Big Sky Chronicles: The Frenchwoman’s Road

The area where the Frenchwoman’s Road is believed to have run through

HELENA – The road west out of Helena climbs to just over 6,300 feet and reaches what is now known as MacDonald Pass.

But the first road to bring travelers into and out of the Helena valley was originally known by another name: The Frenchwoman’s Road.

The new territory of Montana needed roads back in the 1860s but had no money to build them.  So individuals were licensed to build the roads and in return were allowed to charge those who used it a toll.

Montana Department of Transportation Historian Jon Axline said one man who took on that task was named Constant Guyot.

“In 1866 a little Frenchman, French Canadian man named Constant Guyot decided he wanted to build a new road over the mountains to Helena,” explained Axline.  “In 1867 the road actually opened.  It went from about the junction of Mullan Pass road over by Elliston, all the way over this mountain, down into the Helena valley and he could charge people for the use of that road.”

Axline said the road became one of the best-known pioneer roads of its time.  Certainly because on one hand it made travel easier, but that wasn’t the only reason.  There was also Constant Guyot’s wife, known today only as the Frenchwoman.

“She may have been around 30 years old,” said Axline.  “We don’t really know much about her.  We don’t know what she looked like.  There are no photos of her that we’ve found. We don’t even know what her first name was.  But she ran the toll house on the west side of the divide.  Everybody liked to stop at the old Frenchwoman’s because she put on a good feed for the people who stopped to eat there.  And if you wanted to spend the night, you could do that as well and you slept on the floor.”

But the Frenchwoman’s story does not have a happy ending.  Constant Guyot had a reputation for abusing his wife.  And within years of the road opening, she was gone.

“In 1868 a couple of men stopped to have breakfast at the Frenchwoman’s and found her dead.  And she’d been murdered and her gold dust had disappeared and her husband disappeared along with it.  We don’t know if he’s the one that killed her, which he probably was.  His disappearance was probably prudent on his part because the vigilantes were still active in Montana.”

Popular in her day for providing safe passage, food and rest for those who crossed her path; 150 years later the Frenchwoman’s legacy lives on at the top of MacDonald Pass.

Watch the video above to see Jon Axline’s full explaination how the Frenchwoman’s Road became known as MacDonald Pass.

“Operation of the toll road went to another man, Elijah Dunphy, who worked for Constant, but didn’t like him very well, which isn’t too surprising.  Mr. Dunphy took over operation of the toll road.  But he was a guy with different interests – he liked cattle,” Axline said. “He eventually ended up over in Judith Basin raising cattle and so he left the day to day operation and maintenance of the Frenchwoman’s Road to his assistant, a man by the name of Alexander MacDonald and that’s how the pass got its name.”

Sign at the top of MacDonald Pass honoring the Frenchwoman