Stevens Surveys the Milk

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"Desolate? Forbidding? There was never a country that in its good moments was more beautiful. Even in drouth or dust storm or blizzard it is the reverse of monotonous, once you have submitted to it with all the senses. You don't get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint against it. You don't escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small. But also the world is flat, empty, nearly abstract, and in its flatness, you are a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark."

Milk River near junction of Missouri

by John Mix Stanley

Elk on a bluff overlooking a river valley

Lithograph, 8.25 by 8.875 inches

A Very Important Point

From 1853 until 1855, Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818-1862), who recently had been named Governor of the new Washington Territory, led a government-sponsored overland expedition to find the best route for a railroad across the northwestern United States from Minnesota to Puget Sound, between 47° and 49° North Latitude. The objective was much like that of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of fifty years earlier, except that this one was inspired by the new technology that had already begun to transform the new mode of mass transportation across the continent. Also like the first expedition, the ultimate goal was to control commerce between the eastern and western boundaries of the Pacific Ocean.

Leaving Minneapolis, Minnesota, in June of 1853, he arrived in what is now northeastern Montana in mid-August. Stevens's report for the eighteenth of that month read:

Encamped on the Milk river, 16 miles being the day's march. Here we determined to remain a day to prepare charcoal for the blacksmith, and to make observations for the geographical position of its mouth, which is considered a very important point in the survey. Our camp was surrounded by a large grove of cottonwood,and near it was a delightful spring of water. The valley of Milk river is wide and open, with a very heavy growth of cottonwood as far as the eye can reach, which is also to be found along the adjacent shores of the Missouri.2

With characteristic enthusiasm he observed that "the prairie country is not only well grassed, but much of it arable. This is emphatically the case with the bottoms of the Missouri, which our route followed."

The American portraitist, artist and illustrator John Mix Stanley (1814-1872), served as one of the official artists with the Stevens railroad survey party to the Northwest. His record of highlights along the route often combined documentary verisimilitude with romantic fantasy, as in the focal point of this scene–a quadruped resembling an elk-caribou3 cross stands near a reclining pronghorn, the first animal too small, the other too large.

The rows of trees in the middle of Stanley's drawing, which resemble an orchard, are supposed to be cottonwoods, and are only slightly "interpreted" in that they appear equidistant from one another in straight rows. Real cottonwood trees germinate within a few feet of the high-water mark on riverbanks, and consequently grow in parallel rows that trace the contours of successive high-water marks. (For a bird's-eye view of the hundred-year history of this confluence as told in real trees, see "The Missouri and the Milk.")

1. Wallace Stegner, "The Question Mark in the Circle," from Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (New York: Viking Press, 1955), 8.

2. Isaac I. Stevens, Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to ascertain the most practical and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, 12 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1860), vol. 12, bk I, Narrative and Final Report, 90, Plate 18.

3. It is possible that a subspecies of the elk-like caribou, Rangifer tarandus, —may once have ranged as far south as the Milk River, but Lewis and Clark never mentioned seeing any. A small endangered herd of woodland caribou, the subspecies R. t. caribou, survives today in the mountains of northern Idaho and northwestern Montana. Domesticated caribou are commonly called reindeer.