From First Man 12,000 years ago to the 1950s the Old North Trail has been in use along the Rocky Mountain Front. Early man, Native Americans, Metis and early settlers made use of its resources and protection to safely travel and settle North America.
Historian Al Wiseman helps keep the story alive in Choteau and Teton County.
Historical Time Period:
12,000 years ago to the 1950's
It’s one of North America’s oldest roadways and has been in use as far back as 12,000 years ago. Yes, that’s 12,000 years ago. And most people have never heard of it, let alone seen it. It runs along the Rocky Mountain Front from northern Alberta to Mexico. Starting as a footpath over the years it evolved into a dog travois path, a horse travois trail, wagon trail, and in parts a gravel road and paved highway. It was one of America’s first highways.
Just west of Choteau, Montana parts of this highway still sit, untouched, in much the same shape as when those First Americans traveled down it. From this main road others branch off like spines into the mountains, through the passes, and into the Westside country of the Rockies. It was in continuous use until the automobile became common place [the 1950’s for some folks out here] and the roads and highways moved further east onto the flat plains country.
I’d read about it, heard stories from Blackfoot people whose ancestors used it to go to war on, and seen parts of it in Alberta. But I’d thought the original trail had long since been built over or lost. But then I met Al Wiseman, a Metis [part Native American, part Euro-American], whose passion was Metis history, and their use of the Old North Trail or Miisum apatosiosoko, the Ancient North Trail, as the Blackfoot called it.
Al was one of a group of local Choteau citizens who felt the trail should be marked before it totally disappeared. Ancient stone cairn markers still stood in some spots, pointing the winding way through the foothills. And the actual trail made from the travois digging into the earth marked other sections. But the cairns had been torn apart by people looking for treasure under them [which they never found], and the trails were gradually fading away naturally. The committee decided to place boulders with “Old North Trail” marked on them at strategic locations along the trail in Teton County. They had also developed a map of the trail to the Canadian border. [This was used by some Metis and Blackfoot people, visiting back and forth, who still traveled by wagon until the 1950’s.]
The Old North Trail is now marked, but to many it is just scratches in the dirt and piles of rocks. The full story of the trail and its rich bodied history needs pointing out, and for this Al Wiseman is the person to see. Al gives guided tours of the trail and accompanying sites through the Nature Conservancy's Pine Butte Preserve. These are usually free to those interested and can be short tours, or full day expeditions. Since the early people didn’t just pass through the area quickly there are sites of tipis ring camps numbering in the hundreds of lodges, eagle catching pits, vision quest sites, and numerous buffalo jumps to see. The buffalo jumps [in many cases corrals rather than jumps] had been in use since prehistoric times with the last one in the area being around 1843. Piskan, in Blackfoot, was the name for these corrals, and they provided a food resource that allowed abundance in the winter months.
In addition to the Native American sites there are those of the Metis settlers. These are the people who had slipped into the nearby foothills to avoid the U.S. government forced removal to Canada in 1883. They used those many canyons just as the early travelers on the trail did. They were ideal places to escape enemies, and not be found.
If history is your passion, or even just mild interest, the Old North Trail is waiting to tell its story – just as it has for 12,000 years.