Exhibit: Appropriate, Curious, & Rare: Montana History Object by Object

Montana Before Montana

Montana’s First Peoples called this place home long before the arrival of Euro-Americans and other latecomers. For millennia, the ancestors of today’s Plains and Plateau tribes surmounted the oftentimes harsh elements and developed diverse cultures that thrived in the land we now know as Montana. The introduction of guns and horses into the region in the early 1700s dramatically altered—but did not end—centuries-old lifeways. At the turn of the nineteenth century, non-Indians began to venture into the area. At first they did not come to stay, but to explore what was, to them, an unknown land and to harvest its wealth, initially in the form of beaver furs. Eventually, these newcomers would have an even greater impact on Montana’s aboriginal peoples than did the arrival of guns and horses.




Petroglyph, 350-2,000 before present, MHS 1988.14.01

This enigmatic rock panel came from the Ellison Rock Formation near Colstrip. Before mining the area, the Western Energy Company removed a series of petroglyphs and donated this piece to the Montana Historical Society. Petroglyphic images of “shield bearing warriors” like these have been found throughout the Northern Plains. Here, the central warrior stands with two smaller figures to his right. Another small figure, faintly visible to the left, seems to be unrelated to the other images. The date is unknown, but it is thought to have been created between 350 and 2,000 years ago. We do not know who carved these obscure images and their exact meaning remains open to interpretation. Perhaps the main character is a great warrior and the smaller figures are followers, or perhaps they represent the children of the main shield bearer—we will likely never fully understand the original message the images conveyed.  

Hagen site artifacts

Hagen Site Artifacts, ca. 1550-1675, MHS 87.57.01, .06, .16, .17, .22

As one of only two permanent village sites excavated in Montana, the Hagen Site—a National Historic Landmark north of Glendive—tells an important story of cultural evolution on the Northern Plains. Artifacts gathered from the site include pottery sherds that bear characteristics of Great Lakes’ ceramics; hoes, picks, and squash and pumpkin seeds that suggest the inhabitants were familiar with agriculture; and the remains of 341 buffalo, indicating this was a hunting-oriented site. Taken together, these artifacts indicate that the Hagen Site (which was settled sometime between 1550 and 1675) may be the key to a crucial turning point of a people with Woodland roots as they transitioned to Plains bison culture. 

Album Unique

George Catlin Album Unique, 1852, MHS MHS X1969.62.37-39

Traveling the Upper Missouri River in the 1830s, George Catlin (1796–1872) was among the first artists of note to paint the portraits and ceremonies of the region’s Native American tribes. When he returned from the West, Catlin spent years promoting the artwork he had produced on his journey and transforming drawings and field sketches into finished works of art. In 1852, while visiting London, he assembled an Album Unique of original graphite drawings, inscribing the title page: “From amongst these tribes I have brought home a very extensive collection of portraits and other paintings taken from life and from which the following selection of portraits has been made by myself and copied with great care by my own hand.” These figures are three of one-hundred-thirty-five that he drew for this album.


Elk tooth dress

Elk Tooth Dress, before 1860, MHS X1982.01.25

Constructed from two big horn sheep hides, this dress was most likely made about 1830 or even earlier. Once plentiful on Montana’s plains, big horn sheep produced hides larger than those of deer, thus offering a popular option for dressmaking. The seamstress who made this garment incorporated the hides’ natural features into the design, using the tail end as a decorative yoke across the back and leg skins as part of the fringe on the armholes. Additionally, she ornamented the upper portion of the dress, front and back, with 192 elk teeth (small, ivory, upper canines that are vestigial, prehistoric tusks). Because each elk has only two such “teeth,” their profusion on this dress paid homage to the hunters’ skills and served as a proud boast for the wearer. Highly prized by Plains peoples, elk teeth were often passed down as heirlooms, which possibly explains why the teeth were removed from the back of this dress at some point in its history.

Otter pelt saddle ornament

Otter Pelt Saddle Ornament, ca. 1880, MHS X1975.18.06

The acquisition of horses in the early eighteenth century transformed the lives of Montana’s Plains and Plateau Indians. With horses, they could travel farther and faster in search of buffalo, and bison hunting itself became much easier. Ponies became an essential component of personal wealth as well as a motive for intertribal raiding and warfare. Because they valued their horses so highly, both men and women festooned their mounts for special occasions, much as they adorned themselves. This saddle ornament, made circa 1880, is one of a matched pair that were suspended from the saddle on either side of the horse. Made of an otter pelt backed by red wool trade cloth, it is decorated with both traditional and European trade items including cowrie and dentalia shells, silk ribbons, glass seed beads, and brass hawk bells.

Hawken rifle owned by Jim Bridger

Jim Bridger's Hawken Rifle, c. 1850, MHS X1910.02.01

This rifle is a doubly exciting artifact because of the fame of its one-time owner—mountain man, guide, and scout Jim Bridger (1804–1881)—and because this type of Plains rifle, made about 1850 by St. Louis gun maker Samuel Hawken (1792–1884), has itself become an icon of the western American frontier. We do not know the exact date or circumstances under which Bridger obtained this rifle. In 1866, however, he sold it to Pierre Chien (1829–1877), for sixty-five dollars at Fort C. F. Smith in southern Montana Territory. Chien, who was an interpreter for the Crow tribe for thirty years, kept Bridger’s Hawken until just before his death, when he gave it to frontier guide and scout J. I. Allen (1839–1929) who, in turn, donated it to the Historical Society of Montana in 1910.

Trade Bead Card

Trade Bead Sample Card, ca. 1910, MHS X1952.06.32

Since time immemorial, Montana’s First Peoples have fashioned natural materials such as bone, porcupine quills, shells, and stone into decorative ornaments to adorn clothing and other possessions. European explorers and fur traders introduced glass beads and beading traditions to North America in the 1600s, often via existing intertribal trade networks. By the 1820s, trading posts throughout the West stocked European-manufactured beads, a prized trade item among the region’s indigenous peoples. Glass beads were aesthetically pleasing and easily incorporated into indigenous designs. Unlike quills, beads required no preparation to apply and could be re-used. Sample cards were used to show customers the variety of beads a trader had in stock. This card came from Browning’s Sherburne Mercantile, which operated on the Blackfeet Reservation from 1896 to 1942. With limited access to natural materials during the late-1800s and the wide availability of glass beads, Native artists became known for producing the spectacular beadwork still associated with Plains Indians today.

Montana Before Montana