Tag Archives: Montana

Some Notes On Chico Hot Springs, Montana

Steam rises out of the outdoor pool at Chico Hot Springs, Montana.

Steam rises out of the outdoor pool at Chico Hot Springs, Montana.

This last weekend I had the opportunity to be absorbed by a delegation from North Dakota and gladly pulled into the gravity of Chico Hot Springs, Montana. Once there, and while sauntering around the complex, I finally paid attention to a shiny placard (just next to the entrance I had been through multiple times) that noted Chico’s National Register of Historic Places status. So that compelled me to track down the registration nomination, and this is what we have.

The hot springs at Chico exist because of geology.  Water is heated sub-terra, and this eventually makes its way to the surface, flowing into places within and beyond the borders of Yellowstone National Park. At Chico, it arrives to the surface at around 112 °F. Water was first tapped and channeled at these springs as early as 1866 (10 years before Custer was shown mortality at the Battle of Greasy Grass — aka, the Battle of Little Big Horn). In 1900, a complex was built at Chico.

The historic buildings at Chico include the main hotel (1900) in the Georgian Revival style, an auto garage (1916), a smoke house (1915), a boiler house (1910) and horse barn (1916), pools, shower house and pool building (1917). Teddy Roosevelt visited the hotel in 1902 (he seems to be everywhere throughout the American West).

A 2013 photo of the historic 1900 Chico hotel, and mountain backdrop.

A 2013 photo of the historic 1900 Chico hotel, and mountain backdrop.

By 1969 a concrete-lined channel was added to divert hot spring overflow and regulate water temperature. Between 1900 and 2013, the owners of Chico added several structures to accommodate demand and growth. Before the Euro-American arrival on the scene, though, hot springs had been utilized extensively by Native America. The following is the description of how local Native America used the hot springs in and around Chico, this description from the National Register nomination for Chico:

…Springs, and in particular hot springs, were revered and often visited as places of spiritual cleansing and renewal. Water as a basis of life was important to Indian spirituality, as the Crow sang: bire daxua kok (water is your life).

Considering the experience had at Chico Hot Springs in 2013, it’s appropriate to say that this cleansing and renewal continues. The public placard next to the hotel lobby entrance at Chico reads as follows:

Generous verandas, period furnishings and healing waters invite the visitor to experience turn-of-the-century hospitality under the shadow of Emigrant Peak. The hot springs, long appreciated by native peoples, got their commercial start during the territorial period when miners stopped by to bathe and “wash their duds.” In 1876, an inventive settler tapped into the 112 degree water, piping it under his greenhouse to grow vegetables for local residents. A hotel was planned in the 1880s, but in 1892, there were still no facilities and families camped nearby to enjoy the springs. Percie and Bill Knowles inherited the property in 1894. They ran a boardinghouse for miners and in 1900, built the long-awaited hot springs hotel. Under Knowles’ active promotion, uniformed drivers ferried such guests as Teddy Roosevelt and artist Charlie Russell from the Emigrant depot to the springs. When Bill Chico NRHPKnowles died in 1910, Percie and her son Radbourne transformed the luxurious hotel into a respected medical facility. Dr. George A. Townshend joined the staff in 1912 and under his direction, the hospital and healing waters gained renown throughout the northwest. After the 1940s, new owners and new directions included gambling and dude ranching. In 1976, Mike and Eve Art began recapturing the once-famous hotel’s turn-of-the-century ambiance. Chico Hot SPrings, with its Georgian-inspired architecture and warm Craftsman style interiors, is one of Montana’s best preserved examples of an early twentieth century hot springs hotel and health resort.

I can only add that one ought to go to a hot spring within the continental interior of North America. It is worth your while.


Sharp’s “Whoop-Up Country” (1955) in Great Plains Historiography

Whoop-Up Country: The Canadian-American West, 1865-1885. By Paul F. Sharp. (Norman: University of Minnesota Press, 1955. 347 pages.)

