Extensive research tells us that humans have dwelled in southwest Montana for about 12,000 years. Some of the Native American Indian tribes that lived and hunted here are the Shoshone, Blackfeet, Kootenai, Crow, Cree, Pend d'Oreille, Nez Perce, and the Bannock.
In the later 1700’s, southwest Montana’s Beaverhead, Ruby, Big Hole and Jefferson River bottoms were the primary habitat for a large population of native fur-bearing species, most notably the beaver. Beaver pelts were used for making felt hats, and where very valuable in the East. Trappers worked during the winter to harvest the pelts, and rendezvoused on Wyoming’s Poudre River in the spring, to trade and sell the furs, stock up on supplies, and then return to Montana’s river valleys for another winter of trapping. Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith, and John Colter were some of the most prominent ‘Mountain Men’ so called because of their wanderings through the Rocky Mountains in search of fur-bearing animals. Beaver pelts were gold, and the ‘Mountain Men’ were king. Their contributions to the settlement of Montana’s Gold West Country were invaluable. In 1850, when the fashionable Prince Alpert began to wear a top hat made of silk, the fur trade died out, and for the most part, the ‘Mountain Men' disappeared.
In 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition left St. Louis, Missouri, to begin their westward trek to the Pacific Ocean. They wintered in Fort Mandan, North Dakota, and there, they hired French-Canadian trapper, Charbonneau, to guide them. Charbonneau’s wife, the famous Sacagawea, also accompanied them, as she spoke the language of the Shoshone. In August 1805, Lewis and Clark arrived at the headwaters of the Missouri River, which is formed by the joining of the Madison, the Gallatin and the Jefferson Rivers. The expedition split up in order to explore each river, and Sacagawea traveled with the group that journeyed up the Jefferson. Near the present day site of Twin Bridges, where the Ruby, Beaverhead and Big Hole Rivers meet to form the Jefferson, Sacagawea pointed out a large rock landmark, known to her people as the ‘Beavers Head’, hence the name of the river we know today. The expedition continued up the river through the Beaverhead Valley, and crossed the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass to continue on their way to the Pacific.
1862 bought the discovery of gold at Bannock, and the prospectors moved in. On May 26, 1863, Bill Fairweather and Henry Edgar discovered gold in Alder Gulch; the rush was on. One year later, Montana was constituted a territory, with the capital being Virginia City, which shortly became one of the largest inland cities in the Northwest Territory, with a population of over 10,000. In January 1864, the Vigilantes were formed, and in the course of a few weeks, they hanged 21 road agents, including the infamous sheriff, Henry Plumber. Virginia City’s Victorian-era buildings have been largely restored, and it now holds a place on Montana’s Historical Register. A visit there takes one back in time, and is not soon forgotten.
As the beef cattle industry expanded in the southern states, and more open range was needed, the cattle drives to the north country began. In the 1880’s, thousands of head of beef cattle were driven into the sheltered river valleys of southwest Montana, where the grass grew high and the water ran clear. Following the devastating winter of 1886-87, when Charlie Russell drew his famous sketch of a starving longhorn steer, entitled ‘The Last of the Five Thousand’ ranchers began to string barbed wire fences to enclose their own grazing lands, and the era of the open range ended.
Those early settlers are the foundation of an industry that is the cornerstone of Montana’s agricultural heritage. Many of their descendants live today on the properties that these hardy pioneers settled, and finer neighbors and greater hospitality cannot be found. They are the primary reason that Montana is known as
'The Last of What is Best'
DON'T MISS A NEW LISTING AGAIN!
FREE AUTOMATED EMAIL UPDATES