Montana History

Aboriginal peoples

The Crow Indians have inhabited the area now known as south-central Montana and northern Wyoming from about 1700 onward. Their arrival in the area was preceded by a 100-year migration taking them from the Great Lakes area to the northern Rocky Mountains (present-day Alberta), south to the Great Salt Lake, east to the southern plains, and finally north to the Big Horn Mountains and the Yellowstone River. This area became the Crow’s new homeland and they still occupy it today. However, the Crow were not the first to inhabit the region: Rock art in Pictograph Cave six miles (10 km) south of Billings indicates human presence in the area over 2,100 years ago. The Crow Tribe’s true name is Apsáalooke, which means “people (or children) of the large-beaked bird”. After the introduction of the horse in the 1600s the traditional shelters of the Crow were tipis made with Bison skins and wooden poles. They were known to construct some of the largest tipis. The Crow also had more horses than any other plains tribe; in 1914, their horse herds numbered approximately 30,000-40,000, but by 1921 had dwindled to just 1,000 because of government wild horse eradication efforts. They also had more dogs, one source counted 500 to 600. Unlike some other tribes, they did not consume dog. The Crow were nomads following the buffalo.

The Cheyenne have a reservation in the southeastern portion of the state. The Northern Cheyenne of Montana speak the Cheyenne language, with only a handful of vocabulary items different from that spoken by their relatives in the Southern Cheyenne tribe. The Cheyenne language is part of the larger Algonquian language group, and is one of the few Plains Algonquian languages to have developed tonal characteristics. The closest linguistic relatives of the Cheyenne language are Arapaho and Ojibwa (Chippewa). Nothing is absolutely known about the Cheyenne people before the 16th century. Much of Cheyenne history study starts at the 16th century. The Northern Cheyenne participated in the Battle Where the Girl Saved her Brother (Rosebud Battle) Battle of the Little Bighorn, which took place on June 25, 1876. The Cheyenne, along with the Lakota and a small band of Arapaho, annihilated George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry contingent of Army soldiers.

The Blackfeet, Assiniboine, and Gros Ventres have reservations in the central and north-central area. Prior to the reservation era, the Blackfoot were fiercely independent and very successful warriors whose territory stretched from the North Saskatchewan River along what is now Edmonton, Alberta in Canada, to the Yellowstone River of Montana, and from the Rocky Mountains and along the Saskatchewan river past Regina. Blackfoot people were nomadic, following the buffalo herds. Survival required their being in the proper place at the proper time. For almost half the year in the long northern winter, the Blackfoot people lived in their winter camps along a wooded river valley perhaps a day’s march apart, not moving camp unless food for the people and horses or firewood became depleted.

The Assiniboine, also known by the Ojibwe name Asiniibwaan “Stone Sioux”, are a Native American/First Nations people originally from the Northern Great Plains area of North America, specifically in present-day Montana and parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta and southwestern Manitoba around the US/Canadian border. They were well known throughout much of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Images of Assiniboine people were painted by such 19th century artists as Karl Bodmer and George Catlin. The Assiniboine have many similarities to the Lakota (Sioux) people in lifestyle, linguistics, and cultural habits, and are considered a band of the Nakoda or middle division of the Lakota. It is believed that the Assiniboine broke away from other Lakota bands in the 17th century.

The Gros Ventre are an American Indian tribe located in north-central Montana also known as the Atsina, which is considered an inaccurate and derogatory name. There are currently 3,682 members and they share Fort Belknap Indian Reservation with the Assiniboine, their historical enemies. Gros Ventre is a name that was given to the people by the French who misinterpreted their sign language. Instead, the Gros Ventre people refer to themselves as A’ani or A’aninin, which means “white clay people”. They are identified as a band of Arapaho and speak a variant of Arapaho language called Gros Ventre or Atsina.

The Kootenai and Salish live in the west. The Kootenai (also Kutenai or Ktunaxa (pronounced in English as /k ̩tuˈnæ.hæ/) are an indigenous people of North America. They are one of three tribes of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation in Montana, and they form the Ktunaxa Nation in British Columbia. There are also populations in Idaho and Washington in the United States. The Flathead Indian Reservation is home to the Bitterroot Salish and Pend d’Oreilles tribes as well.

The smaller Pend d’Oreille and Kalispel tribes were found around Flathead Lake and the western mountains, respectively.

The Louisiana Purchase

On April 30, 1803, the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed by Robert Livingston, James Monroe, and Barbé Marbois for the U.S. at Paris France. Jefferson announced the treaty to the American people on July 4, 1803. The area covered by the purchase included much of what is now Montana–part of the Missouri River drainage.

