The Missoula Valley’s geologic features display evidence of Glacial Lake Missoula, a huge body of water stretching past Garrison, some 60 plus miles to the east, south past Hamilton, north to the shores of Flathead Lake and west hundreds of miles to Lake Pend d’ Oreille in Idaho, where the lake narrowed and was damned by an ice jam. After a climate change brought a long period of warming, the natural ice damn gave way and an immense volume of water and rock exploded across eastern Washington and down the Columbia River to the sea, ripping miles and miles of earth into what became known as the “scab lands,” and nearly emptying the Missoula Valley of its lake waters. Over the following centuries as glaciers continued to melt and move southward, the ice dams formed again at the narrows of Lake Pend d’ Oreille. Glacial Lake Missoula again filled with a volume of water approximating half of that in Lake Michigan and covering at times up to 2,900 square miles. This process of draining and filling repeated itself over and over with dynamic floods changing the landscape dramatically with each event. Traces of glacial lake shorelines mark the hillsides of the east entrance to the Missoula valley, displaying horizontal lines across the face of Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel.
As the geographic hub of five mountain valleys, the Missoula Valley became a natural travel corridor for Native Americans from the Pacific Slope, the Columbia Plateau and the intertwined mountain ranges of western Montana and Idaho on their journeys to hunt the vast herds of buffalo grazing on the plains west of the Continental Divide. These hunting expeditions by the Nez Perce, Flathead, Kootenai, Pend d’ Oreille, Shoshone, Coeur d’ Alene, Spokane and others, brought them into direct conflict with the Blackfeet and their allies the Gros Ventres. The tight canyon at the east entrance to the Missoula Valley often became the site of bloody confrontations over the bounty of the buffalo as the western tribes hauled their treasure back to the Bitterroot Valley and beyond.
The Missoula Valley also served as an important area from which to harvest bitterroot, a plant whose roots were used medicinally and as seasoning. The spring gathering of the bitterroot became an annual event for the Salish who wintered in the mountain valley to the south, which took on the name Bitterroot.
As Euro-Americans began to explore the western regions of the continent, they followed the clearly established Native American trails. In July of 1806 Meriwether Lewis and his party, guided by Nez Perce and Flathead, left Travelers’ Rest near Lolo, crossed the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers and set up a campsite near Grant Creek. The following day, July 4th, Lewis bid farewell to his Native American guides and proceeded to follow the “Road to the Buffalo,” east through the Missoula Valley and into the Blackfoot Valley. With the Blackfoot River as a landmark, Lewis headed for his rendezvous with William Clark, eventually meeting him near the mouth of the Yellowstone River.
Less than a decade later, trapper and explorer for the Hudson Bay Company, David Thompson, followed the main north-south trail (which would later be known as the Jocko to Fort Owen Road), entering the Missoula Valley and climbed Mount Jumbo. Looking down at the Missoula Valley, he sketched a map on which he labeled the wide expanse as NEMISSOOLATAKOO, a name that Father Palladino, founder of St. Patrick’s Hospital, believed incorporated Salish references to “cold or chilly waters.” Thompson’s visit coincided with the growing fur trade industry, which was already dramatically impacting the region’s natural resources and the native cultures. The origin of the shortening of the name to Missoula and its meaning is still debated. Paul C. Phillips, editor of “Forty Years on the Frontier,” the autobiographical book by legendary miner, rancher, trader, politician and merchant, Granville Stuart, wrote the following:
“One of these daughters (referring to Captain Richard Grant’s daughter, Julia) married C.P. Higgins of Hell Gate and Missoula. Angus MacDonald, a son of the old trader at Fort Connah believes that Mrs. C. P. Higgins made the contraction of an Indian sentence meaning, “where the waters flow from opposite directions” to form the word Missoula. On the other hand his half-brother Duncan MacDonald assets that Missoula came from the Indian expression In May soo let que meaning Quaking river. Father Palladino gives still another meaning. He believes that the expression Im-i-sul-e meaning “by the cold chilling waters,” is the origin of the word (Phillips, 1977:126)."
French trappers, observing the human bones strewn on the valley floor at the eastern canyon entrance was a reminder of the bloody ambushes there and started referring to the site as “Porte d’ Enfer,” translated as Hell’s Gate. The trappers claimed that it was “safer to enter the gates of hell than pass through this narrow confine.” The name Hell Gate would remain from that time on and be used to designate both the larger valley area where trading parties gathered known as Hell Gate Ronde, and Hell Gate Village, the predecessor of the city of Missoula.
In the 1840s Catholic missionaries led by Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet brought the first wheeled vehicle through Hell Gate Canyon on their way to St. Mary’s Mission, located south in the Bitterroot Valley near present-day Stevensville. Father Anthony Ravalli carried on Father DeSmet’s work throughout western Montana and Idaho. When the Jesuits abandoned St. Mary’s for a short time, John Owen bought the facilities, established a trading post, and renamed it Fort Owen. That fort became a focal point for trade along the main trail into the Missoula Valley.
During the 1850s Congress directed Isaac Stevens, governor of Washington Territory, to survey western lands for development of a transcontinental rail route. Assisted by Lieutenant John Mullan, Stevens’ mission included negotiating a series of treaties with Native American tribes with the goal of providing peaceful access for the railroad and title to the land over which it was to be built. In July of 1855 Stevens met with leaders of the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’ Oreille at Council Groves located a few miles west of present-day Missoula, and after several days of discussions the Hellgate Treaty was signed by all of the representatives except Chief Victor of the Salish. The treaty established the Flathead Indian Reservation, but Victor and his followers remained in the Bitterroot until they were forced out. In 1891 Missoulians gathered to watch Chief Charlo lead his people across the Clark Fork River on their way to the Flathead Reservation. That event is commemorated in a mural painted by Edgar Paxson, which hangs in the Missoula County Courthouse, located in the heart of the downtown.