Montana Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Montana, one of the six Rocky Mountain states, lies directly south of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. To its east are North and South Dakota. Wyoming lies south of it, and Idaho borders it to the south and west. It is 570 miles from east to west. From Canada in the north to Wyoming in the south is 315 miles.

History of Montana

Montana, one of the six Rocky Mountain states, lies directly south of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. To its east are North and South Dakota. Wyoming lies south of it, and Idaho borders it to the south and west. It is 570 miles from east to west. From Canada in the north to Wyoming in the south is 315 miles.

With an area exceeding 147,000 square miles, it ranks fourth in size among the fifty states. With a population density of 5.5 people per square mile, Montana ranks forty-fourth among the states in population. Montana lost population between 1980 and 1990 but experienced a slight population upsurge during the 1990’s.

The Rocky Mountains dominate the western two-fifths of the state. The eastern three-fifths consist mostly of rolling hills and plains. The climate is dry and, in winter, extremely cold. Summers are hot. The rich soil of the plains, the hot summers, and the long summer days in this latitude are ideal for agriculture.

Early History

When French Canadian explorers first visited the area, it had already been inhabited by humans for more than nine thousand years. Evidence exists of cultures that date to 8000 b.c.e. Among the native tribes in the area were the Arapaho, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Crow, Kalispel, Kutenai, and Salish Indians.

In prehistoric times, dinosaurs roamed Montana. A nest of duck-billed dinosaur fossils was discovered there in 1978. In 1988 the most complete skeleton of a tyrannosaur ever unearthed was discovered. The earliest human inhabitants hunted bison and other indigenous animals with spears.

Early Exploration

The earliest known explorers to reach Montana were François and Louis Joseph de La Vérendrye, French Canadian brothers who arrived in 1743. Montana became part of the United States in 1803 through the Louisiana Purchase.

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, guided by a young American Indian woman, Sacagawea, crossed the territory in 1805 en route to America’s northwest coast. They returned in 1806 on their trip east. A Spanish trader, Manuel Lisa, established the Missouri Fur Company and went on a trading expedition up the Yellowstone River. In 1807 he established Montana’s first trading post, Fort Manuel.

The following year Canadian David Thompson established a trading post on the Kootenai River and, in 1809, founded Salish House near Thompson Falls. By 1829, both the Hudson Bay Company and the American Fur Company traded in this area.

Montana’s rivers and low mountain passes encouraged transportation. The second longest river in the United States, the 2,315-mile-long Missouri, begins in Montana. Other rivers–the Jefferson, the Madison, the Gallatin, and the Yellowstone–criss-cross the state.

By 1850 fur traders had overhunted and exploited Montana to the extent that most of the fur-bearing animals had been killed. Whole herds of bison, fox, and deer were wiped out by voracious traders.

The Discovery of Gold

When gold was discovered in California in 1848, thousands of easterners rushed across the country seeking instant wealth. Meanwhile, residents of Montana searched for gold in their area. In 1862 John White discovered small gold deposits at Grasshopper Creek. By 1863 more than five hundred miners had come there.

Soon a gold strike was made nearby. A settlement, Virginia City, which by 1865 had ten thousand inhabitants, sprang into being. Gold was discovered at Last Chance Gulch, where its discovery spawned another city, Helena. Meanwhile, rich veins of copper and silver were found around Butte in the Rocky Mountains.

Lawlessness soon became a considerable problem. Gangsters robbed stagecoaches of the gold and silver they transported. During 1863 one gang killed more than one hundred people. In the following year, vigilantes captured and hanged more than twenty such criminals, thereby reducing crime substantially.

Miners flocked into the area as well as merchants, who arrived with their families to open stores and to establish an infrastructure. Cattle ranchers came to eastern Montana. In 1863 schools were opened in Bannack and Nevada City.

The Road to Statehood

Congress created the Montana Territory in 1864. In 1875 Helena became its capital. American Indian uprisings raged. In 1876 the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians killed Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but in 1877, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe surrendered, ending the American Indian wars that plagued the territory. By 1880, Montana’s Native American population was deployed to seven American Indian reservations within the territory.

