With the signing of the Hellgate Treaty and others across the West in the mid-1800s, native populations throughout western Montana were promised financial rewards, modern schools and services in exchange for vast amounts of land and agreements to relocate onto much smaller tracts of land. Reservations in the Flathead Valley and to a lesser extent, in the Bitterroot Valley, resulted. However, the latter became coveted by white settlers and in 1891, after years of deprivation resulting from broken promises of food, shelter and educational facilities, the Flatheads were forced from the Bitterroot Valley to relocate and settle onto the northern Flathead Reservation.
With the completion of the treaty, the opportunities for building a railroad through the Missoula Valley seemed assured. Christopher P. Higgins, a young Irishman who had served as wagon master for the Stevens survey party, and who had been present at the Hellgate Treaty signing, believed strongly in the potential of the Missoula Valley to become a major trading center. In the summer of 1860 Higgins and his business partner, Francis L. Worden, who owned a general store in Walla Walla, Washington, brought some six-dozen mules loaded with supplies to the Missoula Valley. There they built a trading post just to the east of Council Groves near a Native American river crossing and the Jocko trail.
While Higgins, Worden, and their clerk Frank Woody worked to establish the store, Lieutenant John Mullan pushed ahead with construction of a military road connecting Fort Walla Walla in Washington to Fort Benton, located at the end of river traffic on the Missouri in Montana. Mullan’s Military Road followed the main Salish trail passing within feet of the Worden and Higgins trading post in that same summer of 1860. Soon other buildings began to be constructed around the trading post and the cluster became known as Hell Gate Village.
Hell Gate soon grew to around a dozen buildings and in December of 1860 it became the Missoula County seat. During the next few years Hell Gate prospered as prospectors headed through the valley for the gold fields at Gold Creek to the east and later up to strikes at the Kootenai mines northwest of Hell Gate. It was a rough and dangerous place. During Hell Gate’s first five years of existence all ten of the deaths that occurred there were the result of acts of violence. In January of 1864, a group of 21 men known as the Vigilante Committee left Virginia City on horseback in search of persons involved in a gang of road agents and thugs who had terrorized the people of that town and nearby Bannack. Their journey led them to Hell Gate Village, where with great expediency they apprehended, tried and hanged Cyrus Skinner, Aleck Carter and Johnny Cooper, three suspected outlaws. Shortly thereafter, the Vigilantes tracked down two more suspects in the vicinity by the names of Bob Zachary and George Shears, both of whom were tried and hanged. Leaving Hell Gate Village, the Vigilantes rode south to the Bitterroot and Fort Owen. There they caught up with Bill Graves, better known as “Whiskey Bill,” and dispensed the usual brand of justice with a swift trial and hanging. The Vigilantes were both judge and jury and a defendant’s claim of “I’m innocent,” was thought to be the secret code word of the road agents, and therefore just another piece of condemning evidence.