A Brief History of Montana – Courtesy of the State of Montana
Native Americans were the first inhabitants of the area that is now known as Montana.
Tribes include the Crow in the south central region, the Cheyenne in the southeastern
part of the state, the Blackfeet, Assiniboine and Gros Ventre in the Central and
North Central area and the Kootenai and Salish in the western sector. The Pend d'Oreille
were found around Flathead Lake, and the Kalispell occupied the western mountains.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806 was the first group of white explorers
to cross Montana. Hard on the heels of the expedition arrived the fur trappers and
traders. Trappers brought alcohol, disease and a new economic system to native populations.
The fur trade was mostly over by the 1840's due to dwindling supplies of beaver,
and the unpopular beaver hat.
Roman Catholic missionaries followed the trappers into Montana. They established
Saint Mary's Mission in the Bitterroot Valley, thought to be the first permanent
settlement in Montana. They also promoted agriculture and built a sawmill.
The discovery of gold brought many prospectors into the area in the 1860's, and
Montana became a territory in 1864. The rapid influx of people led to boomtowns
that grew rapidly and declined just as quickly when the gold ran out.
more and more white people came into the area, Indians lost access to their traditional
hunting grounds and conflicts grew. The Sioux and Cheyenne were victorious in 1876
at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce won a battle
in the Big Hole Basin (1877). Yet, in the end, the Indians could not hold out against
the strength of the United States army.
Miners weren't the only early settlers in Montana. Cattle ranches began flourishing
in western valleys during the 1860's as demand for beef in the new mining communities
increased. After 1870 open-range cattle operations spread across the high plains,
taking advantage of the free public-domain land.
During the 1880's railroads crossed Montana and the territory became a state in
1889. Hardrock mining also began at this time. Butte became famous when silver and
copper were discovered. The Anaconda Copper Company, owned by Marcus Daly, became
one of the world's largest copper mining companies and exercised inordinate influence
in the state.
and sheep ranches continued to take advantage of Montana's abundant grasslands.
Passage of the Enlarged Homestead Act in 1909 brought tens of thousands of homestead
farmers into the state looking for inexpensive land. Wheat farming was popular until
an extended drought, and a drop in market prices after World War I, ruined many
farmers. The homestead "bust" forced many farmers to abandon Montana.
Montana's post-World War I depression extended through the 1920's and right into
the Great Depression of the 1930's. Then President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New
Deal" brought relief to the state in the form of various projects and agencies:
the building of Fort Peck Dam; the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); the Works
Projects Administration (WPA); the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA).
These "alphabet agencies" mark the first real dependence of the state
on federal spending in the 20th century -- a reliance that would build through the
As across the nation, World War II broke the hold of the Great Depression on Montana.
The war brought additional federal monies to the state, but drew young people into
the service and into wartime industries on the West Coast. The resultant wartime
dislocation changed Montana forever.
Post-war or "modern" Montana (1945-2000) has been characterized by a slow
shift from an economy that relies on the extraction of natural resources to one
that is service-based. Such traditional industries as copper, petroleum, coal, and
timber have suffered wild market fluctuations and unstable employment patterns.
Agriculture -- while dependent on weather, a declining workforce, and international
markets -- has remained Montana's primary industry throughout the era. After 1970
tourism supplanted mining as the state's second largest industry. This era also
saw the important shift in the state's transportation system from railroads to cars,
trucks and highways.
Montana post-war politics has been keyed by some remarkable national politicians:
James E. Murray; Mike Mansfield; Lee Metcalf; Pat Williams. Montanans, more conservative
on the state level, frequently have split their legislative houses and sought only
moderate change. An exception was the passage of a new state constitution in 1972
-- one which placed more responsibility on the individual voter and made significant
strides to protect the Montana environment. Some observers say that much of subsequent
Montana history can be seen as the working out of that 1972 constitution.
Montana 's post-war society has evolved significantly during the "modern"
era. Still predominantly white, it has experienced the building of bridges with
Indian communities, the acceptance of ethnic immigrants, the development of a Hutterite
network, and the emergence of white-supremacist cells. Population fluctuations cost
Montana a U.S. House seat in the 1990s and have kept the total population under
900,000. Population shifts have loaded Montana's people in the western one-third
of the state and "emptied out" eastern Montana's vast spaces.
While some national observers consider Montana a part of America's "cultural
outback," many Montanans pride themselves on their strong spirit of community,
their close contact with the environment, and their fundamental "sense of place."
The debate continues.