Historic St. Mary's
Mission & Museum
est. 1841

OPEN:  MAY 5 - OCT. 15

Guided Tours
May 5 - October 15
Tuesday - Saturday 11 to 2

Gift Shop & Museum
May 5 - October 15
Tuesday - Saturday 11 to 3

[email protected]
P.O. Box 211
315 Charlo Street
Stevensville, MT 59870

Historic St. Mary's Mission Brand, "Cross on a Hill" is one of the brands first used  in Montana.
The Buffalo
The Salish
The Chiefs
The Salish Chiefs
Carving of Salish Chief Tjolzhitsay
July, 1840:  After a delay of four days at the Green River rendezvous, Father DeSmet and his escort set out to join the main camp of Flatheads and Pend d’Oreilles.  Their route took them though the valley of Jackson Hole and across the great Teton Range into the valley of Pierre’s Hole, another famous rendezvous of the fur trade.  At the end of an eight-day journey 1,600 Flatheads and Pend d’Oreilles awaited him, many having come eight hundred miles from their homes to meet the missionary.

His tent had been set up and his reception by the Indians was most enthusiastic.  They led him to the lodge of the great chief, who received him with a touching address of welcome.  Surrounded by the leading men and principal warriors of the nation, the great chief, whose Indian name was Tjolzhitsay, whom DeSmet called Big Face, due to his elongated countenance, addressed the missionary as follows:
“This day the Great Spirit has accomplished our wishes and our hearts are swelled with joy.  Our desire to be instructed was so great that three times we had deputed our people to the great Black Robe in St. Louis to obtain priests.  Now, Father, speak and we will comply with all that you will tell us.  Show us the way we have to go to the home of the Great Spirit.”

August, 1840: 
At the Three Forks of the Missouri River, at age ninety Chief Big Face was the first of the Salish Tribe to be baptized.  Fr. DeSmet baptized nearly 350 Indians.

August 27, 1840: 
As Chief Big Face bade farewell to Fr. DeSmet, he arose from his buffalo robe and spoke:
“Black Robe!  May the Great Spirit accompany you on your long and dangerous journey.  Morning and night we will pray that you may safely reach your brothers and we will continue to pray thus until you return to your children in the mountains.  When the snows of winter will have disappeared from the valleys and when the first green of spring begins to appear, our hearts, which are now so sad, will once more rejoice.  As the meadow grass grows higher and higher, we will go forth to meet you.  Farewell, Black Robe, farewell!”
Fr. DeSmet escorted by seventeen Indians began his return journey to St. Louis to obtain more men and supplies to establish St. Mary's Mission.

September 24, 1841
Chief Big Face and his people warmly welcome the caravan of weary travelers on the feast of Our Lady of Mercy.

Chief Big Face (Paul), after having reached the age of ninety years, made his first Holy Communion.  “Have you no sins to repent since your baptism?” asked the missionary.  “Sins?” he replied, astonished.  “How could I commit sins when it is my duty to teach others to live well?”  He died shortly thereafter, and was buried wrapped in the flag he had waved every Sunday to announce the Lord’s Day.

Victor succeeded Big Face as chief.
Paul (baptismal name)
Chief Victor shown on horseback with other riders
1790:  Year of Victor’s birth, the son of Chief Three Eagles

Victor’s father was the Flathead chief who met the Lewis and Clark Expedition in September of 1805 at Ross’ Hole.  Victor claims he was quite a good-sized boy when Lewis & Clark came through the Bitter Root Valley.

Victor was raised in traditional Salish religious beliefs.  In his youth Victor obtained rabbit power when he protected a rabbit being chased by a hawk.  While stealing horses from the Crow, he was thrown from his horse, hid from the Crow and escaped.  His escape was credited to his “rabbit power.”

Victor was a minor leader of the Salish.  He was one of the first to be baptized into the Catholic faith following the arrival of the Jesuit Missionaries. He was a leader of the men’s society and his wife Agnes became a leader of the women’s society.  This was an important factor in his election as head chief. “Victor obtained tribal leadership for no other reason other than for the noble qualities, both of heart and head, which they all thought he possessed” wrote Fr. DeSmet.

Victor was elected head chief late in 1841, following the death of Chief Big Face.

