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History of Montana

Indian Days: The first French Trappers and traders found many Indian tribes in the Montana region. Thee tribes included two groups, the plains tribes of the east and the mountain tribes of the west. The plains tribes included the Assiniboin, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Crow, and Atsina. The mountain tribes included the Bannock, Kalispel, Salish, Shoshoni, and Kutenai. The Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan, and Sioux Indians often hunted in eastern Montana, and the Nez Perce and Spokane tribes were hunting small and big game along with upland birds and waterfowl in western Montana.

Exploration and Settlement: The first white men known to have entered the Montana lands were members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark crossed Montana on their journey to the Pacific Ocean in 1805, and again on their return in 1806. Fur-traders established posts in the region after 1807. The early Scottish, English, and French settlers were attracted by the opportunity to earn a living by trapping and trading with the Indians. Missionaries soon followed them into Montana, and began to teach among the Indians in the 1840’s. The American Fur Company made the first permanent settlement in 1847 at Fort Benton. They collected the traders’ fur that was being hunted from big game animals including bear, and bighorn sheep. Not to mention small game like beaver.

Development of the Montana country began in earnest is 1862, when prospectors discovered gold in Grasshopper Creek, a tributary of the Beaverhead River. Gold strikes in Alder Gulch, Last Chance Gulch {now the main street of Helena}, and Confederate Gulch brought thousands of prospectors to the territory between 1862 and 1865. Many Confederate soldiers came to Montana to prospect for gold during and after the Civil War. They had big game hunts and small game hunting trips to feel not only themselves, but also many of the people in the area.

Territorial Days: Parts of Montana were included in the territories of Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Dakota, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. In 1846, land eventually included in northwestern Montana became part of the United States by a treaty with England. The federal government established the Territory of Montana in 1864. Bloodshed and lawlessness marked the territory’s early days. The gold discoveries attracted many outlaws who robbed and murdered with little fear of punishment. The territorial courts were often ineffective as law-enforcement agencies. Citizens finally formed “vigilance committees” at Virginia City and other mining communities. The vigilantes often captured and lynched lawbreakers without giving them legal trials.

Ranching began to develop on a large scale during this period of territorial unrest. Traders had brought the first cattle to Montana in the 1830’s. Missionaries and Indian agents later helped settlers build up small herds. In 1857, two traders drove 100 cattle from Montana to Fort Coville, Washington, and sold them to the Hudson’s Bay Company. By the 1860’s, ranching and stock raising had become established in the mountain valleys. This included cows and sheep. In 1866, Nelson Story drove the first herd of Texas cattle to the Montana ranges, to begin the state’s beef-ranching industry in earnest. During the next 20 years, great numbers of cattle were brought to Montana over trails from Texas and by railroad from the Northwest, the Middle West, and Utah. Open-range ranching spread rapidly until the sever winter of 1886 – 1887 killed thousands of cattle and drove many companies out of business.

Indians caused much trouble for the settlers during the territorial period. Many settlers would be attached while hunting small and big game like whitetail deer, black bear, mountain goat and bighorn sheep, moose, elk, duck, goose, pheasant turkey, or antelope. In 1876, Sioux warriors led by Crazy Horse, Gall, and Two Moons wiped out General George A. Custer and all the soldiers of his command in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Serious Indian fighting in the Montana Territory ended in 1877 when the army defeated Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce tribe.

Statehood: In 1884, the Montana Territory petitioned Congress for statehood. Montana was admitted to the Union as the 41st state on Nov. 8, 1889. Joseph K. Toole of Helena became the first state governor, and held office until 1893. He was elected on both the Democratic and Populist tickets.

The Railroad-building ear between about 1880 and 1910 ended the open range in Montana as settlers poured into the state. Sod was broken for farming, and settlers fenced their land to raise cattle, goats, and sheep. Montana’s population increased from 1880 to 1890 by 365 per cent. The newly built railroads brought many settlers to the region, including a great number who came from Ireland and England to work in the mines. Many German and Scandinavian immigrant farmers came to eastern Montana after 1900. Many settlers still went out hunting for big game like whitetail deer, black bear, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and even antelope. They would have to protect themselves from other wild animals like mountain lions or cougars in the area. Of course the game birds were always available for smaller meals like pheasant, duck, goose, dove, or turkey. Other settlers from southern and eastern Europe settled in the mining camps and towns. Cow-towns grew into small cities. The great copper boom began in Montana in 1881, after Marcus Daly began mining copper at Butte. Miners discovered immense coal deposits in central Montana in the 1880’s. Eastern states provided a good market for the territory’s timber products. The Northern Pacific Railroad completed its tracks across the territory in 1883 and the Great Northern in 1892.

Progress as a State: The first 10 years of Montana’s statehood were marked by a fight between two leaders of the mining interests, Marcus Daly and William A. Clark. Both wanted to control the mines and politics of Montana. This quarrel made so many bitter personal enemies that it threatened to hold back the development of the state. The population grew, however, and copper production increased. Railroads extended their lines, and sugar-refining, flour-milling, and meat-packing plants were established. Joseph K. Toole again served as Montana’s governor, from 1901 to 1908. When he resigned because of ill health, Edwin L. Norris, a Democrat from Dillon, succeeded him. He held office until 1913.

Farming became an important activity in Montana during the early 1900’s, and progressed steadily in spite of erosion and years of drought. But Montana hunting was still just as popular as ever since many people still put food on their table this way. Big game including black bear, whitetail deer, bighorn sheep, moose, elk and antelope hunts still feed many people. Many children learned how to hunt by their fathers taking them out to find pheasant, turkey, duck, dove, or goose. In the same period, dams to hold back water for irrigation and electric power were built. Samuel V. Stewart, a Democrat from Virginia City, served as governor from 1913 to 1921. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to be elected to the United States Congress.

Depression Years and World War II: The economic depression of the 1930’s hit Montana severely. The state made slow economic recovery, hampered by a drought that lasted several years. But three Democratic governors sponsored relief measures. Frank H. Cooney of Missoula became governor in 1933 when Democrat John E. Erickson resigned to become a U.S. Senator. After Cooney died in office in 1935, W. Elmer Holt of Miles City served until 1937. He was followed by Roy E. Ayers of Lewistown, who served until 1941. Federal projects including Fort Peck Dam, completed in 194-, greatly helped the state. Other federally sponsored projects included programs of soil conservation, irrigation, rural electrification, and insect control. Construction of roads, parks, and recreational facilities was directed by several government agencies. Montana’s metals were used in Building ships and tanks during World War II, and the state’s wheat and other agricultural produce helped feed Allied solders. Sam C. Ford, a Helena Republican, was Montana’s wartime governor. He held office from 1941 to 1949.

More information about more recent history can be found on Montana’s government website.

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Hunting-Trips-R-Us hopes that this history will be of interest to our hunters and that they remember that Montana has a rich heritage. Feel free to let us know how to improve our website by sending us an email.