The United States Senate ratified the treaty, with a vote of twenty-four to seven, on October 20; on the following day, it authorized President Jefferson to take possession of the territory and establish a temporary military government. The rights to the Louisiana Purchase territory cost the U. S. $15 million. In legislation enacted on October 31, Congress made temporary provisions for local civil government to continue as it had under nominal French and Spanish rule and authorized the President to use the U.S. Army to maintain order. France then turned New Orleans over to the United States on December 20, 1803. On March 10, 1804, a formal ceremony was conducted in St. Louis, Missouri, to transfer ownership of the territory from France to the United States of America.

Lewis and Clark Expedition

The Louisiana Purchase sparked interest in knowing more of what was between the East and the West Coast. A few weeks after the purchase, President Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of exploration and scientific inquiry, had the Congress appropriate $2,500, “to send intelligent officers with ten or twelve men, to explore even to the Western ocean”. They were to study, map and record information on the Indian tribes, botany, geology, terrain, river systems and wildlife found in the region. Eventually the Louis and Clark Expedition was expanded to 37 men with 32 men continuing on from Fort Mandan on the Missouri River while five men returned with preliminary discoveries to St. Louis, Missouri.

Eventually the expedition floated down the Columbia River and built Fort Clatsop to spend the winter of 1805-6. On the return trip on July 3, 1806 after crossing the Continental Divide, the Corps split into two teams so Lewis could explore and map the Marias River.

William Clark with most of the men went down the Yellowstone River to explore and map it. He signed his name 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Billings, Montana . The inscription consists of his signature and the date July 25, 1806. Clark claimed he climbed the sandstone pillar and “had a most extensive view in every direction on the Northerly Side of the river”. The pillar was named by Clark after the son of Sacagawea who was the Shoshone woman (wife of a French trapper they had hired) who had helped to guide the expedition and had acted as an interpreter. Clark had called Sacagawea’s son “Pompy” and his original name for the outcropping was “Pompys Tower”. It was later changed (1814) to the current title. Clark’s inscription is the only remaining physical evidence found along the route that was followed by the expedition.

Lewis’ group of four men met some Blackfeet Indians. Their initial meeting was cordial, but during the night, the Blackfeet tried to steal their weapons. In the ensuing struggle, two Indians were killed, the only native deaths attributable to the expedition. To prevent further bloodshed, the group of four—Lewis, Drouillard, and the two Field brothers—fled over 100 miles (160 km) in a day before they camped again. Clark, meanwhile, had entered Crow territory. The Crow tribe were known as horse thieves at the end of one night, half of Clark’s horses were gone, even though not a single Crow was seen. Lewis and Clark stayed separated until they reached the confluence of the Yellowstone River and Missouri Rivers on August 11, 1806. Clark’s team had floated down the rivers in bull boats they had made. After reuniting, one of their hunters, Pierre Cruzatte, blind in one eye and nearsighted in the other, mistook Lewis for an elk and fired, injuring Lewis in the thigh. After the two groups were reunited they were able to quickly return to St Louis, Missouri by floating down the Missouri River on boats they constructed.

First permanent settlement

Stevensville is officially recognized as the first permanent settlement in the state of Montana. Forty-eight years before Montana became the nation’s 41st state, Stevensville was settled by Jesuit missionaries at the request of the Bitter Root Salish Indians.

Through interactions with Iroquois Indians between 1812 and 1820, the Bitter Root Salish Indians learned about Christianity and Jesuit missionaries (blackrobes) that worked with Indian tribes teaching about agriculture, medicine, and religion. Interest in these “blackrobes” grew among the Salish and, in 1831, four young Salish men were dispatched to St. Louis, Missouri to request a “blackrobe” to return with them to their homeland of present day Stevensville. The four Salish men were directed to the home and office of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) to make their request. At that time Clark was in charge of administering the territory they called home. Through the perils of their trip, two of the Indians died at the home of General Clark. The remaining two Salish men secured a visit with St. Louis Bishop Joseph Rosati, who assured them that missionaries would be sent to the Bitter Root Valley when funds and missionaries were available in the future.

Again in 1835 and 1837 the Bitter Root Salish dispatched men to St. Louis to request missionaries but to no avail. Finally in 1839 a group of Iroquois and Salish met Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet in Council Bluff, Iowa. The meeting resulted in Fr. DeSmet promising to fulfill their request for a missionary the following year.

DeSmet arrived in present-day Stevensville on September 24, 1841, and called the settlement St. Mary’s. Construction of a chapel immediately began, followed by other permanent structures including log cabins and Montana’s first pharmacy.

In 1850 Major John Owen arrived in the valley and set up camp north of St. Mary’s. In time, Major Owen established a trading post and military strong point named Fort Owen, which served the settlers, Indians, and missionaries in the valley.

