Montana State History

In terms of area, Montana is the fourth largest U.S. state, behind only California, Texas, and Alaska. Montana also has the third lowest population density of all of the U.S. states, behind only Wyoming and Alaska. The Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia all share the northern border of Montana. Its eastern border is shared by the U.S. states of South Dakota and North Dakota. To the west, it is bordered by Idaho. To the south, it shares a border with Wyoming.

The capital of Montana is Helena. The name “Montana” comes from the Spanish word for mountain, which is “monta?a.” However, of all of the mountain states, Montana’s average elevation is the lowest, at only 3,400 feet, or 1,040 meters. The Rocky Mountains run through Montana from northwest to southeast. They also run through British Columbia, Wyoming, and Idaho. However, Montana’s eastern area is mainly grazing land for sheep and cattle. Montana is considered part of the Great Plains, along with North Dakota, South Dakota, the northeastern part of Wyoming, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

There are not many manufacturing industries or markets for goods in Montana. The state is primarily known for its fishing, hunting, and sports. Montana residents often travel great distances for entertainment or to socialize with others, since they tend to be fairly isolated.

Although located in the north, Montana is part of the stereotypical “Western States.” The city of Helena was originally called “Last Chance Gulch,” which is still the name of the city’s main street. That name pays tribute to the 1860s gold miners who searched for gold in the hills outside Helena.

Montana became the 41st state in 1889. By then, there were cattle drives in the area on a regular basis. The state had also become known as a leader in the copper mining industry. In fact, the area is so rich in minerals that it is known as the “Treasure State.” As of 2012, it had an estimated population of 1,005,141 people and it has a 147,039 square mile area (380,829 square km).

In 1862, gold was found in Bannack, which triggered the first major influx of people to the area. The next year, gold was also discovered in Alder Gulch, which was just south of Butte, Montana. Eventually, there were several distinct groups of people in Montana, including: Settlers from Oregon and California, Settlers from the East, Foreign-Born Immigrants, Civil War Veterans from the South.

In 1864, Montana became a territory. The portion on the Continental Divide’s west side was originally part of Washington Territory, while the portion on the east side was part of Nebraska Territory. In 1889, Montana gained its statehood.

From 1865 onward, steamboats brought both people and goods to the gold camps via the Missouri River. It took quite a while for them to do that. They typically departed in March or April from either Sioux City or St. Louis, but they didn’t get to Fort Benton, Montana until at least May. Sometimes it took them until as late as July to arrive. Fort Mullan Road, which ran for about 100 to 200 miles from the mines to Fort Benton, was a major route for those entering and leaving the state. In fact, in 1867, there were about 5,000 people who either entered or left the state via the Mullan Road or the Missouri River.

The officials in Montana Territory started to advertise to try to bring in settlers in 1869. They hired a New York agent to make leaflets about Montana Territory and then send those leaflets to Scandinavian countries and to Germany. The 1870 federal census showed that there were 183 African Americans, 1,949 Chinese people, and 18,306 white people living in Montana. There were also an estimated 19,300 Native Americans in Montana at that time. The Montana Immigration Society was started in Helena in 1872. Three years later, a Bozeman immigration society began meeting on a fairly regular basis. The Bozeman agent was responsible for getting immigrants to settle in Yellowstone County and Big Horn County.

The North Pacific Railroad was established in Montana in 1883. The railroad advertised land for sale in the area in 2.5 million advertisements between 1882 and 1883. It was believed that those from norther Europe would have an easier time adapting to Montana’s climate and conditions. However, not many northern Europeans came to the area at the time.

In 1882, English colonies were established in Yellowstone Valley and in Helena. Some Dutch families took up residence in Gallatin Valley and some French people settled in Missoula County, both in 1893. The year before that, a group of Finnish people, who were mainly lumbermen, settled near Missoula. Park County and Fergus County became home to groups of Germans and Italians around that time, many of them migrating from Canada and North Dakota. Many of the Germans owned cattle in Montana, but the actual cattlemen who drove the cattle were generally Scottish and English. Some sheepmen also moved to the area, originally coming from the British Isles.

Members of 115 families, amounting to 506 people, migrated from Ripon, Wisconsin to Montana in 1882. They made their home in the Billings area. Some settlers also came from Oregon for cattle drives. Another large group were the southerners, who came and eventually made their homes in Bitterroot Valley.

Many Irish and Scandinavian people wound up working for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which had mills and smelters in Montana. People from Balkan countries came to the area in large groups in the early 1900s. Italian, Irish, and Polish people were the primary workers in the Musselshell, Carbon, and Cascade County mines.

Montana Ethnic Group Research

The Salt Lake City FHL, The University of Montana, and the National Archives-Pacific , Alaska Region (Seattle) each have some Native American Agency documents and records on file. Many of them have been microfilmed. These records are vital clues when doing research on Native American history in Montana.