In 1880 the Utah and Northern Railroad laid tracks across Montana, enabling Montanans to ship produce and cattle to eastern markets. Montana’s first bid for statehood in 1866 was premature because the state had a very small population, little access to eastern markets, and continuing problems with American Indian wars. Because the expansion of the railroad into the state resulted in the population quadrupling within a decade, a constitutional convention was called in 1884, and statehood was again requested but refused for political reasons.

In 1889 President Grover Cleveland signed an enabling bill guaranteeing that if North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, and Montana submitted acceptable constitutions, statehood would be granted. Montana held a constitutional convention in July of that year, offered a constitution to its electorate, and was granted statehood in November, 1889, becoming the forty-first state. In 1894 Montana voters chose Helena as the capital.

Copper Mining in Montana

Although early prospectors found gold and silver around Butte, it was copper that brought the greatest wealth to Montana. Marcus Daly, seeking silver in the area, discovered one of the richest copper deposits in the world and in 1881 opened his copper mine in Anaconda. William Clark soon opened a copper operation nearby in Butte.

The copper found here was so abundant that Butte Hill was nicknamed “the Richest Hill on Earth.” The copper industry attracted immigrants, mostly from Great Britain, to work in the mines. Daly established the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, and in 1926 Clark’s Butte holdings were sold to that corporation.

Montana Politics and Education

The two powerful copper barons who emerged from the Butte-Anaconda area, Marcus Daly and William Clark, were business and political rivals. They engaged in a heated campaign to have their own towns declared capital of the state, with Clark prevailing. Each owned the newspaper in his respective town.

Clark was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1891 but resigned when a scandal, perpetrated by reports accusing him of bribery in Daly’s newspaper, the Anaconda Standard, cast doubt upon Clark’s integrity. He was, nevertheless, elected to the Senate when he ran again in 1900.

Montana was the first state to elect a woman to Congress. Jeannette Rankin was elected in 1917 and served for two years. She served again from 1941 to 1943. Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917 and into World War II in 1941.

Montana’s first constitution, ratified in 1889, was replaced when a constitutional convention called in 1972 produced a new constitution, narrowly ratified by the electorate and put into effect in 1973. This constitution combined more than one hundred state agencies into fifteen departments, whose heads report to the governor. In 1974 the constitution was amended to change the annual sixty-day legislative session to a ninety-day session to meet in odd-numbered years.

Montana prides itself on valuing education. Its 1990 literacy rate of 92 percent is 5 percent above the national average. Seventy-five percent of Montanans are high school graduates, whereas the national average is 67 percent.

Industrial Expansion

Natural gas was discovered in Glendive, near Montana’s eastern border, in 1913. This was an important discovery because where there is natural gas, there is usually oil. It was not until 1950, however, that vast oil deposits were discovered on the Montana-North Dakota border. Oil revenues spurred the state’s faltering economy. The strip mining of bituminous coal in the eastern part of the state also helped to advance Montana’s economy, changing the nature of the plains considerably. Nevertheless, the Montana plains are among the most prolific producers of wheat in the United States.

In 1955 the Anaconda Aluminum Company began operation in Columbia Falls in northwestern Montana. In 1983, however, the once-powerful Anaconda Copper Mining Company, having depleted the area around Butte, suspended mining operations.

Natural Disasters

Between 1917 and 1920, Montana suffered greatly from droughts that caused many farmers and cattle ranchers in eastern Montana to fail. In 1929 another drought began that again devastated eastern Montana and lasted for several years, during which the economic contractions of the Great Depression also affected that state’s economy. During 1935, Helena was struck by more than one hundred earthquakes. Although no lives were lost, property damage was severe.

With federal aid, Montana strove to avert the devastation earlier droughts had inflicted upon the state. Although Flathead Lake, which covers two hundred square miles, is the largest fresh water lake west of the Mississippi River, it proved insufficient to provide irrigation during droughts. In 1934 Montana began a dam building project that, in 1940, culminated in the creation of the four hundred-square-mile Lake Peck and several other artificial lakes that provide irrigation and hydroelectric power for Montana’s farms and cattle ranches.

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