The Basics

History of Montana

The history of Montana is as remarkable and vast as are its open plains.

Ghost towns stand as a reminder of towns once vibrant with life during the mining booms. Stand where General Custer stood; The Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument commemorates the battle of the same name and Custer's Last Stand against the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. Native American culture is still thriving in Montana with seven different Indian reservations, as well as numerous commemorative state parks and historic sites. Two great rivers, the Missouri and the Yellowstone drain the eastern prairies where dinosaurs once roamed and where Crow, Cheyenne and Blackfeet tribes pursued the worlds largest herd of American bison across the plains.

Tribes of early people first arrived in Montana from Asia about 10,000-15,000 years ago. Around 5,000 B.C., a desert climate in Asia caused game animals and the peoples who relied on them to migrate in search of more habitable conditions. The Shoshone entered Montana in about 1600, shortly after the Crow Indians settled along tributaries of the Yellowstone River. Over a century later, the Blackfeet came to Montana from the north and east in about 1730. Other tribes later found their way to Montana: Sioux, Cheyenne, Salish, and the Kootenai. Cree and Chippewa tribes entered Montana in the 1870s from Canada.

In the early 1800s, rivers provided the pathway into Montana for the first white explorers. Rivers and riverboats remained the only form of transportation linking Montana and the rest of the nation until the 1880s. Trappers and traders also used the rivers as thoroughfares, and forts were erected to support the lavish trapping and trading of beavers pelts. By 1840, prior to the cessation of this beaver trapping era due to the animals near extinction, almost three dozen trading forts had been built. As the population of beavers drastically declined, trade continued in buffalo hides.

Mineral wealth, as well as the development of the railroad, fueled Montana's development in the late 1800s. People flocked to Montana searching for gold, creating instant towns in southwestern Montana. Bannack, Virginia City, and Nevada City all began as gold-rush towns. Other gold strikes and later discoveries of silver sparked similar rushes in Last Chance Gulch (now Helena), Confederate Gulch (Diamond City) and many other boom towns. The railroad arrived serendipitously to haul the mineral riches. The Union Pacific built a spur line north from Utah to Butte in 1881. The Northern Pacific spanned the length of Montana linking Portland and Chicago in 1883 and extending its rails across approximately 17 million acres. The Great Northern stretched its service along the Montana-Canada border, joining Minneapolis and Seattle in 1893. With access to the coastal markets, Montana opened wide its doors for development and immigration.

Towns emerged in river valleys and highways were built on their banks. Dams were built to harness water power and reservoirs soon spanned the state altering Montana's geography. Millions of gallons of water are dammed at Fort Peck Reservoir on the Missouri and in Lake Koocanusa on the Kootenai River. The Great Falls of the Missouri, which required Lewis and Clark twenty-two days to painstakingly portage in 1805, is now a series of hydroelectric dams. Further exploits of the Lewis and Clark expedition in Montana are thoroughly chronicled in actual journals they kept.

Montana became a territory in 1864 and gained its statehood in 1889. Although Montana was, in many ways, detached from the rest of the country in its early years of statehood, the state was able to sustain itself by the diverse and rich resources within its borders. Today those same resources travel the world: cattle grown on Montana ranches may end up on the table of a Japanese restaurant, its coal fuels the cities of the Pacific Coast, its timber is used to erect homes across the country, and Montanas gold becomes circuitry in mainframe computers and spacecraft.

Throughout this site, we have provided you enough history of the area to understand its origins. Much of this is provided through the text of historical markers throughout the state. They tell the story of Montana in a colorful way and do an excellent job of spotlighting the important milestones in Montana history. We have provided some background history on over 300 towns and cities in the state if nothing more than the origin of the towns name. Quite often, the story of the towns name provides insight into its past.

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