Montana History

Historic Facts & Overview of Montana History

Take a peek at Montana history. Discover an overview of Montana's rich history, heritage, historic events, and culture.

Montana is known as "Big Sky Country". The members of the Lewis and Clark expedition were the first white explorers known to have set foot in Montana. It joined the United States in 1889 as the 41st state. The name Montana comes from the Spanish word Montana, meaning "mountainous," although the eastern part of the state consists of gently rolling pastureland. The Anaconda Company had a stranglehold on the state's copper industry for about 100 years, but today Montana is known as a tourist destination for those drawn to its many trout streams and wide open spaces. Its capital is Helena and the state flower is the bitterroot.

Overview of Montana History and Heritage

Before the white settlers arrived, two groups of Indian tribes lived in the region that is now Montana. The Arapaho, Assiniboine, Atsina, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and Crow tribes lived on the plains. The mountains in the west were the home of the Bannack, Flathead, Kalispell, Kootenai, and Shoshone tribes. Other nearby tribes (such as the Sioux, Mandan, and Nez Perce) hunted in the Montana region.
Much of the region was acquired by the US from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The northwestern part was gained by treaty with Great Britain in 1846. At various times, parts of Montana were in territories of Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Dakota, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

First explored for France by François and Louis-Joseph Verendrye in the early 1740s. The American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led their expedition across Montana to the Pacific Coast in 1805. They returned in 1806 and explored parts of Montana both going and coming. By 1807, Manuel Lisa set up Montana's first fur-trading post.

In 1841 missionaries built St. Mary's Mission, the first attempt at a permanent settlement. In 1847, the American Fur Company built Fort Benton on the Missouri River. This town is now Montana's oldest continuously populated town.

The US claim to NW Montana, the area between the Rockies and the N Idaho border, was validated in the Oregon Treaty of 1846 with the British. Montana was then still a wilderness of forest and grass, with a few trading posts and some missions.

Cattle raising began in Montana in the mid-1850s, when Richard Grant, a trader, brought the first herd to the area from Oregon. Gold was discovered in Grasshopper Creek in 1862. Thousands of prospectors built mining camps throughout Montana as gold strikes were discovered. Some of these include Bannock, Diamond City, and Virginia City.

The mining camps had almost no effective law enforcement. Finally, the citizens took the law into their own hands. One famous incident involved the two biggest gold camps--Bannack and Virginia City. The settlers learned that their sheriff, Henry Plummer, was actually an outlaw leader. The men of Bannack and Virginia City formed a vigilance committee to rid themselves of the outlaws. These vigilantes hanged Plummer in January 1864. They adopted as their symbol the numbers "3-7-77." These numbers may have represented the dimensions of a grave: 3 feet wide, by 7 feet long, by 77 inches deep. Many outlaws were hanged or driven from Montana by the vigilantes.

A large number of early prospectors came from the South, particularly from Confederate Army units that broke up in the Civil War (1861-1865). One of the major gold fields was called Confederate Gulch, because three Southerners found the first gold there.

During the boom years, gold dust was the principal money. For example, missionaries did not pass collection plates at church services. They passed a tin cup for gold dust. Chinese laundrymen even found gold in their wash water after they washed the miners' clothing.

Sidney Edgerton, an Idaho official, saw the need for better government of the wild mining camps. At the time, Montana was part of Idaho Territory. Edgerton wrote to Washington, D.C., urging the creation of a new territory. Montana became a territory on May 26, 1864, and Edgerton served as its first governor.

In 1866, Nelson Story, a cattleman, drove a thousand longhorn cattle from Texas to Montana. Story's herd started the Montana cattle industry in earnest.

The coming of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883 opened the way to the eastern markets and caused even more growth. But disaster struck the cattle industry in the bitterly cold winter of 1886-1887. Cattle died by the thousands in the howling blizzards and frigid temperatures. Ranching continued after this, but on a smaller, more careful, basis.

In 1876, the US Army arrived at the Little Bighorn River to place all Native Americans on reservations. In the famous battle known as "Custer's Last Stand," Sioux and Cheyenne Indians killed Lieutenant George A. Custer and a large part of his men. The last serious Indian fighting in Montana started when the US government tried to move the Nez Perce Indians from their lands in Oregon. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce led his tribe toward Canada through Montana. The Indians and US troops fought several battles in Idaho, and then a two-day battle at the Big Hole in southwestern Montana. Troops under Colonel Nelson A. Miles captured Chief Joseph's Indians about 40 miles (64 km) from the Canadian boundary in October 1877.

