Just call them the hills
April 11, 2002
One thing that gets many people riled up is the name of the mountain range that sits just south of Havre. Favored names seem to be the Bear Paw Mountains, the Bears Paw Mountains, the Bear Paws, and the Bear's Paw Mountains.
Most interesting is that whichever way people prefer the name to be, they are most adamant about it. In fact, arguments about the name of the mountains have caused at least a couple of barroom brawls in Havre through the years.
In the late 1950s, Northern Montana College President Lou Brockmann asked Bill Pecora to research the way the mountains got their name in the first place. Pecora was working for the U.S. Geological Survey and was in charge of mapping the mountains. He responded with a story about the original Bear Paw in the mountains.
It seems that long ago, Native Americans were afraid to venture into those mountains for fear they would get eaten by grizzly bears that frequented the mountains in those times. Not only that, but they feared evil bear spirits as well. That was probably brought on by the fact that one of the mountains (Mount Centennial) looks like a huge bear just waiting to do something to someone.
It came to pass that one winter there was a small band of Indians camped, probably in the vicinity of where Box Elder is today. It was winter and they were hungry. They told their chief that he had to go into the evil mountains and get them some food. (That in itself is revolutionary compared with the role of our leaders these days.) So the chief went into the mountains and bagged a large deer. He was hauling it out on a pack pony, going down Duck Creek, when the evil bear spirit (Mount Centennial) reared up and put its paw right in the path so that the chief could not continue down the trail. Just when the chief thought he was done for, a bolt of lightning came down from the heavens (in the middle of the winter, mind you) and severed the paw from the bear and pushed that paw far out into the prairie, where it is to this day. The chief went on and his people were fed. The paw pushed out into the prairie is now called Box Elder Butte. Pecora always ended the story by saying that his survey indicated that, at one time eons ago, Centennial and Box Elder Butte had been connected.
So they became the Bear's Paw Mountains due to that legend. Unfortunately for language purists, homesteaders came much later and shortened the name to Bear Paw Mountains. They even named the town on Clear Creek Bear Paw. And Bear Paw they have stayed. A glance in the phone book indicates that only one of the local businesses and organizations that incorporate the name of the mountains into their names does not go by Bear Paw. That is the Red Cross, whose name is the Bears Paw District.
Probably there is no right or wrong answer to how the name should be written. But, to be absolutely correct, perhaps we should take a page out of the old-timers' notebook and just refer to them as "the hills." For instance, they would say, "I'm going out to the hills to go fishing." That would let the wife know they were not planning on going to the mountains, such as the North Fork of the Flathead, to fish that day.