Fort Shaw

Fort Shaw (Montana Territory) was established in the spring of 1867. It is located west of Great Falls in the Sun River Valley and was one of three posts authorized to be built by Congress in 1865. The other two posts in the Montana Territory were Camp Cooke on the Judith River and Fort C.F. Smith on the Bozeman Trail in south central Montana Territory. Fort Shaw, named after Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first all African-American regiments, during the American Civil War, was built of adobe and lumber by the 13th Infantry. The fort had a parade ground that was 400 feet (120 m) square, and consisted of barracks for officers, a hospital, and a trading post, and could house up to 450 soldiers. Completed in 1868, its soldiers were mainly used to guard the Benton-Helena Road, the major supply-line from Fort Benton, which was the head of navigation on the Missouri River, to the gold mining districts in southwestern Montana Territory. The fort was occupied by military personnel until 1891.

After the close of the military post, the government established Fort Shaw as a school to provide industrial training to young Native Americans. The Fort Shaw Indian Industrial School was opened on April 30, 1892. The school had at one time 17 faculty members, 11 Indian assistants, and 300 students. The school made use of over 20 of the buildings built by the Army.

Battle of the Little Big Horn

The Battle of the Little Bighorn — which is also called Custer’s Last Stand and Custer Massacre and, in the parlance of the relevant Native Americans, the Battle of the Greasy Grass — was an armed engagement between a Lakota-Northern Cheyenne combined force and the 7th Cavalry of the United States Army. It occurred June 25–June 26, 1876, near the Little Bighorn River in the eastern Montana Territory.

Thousands of Indians had slipped away from their reservations. Military officials planned a three-pronged expedition to force them back to the reservations, using both infantry and cavalry, as well as small detachments of artillery, including Gatling guns. Custer’s force arrived at an overlook 14 miles (23 km) east of the Little Bighorn River in what is now the state of Montana, on the night of June 24, as the Terry/Gibbon column was marching toward the mouth of the Little Big Horn.

Impetuously, Custer with 257 men and officers but without artillery, gatling guns, reserves or even repeating rifles, attacked a much larger force of Indians with repeating rifles. Within roughly three hours after the beginning of the battle, Custer’s force was completely annihilated. Only two men from the 7th Cavalry later claimed to have seen Custer engage the Indians: a young Crow whose name translated as Curley, and a trooper named Peter Thompson, who had fallen behind Custer’s column, and most accounts of the last moments of Custer’s forces are conjecture. Lakota accounts assert that Crazy Horse personally led one of the large groups of Lakota who overwhelmed the cavalrymen. While exact numbers are difficult to determine, it is commonly estimated that the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota outnumbered the 7th Cavalry by approximately 3:1, a ratio that was extended to 5:1 during the fragmented parts of the battle.

The Lakota with their allies, the Arapaho and the Cheyenne, defeated the U.S. 7th Cavalry in 1876 at the Battle at the Greasy Grass or Little Big Horn, killing 258 soldiers and inflicting more than 50% casualties on the regiment. The Teton were defeated in a series of subsequent battles by the reinforced U.S. Army who continued attacking even in the winter, and were herded back onto reservations, by preventing buffalo hunts and enforcing government food-distribution policies to “friendlies” only. The Lakota were compelled to sign a treaty in 1877 ceding the Black Hills to the United States, but a low-intensity war continued, culminating, fourteen years later, in the killing of Sitting Bull (December 15, 1890) at Standing Rock and the Massacre of Wounded Knee (December 29, 1890) at Pine Ridge.

Northern Cheyenne exodus

Following the Battle of the Little Bighorn, attempts by the U.S. Army to capture the Cheyenne intensified. A group of 972 Cheyenne was escorted to Indian Territory in Oklahoma in 1877. The government intended to re-unite both the Northern and Southern Cheyenne into one nation. There the conditions were dire; the Northern Cheyenne were not used to the climate and soon many became ill with malaria. In addition, the food rations were insufficient and of poor quality. In 1878, the two principal Chiefs, Little Wolf and Morning Star (Dull Knife) pressed for the release of the Cheyenne so they could travel back north.

That same year a group of 353 Cheyenne left Indian Territory to travel back north. This group was led by Chiefs Little Wolf and Morning Star. The Army and other civilian volunteers were in hot pursuit of the Cheyenne as they traveled north. It is estimated that a total of 13,000 Army soldiers and volunteers were sent to pursue the Cheyenne over the whole course of their journey north.