Chief Victor lead the tribe on a buffalo hunt, and scored a major victory over the Crow. 
He played a prominent part in Fr. DeSmet’s peace negotiations between the Salish and the Blackfeet. “Victor, by his simplicity and smoothness …gains good will of his hearers…not exalting himself…showing the protection thy God grants to those who devote themselves to His service” to quote Fr. DeSmet.

Indians go on a hunt, but are turning away from the missionaries and the Mission.  Fr Mengarini’s report from the hunt was that the Salish are misbehaving even worse than before the Jesuits came.  On the return from the hunt, many moved away from the Mission.  Mengarini implores Chief Victor, but Victor, disheartened replies “What can I do?”

November 5, 1850: 
The closure of St. Mary’s Mission was in part due to the disaffection of the Salish toward Victor, his loss of influence of the chiefs, his decision to abolish the use of the whip, and his close association with the missionaries and his known piety.  Victor became only a nominal chief after he permitted a rival to strike him in the face and he did not retaliate. Chief Victor traveled with Fr. Joset after the closure of the Mission.  Raft accident at Horse Plains and all church records were lost in the water.  With the Mission closed, Chief Victor made periodic visits to the Pend d’Oreille Mission to fulfill his religious obligations.

Governor Stevens met Chief Victor at Fort Owen
“He appears to be simple-minded, but rather wanting in energy, which might, however, be developed in an emergency” stated Governor Stevens.

Hellgate Treaty at Council Groves
Before opening the meeting at Council Groves, Chief Victor complained to Governor Stevens that the Blackfeet had not kept their part of the peace, and asked what he should do.  He was shocked when Stevens talked not about the depredations of the Blackfeet, but about land cessations and placing Indians on the reservations.

Chief Victor was willing for all tribes to go on one reservation, but he would not consider moving to the Flathead Valley.  When Stevens asks Chief Victor to sign the treaty, he refused, and Stevens lost his patience. “Is he…an old woman?  Dumb as a dog?  If Victor is a chief, let him speak now.”  There was more discussion and more confusion.  Other Salish chiefs tried to explain Chief Victor’s silence.  The opinion among the Salish was that Chief Victor’s habitual thoughtfulness was the cause of his slowness of speech.  Talks continued, and Chief Victor quietly walked out of the meeting.  Chief Victor faced the most difficult decision of his life.  His position as chief was not strong, and not only was his future at stake, but that of his tribe.

Chief Victor’s Compromise:  He asked Governor Stephens to send word to the Great Father,  (U.S. President) to come and look at our country and we will abide by his decision.  Stephens accepted, and the compromise is embodied in Article 11, which permitted the Salish to remain in their homeland until a careful survey showed that the northern locality was better land.

Chief Victor emerged from the council with greatly increased prestige and recognized as head chief of the Salish Nation.  Chief Victor was unable to adjust to farm life, but continued to lead the buffalo hunt.  In 1858 he was too ill to hunt, and in 1859 Major Owen feared he would never recover his health. 

Dec. 13, 1861: 
John Owen –“I am building him (Victor) a house close to the fort.  This is the first time since I have known him which has been about 12 years that he has not gone with his Camp to hunt.  I dissuaded him from it last fall.  He is quite old and infirm.  I told him if he would remain with me that he should have a good comfortable house to live in and a field to sow and plant for himself.” 

In response to Chief Victor’s request, the Jesuit Missionaries returned to rebuild St. Mary’s.  For the remainder of his life, Chief Victor lived in the Bitter Root and his people did not desert him for the northern reservation.

New Years Day 1867: 
Indians visit Ft. Owen.  Old Chief Victor recites things 60 years back when he was a boy, and when Lewis & Clark passed through the Bitter Root.  Major Owen wrote, “of the amazing vitality of the old chief, whose hair was still black as coal and who could jump on a horse with as much agility as the youngest of his people.” 

Chief Victor was opposed to leaving the Bitter Root Valley.  He contended that in the treaty with Stevens, his valley was to be set aside for the Salish people, instead white men had located there and made improvements in defiance of that treaty. 

When the Pend d’Orielle Indian fired at Fr. Giorda, Chief Victor was close enough to run over and warn Fr. Ravalli.

July 4, 1870: 
Death of Chief Victor of a sickness, near the Three Forks of the Missouri River while on the hunt.  Chief Victor’s son Charlo fell heir, not only to the tribal leadership, but also to his father’s struggle to retain the rights of the tribe to their ancestral homeland, their dearly loved Bitter Root Valley.

