Yellowstone County Places

Indian Rock – Billings Montana


Sunday, May 27, 2012


Indian Rock was a naturally occurring piece of sandstone jutting out from the ground in the northeast section of where Billings was located. From its appearance, it seems to indicate that it fell from a nearby ledge and buried itself into the ground. This rock has played an important role in some of the areas most mysterious history, but unfortunately, it appeared to have had no significance to the local residents of that era. There are two accounts relating to the rock’s destruction, both are essentially the same story, excepting for the difference in dates (1904 vs 1906). This has to be the same event, since Vermilye blasted the rock only once, and it had to be 1904. Similar claims about the blasting refer to making room for a housing tract, but no evidence has been located to verify that reasoning. In either case, the rock was destroyed.

The first one is that during the planned construction phase for the Billings Land and Irrigation Canal this rock had to be removed. In September 1903, ID O’Donnell showed a Mr. John Schram (a Seattle financier) around the Billings area where the ditch’s group planned to place an irrigation canal to provide water to an area referred to at that time, as “Huntley Flats.” Mr. Clark then hired an irrigation specialist from Seattle, Marvin Chase, who started the route investigation in October of that same year.  He reviewed the original plans for irrigation, provided by DeWar in support of the Arid Land Grant Commission. This map showed the canal routed around the base of the north rims and passing by Boothill Cemetery (and Indian Rock), and onto the plains that were to be irrigated to the north and northwest. This was at an elevation of about 3200 feet, or perhaps slightly lower at this junction. Chase determined that a better elevation (3210 feet) could be obtained by locating the ditch nearer to the south base of the rims and boring a tunnel through the rims itself. Since a new ditch was required, HP Vermilye (Tacoma, WA engineer brought to Montana by WT Clark) was assigned the task of acquiring easement rights for the new ditch (BBWA) that went around the edge of the rims. During 1903 Mr. Vermilye had secured all of the right of way, with most of it at virtually no cost ($1.00 and consideration – e.g., land value being worth more with water available than without); some rights were exchanged for use of the water. In preparation for the ditch’s route in 1904 he dynamited the rock, which was in the path of the 1903-planned route. The ditch of course was actually re-routed to pass through a tunnel the rims, so this action wasn’t necessary.

The second one is that Harold Rixon, currently a local resident, was informed earlier about a curious incident that occurred during the first decade of the century, while he was in college that helped to identify the site and its inscriptive meanings. At the eastern end of the north rims, where 6th Ave and Highway 10 (Main Street) join each other, there used to be a landmark called “Indian Rock.” On it were carved Indian markings describing an “earlier battle that took place there. In 1906 Rixon, and a college friend Roscoe F. Allen, learned that a blasting crew directed by a man named Vermilye was sent to clear the land around the rock. They took their camera along to record the inscriptions, only to discover that the crew had blown the rock to pieces just before they arrived! Rixon claimed that it was a shame that no picture had been taken of the inscriptions before the blasting.


The rock was originally carved on its lower bottom with some sort of “hieroglyphics”, apparently made by the Montana Tribal Indians. Little was done in an attempt to decipher the writings. After Billings was founded Joseph Zimmerman, following in Losekamps marketing endeavors to use local landscape for advertising,, painted a sign on the rock. He operated a clothing and shoe store on Montana Avenue, near 25th Street, in the early 1880’s, opening about one year after Losekamp had his clothing store one block to the west. The Zimmerman store carried a very large sign over its FRONT saying “BOOTS and SHOES”. Above that sign was another one, CLOTHING.

 The rock was located between the southeast base of the rims in Section 27, T1N, Range 26E, between the Burlington Railroad Spur, at an elevation level of about 3,200 feet. Oh, the tales this rock could tell! (Photo courtesy Western Heritage Center)

This rock was located north of the junction where a major Indian Trail leading to the Big Porcupine hunting grounds on the lower Yellowstone River, and the small foot trail leading to the Blackfeet Nation near Fort Benton. The first one was renamed Road to Tongue River (Miles City), and the other was later named Chief Black Otter Trail in his honor. Arthur Jesse Hart, printer for the Evening Journal reported on the legend of Chief Black Otter after having spent some time living with the Crow Indians before he became a printer. It was this article that inspired the formal naming of the trail. In the early days it was very steep, and had severe slopes that tended to tip wagons off on their sides. Apparently, it took some time to get the road properly graded.



The markings on the rock, copied from the picture have not been identified or dated. There might be a connection to either the Immel massacre (1823), the trails leading to Big Porcupine and the Blackfeet Nation, or the mass burial gravesite at Boot hill Cemetery (c1855).

Behind the rock, in the earth uncovered by the blasting, were the reported remains of seven white men skulls. No Indian artifacts were located in the area. The graves were very old. It wasn’t until 1956 that Rixon and Fred C. Krieg, a person well versed in the early fur trade, conceived of a possible link to the Immel-Jones massacre. Fred recalled the ambush, and that it occurred where the valley narrows, and that Alkali Creek is the only break in the rims for miles, and the only place fitting the description of the ambush was at this location at the east end of the rims. He recalled tales of the ambush, and that the survivors, after the first attack, buried six of their dead before fleeing to the river. Unfortunately, the seven skulls that were unearthed disappeared, so no further identification as to their origin could be made. It was reported that prior to the blasting, the petroglyphs on the rock had been defaced by a local business establishment (Joseph Zimmerman). However, he only painted a sign on it, and did not in any way damage the carvings! There are no other apparent written records of the rock, or discussions about the discovery of the skulls, or where they are. Indian Rock was a junction where the overland route joined the Yellowstone River, and east-west traffic from Buffalo to Blackfeet, and where Crows and mountain men passed. [The account of the attack was recorded in Hiram Martin Chittden’s “American Fur Trade of the Far West,” and letters of the attack written by Joshua Pilcher, fur trapper who succeeded Manuel Lisa at the Missouri Fur Company fort on the Big Horn River.] 

When Walter DeLAcy conducted the first land section survey in 1878, he passed directly by the rock when the southern boundary of Section 27 was recorded. He identified the John R. Harr cabin located north of the boundary line, but didn’t report anything about the rock. It was as though he never noticed this boulder with the writing. Earlier, in 1876, when Col. Gibbon’s force passed through the area on the way to Tongue River, neither he, Lt. Bradley (Chief Guide), and the Crow Indian Guides never noticed it either. The Crow Guides, upon reaching this location, paused and paid homage to the sacrifices made earlier (smallpox epidemic) by picking up a stone, spitting upon it, and placing it onto a growing pile of rocks that honored the deaths of so many.

Earlier travelers also never reported anything about the rock. It is as though the engravings were added after the town of Coulson and Billings were created. Strange to say the least.

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Katy Hestand
Yellowstone County Coordinator

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