The Region

The Quest For State Sovereignty

Montana 1889-1989

Robert R. Swartout Jr. - Carroll College, Helena

Published August 1, 1989  |  August 1989 issue

Montana's history did not suddenly begin in 1864 with the granting of territorial status. Native Americans were moving into the Upper Missouri Valley long before the first white settlers arrived. Drawn by the variety of game and the appeal of the natural landscape, the Salish, Kutenai, Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Sioux, Crow, and Northern Cheyenne would all make Montana and its surrounding regions their home. The acquisition of horses by the Plains Indians was especially important, for it gave them the mobility to effectively follow the great northern buffalo herds.

The search for natural resources was the primary interest in Montana's first white visitors. The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806 traveled extensively through present-day Montana, both on its way to the Pacific and on the return to St. Louis. By compiling a detailed account of Montana's wondrous natural resources, the Corps of Discovery helped to attract hundreds of trappers and traders to Montana over the next half century. The heart of the fur trade was the beaver pelt, and many of the trappers and traders who searched Montana's streams for beaver worked to line the pockets of eastern capitalists, such as John Jacob Astor, who would largely dominate the trade until the 1840s. At the same time, these early white "explorers" played an important role in establishing the routes into and through Montana that would be used by literally thousands of future pioneers.

White penetration into Montana expanded dramatically during the early 1860s with the discovery of large deposits of gold. Major mining camps—including Bannack, Virginia City, and Helena—sprung up almost overnight. The thousands of miners and other adventurers who poured into the region served as the primary catalyst for the establishment of the Montana Territory in 1864. By 1866, the territory's official white population stood at roughly 28,000. Most of these early pioneers had come to Montana on the old Missouri River route; on the Northern Overland route, which originated in Minnesota and was developed by James Liberty Fisk; on the Bozeman Trail, which cut off from the Oregon Trail in southern Wyoming; or on the Mullan Road, originally a military road that ran from Walla Walla, Washington, to Fort Benton on the Upper Missouri.

The development of the mining frontier over the next couple of decades transformed the territory. Placer mining gradually gave way to industrial mining, which in turn made Montana increasingly dependent on eastern capital and markets. The urban communities that were a byproduct of the mining frontier provided the first agricultural opportunities in Montana; farsighted ranchers and farmers realized that money could be made by feeding the miners, gamblers, bankers, and others who worked in Montana's high mountain valleys. By the 1870s, cattle operations had begun to move out of those valleys and onto the plains of west-central Montana. And by the 1880s, the golden era had arrived for Montana's famous cattle barons, men such as Granville Stuart and James Fergus.

The rapid growth of white settlement during the territorial period had devastating implications for Montana's Native Americans. The gap between Indian and white cultures was so great—particularly regarding their different attitudes toward the land and how it ought to be "developed"—that conflict was inevitable. Despite their courage and military skills, Indian forces could not match the technological advantages and sheer numbers of opposing white forces. By the 1870s, the so-called Indian wars had come to a close, and by the late 1880s most of Montana's Native Americans had been forced onto a half- dozen ever-shrinking reservations, thus opening up new lands to ongoing white penetration.

As this permanent reservation system was being firmly established during the 1880s, two other crucial developments were taking place in the territory: the rise of industrial silver mining and the arrival of the railroad.

Silver, which had been mined in Montana since the late 1860s, produced a major industrial and urban boom during the 1880s and into the early 1890s. By 1883, Montana ranked as the second largest silver-producing region in the nation; from 1890 to 1893, it accounted for roughly one-quarter of the nation's entire silver output. This sudden economic growth, coupled with Montana's continued development in more traditional areas, enabled Montana to qualify for and ultimately achieve statehood in 1889.

The rise of silver production went hand-in-hand with the arrival of the railroads, which would forever transform the face of Montana. The Utah & Northern Railroad, an offshoot of the Union Pacific running through northern Utah, reached Butte in December 1881 and contributed significantly to that town's industrial development. The first transcontinental railroad through Montana, the Northern Pacific, was completed in 1883; and a decade later, the Great Northern Railway, under the leadership of "Empire Builder" James J. Hill, was completed across the Montana Hi-Line and on to Washington's Puget Sound. The last national railroad to cut across Montana—the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific, or "Milwaukee Road"—was completed in 1909, opening up the Musselshell Valley to new economic development.