Review by Aaron L. Barth

In 1955, Paul F. Sharp pushed the Turnerian model north across the 49th parallel with his Whoop-Up Country: The Canadian-American West, 1865-1885. In doing this Sharp turned Turner’s national model into an international one, describing the two-decade history of the trail that linked Fort Benton in west-central Montana with Fort McLeod in western Canada. In Sharp’s words, “Here on the northern plains, the two great streams of Anglo-Saxon pioneering that had pushed across the continent finally reached their last west in the same environment.” (Sharp, 1955: 8) A shortcoming of Sharp’s use of “whoop-up” is that he never defines its origins (for example, why would Euro-Americans use this phrase?). Grasslands united the United States and Canada, the matching physiographic and semi-arid plain transcending the geopolitical borders, yet culture carried on in its own respective way. Merchants arrived to these grasslands, acting on behalf of “their London masters — Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie, Henry Kelsey, David Thompson, Peter Skene Ogden, and scores of others.” (Sharp, 1955: 33) Castor Canadensis, or beaver (and the Euro-American fetish for top hats), compelled these trappers to move into this area, and with them arrived vestiges of Anglo-American culture.

"Whoop-Up" country map (Sharp, 1955: 6).

“Whoop-Up” country map (Sharp, 1955: 6).

The way in which Sharp breaks with earlier Anglo-Americentric histories is in his portrayal of the May 1873 massacre (rather than a battle) at Cypress Hills. In the nineteenth century American mind, when Custer and his Seventh Cavalry died at Bighorn, it remained a “massacre.” Yet when the Union army fell upon Native American villages with rifle, cannon and sabre, it remained a “battle.” According to Sharp, neither interpretation did the historical record any justice, or benefit, as they did no “credit to the objectivity or scholarship of those who, by reason of inadequate research or national bias, have perpetuated legend as history or myth as truth.” (Sharp, 1955: 55) Bringing up the topics of legend and history, or myth and truth, is where Sharp slips into a Positivistic, 1950s frame of mind. Three decades later, in 1986, William McNeill would cover this topic with more rigor and tenacity in Mythistory.

In other ways Sharp’s scholarship is dated, at least in his victimization of the Indian as a “drunk,” this inebriation described as the malefactor of the Cyprus Hills massacre. In Sharp’s words, “Whisky was the real culprit and this fight was another of its fearful effects upon the western Indians,” since this was a “frontier society which tolerated the sale of whiskey to the Indians and encouraged violence against them when disagreements arose.” (Sharp, 1955: 77) While Sharp’s scholarship broke from earlier Anglo-American histories, he continued to use paternalistic condescension toward Native America in his interpretation. When it came to interpreting the behavior of whites, however, he aptly allowed for individual agency and explained the differences in how it played on each side of the 49th parallel.

Four years before the massacre of Cyprus Hills, the Hudson’s Bay Company “transferred to the government of Canada its title to the vast preserve granted in its charter of 1670 and known as Rupert’s Land.” Sharp says it was approximately 2,300,000 square miles (italics mine) of land, this unit of measurement a subtle and slight reminder that Sharp’s readership still obliged American rather than Canadian interests. The establishment of a police force (“Law in Scarlet Tunics”) in the Northwest Territories on April 28, 1873 arguably denied the Canadian west a type of “lawlessness” and chaos so typical of the American West. Sharp addressed this, saying that if “every westerner lived by the myth and defended his honor with Colt’s ‘Great Equalizer’ at the slightest provocation, only one honorable man would have survived in each community” (Sharp, 1955: 107) Yet violence still held true, since the decentralized authority in the American West invariably could not stand up against large, roving gangs (unofficial social institutions in their own right). “Decentralization of authority in local governments was the heart of the matter, for through them law enforcement and judicial administration functioned.” (Sharp, 1955: 108) Local and regional laws guided the development of the American West, until they gave way to organized State and Federal systems that replaced the territories. Under the British-Canadian system, though, the myth or reality of disorder compelled London and Ottawa to bring the Empire immediately to bear on their western wilderness. Thus, in the western United States, chaos theory, regionalism, might-is-likely-right, and individual wits reigned. In the British-Canadian west, imperial order for god and country carried the day.

It is important to keep in mind that this history, when launched onto the scene in 1955, was nudging the interpretation of the Indian as “barrier” (as Walter Webb did in his Great Plains, 1933) to the Indian as understandable victim of United States and Canadian policy. A decade later, Vine Victor Deloria, Jr. and M. Scott Momaday (among others) would further this, an intellectual contribution that coincided with advances made by the American Indian Movement. Today, at least in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, scholarship has again shifted. Note, for example, Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008), or Elizabeth Fenn’s forthcoming work on the Mandan, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People. This scholarship demonstrates how Native American cultures acted rather than reacted to Euro-American encroachment. It is up to Native and non-Natives scholars today to push these interpretive boundaries, and help reshape the understanding of the past, and even the present.