Fr. DeSmet stressed Chief Victor’s piety.  Lt. Mullan told of his mildness and gentleness, bravery, generosity and many kindnesses to the members of Mullan’s exploring expedition.  He was head chief for nearly three decades in a trying period in the tribe’s history.  Although at times his leadership may have suffered from want of firmness in dealing with dissident elements, his sincere goodness, quiet courage, patience and dogged determination won him wide respect in his later years.  His compromise at Council Treaty 1855 was a statesmanlike action.  His insistence on the right of his tribe to remain in their homeland won his peoples’ approval and government officials’ respect.  His son, Chief Charlo adhered to Victor’s policy for 21 years after his death, and expressed the will of the majority of the members of the tribe.

Also Known as “Mitt-to”
“Little Bear Claw”
Indian Name “Easy to Get a Herd of Horses”

Chief Charlo of the Salish

1870 - Charlo was elected chief upon the death of his father, Chief Victor. Chief Charlo inherited his father’s struggle to remain in his Bitter Root homeland.

Charlo was sturdy, had broad shoulders with features “as rugged as a granite cliff.”  His mouth was large, his forehead high and sloping.  Father Palladino, his friend and contemporary, described him as quiet yet firm, a true representative of his race, a thorough Indian, a brave and honest man.  For seventeen years after the signing of the Hell Gate Treaty in 1855, the Bitter Root Salish lived quietly waiting for their land to be surveyed and examined as required.  Charlo was resigned to the whites intruding upon his land and was willing to live peacefully in accordance with the preaching of the Black Robes, whose religion he believed in.  However, he did not approve of his people adopting the ways of the white man.

General James A. Garfield arrived in the valley with an executive order from President Ulysses S. Grant to remove Charlo’s Indians to the Jocko Reservation.  Chief Charlo refused to sign Garfield’s agreement because the U.S. government failed to fulfill its obligations, according to the Treaty of 1855.  His name appeared on the agreement, a forgery later admitted, and a travesty that embittered Chief Charlo.  Father Ravalli corroborated Chief Charlo’s claim when he told Senator Vest of Missouri that he was present at the signing of the treaty and that Arlee and Adolph signed, but Charlo did not.

“In order to secure active cooperation of the second chief, (Arlee) I promised to recommend him as head chief in place of Charlo who forfeited his right by refusing to move or to become a citizen,” Indian agent D. Shanahan wrote in his Report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1872-1873. 

A furious Charlo announced to Senator Vest and his committee, that he had no confidence in their promises.  He said at the time, “For your Great Father, Garfield, put my name on a paper which I never signed, and that renegade Nez Perce, Arlee, is now drawing money to which he had no right.  How can I believe you, or any white man?…we do not wish to leave these lands.  You place your foot upon our necks and press our faces into the dust.  But I will never go to the reservation.  I will go to the plains.”   When  Arlee was underhandedly named head chief to replace him, it was an insult that Chief Charlo never forgave.

During the trek of the Nez Perce through the Bitterroot Valley, Chief Charlo refused to shake hands with the Nez Perce and warned Chief Joseph to steal nothing nor harm anyone in the Bitter Root Valley.

Chief Charlo’s people were destitute, hopeless and suffering.  The old chief was forced to capitulate. “I will go - I and my children.  My young men are becoming bad; they have no place to hunt.  My women are hungry.  For their sake I will go.  I do not want the land you promise.  I do not believe your promise.  All I want is enough ground for my grave.  We will go over there,” Chief Charlo said.

October 15, 1891-
Chief Charlo led his people away from their homeland.  Sitting erect on his pony, he never looked back, nor would he ever talk about the Bitter Root Valley, nor his life there.

January 10, 1910 -
Chief Charlo died at the Jocko agency, a bitter man.  Chief Charlo felt responsible for his people and felt that he had let them down when they were forced to move to the Jocko Reservation.

Little Grizzly Bear Claw
Charles (baptismal name)

“Tales of Indian warfare and massacre are common, but tales of forbearance, of spiritual conflict in a red man’s soul are as rare as a Dodo bird.  It is the proud record of Chief Charlo’s tribesman that they never spilled the blood of a white man“.
~ Author Helen Addison Howard

Last of the Salish being removed from the Bitterroot - 1891
Final group of Salish leaving the Bitterroot for the Jocko Reservation in 1891