The railroads, and their various spur lines, irreversibly tied Montana to larger national trends. The copper industry, which replaced silver as Montana's primary mining activity following the Crash of '93, could not have dominated the state as it did without the railroads and their connections to national markets. The railroads were also vitally important to the greatest of all of Montana's economic booms, that of the homestead era. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, available land, new technology, and various government policies came together to produce an unprecedented rush of new settlers into the state. It was the raiIroads that brought most of these homestead pioneers to Montana, and it as the railroads that enabled them to ship their wheat to eastern and international markets.

Between 1900 and 1920, Montana's population grew from 243,329 to 548,889, with most of the growth taking place in the eastern and northern agricultural regions of the state. In short, Montana had become one of the richest and most appealing agricultural states found anywhere in the nation.

The remarkable industrial and agricultural growth that occurred in Montana between the 1880s and 1920 transformed the state. The raw frontier communities of the early mining era were replaced by permanent cities and towns that boasted of their cultural and social graces. During this period, Montana's society became Increasingly heterogeneous. Chinese pioneers were one of the first distinctive ethnic groups to come to Montana during the late 19th century. These hardworking and often courageous immigrants worked in mining, railroad construction and numerous service industries. By the turn of the century, Japanese immigrants had begun to arrive, many as section hands for both the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern railroads. In mining towns such as Butte and Red Lodge, a great mix of American and European miners could be seen. Many Scandinavian immigrants found work in the logging camps and lumber mills of northwestern Montana. And the homestead boom attracted a wide range of people. In addition to the many farming families who came to eastern Montana from the older midwestern states, there were also large numbers of Germans and Scandinavians who moved to Montana.

The agricultural boom collapsed during 1919-1922 as a result of rapidly declining markets, especially those overseas, and a severe drought. By the mid-1920s, half of Montana's farmers had lost their land and half of the state's banks had been forced to close. Historians Michael P. Malone and Richard B. Roeder view the disaster as so great that it may be seen as one of the true watersheds in all of Montana history. The 1920s would symbolize the end of the Montana frontier, as ell as an end to the boundless optimism that was so characteristic of frontier societies. Many younger citizens left the state for outside economic opportunities, a trend that has continued to the present day. One could argue that for Montanans, particularly farmers, the Great Depression actually began in 1919 and lasted until the outbreak of World War II.

The Second World War and the ensuing national affluence of the 1950s and 1960s would help Montanans to rebound from the economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s. But the state's overall growth generally lagged behind that of many other sections of the country. This slower economic growth, combined with a continued dependence on its natural resources, has produced a distinctive social and political culture in Montana.

In terms of political personalities, a strong strain of "populism" runs through twentieth century Montana politics. Montanans do not easily tolerate politicians who put on airs or who are not accessible. The most successful politicians—former Sen. Mike Mansfield and former Gov. Ted Schwinden easily come to mind—are those who have identified with the common people and have used a low-key approach in soliciting support. In terms of political issues, Montana's historical dependence on outside capital and markets to maintain its resource-driven economy has clearly left its mark. Montana's remarkable 1972 state constitution, as well as numerous other measures enacted during the 1970s, indicated that Montanans were eager to not only protect their natural environment, but also to take charge, as best they could, of their own economic destiny. This fear of out-of-state political and economic domination is one of the most consistent elements in Montana's character.

In a social and cultural sense, Montana's dependence on its natural resources has had a more positive influence. The people of the state, even those in its cities and towns, feel a closeness to the land. This special bond is strongly reflected in the art and literature of the state. It is not surprising that the public considers cowboy artist Charlie Russell the dean of Montana painters. As for literary works, it is almost impossible to find a well-crafted story written by a Montanan that does not focus on the relationship between the land and those who live on it. The power and sensitivity of such books as A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky and Ivan Doig's English Creek stem from these authors' abilities to capture the wonders of the Montana landscape.

If today's Montanans are developing a renewed appreciation for the natural majesty of the nation's fourth largest state, then they have some impressive historical guides to follow. After all, it was this region's first permanent settlers, the Native American tribes of the North Rockies and the Great Plains, who knew that in order to prosper they had to live in harmony with the land.

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