NewsMissoula County


Beartracks Bridge: A place of sadness, honor and friendship

Beartracks Stephen Small Salmon\
Frances Vanderburg
Beartracks Powwow
Salish 1891 Missoula Crossing
Beartracks Bridge Dedication
Beartracks Bridge Dedication
Posted at 8:33 AM, Oct 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-11 10:33:56-04

MISSOULA - A faded black and white photo marks the only visual evidence of the day the Salish were forced off their homeland to the Flathead Reservation.

Now, a bridge stands in their honor, bearing the name Beartracks — a legend of his people.

Salish 1891 Missoula Crossing
A band of Salish cross the river in the Missoula Valley during their forced removal to the Flathead Reservation in 1891.

According to Thompson Smith, the tribal history and ethnology project coordinator, around 300 Salish were moved to the Flathead Reservation in October 1891.

One of the three bands of people, led by a sub-chief named Louis Vanderburg, crossed the Clark Fork River on or near the Higgins bridge.

Vanderburg's father-in-law was known as Sx͏ʷuytis Smx̣e, or Grizzly Bear Tracks. He too was a sub-chief who signed both the Hellgate Treaty and Judith River Treaty in 1855.

Frances Vanderburg
Bear Tracks family member, Frances Vanderburg, delivers remarks at the Beartracks Bridge dedication ceremony in Missoula on Oct. 10, 2022.

“This place sits right at the heart of the territories of the Salish and Kalispell people," Smith said. "It really conveys, through these place names, the richness of this cultural landscape to the Salish people past, present and future. Many of these names go back to a time when the land was prepared for the people to come.”

A painting rendered by Charlie Russell depicts the day the Salish people met Lewis and Clark at a place known in English as Ross's Hole.

When the expedition arrived in 1805, Smith said they were initially spotted by Salish warriors. They raced back to camp to inform Chief Three Eagles of the approaching party and potential danger.

Beartracks Powwow
Following the dedication of Beartracks Bridge, a powwow was held in Caras Park on Oct. 10, 2022.

Three Eagles, joined by sub-chief Grizzly Bear Tracks – himself the father of future sub-chiefs bearing the same name – were forced to decide whether the expedition posed a threat.

In the end, they concluded that it did not.