Billings Area Office, Billings, Montana (1912-52): Records from the Billings Area Office, Billings, Montana (1912-52) pertain to tribal lands when they were overseen by the federal government, which was the trustee of those lands at the time. A lot of information relating to those records can be found in the following sources:

Decimal Files, Grazing Leases, Education Records, Health Records , Tribal Enactments, Irrigation Records, Land Transaction Records , Forestry Records, Soil Conservation Records, Agricultural Extension Records, Road Construction Records

Blackfeet Agency, Browning, Montana (1875-1959): Blackfeet Agency records can be found in the following places: General Correspondence, Grazing Permits, Gas and Oil Production Reports, Census Records, Death and Birth Records, Ledgers, Abstracts of Accounts of Individual Indians, Tribal Council Records, Education Records, Road Records, Forestry Records, Irrigation Records, Credit Records, Welfare Records, Rehabilitation Program Records.

The Agency included three different Siksika bands.

Crow Agency, Crow Agency, Montana (1874-1959): The River Crows and Mountain Crows were administered by this agency, which was actually first created in 1869. Originally, the Fort Peck Agency had control of the River Crows. However, they were later transferred to the Crow Agency.

General Correspondence, Decimal Files, Student Case Files, School Censuses, Tract Books, Maps of the Crow Reservations, Grazing Leases, Building Plans, Annuity Payrolls, Ledgers for Accounts of Individual Indians, Records of Goods Issued to Indians, Census Rolls, Indian Court Dockets, Records Concerning Irrigation, Forestry Records, Civilian Conservation Corps Records, Road Program Records

Flathead Agency, St. Ignatius, Montana (1875- 1960): Originally created in 1854, this agency was mainly responsible for the Kutenai, Flathead, and Upper Pend d’Oreille tribes. However, in 1887, the Lower Kalispells also began living on the Flathead Reservation. They were followed by the Spokane tribe, in 1894. Eventually, all of those tribes were simply known as Flathead Indians.

Documents that may contain useful information on the Flathead Indians include: General Correspondence, , Decimal Files, , School Reports and Censuses, Grazing Permits, Leases, Land Allotment and Transaction Records, Other Land Records, Irrigation Records, Civilian Conservation Corps Records, Engineering Records, Forestry and Road Program Records, Account Ledgers for Individual Indians, Census Reports, Welfare and Relief Program Records, Indian Court and Police Records, Credit Program Files, Tribal Accounts, Annuity Payrolls

Fort Belknap Agency, Harlem, Montana (1877-1969): The Fort Belknap Agency was created in 1873. It presided over the Upper Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes, who were living near the Milk River at the time. Records containing Fort Belknap Agency information may include: General Correspondence, Decimal Files, Education Correspondence, School Applications and Reports, Grazing Permits, Leases, Account Ledgers of Individual Indians, Health and Welfare Reports, Census Rolls, Family History Cards, Traders’ Licenses, Court and Police Records, Financial Records, Civilian Conservation Corps Records.

Fort Peck Agency, Popular, Montana (1871-1959): Originally, the Fort Peck Agency was the Milk River Agency, but the name was later changed. The agency’s jurisdiction extended to the Sioux, especially the Yanktonai, and to the the Lower Assiniboine tribe. Records for that agency may include: General Correspondence, Decimal Files, School Reports, Records of 4-H Activities, Grazing Permits, Mining Leases, Account Ledgers of Individual Indians, Credit Rehabilitation Ledgers, Industrial Status Reports, Census Records, Medical Reports, Registers of Indians, Death and Birth Records, Welfare Relief Case Files, Tribal Council Records, Land Allotment and Sale Records, Forestry and Range Management Records, Irrigation Records, Road Construction Records

Native American “Indian schools” were set up to improve the education of Native American children. The Fort Shaw School in Cascade Country, Montana and the Chemawa Indian School in Chemawa, Oregon were two very important Indian schools.

The Fort Shaw School, which was founded in 1892 and closed in 1910, kept several records. They included: Received Letters, Pupil registers, Employee Rosters, Cashbooks.

The James McLaughlin Papers is a large collection of Native American documents. It was compiled by Indian agent, Major James McLaughlin. He was an Indian agent for Wyoming Territory, the Dakotas, and Montana. He kept meticulous records during that time. Those records included a lot of data relating to specific families within the tribes. Several of those families became separated during the time when the government was shuffling Native Americans to various reservations. Many of those scattered family members can be located using the James McLaughlin Papers. The collection contains around 30,000 pages and also has 15,675 cross-reference cards that can make the research process much easier.

The Pacific Northwest Tribes Missions Collection of the Oregon Province Archives of the Society of Jesus (1853-1960) is one of the most important collections of Native American information relating to tribes in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana. It contains Jesuit records, such as: Births, Marriages, Deaths, Censuses, Land Records, Church Records, Histories, Newspaper Clippings.

Those records include information about each of the following tribes: Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Coeur d’Alene, Colville, Crow, Flathead, Kalispell, Kootenai, Nez Perce, Spokane, Umatilla

The FHL has those records on microfilm, but the original records are held in Spokane, Washington, at the Crosby Library of Gonzaga University. The Oregon Province Archives are also located there.

Montana History Databases and other Helpful Links

State Genealogy Guides

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