The Deserts of America

Page 1 of 3

by Rick Newby

Figure 1

Citadel Rock

The Wild and Scenic Missouri,
Citadel Rock in the foreground

View west, upstream.

Adaptation, Innovation, and Courage

Montana's Upper Missouri landscape is an exceptional stretch of country. Reaching from the mouth of the Yellowstone River (just inside North Dakota) to the point where the Marias River joins the Big Muddy, the region has seen enormous changes in the past two centuries and, at the same time, retained its remoteness, rugged character, and wild beauty. Here, where the Corps of Discovery struggled upstream in 1805, Indian people and more recent residents (mostly of Euroamerican heritage) have made their homes – in the process witnessing, and helping to shape, a vibrant and storied history.

As Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery passed through the region, they were alternately stirred by the landscape and its abundance – and concerned about its ability to sustain settlement. The Corps frequently found vestiges of Native American presence, though rarely saw any people, and they were astonished by the vast populations of wildlife. As the men proceeded westward, the expedition encountered numerous smaller streams "affording but little water," and as early as May 9, some miles upriver from today's Fort Peck Dam, Captain Clark recorded a large river "or the appearance of a river" (today's Big Dry Creek)  that "did not Contain one drop of running water." More than two weeks later, in present-day Blaine County, he penned his famous lament, which articulated the challenge all future residents of the region would face: "this Countrey may with propriety I think be termed the Deserts of America, as I do not Conceive any part can ever be Settled, as it is deficient in water, Timber & too Steep to be tilled."

This assessment would prove unduly pessimistic, but only after much effort and heartbreak – as thousands of homesteaders would try, and often fail, to tease a livelihood from this arid land prey to severe cyclic drought. After all, as the pioneer Mrs. W. H. Trask would write in a memoir, they "had come to Montana,

'Some to endure and many to quail,
Some to conquer and many to fail.'
"1

As in much of the West, water was key to survival on the Upper Missouri and, more than that, to prosperity – and much of the subsequent history of the region resides in tales of adaptation to the exigencies of life in a dry land. Farmers and ranchers would eventually come to thrive in these "lands of excellent quality," while the original residents of Montana's high plains – the Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Chippewa-Cree, Assiniboine, and Sioux – would have to find new ways of living and being in their home country. On the Highline, so-named after the Great Northern Railway line (the U.S.'s northernmost), irrigation projects have made the raising of crops practicable along the major rivers, large-scale grain farming makes Montana the third largest wheat producer in the United States, and wise use of the range has allowed sheepgrowers and cattlemen to flourish. Although poverty remains a significant problem on the region's Indian reservations, an entrepreneurial spirit, innovative educational  initiatives, and new irrigation projects have enlivened tribal economies.

As the twenty-first century opens, journalists writing for national magazines have celebrated the Upper Missouri country, this landscape of rugged badlands, sinuous rivers, and endless prairies. They tend to emphasize the place's singularity. In an article titled "The Last Real America," Carl Hoffman rhapsodizes over a "classic American landscape of huge, open, rolling space and sprawling ranches . . . roads so empty you can drive hundreds of miles without seeing a traffic light." Writer John Barsness is told by a friend who farms on Big Dry Creek that "this country didn't get electricity until the fifties," with residents heating with wood and reading by lantern light, and that through the mid-1950s most folks still used horses as primary transportation "because the roads were just gumbo, graded out of the sagebrush, impossible for cars when it got wet."2

At this juncture in American history, it is tempting to romanticize such isolation, such vastness, such emptiness. But at the same time, the stories of the settling of this place are more than pure romance; they are inspiring, complex, and sometimes harrowing tales of adaptation, innovation, courage, and tenacity.

Perhaps the place's novelists and poets and writers of memoir, with their intimate knowledge of this austere landscape, can best express the challenges – and pleasures – of life on the Highline. Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) has famously said of the Milk River country:

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.3

In The Indian Lawyer, James Welch (1940-2003), the Blackfeet/Gros Ventre novelist, describes his protagonist's relationship with the Upper Missouri landscape. Even though Sylvester Yellow Calf no longer lives on the Highline,

He had always loved the quiet fastness of the plains. To him, the country was not empty, but remote and secluded, even intimate if you were alone. Much of the time, if you were off the roads and highways, you could not see any sign of man's making. . . . And you saw plenty, in spite of what newcomers and tourists said. They didn't see the colors, the shades and shapes, of the prairies, the various grasses and brushes, the occasional animal that made it all worth it. . . . Many times when he was far away, Sylvester had envisioned these plains, the rolling hills, the ravines, the cutbanks and alkaline lakes, the reservoirs and scrublands, and he always saw life. He saw a hawk circling over a prairie dog town. He saw antelope gliding over . . . fences at a dead run. . . . He saw beauty in these creatures and he had quit trying to explain why. It was enough to hold these plains in his memory and it was enough to come back to them.4


1. Mrs. W. H. Trask, undated reminiscence, Frank Brown Papers, Small Collection 1388, Montana Historical Society Archives, Helena.

2. Carl Hoffman, "The Last Real America," National Geographic Traveler 23:3 (April 2006): 90; John Barsness, "The Missouri Breaks," National Geographic 195:5 (May 1999): 92. As naturalist Hannah Hinchman writes, gumbo is bentonite clay which, "when wet, expands to eight times its dry volume and turns greasy, creating a fine, sliding surface" notoriously difficult to navigate by automobile. Hannah Hinchman, "Sliding Scale – Geology of Wyoming's Table Mountain," Sierra, March-April 1995; see http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1525/is_n2_v80/ai_16773580.

3. Wallace Stegner, "The Question Mark in the Circle," Wolf Willow: A History, A Story and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973), 8.

4. James Welch, The Indian Lawyer (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), 158.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust