seeds that help us understand early diets.

Archaeologists began their explorations of the distant past by paying attention to the oral traditions recorded by early government surveyors, guides, and traders. Early anthropologists mention a Foot-of-the-Rockies trail, a big Indian Trail paralleling the Rockies, and other north-south trails.

In about 1900, a bright, young, college graduate, Walter McClintock, spent more than three years with the Blackfeet recording their memories, ceremonies, and beliefs because he feared that the existence of this tribe, which had once dominated the northern Plains, was threatened both by United States policies and by new settlers.

In The Old North Trail, McClintock quoted an elder, Brings-down-the Sun: “There is a well-known trail we call the Old North Trail. It runs north and south along the Rocky Mountains. No one knows how long it has been used by the Indians. My father told me it originated in the migration of a great tribe of Indians from the distant north to the south, and all the tribes have, ever since, continued to follow in their tracks.” Brings-down-the-Sun described trail landmarks as well as specific journeys his ancestors took to visit people with dark skins.

By the 1960s, Montana archaeologists were recording prehistoric and historic sites around the state. Some sites were found by accident—a rancher noting stone tools coming out of a cut bank or hikers turning over a projectile point—but most sites are found through systematic field surveys before public construction projects, such as roads or dams, are begun. Archaeologists set up lines, or transects, at regular intervals across the area that is about to be disturbed. Then they walk along those routes noting any lithic (stone) tools or flakes, tipi rings, bones, or fire-cracked rocks. They record each artifact or feature that offers evidence of previous human activities.

This rock art panel in central Montana is one of the reminders that our predecessors were creative. Since they are easily identified, pictographs and petroglyphs are especially vulnerable to vandalism, Even the oils in our hands destroy the pigments in these panels. A thoughtful Missoula student, having just studied a pictograph in his neighborhood said, “Wow, I’m in a prehistoric hospital or church.”

Though less than five percent of the state has been surveyed, more than 23,000 sites have now been documented, at least minimally. Less than half of one percent of discovered sites have been examined in detail. Far fewer have received the intensive scrutiny of excavation.

Excavating a site is time-consuming and expensive. It involves precise measurements, many photographs, and painstaking removal of soil around each artifact so that the relationship of one artifact to another is not disturbed. Lab work takes even longer. Because of this, little excavation has taken place in Montana, so archaeologists mostly rely on preliminary surveys.

Archaeologists begin with research questions that guide their analysis. They look for similarities and differences in materials, analyze the use of those materials, and prepare bone and wood for specialists who conduct radiocarbon dating and many other tests. They confer with other specialists such as soil scientists to understand the context of the site.

How did this rock circle in Powder River County serve earlier Montanans? Did it hide hunters from animals or one human enemy from another? Is it a landmark? Location suggests an answer. Had this same structure been placed on a high ridge, it more likely would have been used by lookouts or possibly as a dream or prayer bed. Here, we think it was a practical fort.
Early rock structures spark our imagination more than most prehistoric site types. This stone arrangement in Big Horn County appears, based on its location, to have been used as a hunting blind.
We have all heaped up stones to clear a garden, mark a place, or hide a treasure. So has everyone who has ever lived here. Often, we have no way of understanding the use of these cairns (a heap of stones used as a landmark). If archaeologists find no artifacts near or underneath cairns that explain the site’s use, they still may be able to analyze the lichen that grows on them to determine how long the stones have been in their current arrangement.

On any transportation corridor, archaeologists first look for trail ruts. This would be easy if, from walking on the ground or flying over the Rocky Mountain Front, we could spot linear depressions, worn places in rock, or stream crossings scarred by frequent use. But this usually isn’t the case. Even 10,000 years of human hiking is unlikely to leave a clear imprint so it is commonly accepted that such traces date from the Late Prehistoric Period, around 2,000 years ago.

Nevertheless, University of Calgary archaeologist Dr. Brian Reeves has identified a few sets of such depressions and scars in the area north of Augusta on up into Canada. He located these trail tread marks based on the memories of Indians and ranchers who saw them fifty or more years ago when they were more visible. He’s flown over and walked them as well. He was able to document dog travois, horse travois, and wagon wheel markings.

Tipi rings are more visible and durable. They are one of Montana’s most often found artifact of prehistoric residences. These irregular circles of stone, often half-buried, once held down hides at the edge of tipis. When tipi occupants moved, they rolled the stones away from the bottom edge and left them where they lay.

Archaeologists use the size of ring sites to estimate how large the tipi was. Larger tipis became more common after Indians had dog travois to pull long tipi poles and heavy hides. Many rings in one area might mean that a large group of people camped together or that the site was used repeatedly. How deep the soil is around the stones and whether or not stones are covered with lichen helps archaeologists understand how recently stones were used or whether they were used more than once. Sometimes stone hearths and rocks cracked by fire survive. Sometimes the placement of stones allows us to determine which direction the tipi faced.

As you might expect, numerous tipi rings along the Old North Trail give archaeologists a lot to evaluate. They indicate that people were present along the corridor frequently and they offer clues that help us date when those people were present. They also give us information about what these early people looked for when picking a campsite: proximity to water, views of the landscape, and seasonal access to plants and animals.

Archaeologists can figure out quite a lot about the diet of early people by identifying animal species from bone fragments discarded after meals. They can determine whether our prehistoric teenager’s family ate birds or rabbits more than antelope. They can even tell us whether the family ate fawns, calves, or mature animals, which tells us more than just what they ate. The presence of immature animal bones, for example, tells us that the site was used in the spring or early summer.

Dr. Brian Reeves, University of Calgary archaeologist, has begun documenting surviving physical evidence marking the Old North Trail. Look for the faint depression in the ground and vegetation changes that extend from the three hikers to the top of the photo. Aerial and infrared photographs begin to make these trail footprints—likely travois tracks—a little clearer.
At some time in the past, unidentified Montanans marked a trail with a buried arrow. Located within a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps camp, this trail marker might be prehistoric or a CCC worker’s way of giving directions. Only the kind and amount of soils around the stones may help answer the questions. Archaeologists placed the trowel in the picture to document the size of the buried stone trail marker.
We are still trying to understand the uses of these long rock alignments. They may have been drivelines, designed to help direct bison to a particular place. They may be ceremonial figures. Contemporary Indians tell us that they were both: places of focused power that directed animals to people needing them.

If there are many layers of bone and food debris, we reason that many generations of people used the same site. Some seeds and pollen survive well enough to offer strong clues about both what prehistoric people ate and at what season. Bones, charcoal, and other organic substances lend themselves to radiocarbon dating.

When archaeologists have the funds to conduct intense site examinations, they look not only for precise information about plants and animals but also for lithic materials that have been worked by humans. These might include whole or damaged stone knives, projectile points, or flakes of stone that fell to the ground as our prehistoric teenager’s dad shaped a chunk of stone, or a core, into a point.

Not all groups made their tools and weapons in the same way, and the traditions changed through time. Archaeologists have identified about twenty lithic traditions in Montana that carry names such as Clovis, Folsom, Besant, and Avonlea. The style, or tradition, of a point or knife allows us to take a reasoned guess as to when it was made.

Archaeologists can also analyze the source of the stone. Prehistoric people quarried the stone that they used for tools. While they may have occasionally worked rocks they found near at hand, evidence suggests that they preferred particular kinds of materials for particular uses. Some stone kept a sharp edge and some could be worked and reworked easily. Prehistoric people located quantities of chert from limestone formations or obsidian from black volcanic rock and turned those sites into quarries that were mined over thousands of years.

Close to the Three Forks of the Missouri, for instance, archaeologists have spent more than fifteen years studying the Schmitt quarry. They can document its use over 11,000 years, analyze engineering skills and tools used, and track the diet of quarriers, who sometimes dropped down to the Missouri to gather fresh water mussels for a change from their usual diet of game and plants.

Since every rock has a “signature,” something like a DNA profile, geologists are learning to trace stone to its source. Right now, geologists can source volcanic materials such as obsidian and basalts. They are still working on how to source other materials such as chert. When we find obsidian materials at Fort McLeod, Alberta, that we know originated in the Yellowstone Park area, we have reason to believe that these materials traveled along our prehistoric highway. Chert that appears in a 2,000-year-old burial at Waterton Lakes National Park may soon be able to be traced to a Montana quarry. This may help us chart seasonal migration and trade routes more precisely.

These Madison Valley tipi rings pose questions that archaeologists may not be able to answer easily. Why is the primary ring here oval? What is the other alignment outside that ring? Part of another tipi? Stones used to anchor a drying rack? Densely overlapped rings sometimes tell us that a spot was used repeatedly because it was situated close to something that people wanted: water, a travel corridor, game, plants.
Archaeologists rarely have funds and time to excavate tipi rings systematically so they frequently map the stones which provides valuable information. Ring size tells us how big the tipi was. Overlapping rings tell us that the site was used more than once. The odds are good that ring 9B was robbed of its stones to create Ring 9.

Within easy range of the Old North Trail as it passes to the west of Great Falls, archaeologists have located major concentrations of buffalo jumps. For two or three thousand years, hunters directed herds of buffalo over low or stair-stepped cliffs. Dead or dying buffalo then could be processed in assembly-line fashion, creating large supplies of meat, bone, and hide. This style of hunting required a lot of community cooperation and indicates a well-developed communal life.

In the north-central Montana sections of the Old North Trail, Dr. Reeves and other archaeologists have also documented cairns of carefully stacked stones. Cairns remain a mystery to archaeologists. Some have been identified as burial sites, but in most cases, we don’t know their function.

When we try to put ourselves in the footsteps of a prehistoric teenager along the Old North Trail, cairns may come closer than other features in suggesting that he was concerned with more than survival. Based on what we can learn from oral traditions, cairns are likely to have marked direction or distance, served as communication posts, pointed to sacred mountains, or encouraged people to be mindful of spiritual concerns.

I remain, as I began, unable to tell you what you and I would like to know most about a prehistoric teenager, to get into his thoughts, and to feel the world as he felt it. Nonetheless, what little information we have from oral traditions and scientific research can still help us travel back 12,000 years in time.

I am glad to know that there is credible evidence to suggest that our prehistoric teenager may well have seen the residents of Mexico or developed a taste for trade goods from the ocean. Such knowledge reminds me not to settle for stereotypes about my predecessors here.

All photos courtesy of the State Historic Preservation Office, Montana Historical Society.

Send Page To a Friend  |  Heritage Education Magazine  Montana Heritage Project Home