Cultural Resource Management Service Across The Rocky Mountain West

The search for Felix Baptiste

Western Cultural conducted a class III cultural resource inventory of approximately 5,475 acres on the Flathead National Forest in Flathead County, Montana.  The survey was part of the Salish Good Resource Management Project and the Betty Baptiste Resource Management Project.  The survey revisited one historically significant site.  24FH0019, the Baptiste Site, which consists of Felix Baptiste’s cabin and grave site.   The site was initially recorded in 1976 by two Forest Service archaeologists.

Baptiste Zeroyal (also known as Felix Baptiste) was a French Canadian fur trapper who appeared in the South Fork of the Flathead country in the late 1800’s.  Baptiste was one of the first white men to settle in the area, and he was one of the earliest of the fur trappers and prospectors in the South Fork.  By the 1850’s he was considered one of the most knowledgeable sources for the vast country that stretched from today’s Glacier National Park, through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and over to the Sun River Country.  In the course of his trapping and prospecting activities, he explored much of the Northern Rockies wilderness.  Using his extensive knowledge of the country, Baptiste earned extra money by working as a guide for miners.  He led California miners across the Rockies by heading up the South Fork and down the Sun river.  Baptiste’s cabin and grave is a prominent land-mark in local history.  Baptiste died in his cabin on Hoke Creek in the winter of 1908.  Two friends came to visit Felix in the spring and found his body, they buried him in front of his cabin in the spring of 1909.  All that remains as evidence of Baptiste’s activities in the area are the cabin where he lived and died, a rock-covered grave along with numerous French Canadian place names that stretch from Glacier National Park south to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a vast swath of the Northern Rockies wilderness.

The cabin, as described by the archaeologists, was 12 feet by 12 feet and five feet high.  The cabin, typical of most trappers’ cabins in the region, is a low-roofed windowless, one-room structure with a dirt floor.  The cabin was constructed of logs, saddled notched at the corners, with a shake roof over pole supports.  The cabin was in a partial state of decay in 1976, a shed attached to the west side of the cabin had completely collapsed.

Western Cultural relocated the cabin and grave in the summer of 2018 with considerable difficulty.  A crew of four archaeologists spent the better part of a day trying to locate the site.  The site form, typical for the mid-1970’s, did not have photographs and the sketch map did not include a scale, a north arrow, topography, or any geographical features.  The search for Baptiste began with transects directed towards the location plotted on the 1976 site form.  When that effort failed, the crew hiked back to the truck to plot another strategy.  The UTM coordinates on the 1976 site form were loaded into GPS units for the second attempt.  The points took the crew nearly a quarter mile east into a thick forest on a steep mountainside, which brought a quick retreat downhill.  The third foray was based on hints left by the original archaeologists who visited the site, much like a treasure hunt.  The clues were brief descriptions or phrases scattered around the original site form.  They included a reference to a junction of two trails, a certain land form, a distance above a creek, and a distance below a spring.  This trip took the crew uphill beyond the first trek and with the same results, a dejected trip downhill to the rig.

Western Cultural returned to the office without locating the site and contacted the Flathead Forest Archaeologist.  After trading phone calls and emails, a second expedition was undertaken which resulted in locating the elusive cabin and final resting spot for Felix Baptiste.

The cabin had almost completely melted into the forest floor.  Considerable undergrowth of thimbleberry bushes, ferns, and huckleberry bushes, combined with two fallen Douglas Fir trees, had almost completely erased the cabin.  The remains of the cabin consist of two stacked logs in the original northeast corner of the cabin, the entire remaining cabin and shed have long since melted into the forest.  The shake roof, door, windows, and the collapsed shed have vanished over the last four decades.

It is important to note that the October 1976 National Register of Historic Places nomination form has never been formally submitted to the Keeper of the Register leading to confusion about the eligibility.  The original site form did not discuss if the site was eligible for the National Register.  Western Cultural recommended that the site be formally listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Felix Baptiste’ cabin and final resting place are worthy of the recognition that is associated with formal listing on the National Register.  Felix Baptiste, an early French Canadian fur trapper, is associated with the fur trade era in Montana history, a historic period that stretched from Saint Louis to Fort Benton and into the Rocky Mountains.  Formal listing on the National Register would also acknowledge the role Baptiste played in the history of the South Fork of the Flathead River country.



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