John Mullan's Lolo

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John Mullan's Lolo

Isaac Stevens, governor of the huge new Washington Territory from 1853 to 1857, could recognize a born leader and trailblazer—"an officer of judgment and enterprise"—when he saw one. Twenty-four-year-old Lieutenant John Mullan, a native of Norfolk, Virginia, was just two years out of West Point when Stevens chose him to participate in the exploration of a new railroad route from the Mississippi to the northwest coast, somewhere between the 47th and 49th parallels. Mullan's first major assignment was to erect a cantonment (a semi-permanent encampment) in the Bitterroot Valley near Fort Owen, to serve as a supply depot from which continuing explorations and surveys of the Bitterroot range and other parts of the Rockies could be dispatched. He was also to see to the recording of meteorological observations that could be used to ascertain "the character of the seasons" there. He was to personally explore the ancient Indian trail across the Bitterroots that Lewis and Clark had followed in 1805 and 1806, and assess its suitability as a possible railroad route. Stevens authorized Mullan to hire an interpreter and guide at the rate of $500 per year, and recommended a man named "Gabiel."1

That would have been Gabriel Prudhomme, a Cree and French-Canadian halfbreed who had been adopted by the Bitterroot-Salish tribe, (then and there known as the Flathead Indians).2 Stevens either arbitrarily omitted the r because he knew Salishan speakers did not use that phoneme, or he simply wrote it as he heard it. If he knew that they typically substituted the sound of l for the (to them) unpronounceable r, he would have spelled Prudhomme's baptismal name "Gabliel." Gabriel had served as Fr. De Smet's personal interpreter, helping to translate some Catholic prayers into Salishan. He also provided Lt. Mullan with useful information about the country thereabouts, especially trails and passes, a courtesy that many Indian guides withheld from white explorers, as Isaac Stevens once complained.3 Gabriel had a ledger account at Fort Owen. His name appeared in it for the last time on January 15, 1856, when Major Owen wrote, without further explanation, "Gabriel Prudhomme died."4 It may have been Gabriel who told Mullan the current name of the ancient Indian trail and the creek that Mullan wrote down as the "Lo-Lo Fork" or "Lo-Lo's fork"—with the possessive apostrophe confirming that the word was indeed a noun, not a verb.

Figure 6

Lt. John Mullan's map of the Hell-Gate Ronde

To see labels, point to the map.

mullan's map of hellgate ronde

Special Collections, Mansfield Library, The University of Montana, Missoula

Detail from Lt. John Mullan's map of his Military Road from Fort Benton, Montana Territory to Fort Walla-Walla, Washington (published in 1864) which he surveyed in 1853-54, and constructed in 1865-68.

In 1860 Christopher Higgins and Francis Worden established the trading post they called Hell Gate Village. Higgins first entered this geographic hub of five mountain valleys as a wagon-master for the U.S. government's railroad route survey in the mid-1850s.. He and Francis Worden, a Vermonter who previously owned a general merchandise store in Walla Walls, Washington Territory, established a trading post they called Hell Gate Village—near the river roughly below the G in Gate (Figure 2). Their store marked the beginning of commerce and immigrant settlement in the valley. The Hell Gate River, which originates more than 100 miles to the east, on the west slope of the Continental Divide, flows westward through the defile at the right edge of the map. That narrow canyon was called Port d'Enfer by the earliest white travelers, who for many years saw gruesome evidence of the intertribal battles that had taken place there.

The name "Coriaken's defile" commemorates a Hawaiian-born wrangler of that name, or various phonetic equivalents, who was ambushed by Blackfeet warriors as he rode a bell mare at the head of a brigade of trappers and traders who were returning from the Clark's River valley to their HBC post at Fort Connah in the Mission Valley.5

A little north of the "Lo-Lo Fork" a creek joining the Bitterroot River from the east was labeled "Williams Cr." by Mullan; its name changed several times before it became today's Miller Creek. The sources and meanings of the names "Nemote" and "Skiotaw" in Mullan's map are obscure. "Browers" may have been an early settler who claimed a homestead somewhere along this creek, although no such name appeared in contemporary legal records. "Fishery Creek," today called Petty Creek (of unknown provenance), might have been named for its reputation as a good source of spawning native Salvelinus confluentus, a char of the family Salmonidae, its relatively prominent head earning it the common name "bull trout." In 1999 the bull trout was listed as a threatened species throughout their once tremendous range of the Northwest's high country.

In his field report to Governor Stevens, Mullan consistently called the stream either "Lo-Lo's fork" or the "Lo-Lo Fork" of St. Mary's River. However, his map of the Fort Benton-Fort Walla Walla Military Road didn't appear in print until 1864. In the meantime a new spelling of the name Lolo, notably the "Lou-Lou" that appeared in Stevens's Reports of Explorations and Surveys (published 1855-1861), introduced more ambiguities into the man's identity.


1. Isaac I. Stevens, Reports of Explorations and Surveys for a Route for the Pacific Railroad, near the Forty-Seventh and Forty-Ninth Parallels of North Latitude from St. Paul to Puget Sound, 12 vols. in 13 (Washington: T. Ford, Printer, 1855-1861), Vol. I, Supplement, pp. 61-62.

2. Lucylle Evans, St. Mary's in the Rocky Mountains: A History of the Cradle of Montana's Culture (Stevensville: Montana Creative Consultants,1976), 27. Fur trader William Ashley devoted one entry in his account book for July of 1825 to a "Mr. Prudum," at least phonetically identical with Stevens's Gab[r]iel Prudhomme.

3. "So tenacious not only are the Indians, but even the missionaries, of their right of occupation, that it is impossible for them to resist the inclination to underrate the country and the routes, in order to keep white people out of it." Stevens, Reports, Vol. 12, Book 1, p. 249.

4. Thompson's comprehensive map of the territory he explored during his lifetime, which he completed in 1814, does not show any stream that can be clearly identified as Travelers Rest, only Clark's river bearing its Salish name, Nemisoolatakoo, from which the name of Missoula County was derived by the Territorial Legislature on May 7, 1860. For the next four years that county constituted the entire Territory of Montana.

5. George F. Weisel, ed., Men and Trade on the Northwest Frontier as Shown by the Fort Owen Ledger (Missoula: Montana State University Press, 1955), 5-6. It didn't take Mullan long conclude that "from the head of Lo-Lo's fork to the Clearwater the country is one immense bed of rugged, difficult, pine-clad mountains, that can never be converted to any purpose for the use of man."