Yellowstone County Places

Indian Caves – Tourist Flop in 1939


Revised 4 September 2001c


Indian Caves Archelogical Expedition

The Indian caves southeast of Billings have provided a significant amount of information about the inhabitants who used them for centuries. The “pictographs” wihin the caves themselves have little significance, as most were recently created. The ones in red show evidence of the white men, and the ones in black are comparatively new. All have suffered from vandalism and “kilroy” drawers who have superimposed their carved initials over the drawings. In the early 1930’s the Commercial Club thought they would make a great tourist attraction, so they established a museum there and staffed it with a caretaker. Visitors were few, so they dismantled the museum exhibit; and the building was burned by vandals. By mid-1930’s confidence again arose that the site would be a good attraction, so the Montana Highway Commission bought the 40-acre plot of land, and the WPA built a stone and log museum building on the site, which was destined to be a state park.

In 1937 the Montana Society of Natural History began excavation, and in the spring of that year there were 1,500 visitors. In 1938 there were 10,000 visitors. In June of 1939 the museum officially opened and a caretaker was on hand. The museum housed an office, concession stand and museum. The profit for 71 days of operation was $39.22. Eastern Montana Normal School (MSU-Billings) volunteered as guides, and no one was there to guide. People whom had expressed interests in Indian history stayed away from the site! Between the late 1930’s and recent years the only people to visit the caves were those interested in beer drinking or completing the destruction of the drawings on the cave walls. The largest cave is named “Pictograph”. There are three caves in the area. Vandals, adults who dumped their trash there, and target shooters who thought that cattle were fair game, irked the landowner neighbors, so they padlocked the access roads.

The Gazette ran an article about the newly paved road there, with no place to go, which led to the eventual creation of real state park. At the time, virtually all residents of Billings did not know the location of the caves, if they even knew of its existence. A renewed interest emerged, and the site is now called the PictographCaves.


In 1935 Herbert Barringer and James Brown families began excavation at the caves. They found evidence of ancient occupancy. The WPA project was managed by the Montana School of Mines and directed by Frank Bowman. Oscar Lewis was the archeologist. They made a 20-foot cut into the Pictograph Cave which shoed seven separate earth levels in approximately ten feet of debris left by the early inhabitants. At the bottom layer were Yuma Points, indicating their use some 10 to 20 thousand years earlier. Little pottery was found. Birch-bark pieces with awl marking were found, indicating that the cave dwellers used a type of basket instead.  (No birch grows within hundreds of miles of the cave.)

Some of the red drawings show the white man’s rifle. Most of the drawings were destroyed over the years. However, more than 30,000 artifacts from Ghost Cave range from harpoons to knives or scrappers. This indicates that the caves were in use by the Indians. The caves southern exposure protects inhabitants for winter preparation of weapons and tools needed by the tribe. Excavations made in the ravine near the caves indicated that the area was in use by the Indians. Antler harpoons, normally associated with Eskimos, were found, but without the shafts. Stone knives with bone handles found at the site indicate this to be a rare find. The artifacts were initially presented to the college; then transported to the county museum.

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Katy Hestand
Yellowstone County Coordinator

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