Between 1880 and 1890, the population of Montana grew from about 39,000 to nearly 143,000. The people of Montana first asked for statehood in 1884, but they had to wait five years. Finally, Montana was admitted as the 41st state on November 8, 1889. Joseph K. Toole of Helena became the first state governor.

Much of Montana's growth during the 1880s and 1890s came because of the mines at Butte. The earliest mines produced gold. Then silver was discovered in the rock ledges of the Butte Hill. Later, miners found rich veins of copper. Miners came to Butte from Ireland, England and other areas of Europe. Smelters were built, and more men were hired to operate them. The Butte Hill became known as "the Richest Hill on Earth."

Butte Hill was called the Richest Hill on Earth during the 1880s. Gold, silver, and eventually copper have been mined there. Marcus Daly and William Clark controlled the largest mines and competed both in business and politics.

Clark wanted to be a US Senator, but Daly opposed him. In the campaign of 1899, Clark was accused of bribery. He won, but resigned rather than face an investigation by a Senate committee. Two years later, Clark won his Senate seat in a second election. He was helped by F. Augustus Heinze, another mine owner. Heinze had arrived in Butte long after Daly and Clark became millionaires. But Heinze became wealthy though clever use of mining law and court suits.

First Daly, then the others sold their properties to a single corporation, which became the Anaconda Company. The Company organized an electric power company, built a railroad, and constructed dams. It also controlled forests, banks, and newspapers. Anaconda became so important in the life of the state that Montanans referred to it simply as "The Company."

Montana became the 41st state on Nov. 8, 1889. In the years that followed, dams were built that provided water for irrigation and electricity for industrial use. Food processing plants opened and railroads were extended.

During the early 1900s, Montana made increasing use of its natural resources. New dams harnessed the state's rivers, providing water for irrigation and electric power for industry. The extension of the railroads assisted the processing industries. New plants refined sugar, milled flour, and processed meat. In 1910, Congress created Glacier National Park, which became an attraction for tourists.

Many lost their farms and their jobs. The US government continued to develop natural resources in Montana. More than 10,000 workers were paid to build the Fort Peck Dam. Others helped with irrigation, soil conservation, and construction of parks and public roads. This program was called The New Deal.

Jeannette Rankin of Missoula was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1916. She was the first woman to serve in Congress. She won fame in 1941 as the only member of Congress to vote against US entry into World War II. Rankin said she did not believe in war and would not vote for it.

The Great Depression (1929-1939) also hit the nation. Demand for the state's metals dropped because of the nationwide lag in production. Drought contributed to the drop in farm income, brought on by the depression.

However, state and federal programs continued to develop Montana's resources during the 1930s. The building of the giant Fort Peck Dam helped provide jobs. Completion of the dam in 1940 provided badly needed water for irrigation. Other projects included insect control, irrigation, rural electrification, and soil conservation. The construction of parks, recreation areas, and roads also continued under government direction. In 1940, Montana voters elected Republican Sam C. Ford of Helena as governor. He was only the third Republican state governor in Montana history.

Montana's economy flourished during World War II (1941-1945). Flour, meat and metals were all in demand. After the war, prices for grain dropped and many farms were abandoned in search for work in the cities. Oil was discovered in Williston Basin and the Anaconda Aluminum Company opened a large plant in northwestern Montana.

In 1972, Montana voters narrowly approved a new state Constitution. The Constitution went into effect in 1973.

Montana's gas, oil, and coal industries expanded rapidly during the 1970s, when an energy shortage developed in the United States. Coal production increased sharply, from less than 3 million to more than 30 million tons per year. Huge, open-pit strip mines operated at Colstrip and other southeastern Montana sites. The Montana Power Company built four coal-burning, electric power plants at Colstrip. A 30 percent coal severance tax contributed needed funds to the state. But, in the early 1980s, fuel prices fell, and Montana's production leveled off.
Montana's traditionally important industries experienced major difficulties during the mid-1980s. Farmers suffered hardships brought on by drought, low farm product prices, and reduced sales to foreign markets. The lumber industry cut fewer logs than in the past. In addition, the mining industry lost thousands of jobs. The Anaconda Company, once the leading mining company in the state, gave up copper mining altogether.

Montana, today, remains a state rich in natural resources. But state leaders seek to broaden Montana's economy by attracting small business and by promoting electronics and other advanced-technology ventures. The Science and Technology Alliance, created in 1985, looks for new uses for raw materials. The state is also working to expand its tourist industry.

US History Overview
US History Guide
America's history is not static. It's fluid. It changes, grows, becomes richer, and more complex when any individual interacts with it.