Official State Travel Site



Montana History 101

Geologic Story

Long before the first person set foot in what is now Montana, this land underwent turbulent geologic change. The earth heaved and moaned. Ancient seas and lakes rose and fell.

The mountains of western Montana were formed by massive shifts of the earth and the upward surge of liquid rock and lava. One great mass of sedimentary rock slid as a single slab to form what is now Glacier National Park. Other slabs formed the Rocky Mountain Front. A few of the mountain ranges are the result of volcanic activity. One major center of volcanic activity was the Yellowstone National Park area, where a series of violent eruptions built up the Yellowstone Plateau. Great swamps formed east of these mountains as the seas retreated eastward, and were later buried to become thick beds of coal and oil. The geologic activity deep within the earth that created Montana's geographically split personality still goes on today. Volcanoes have been active in the region during most of the past 100 million years, and frequent earthquakes show that some of the mountains and valleys are still moving.

Prehistoric fossils are on display in many areas of Montana, including Bozeman, Choteau, Fort Peck, Jordan and Ekalaka. Some of the finest fossil skeletons ever unearthed were dug from the prairie soils. Triceratops, Trachodon, Tyrannosaurus Rex, dinosaur eggs, petrified turtles and fossilized leaves and fish are just some of the specimens on display. Along the Montana Dinosaur Trail, 15 stops in 12 communities, give a passport of adventure into the past.

Early Inhabitants

It is generally agreed that the first inhabitants of this area migrated over a land bridge across the Bering Strait that connected Asian Siberia with Alaska. These Asiatic hunters followed large herds of big game animals across the continent.

About 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, the climate changed dramatically.

The Northern Great Plains became hot and dry, grasslands dried up and the plentiful herds of big game animals disappeared. Hunters turned to antelope and rabbits and augmented their catch with berries and roots.

As the climate grew wetter, about 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, bison herds returned to the plains. About the same time, the bow and arrow appeared in North America. Besides hunting bison singly with this new weapon, the hunters developed another technique called a buffalo drive or a buffalo jump, in which an entire herd was stampeded over a cliff. Two state parks featuring accessible sites where Indian buffalo jumps can be viewed are First Peoples Buffalo Jump, off I-15, southwest of Great Falls and the Madison Buffalo Jump, off I-90, between Bozeman and Three Forks.

Few of our contemporary Indian tribes lived in Montana before 1600, when white settlement of the East and Midwest pushed tribes farther and farther west. The Kootenai lived in the Flathead Lake region, while the Salish and Pend d'Oreille ventured east of the Continental Divide along the upper Missouri River. But after 1600, Shoshones and Crows moved onto the eastern plains, only to be ousted in the 1700s by the Blackfeet, who dominated the area until it was settled by whites. The Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, Chippewa and Cree all came to Montana after 1750. Thus, when Lewis and Clark traveled through Montana in 1804-1806, few of the Indian tribes they met had been residents for more than 70 years. Today, many of these tribes are eager to share their stories with you.

Lewis and Clark

Montana's first recorded history is preserved eloquently in the journals of Lewis and Clark. The 1804-1806 journey of these two explorers and their "Corps of Discovery" was the greatest expedition in U.S. history. Beginning in St. Louis, the corps followed the Missouri River to its source in what is now Montana, through a vast, newly acquired, unknown tract of land called the Louisiana Purchase. From the Missouri headwaters, they were commissioned to find a water passage to the Pacific Ocean-the long-imagined "northwest passage." Along the way, they were to explore, collect plant and animal specimens, discover what they could of the Indian tribes along their route, map the route, and keep a record of their journey.

The expedition entered Montana April 26, 1805, at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers (at the present Montana-North Dakota border) and traveled west along the Missouri. They portaged around the "Great Falls of the Missouri," just below the present city of Great Falls, continued to the Missouri headwaters near Bozeman, then undertook what must have been the most challenging and discouraging aspect of the journey-the search for a passage over the mountain ranges that comprise the Continental Divide. An arduous, nearly fatal mountain crossing brought them to the Columbia River and the corps spent a hard winter on the coast.

On their return journey, Lewis and Clark re-entered Montana in 1806, divided the corps and explored both the Marias River country in northern Montana and the Yellowstone River valley in southcentral Montana on their way east, leaving their mark at Pompeys Pillar and U.S. history.

In the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark

Most of this historic trek can be followed today by modern highway. Eleven states, including Montana, have marked the entire route, from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to the Pacific Coast. The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, in Great Falls, retraces the expedition's route and explores their interaction with the Indian tribes of the Plains and the Pacific Northwest. In Montana, the Missouri River headwaters have been preserved in interpretive detail at the Missouri Headwaters State Park, off I-90, near Three Forks. Before they reached the headwaters, Lewis and Clark passed through a canyon north of Helena, and named the steep cliffs the Gates of the Rocky Mountains, now known as the Gates of the Mountains. The ''Gates" are easily reached off I-15, north of Helena, and can be viewed daily during the summer months on regular, two-hour, scenic cruises.

