BILLINGS, Mont. — Bit Tarter cracks a gleeful smile as she rummages through a red, white and blue star-shaped box for artifacts.
"We find quite a few points," Bit says of the arrowheads discovered on her ranch. "That's great family fun to look for arrowheads."
According to archeological surveys of the Otter Creek region in southeastern Montana, human habitation goes back at least 10,500 years. James R. Wettstaed wrote in a research paper on the area for the Forest Service that small, nomadic family units of about 25 people were the first to occupy the area. The people likely existed on a diversified diet of local vegetation and wild game.
Short-term camps have been found on the tops of buttes, canyon rims, along drainages and a few wintering sites in caves. According to the Forest Service, the Ashland area averages an archeological site every 50 acres. Out of the 438,000 acres of forest land, only 10% has been surveyed.
"The district does have many tremendous archeological sites," says Liz McFarland, Ashland District ranger for the Custer National Forest.
One of the reasons for those many archeological sites is the availability of porcellanite. Porcellanite is a native stone created when burning coal seams bake the surrounding dirt into rock. The porcellanite was used by prehistoric people of the area as the raw material for tools such as arrowheads, scrapers and lance points.
"Natives were drawn to the area partly because of the overwhelming availability of porcellanite," says Halcyon LaPoint, a Forest Service archeologist. "It's like a scoria, only more easily knapped."
Finding good, easy-to-chip tool material wasn't easy, LaPoint says.
"My son found the head of an ax," says Buzz Tarter, Bit's husband. "It was broken in half. I swear Alley Oop was swinging that thing; it was huge."
The other attractions to the Otter Creek area were water, pine trees and wild game. Buffalo were part of the attraction for natives. Buzz says he found weathered skulls nearby. One hangs over the bookshelves in his rustic living room, another is perched on his porch. Large kill sites have been found within and south of the Ashland District. Although archeological evidence seems to indicate most of the habitation of the area was short-term and seasonal, some more recent theories have challenged those assumptions.
"There was good hunting, water, trees, all of the good stuff if you're a hunter-gatherer," says Sherri Deaver, an archeologist for Ethnoscience in Billings, Mont.
After 1400 A.D., the Crow Indians began to move into the Otter Creek area in small bands from the Midwest. They shared the area with several other nomadic tribes. Samples of Shoshone petroglyphs have been found on the Ashland District of the Custer National Forest. The Northern Cheyenne, whose reservation is just west of the Ashland District on the other side of the Tongue River, at one time shared the region with the Teton Sioux from the Dakotas.
According to a Forest Service history of the region written by Wilson F. Clark, it was the Sioux that forced the Cheyenne out of the Black Hills and into conflict with the Crow Tribe. "The Cheyenne split into two major bands, with the Northern Cheyennes centering on the Tongue/Rosebud area," Clark writes.
The Ashland region was initially given to the Crow Tribe in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. The Cheyenne were given lands between the North Platte and Arkansas Rivers. But in another treaty 10 years later, the Cheyenne gave up most of the North Platte lands, agreeing to settle on Sand Creek near the Arkansas River.
Some of the Cheyenne warriors refused to agree to the treaty. In 1864, the Cheyenne encampment along Sand Creek was attacked by Col. John Chivington and his Colorado Volunteers who brutally murdered women and children. Repercussions from the assault reverberated throughout the Montana-Wyoming area as the Cheyenne and Sioux joined to fight white immigration and settlement.
Hostilities Between Tribes, U.S. Forces
This atmosphere gave rise to the great warrior Chief Red Cloud, whose bold raids on wagon trains and U.S. Cavalry troops prompted the U.S. government to establish forts along the Bozeman Trail as protection. The trail was eventually abandoned because of the danger to travelers and soldiers.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 gave the Indians small gains, but they were short lived. In 1875 the Northern Cheyenne, Sioux and Northern Arapaho were ordered onto reservation lands. When only one band complied, Gen. George Crook was dispatched to the region. His troops were defeated at Rosebud Creek, just southwest of Ashland. Shortly thereafter, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer rode boldly onto the scene only to be wiped out at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.