Montana History

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The following important events in the history of Montana affected political boundaries, record keeping, and family movements.

1803-1850s: The United States acquired from France the area of Montana east of the mountains. Britain relinquished its claims to the western section in 1846. Until the 1850s, Montana was the domain of Indians, explorers, fur traders, trappers, and missionaries.

1841:  Jesuit priests founded St. Mary's mission. In the 1850's this mission became the center of ranching activity in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana.

1846:  Fort Benton, the only Montana trading post to become a permanent settlement, was established on the Missouri River.

1859:  Steamboats first reached Fort Benton.

1860s:  Montana west of the continental divide was designated Missoula County, Washington Territory, in 1860. In 1861 the unsettled eastern portion was attached to Dakota Territory. In 1863 and 1864 all of Montana was included in Idaho Territory.

1862-1864:  The discovery of gold in western Montana brought an influx of miners to Bannack, Virginia City, and Helena. Many of the miners began farming and set up supply centers—such as Missoula, Deer Lodge, and Bozeman.

1864:  Montana Territory was established with nine counties.

1880s:  Railroads first crossed Montana. The population of the territory was about 40,000.

1889:  Montana became a state.

1910-1925:  The number of counties doubled from 28 to the present 56 as homesteaders moved into eastern Montana. By 1930 a cycle of drought years had driven many of the settlers from the state.

An especially helpful source for studying the history of Montana is Merrill G. Burlingame and K. Ross Toole, Editors, A History of Montana, Three Volumes. (New York, NY: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1957; FHL book 978.6 H2b). Volume 3 has family histories.

Local histories for Montana's counties are listed in Montana's Genealogical and Local History Records . . . (see the "For Further Reading" section of this outline).

Online Resources