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Montana Off Road Adventure - The Musselshell River Route

River View
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted November 1, 2008

South Of Malta, Montana

During the 1800s, the Missouri River ran wild and free through Montana. Fort Peck was thriving at the eastern edge of the breaks, but the Fort Peck Dam was not built until the 1930s. Water in the river rose and fell naturally with the seasons and was deep enough in the spring to be navigated by steamboats.

Also during the 1930s, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge was established. Russell was known as the cowboy who painted some nice pictures and had the ability to tell whopping good stories. Russell had moved to Montana from St. Louis when he was 16 years old. He had a romantic vision about the cowboy way of life and wanted to experience it firsthand. He became a wrangler and lived his dreams of being a real cowboy. Even so, his flare for art was more natural to him, and he was best known as the cowboy artist.

In 1896, Russell married a young woman who had her own dreams about the cowboy artist. She recognized his talent as something that should be shared and lived as a way of life. She had the business sense and drive to turn her husband's talent into profit. With her to lead the way, Charles Russell became a renowned cowboy artist. To do that, he had to leave his beloved Western way of life and move to New York. From there, he rose in popularity as far away as London. Recognition for his accomplishments lives on in the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge.

The Musselshell River begins and ends in Montana. Its water flows from south to north, travels 500 miles, and empties into the Missouri River within the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. So much water is now pulled from it for irrigations, that the state classifies it as chronically dewatered.

During the 1800s, the last of the great northern buffalo herds lived in the drainage of the Musselshell River. Claims of up to 100,000 head were made, but that is probably exaggerated. Although many were lost to blizzards, wolves, and other natural causes, the greatest impact on the buffalo herds were hunters who sold their hides for no more than $2.50 each.

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