She stood looking over the valley for more years than anyone could count. There were several versions of her story. But in 1976 when people thought she threatened others, she was taken from her mountain home forever. Maiden Rock vanished in a cloud of red dust.
The Bridgers, Tobacco Roots, Crazies, and Spanish Peaks form a ring around Gallatin Valley in south central Montana. I don’t know if this is the only place on earth entirely circumvented by mountains, but it has to be one of very few. You look one way, turn 45 degrees, then 45 more, and keep on until you’re back to the same spot you started. But you’ll never not see the mountains.
In the summer, wildflowers stretch from range to range. The blossoms of yellow, blue, lavender, pink and white gave it its first name: “The Valley of Flowers.”
Maiden Rock was once a landmark towering over The Valley of Flowers at the mouth of Bridger Canyon. Today, if you visit Bozeman’s fish hatchery, you’ll be about 100 yards away from where she used to be. It is hard to imagine her there now, as she was for millions of years, with several Indian legends to explain her origin. I’ll pass along the one which burns deepest in my memory. It comes from the Blackfeet tribe, courtesy of Montana Genealogy:
There was an early tradition among the Indians of Montana that Gallatin Valley, called by them the “Valley of Flowers” was neutral ground. The name seems appropriate because of the great variety of wild flowers found on the mountainsides as well as in the valley. According to the tradition told to early pioneers by John Richau, a half breed Indian: In ages past, a band of Sioux and a band of Nez Perces, deadly enemies, met in Bridger Canyon and spent two days fighting.
While they were in deadly combat the third day, darkness over-spread the sun, and a strange noise seemed to come from the heavens. The contending warriors stood spellbound as a sweet voice was heard singing and a white flame appeared on top of the mountain, since called Mount Bridger. The flame settled on “Maiden Rock,” where the figure of a maiden was seen as the darkness disappeared. In a strange language all seemed to understand, she said, in part: “Warriors, children of the Great Spirit, sheath the hatchet and unstring the bow. Shed not the blood of your brothers here lest it mingle with yonder foaming water and defile the Valley of Flowers below. There must be no war in the Valley of Flowers, all must be peace, rest and love. The Spirit Maiden has spoken the words of the Great Spirit.” According to Mr. Richau, the truce of that day has been sacredly observed by the Indians.
The dirt road traveled by pioneers past Maiden Rock was eventually made into Highway 231. Widened in the 1970s, by the Spring of 1976 large pieces of rock were falling onto it. The highway was closed that summer with the decision made to blast the pinnacle down in September. Early residents of the valley had said that in the afternoon sunlight the maiden’s face was visible.
There are at least two other legends, both saying that Maiden Rock had been a real Indian girl waiting on her lover to come back, who turned to stone when he was killed and brought to her.
But the one telling how the land between the mountains must be peaceful rings so true, I’ll go with it. Thinking of a place with only peace, rest and love, as promised by the Great Spirit, is a great comfort.
Photo credit: Janice Aldrow. “Sheathe the hatchet, and unstring the bow.”