After crossing into Nebraska, the group split into two. One group was led by Little Wolf, and the other by Morning Star. Little Wolf and his band made it back to Montana. Morning Star and his band were captured and escorted to Fort Robinson, Nebraska. There Morning Star and his band were sequestered. They were ordered to return to Oklahoma but they refused. Conditions at the fort grew tense through the end of 1878 and soon the Cheyenne were confined to barracks with no food, water, or heat. In January 1879, Morning Star and his group broke out of Ft. Robinson. Much of the group was gunned down as they ran away from the fort, and others were discovered near the fort during the following days and ordered to surrender but most of the escapees chose to fight because they would rather be killed than taken back into custody. It is estimated that only 50 survived the breakout, including Morning Star (Dull Knife). Several of the escapees later had to stand trial for the murders that had been committed in Kansas. The remains of those killed were repatriated in 1994.

The Retreat of the Nez Perce

With 2000 U.S. soldiers in pursuit, Chief Joseph led 800 Nez Perce toward freedom at the Canadian border. For over three months, the Nez Perce outmaneuvered and battled their pursuers traveling 1,700 miles (2,700 km) across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming (Yellowstone National Park) and Montana.

General Howard, leading the opposing cavalry, was impressed with the skill with which the Nez Perce fought, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications. Finally, after a devastating five-day battle during freezing weather conditions with no food or blankets, Chief Joseph formally surrendered to General Nelson Appleton Miles on October 5, 1877 in the Bear Paw Mountains of the Montana Territory, less than 40 miles (60 km) south of Canada in a place close to the present-day Chinook in Blaine County. The battle is remembered in popular history by the words attributed to Chief Joseph at the formal surrender:

“Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Louis Riel & the Metis

Many Métis from the British territory to the north, called Ruperts Land (later the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta), settled in Montana in the latter half of the 19th century. For a time, Louis Riel, the Métis leader from Manitoba in exile, taught school at St. Peter’s Mission in Montana and was active in the local Republican Party. Controversy resulted over his alleged signing up of Métis men, who were not American citizens, to vote for the Republicans. In the summer of 1884 a delegation of Métis leaders from the Saskatchewan Valley, including Gabriel Dumont and James Isbister, convinced Riel to return north, where in the following year he led the Métis revolt against Canadian rule, know as the Northwest Rebellion. Following the defeat of the Métis rebels and the imprisonment and later hanging to Riel, Gabriel Dumont fled to exile in Montana, later joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

Montana Territory

Subsequent to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and after the finding of gold in the region in the late 1850s, Montana became a United States territory (Montana Territory) on May 26, 1864 and the 41st state on November 8, 1889.

The territory was organized out of the existing Idaho Territory by Act of Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 28, 1864. The areas east of the continental divide had been previously part of the Nebraska and Dakota territories and had been acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.

The territory also included a portion of the Idaho Territory west of the continental divide and east of the Bitterroot Range, which had been acquired by the United States in the Oregon Treaty, and originally included in the Oregon Territory. (The part of the Oregon Territory that became part of Montana had been split off as part of the Washington Territory.)

The boundary between the Washington Territory and Dakota Territory was the Continental Divide (as shown on the 1861 map), however the boundary between the Idaho Territory and the Montana Territory followed the Bitterroot Range north of 46°30’N (as shown on the 1864 map). Popular legend says a drunken survey party followed the wrong mountain ridge and mistakenly moved the boundary west into the Bitterroot Range.

Contrary to legend, the boundary is precisely where the United States Congress intended. The Organic Act of the Territory of Montana defines the boundary as extending from the modern intersection of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming at:

“the forty-fourth degree and thirty minutes of north latitude; thence due west along said forty-fourth degree and thirty minutes of north latitude to a point formed by its intersection with the crest of the Rocky Mountains; thence following the crest of the Rocky Mountains northward till its intersection with the Bitter Root Mountains; thence northward along the crest of the Bitter Root Mountains to its intersection with the thirty-ninth degree of longitude west from Washington; thence along said thirty-ninth degree of longitude northward to the boundary line of the British possessions”

The boundaries of the territory did not change during its existence. It was admitted to the Union as the State of Montana on November 8, 1889.

20th century

The revised Homestead Act of the early 1900s greatly affected the settlement of Montana. This act expanded the land that was provided by the Homestead Act of 1862 from 160 acres (0.65 km2) to 320 acres (65-130 ha). When the latter act was signed by President William Taft, it also reduced the time necessary to prove up from five years to three years and permitted five months absence from the claim each year.

In 1908, the Sun River Irrigation Project, west of Great Falls was opened up for homesteading. Under this Reclamation Act, a person could obtain 40 acres (16 ha). Most of the people who came to file on these homesteads were young couples who were eager to live near the mountains where hunting and fishing were good. Many of these homesteaders came from the Midwest and Minnesota.

Cattle ranching has long been central to Montana’s history and economy. The Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge Valley is maintained as a link to the ranching style of the late 19th century. It is operated by the National Park Service but is also a 1,900 acre (7.7 km²) working ranch.