Perhaps the earliest graffiti was left by Captain Clark at what he named Pompeys Pillar, a distinctive rock formation along the Yellowstone River east of Billings. Clark climbed the rock and carved his name and the date, July 25, 1806. He named the formation after Pomp, the infant son of the expedition's Indian interpreter, Sacajawea. The landmark is 28 miles east of Billings, off I-94. A boardwalk trail to the top offers a bird's eye view of the river and valley below, then tour the Pompeys Pillar Interpretive Center for exhibits relating to the journey down the Yellowstone River Valley, as well as the native culture, the flora and fauna, the Expedition and the historical legacy of Pompeys Pillar through the 1800s.

The journey undertaken by these two skilled pathfinders literally unlocked the West. In their footsteps came mountain men, fur traders, gold prospectors, land and cattle barons, cowboys, copper kings and countless other dreamers and fortune seekers.


Within just a few years of Lewis and Clark's return to civilization, fur trappers spread into what is now Montana and established a vigorous business. The western fur trade produced the first generation of American heroes whose exploits live on in Western folklore. Mountain men like Jedidiah Smith, Kit Carson, John Colter and Jim Bridger earned larger-than-life reputations and a permanent place in American history. Their exploits, usually exaggerated in the retelling, captured the nation's imagination. There were encounters with grizzly bears, "savages," and perilous journeys through mountains, across deserts and other formidable territory.

One of the best stories comes down to us from John Colter's winter odyssey through what is now the Jackson Hole-Grand Teton-Yellowstone Park area. Colter was a member of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery. After the exploration, he returned to the region on his own to trap beaver. His description of the hot pots and geysers that gained national park status for Yellowstone earned him the reputation of a liar, and his credibility is debated even today, regarding his harrowing escape from Blackfeet Indians in the autumn of 1808. Colter claimed to have outrun and outwitted the warriors, then traveled 300 miles in 11 days with only a blanket for clothing, and one captured spear.

Beaver pelts were big business in the early 1800s but faded toward the middle of the century, partially because trappers over-harvested the West's fur-bearing animals and partially because silk garments replaced furs in popularity. By 1869, steamboats had carried more than 750,000 buffalo robes out of Montana, and nearly half that many wolf pelts. One of the best places to revisit the fur trade era is the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site on the Montana-North Dakota border northeast of Fairview. The Missouri River's pre-eminent fur trading post from the 1830s to the Civil War, Fort Union was a colorful mix of riverboaters, fur traders, Plains Indians, frontier capitalists and distinguished visitors.

The Rush for Gold

When the boom in pelts died, the gold rush began. At Grasshopper Creek in 1862, the find was so rich it was said the miners could pull up sagebrush and shake a dollar's worth of dust from the roots. A brawling frontier town and Montana's first territorial capital-Bannack-sprang up around this rich gold strike. Its ghostly remains can still be seen at Bannack State Park, south of Dillon.

Towns of the gold rush era grew on gold. Within six years, the town of Confederate Gulch jumped from a population of zero to 10,000. By the seventh year, the gold was gone and the population dropped to 64..

Virginia City and the Alder Gulch produced nearly $40 million worth of gold in their first five years. Over $14 million of silver was removed from the Elkhorn area; the Gold Creek claims yielded more than $20 million in gold in just 10 years. Stagecoaches, saddlebags and mule trains carried the gold out of Montana. Steamboats carted 120-150 tons of gold worth $75 million along the 2,385 river miles to St. Louis; today's value would be approximately one billion dollars.

People streamed into Montana Territory during the gold rush: the population went from 100 non-Indians in 1860, to 20,595 in 1870, to 40,000 in 1880, to 143,000 in 1890. They were soldiers escaping the carnage of the Civil War, adventurers, ne'er-do-wells, immigrants, successful businessmen, women, merchants, and thrill-seekers. Lawlessness was the rule, rather than the exception. When elected lawmen could not cope with the rampant crime, communities sometimes banded together into groups of ''vigilantes" to combat bandits and road agents. It was during this era that ministers such as Brother Van, a Methodist minister, made the rounds to bring some semblance of comfort and faith into the mining camps.

Miners also contended with Indians, who were pushed to the limits of their endurance by the influx of whites. The most famous confrontation between Indians and non-Indians comes to life at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument on the Crow Indian Reservation in southeast Montana. It was here in 1876 that a Civil War commander named George Armstrong Custer and his troops lost their lives to an underestimated force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.

Towns sprang up overnight then busted when the veins played out. But a few communities endured the bust cycle. Helena, now the state's capital, was at first typical of other "tent and shack" mining towns. However, its strategic location, agricultural potential and extensive gold deposits contributed to its stability. Helena had at least 188 businesses within two years of the 1864 discovery of gold on Last Chance Gulch. By 1868 about $19 million of gold was taken out of the Helena area.

Muleskinners and Fire Canoes

Transportation in the raw Montana Territory was slow, and fraught with difficulties. Mules and oxen were laden with supplies of all sorts, and driven from the western cities of Salt Lake, Portland and Walla Walla to the new mining camps. A typical mule train consisting of about 25 animals was led by a bell mare and driven by two "muleskinners,'' famous for their invectives and obscene expletives.

