Maps reveal so much — and still keep their secrets.
Quinnebaugh. Wounded Man. Sioux Charley. They are place names on maps of the Beartooth Mountains, but where did they come from? What’s the history behind the words and the people they were named after?
These are questions that Harrison Fagg has long pondered. The Billings businessman has spent about 75 years trekking through the Beartooths, climbing every peak over 12,000 feet in the Montana range. Despite intimate knowledge of peaks, trails and drainages, the origin of many Beartooth place names has eluded him.
“No one really knows too much about the naming of spots in the Beartooths,” Fagg said. “Some are easy. Some are not.”
The easy names refer to obvious features, like the fortification-like rock work of Castle Mountain, Sky Top Lakes that hunker high atop the Beartooth Plateau below Granite Peak, or Lake of the Falls along the East Rosebud Trail. Others are more mysterious.
The first people
Of course, the first people to name the mountain peaks, creeks and rivers were American Indian tribes. In fact, the name Beartooth comes from the Crow Indian reference to a tooth-like spire known as the Bears Tooth.
Most of the American Indian names and the stories behind them never made the transition to modern maps created by the conquering Euro-Americans. But there are lakes in the mountains that seem to be references to nonnative Indian tribes, maybe from the Great Lakes area, such as Weeluna and Nemidji in the upper West Rosebud Creek drainage. But these two lakes are next to Arapooash Lake, which is very similar to the name Arapooish, a Crow Indian chief.
The Beartooths were originally mapped by surveyors in the 1800s. According to Thomas Turiano’s well-researched book, “Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone,” the mountains were at first dubbed the Snowy Range by Arnold Hague, an early explorer of Yellowstone National Park. Is Mount Hague, a 12,328-foot peak overlooking the West Rosebud drainage, named after him?
Fagg has early ties to the Beartooths. His uncle, Ed Ikerman, ran a dude ranch in the early 1900s that was located where the Stillwater Mine now stands. Harrison claims that Favonius Lake atop the Lake Plateau, between the Boulder and Stillwater drainages, was originally named Ikerman Lake after his uncle, who built the first trail into the area from Jordan Lake. He said Pentad Lake, in that same region, was called Crazy Mule Lake after a mule with a full pack of fish ran into the lake and drowned, possibly after being frightened by a bee sting. Favonius was a Roman wind god and pentad is a group or set of five. There are five drainages that lead into Pentad Lake.
Harrison said Ikerman also named Wilderness Lake, near Mount Hague, because of its remote location. Local mountain men – trappers, packers and trail guides like Ikerman – were responsible for many of the names eventually attached to maps. They have had their words etched upon the landscape, but only if the mapmakers took note. So sometimes it wasn’t what you knew but who you knew.
12,649-foot Mount Wood, located near the head of the Fishtail Creek drainage, is the second-highest peak in the Beartooths. It was named after A.B. Wood, a friend of surveyor James P. Kimball, who named the mountain in 1898. According to Turiano, Wood climbed the peak with photographer Anders Wilse on Sept. 11, 1898, after crossing from Goose Lake.
Kimball was one of the earliest mapmakers, but according to Turiano’s book, John L. Lewis mapped most of the range in the late 1930s and early 1940s, with the rest completed in the mid-1950s. Even after that, some high points were left nameless.
During his peak-bagging adventures, Fagg found a small metal frog and the name Salo in a cache atop a 12,000-foot peak. What he didn’t know is that Elmer and Wain Salo, two brothers of Finnish descent who lived in Red Lodge, extensively explored the Beartooths in the 1940s and '50s.
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“One of these brothers was known as the Beartooth guru of his day,” Turiano wrote.
In addition to mountain men, early miners often left their marks on the mountains, and not just by abandoning the remnants of old mines and heavy equipment. The popular Benbow Jeep Trail and Benbow Mine between the Fishtail and Stillwater drainages were named after T.C. Benbow, a prospector who found large deposits of chrome in the area in 1904. Benbow’s attempts to build up the mine died during the crash of the stock market in 1929, according to a history of the area compiled by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. So although his mine failed, Benbow lives on as a link to the mountains’ history.
The Custer National Forest, which covers much of the Beartooth Mountains, has gathered some records on place names. Here are some of the unusual names in the Beartooths and their supposed origin, based on the records:
Quinnebaugh Meadow and Falls (West Fork Rock Creek): Named by Art Baum in 1917, possibly a Mohawk Indian word for meadow and falls.
Sundance Mountain, Lake (Head of Lake Fork): In 1919 a group of employees at Camp Senia hiked into the lake with water pails filled with trout fry. O.J. Salo suggested the name since the sun was dancing off the ripples of the lake.
Wounded Man Creek (Stillwater drainage): There are two tales on this stream’s naming. One is that an old trapper was badly wounded by a bear there. The other is that a Northern Pacific Railroad survey crew was caught in an 1880s forest fire burning in the drainage. One member of the crew broke his leg and the rest carried him down the canyon, where they took refuge from the fire in a large pool at a mining claim.
Sioux Charley Lake (Stillwater drainage): A white man adopted by the Sioux Indians as a small child built a cabin at the lake where he lived for several years. Sioux Charley was also reportedly in charge of a mail route and wagon road up the Stillwater drainage to Cooke City.
Whitetail Peak (upper Lake Fork drainage): This 12,548-foot peak supposedly got its name when “Packsaddle” Ben Greenough was hunting and shot the tail off a deer. Benjamin Franklin Greenough, a Brooklyn orphan, made his way west in the late 1800s and worked as a stagecoach driver, mail carrier, cowboy and trail guide. He settled in Red Lodge, where his children became well known for their rodeo skills.
Mount Maurice (just outside Red Lodge): Named after the daughter of Judge Fox. She was one of the early climbers of the mountain and the first to leave her name in a bottle at the summit. Or it may have been named by an engineer and prospector named Kimball in 1892.
Dead Indian Creek (west of Nye): Three members of a Crow hunting party were killed when a small herd of elk triggered an avalanche above the hunters that buried them.
Camp Senia (West Fork Rock Creek): Named after the wife of onetime dude rancher Alfred H. Croonquist. Croonquist began building the log structures in 1917 but the camp fell on hard times during the Great Depression. Now the buildings that once comprised the camp are owned by individuals.
Although there are too many places to list the origin of even a smattering of the Beartooth Mountain place names in this article, perhaps these few will prompt people to research the origins on their own. Certainly Fagg is curious to know what others have learned.
“I love the Beartooths, as you know I have climbed every 12,000-foot mountain and walked every drainage and trail,” he said. “I have spent hundreds of days there, but still have many questions.”