History of Montana

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Written by Cassidy Barnes posted on Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

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Familia Assiniboine, Montana, 1890-1891.

Familia Assiniboine, Montana, 1890-1891.

Various cultures of indigenous peoples lived in the territory of the present-day state of Montana for thousands of years. Historic tribes encountered by Europeans and settlers from the United States included the Crow in the south-central area; the Cheyenne in the southeast; the Blackfeet, Assiniboine and Gros Ventres in the central and north-central area; and the Kootenai and Salish in the west. The smaller Pend d’Oreille and Kalispel tribes lived near Flathead Lake and the western mountains, respectively.

Montana east of the continental divide was part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Subsequent to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and after the finding of gold and copper (see the Copper Kings) in the area in the late 1850s, Montana became a United States territory (Montana Territory) on May 26, 1864, and the 41st state on November 8, 1889.

The first permanent European (white) settlement in Montana was founded by French Jesuit missionaries. From interactions with Iroquois between 1812 and 1820, the Salish Indians learned about the missionaries (nicknamed “blackrobes” for their habits) who worked with native peoples teaching about their methods of agriculture and medicine, and Roman Catholic Christianity. The Salish interest in these “blackrobes” grew and, in three expeditions to St. Louis between 1831 and 1837, Salish emissaries requested a “blackrobe” to come to their homeland. Initially the Salish were directed to William Clark (of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame), who was the territorial administrator at the time. Through Clark, they were introduced to St. Louis Bishop Joseph Rosati, who assured them that missionaries would be sent to the Bitter Root Valley when funds and priests were available in the future. After several more entreaties by the Salish, Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet arrived in western Montana near present-day Stevensville in the fall of 1841. He developed a settlement known as St. Mary’s Mission. Together with the Salish, he built a chapel, followed by other permanent structures including log cabins and Montana’s first pharmacy.

In 1850 Major John Owen arrived in the valley and set up camp north of St. Mary’s. In time, Major Owen established a trading post and military site called Fort Owen, which served the settlers, Salish, and missionaries in the Bitterroot Valley.

Fort Shaw (Montana Territory) was established in Spring 1867. One of three posts authorized by Congress in 1865 to be built, it is located west of Great Falls in the Sun River Valley. The other two posts in the Montana Territory were Camp Cooke on the Judith River and Fort C.F. Smith on the Bozeman Trail. Fort Shaw was named after Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first all African-American regiments during the American Civil War. It was built of adobe and lumber by the 13th Infantry. The fort had a 400 square feet (37 m2) parade ground and facilities including officers’ barracks, enlisted men’s barracks, a hospital, and a trading post. It could house up to 450 soldiers. Completed in 1868, it was used by military personnel until 1891.

After the close of the military post, the government established Fort Shaw as a school to provide industrial training to young Native Americans. The Fort Shaw Indian Industrial School was opened on April 30, 1892. At one time the school had 17 faculty members, 11 Indian assistants and 300 students. The school made use of more than 20 of the buildings built by the Army.

The revised Homestead Act of the early 1900s greatly affected the settlement of Montana. This act expanded the land provided by the Homestead Act of 1862 from 160 acres (0.6 km2) to 320 acres (1.3 km2) per individual. When the latter act was signed by President William Howard Taft, it also reduced the time necessary to “prove up” (i.e. to improve a land claim) from five years to three years, and permitted five months’ absence from the claim each year.

In 1908, the Sun River Irrigation Project, west of Great Falls was opened up for homesteading. Under this Reclamation Act, a person could obtain 40 acres (16 ha). Most of the people who came to file on these homesteads were young couples who were eager to live near mountains where hunting and fishing were good. Many of the homesteaders came from the Midwest.

Montana was the scene of warfare as the Native Americans’ struggled to maintain control of their land. The last stand of U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was fought near the present day town of Hardin. Montana was also the location of the final battles of the Nez Perce Wars.

Cattle ranching has been central to Montana’s history and economy since the late-19th century. The Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge Valley is maintained as a link to the ranching style of the late 19th century. Operated by the National Park Service, it is a 1,900 acres (7.7 km2) working ranch.

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