On the Heels of the Buffalo

151 Buffalo Sky

My grandmother was so proud of her father and wanted him to be remembered, so she wrote his biography.

I happened to be the grandchild who thought what she was doing was like a treasure hunt. After I became a photographer in 1997, somebody suggested to me to do a photo essay on my passion for Great Grandpa Heindrick Hans Nelson's history.

For forever, it seems, I have wanted to make a movie from my grandmother Elizabeth Greenfield's book, On the Heels of the Buffalo.

These words and pictures are the beginnings of fulfilling a dream that I have had since I was 12.

H.H. was born in Denmark. His mother moved the family to Hutchinson, Minn., in 1866.

When he was in his late teens, he got a job out of Bismarck, N.D., to be the trail boss of about seven men to take 300 head of horses to Deer Lodge.

They came across by the badlands near Glendive, then to Coulson, which is now Billings, up the Yellowstone to somewhere by Three Forks, then up to Helena and over the Mullan Pass and on into Deer Lodge.

It was the fall of 1881. Then it was up the Old North Trail to his first job, watching a cow camp over the winter located near where the Marias meets the Missouri.

We now know this as Decision Point, the place where Lewis and Clark had to figure out which channel was the Missouri.

The horses he was training at this job got stolen so he tracked them all the way to the Cypress Hills in Saskatchwan and spent three days talking the chief into returning his horses.

After this winter he went to work for a sheep man near Sun River at Eagle Butte. He was willing to help H.H. get his own sheep. They called this "sharing."

Then in 1883 H.H. filed on his Missouri River property between Cascade and Ulm, calling this place Riverdale.

That is where I photographed these steps in a house built on my Great Grandfather's Riverdale property near Cascade. They represent to me my quest of following his steps around Montana.

My Great Grandfather stayed at Riverdale until about 1904, running one of Montana's largest sheep operations.

A series of misfortunes occurred, and he missed a payment to the bank. They foreclosed. He was left with only a parcel of land west of Glasgow on the Milk River.

He named this place Vandalia. Instead of returning to the sheep business, he became an earth mover. He had 100 mules for digging irrigation canals and building railroad beds.

A group of men from Glasgow, called The Milk River Water User's Association, wanted to irrigate northeastern Montana. H.H. was one of them.

They spent two years convincing Congress and Teddy Roosevelt to give them the money to build dikes from St. Mary Lake in Glacier Park so the water would flow into the Milk River. Near Havre they started building a series of dams that would end at Nelson Reservoir by Saco at Buffalo Hot Springs.

This reservoir is named in honor of my Great Grandfather. He was the person who found the place for a reservoir and surveyed it.

He died before it was finished. That was 1914 and he was only 54.

I went looking for Bird Tail Divide on the Old North Trail one warm June day. Barely any wind. It was one of those photographing days of feeling one with nature and in the zone.

At the Bird Tail I wished I had brought a big picnic lunch, my lover, a bottle of wine. I wished that I could spend all day lying on the earth, feeling the air against my skin, watching the butterflies, smelling the grasses and watching the Hereford cattle. But I had other places to go, people to meet and photos to take. Another day I'll go back and absorb this little piece of heaven.

My grandmother always spoke of this place as though it were a special place in her father's life. I never really understood why, but thought if I went there I might learn.

I knew that Great Grand-father had traveled this road to find his first job in Montana.

Sam Spencer of Sun River had told him on a cattle drive from Minnesota to Canada, "Kid if you want to come west, find me in Sun River, and I'll give you a job."

I suppose this is one of the reasons the Bird Tail was so special to him. He might have grazed his sheep here later in his life. Or was it special because it just is?

When I began to do a photo essay of Great Grand-father's life, I could not know that it would lead me to Native American spiritual landscapes, with their immense history.

In On the Heels of the Buffalo, my grandmother writes that the watering hole below the Bird Tail had been a favorite spot for tired travelers: "Asians were the first to blaze this trail. In pre-historic mists they came, always walking along high places, but not mountains because it was a high, safe route."

I wonder. Did my picture captured the watering hole she was talking about? She, too, was intrigued by the peoples who came before us and wondered about the mystery of their lives.

Hmmm, so man has been drinking from this spring for thousands of years.

And I thought my great grandfather's history was old.

I am fascinated with history and love the old stories that are told.

In our culture, architecture helps tell the story of an age. But the Native Americans don't have architecture. Their history is in the landscape.

I am left wondering what special significance this place has with the Blackfeet and other plains tribes, and the people before that.