Salish-speaking tribes settled throughout the Northwest, from Montana to the west coast and into Canada. Some tribes along the coast flattened their foreheads, hence the name. The Salish of Montana never flattened their heads, yet speaking a similar language, they too were called flatheads. In the early 1700s, the Salish which had settled in the Bitterroot valley obtained horses from the Shoshoni and became expert horsemen--and a target for other raiding tribes. Eventually the Pend d'Orielle (another Salishan tribe), the Kootenai and Blackfeet acquired horses.
In the early 1800's the Pend d'Oreilles, under Chief Alexander ventured onto the plains with their horses to hunt buffalo. Such hunting was a perilous undertaking as this region was shared by other tribes, especially the Blackfeet. Around 1830, the Pend d'Orielle began to move into and settle the area of St. Ignatius in the mission valley.
The plains Kootenai originally inhabiting southern Alberta and north central Montana were forced over the divide into northwestern Montana by the plains tribes--largely Blackfeet and Souix--advancing ahead of white settlers from the east. The plains Kootenai merged with the Plateau Kootenai who were settled in the mountains of the Columbia Plateau. When the Pend d'Orielle moved south of Flathead Lake to the mission valley, the Kootenai moved into the Flathead Lake country. Although the Pend d'Orielle and the Bitterroot Salish (Flathead) were related, the Kootenai were culturally and linguistically distinct. Originally independent, mere geographic proximity forced an eventual confederation of all three groups on the same reservation.
When the Flatheads came in contact with white traders and trappers, they were eager to trade animal pelts for guns. They also sought out Jesuit priests. Earlier visits from Iroquois Catholics convinced the Salish that the "blackrobes" possessed a special magic which could protect and strengthen the tribe. Three delegations sent to solicit the attention of the blackrobes failed, however, a fourth succeeded in reaching St. Louis. The delegation persuaded a Father DeSmet to visit the Flatheads in 1840.
DeSmet built St. Mary's Mission in the Bitterroot valley in 1841. Ten years later it was closed because of raids by the Blackfeet and lack of religious interest by younger Indians. The mission was sold to Major John Owen who then built Fort Owen on the site. In 1854, a Father Hoecken founded another mission in the broad valley at St. Ignatius (pronounced "eneas" by the Indians). By 1855, over 1000 Kootenai, Flathead, and Pend d'Orielle had settled near the new mission.
In October of 1853, When Governor Stevens first visited Flathead Chief Victor at Ft. Owen, the Chief complained of the failure of the Blackfeet to keep peace promised by their chiefs two years earlier. He informed Stevens that 12 Flathead hunters had been killed by the Blackfeet in that time. Victor believed Stevens could help his people in the struggle with their Blackfeet enemies.
It was therefore a shock to Victor when Governor Stevens, upon calling a council on July 7th 1855, spoke of land cessions and the placement of the Indians on a reservation, instead of a solution to the Blackfeet raids. In only nine days, with the signing of the Hell Gate treaty, the Flathead Indians found their place in history forever changed. A solution to the Blackfeet raids was about to be realized, but more importantly the Pend d'Orielle, Salish, and Kootenai were about to embark on an alien path to the future.