Steamboats, called "fire canoes" by Indians, also carried goods to and from the territory. The treacherous Missouri River from St. Louis to Fort Benton was navigable for only a few months each summer, and captains became men of legend. Despite the hazards and mishaps, steamboats carried enormous quantities of cargo from about 1859 to 1888. More than 40,000 passengers came up the river along with 160,000 tons of freight. One steamer alone carried $1,250,000 in raw gold back to St. Louis. In the process, it is estimated that steamboats burned about 276,000 cords of wood-cottonwood cut by lonely "woodhawkers" from the banks of the Missouri. That is enough wood to build almost 27,000 three-bedroom houses today. The best place in Montana to relive the steamboat era is Fort Benton, where you can still walk along the steamboat levee.

The Copper Wars


Boom and bust. Boom and bust. The cycle has been repeated over and over again in Montana's history. After gold came silver and copper. Rich copper deposits in Butte lured some of the world's greatest capitalists to Montana in the 1860s and '70s. With names like Hearst, Rockefeller and Standard Oil backing them, three men-William Andrews Clark, Marcus Daly and F. Augustus Heinze built the greatest mining camp in the West. The "War of the Copper Kings" went beyond Butte. Control of Butte meant control of Montana's economy, political system and newspapers. All were abused in the battle for power. It was a rollicking and rough period of Montana's history that had a pervasive impact on the state. Butte is still regarded as "the richest hill on earth" and the trappings of its heyday have been preserved at attractions like the Copper King Mansion, the World Museum of Mining, Butte's extensive historic district and Berkeley Pit, still visible today.

The Open Range

While bonanza seekers were duking it out for precious metals fortunes in the western portion of the state, cattle and sheep were driven in waves to the open ranges and rich grasses of central and eastern Montana. In 10 years, the cattle population rose from a few thousand to more than a million. Overcrowding and the cruel winter of 1886-87 killed most of them, and another Montana boom went bust. The era of the stockman is on display year-round at the 1,500 acre Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge. Owned by Johnny Grant in the 1850s and later by Conrad Kohrs, it produced meat for the mining camps and was the early social center of the community. It became the headquarters area of one of the largest and best known 19th-century range ranches in the country, managing over one million acres from Colorado to Canada.


In 1881, only 75 years after Lewis and Clark made the first organized expedition through this area on foot, Montana Territory was linked with the rest of the nation by rail. The first line through Montana, the Northern Pacific, reached from Lake Superior to the Pacific Coast. Within a few years, Jim Hill brought the Great Northern through. A hundred thousand immigrants used sledge hammers to pound down the parallel steel ribbons. The Great Northern advertised free government land in a region of "milk and honey" to lure settlers to its lines. Completion of the railroad sealed the fate of both Indians and the American bison. The bison herds provided an abundance of meat and supplies the Indians depended on. But white railroad builders, hide hunters and sport hunters killed the bison in numbers that can only be described as slaughter. It is estimated that perhaps 13 million bison roamed the West before the hunt of the 1870s and '80s began. By 1883 there were fewer than 200 of the great animals in the entire West. Large numbers of Indians, in turn, died from malnutrition and starvation. Those who survived were confined to the seven Montana reservations that are now home to Assiniboine and Sioux, Blackfeet, Chippewa-Cree, Confederated Salish (Flatheads) and Kootenai, Crow, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, and Northern Cheyenne.

Unperturbed by the slaughter and suffering, the people who settled Montana Territory were ready for statehood. On October 1, 1889, the voters of Montana approved a state constitution, and on November 8, Montana was proclaimed the 41st state of the Union.


The combination of the rails and a worldwide industrial revolution brought the next great wave, the "sodbusters invasion," to Montana after the turn of the century. Montana's homesteaders, a mix of Americans and western Europeans, built what remains part of the state's leading industry. They broke millions of acres of fertile grassland and transformed the Northern Great Plains into a rich grainbelt. But not without cost. First, cattle and sheep ranchers feuded with these newcomers who fenced fields. Then 11,000 farms were abandoned in eastern Montana during the drought years in the late teens and early '20s. Wheat production dropped from an average of 25 bushels an acre to 2.4 bushels an acre in 1919. Between 1921 and 1925 half of all Montana farmers lost their farms by mortgage foreclosure. Rebuilding was slow and cautious. Montana can and still does grow the best wheat in the world. In 2006, the state's wheat harvest brought cash receipts of more than $688 million, with all crops bringing in cash receipts totaling over $2.35 billion.


Over 200 years have elapsed since Montana was first mapped by Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery. Montana achieved statehood just over a century ago. Its history is a young, accessible, "hands-on'' history. It won't be found on dry parchment under glass. Rather, it lives at the National Bison Range, the Crow Fair, the two-story outhouse at Nevada City, the C.M. Russell Art Auction, the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Helena's Last Chance Gulch, or at any number of annual festivals and celebrations bearing names like the Wild Horse Stampede, the Northeast Montana Threshing Bee and Antique Show, the Western Rendezvous of Art and the Festival of Nations.

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