Snow in the Tobacco Roots

Tobacco Root Mountains

view southeast

Aerial photo of a snowy mountain range behind a broad valley

© 2000 Airphoto, Jim Wark. All rights reserved.

Beautiful Prairies

We proceeded on and passed a large beautiful bottom," wrote Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse on August 2, 1805, "and Prairies lying on both sides of the River." On each side of the valley, Sergeant Gass observed, "there is a high range of mountains . . . with some spots of snow on their tops." The Jefferson River was still "crouded with Islands Sholey [shallow] rapid & clear," according to Clark. Coming ashore on August 3 to look for Indians, he found a barefoot track and followed it, discovering "that the person had ascended a point of a hill from which his [Clark's] camp of the last evening was visible." It appeared that unidentified Indians had been furtively shadowing them off and on for more than two weeks, but there were as yet no clues as to whether they were friends or foes.

In the background are the Tobacco Root Mountains, which separate the Jefferson River on the west and the Madison River to the east, include twenty jagged glaciated summits higher than ten thousand feet. Along their fringe on the west side, the upland slopes of thin, rocky soil are green for only a few weeks in early spring. The dark green areas at center right of the photo are hayfields irrigated from the little creek at center. Those thin light lines across the grassy plain are farm lanes.

This range had no name until 1873, when it was called the "South Boulder Range" in F.V. Hayden's 6th Annual Report of the Geological Surveys of the Territories. The name "Tobacco Root Mountains," which first appeared in print in 1914, is of uncertain origin, although it is probable that Indians at one time used the root of a certain plant found there, either for food or for smoking.1

When Clark and his detachment passed through here again eleven months later, northwest winds chilled by the snowcapped mountains "rendered it very difficuelt to keep the canoes from running against the Shore."

1. There are a number of different and equally plausible explanations of the source and meaning of "Tobacco Root," most related to Indian uses. The words themselves, however, are distinctly Euroamerican. There is a plant commonly known as Tobacco Root, with the scientific identity Valeriana edulis. Daniel E. Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1998), 588. A.N. Winchell, Mining Districts of the Dillon Quadrangle: USGS Bulletin 574.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust