In the Beginning -- The first people believed to have wondered at the land we now call Montana was Folsom Man, who arrived sometime after the end of the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago, and lived here until superseded by the Yuma culture about 6,800 years ago.
Then, about 3,000 years ago, a more modern American-Indian culture began to emerge, eventually evolving into the Kootenai, Kalispell, Flathead, Shoshone, Crow, Blackfeet, Chippewa, Cree, Cheyenne, Gros Ventres, and Assiniboine.
European Explorers -- The first European known to enter Montana was Pierre Gaultier, de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye.
Vérendrye had heard of a river that flowed to the western sea and was looking for the Northwest Passage. He came in 1738, but retreated. Two of his sons, Pierre and François, returned in 1743 and described the "shining mountains," generally believed to be the Bighorns of southern Montana and northern Wyoming. But threats of a looming Indian war discouraged the brothers and they returned to Montreal. No other white men are known to have come here for another 60 years.
When they finally did arrive, they were with the expedition of Lewis and Clark. The explorers reached the mouth of the Yellowstone River on April 26, 1805, and pushed upriver to the Shoshone, where they were warmly greeted, the result of having coincidentally brought Shoshone chief Cameahwait's long-lost sister, Sacajawea, with them as one of their guides.
Settlement -- The first industry in Montana, at least for non-Indians, was trapping. John Jacob Astor, Alexander Ross, and William Ashley brought in their hearty voyageurs to clear the country of beaver for the European hat market.
The discovery of gold opened Montana's Wild West era. The lure of easy money plus the fact that these towns were some 400 miles from official justice attracted outlaws, con artists, and ladies of the night from all over the West.
In 1864, just as gold was discovered in Last Chance Gulch in present-day Helena, the Montana Territory was formed and Sidney Edgerton became the first territorial governor. The capital was moved to Virginia City and a constitutional convention was called as the first step toward statehood. A constitution was drafted and sent to St. Louis for printing, but was lost somewhere along the way.
In 1884, another constitution was drafted. This one didn't work either, for one reason or another, and in 1889, the now well-practiced delegates came up with a third one. Taking no chances, they prefaced it with the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution. Montana finally became a state in November 1889.
Trouble Between the Indians & the Settlers -- Montana's Indian tribes were not at first invariably hostile to the whites, and signed a number of treaties signaling their peaceful intentions. But the influx of settlers and the confinement of tribes to reservations resulted in dissatisfaction among the original inhabitants, and escalating hostilities against the whites. In 1876, the War Department launched a campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne. At the end of June that year, this culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the death of all of the command under Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
The Indian victory was only a temporary setback for the whites, however, and by 1880 all the Indians had been forced onto reservations. The last action of the Indian War period occurred in Montana with the heroic flight of Chief Joseph's Nez Perce from their northern Idaho reservation toward Canada in 1877.
Industrialization -- When copper was first discovered in the silver mines in Butte, no one could have foretold its effects on Montana's future. When copper wiring became an integral part of several new electrical technologies, Butte copper became an important resource for America. One of the first men to profit was Marcus Daly, an Irish immigrant who arrived in Butte in his mid-30s and purchased his first mine, which yielded incredibly large amounts of the purest copper in the world.
William A. Clark, another copper-mine baron, was a Horatio Alger type. An average youth from Pennsylvania, he rooted around in mines until his efforts took him to Montana. He had a keen business acumen that prompted him to purchase mining operations, electric companies, water companies, and banks. He quickly amassed a great deal of wealth; then his inflated ego drove him to the political arena. His was the major voice in the territorial constitution proceedings in 1884, and when Montana held its last territorial election, Clark was determined to get into public office as Montana's representative.
A war commenced between Daly and Clark, rooted in Clark's determination to hold political office and Daly's unwillingness to see him do it. Montana finally became a state in 1889, after 5 tough years of appeals to the U.S. Congress. The bellicose millionaires were so set on controlling the young state's political interests that they purchased or created newspapers to give themselves a printed voice. They stuffed money into the pockets of voters and agreed on nothing. In Montana's first congressional election, Clark fell three votes shy of his bid, and the legislature adjourned without selecting a second senator, leaving Montana with only half of its due representation in Washington.
The fight for capital status came along in 1894. Helena had been the capital, but the constitution held that the site must be determined by the voters. Daly wanted his newly created Anaconda to be the capital; Clark was happy with the status quo. The fact that Anaconda was ruled by the strong arm of the Anaconda Mining Company caused voters to turn to the diversified ways of Helena. For once in his life, William Clark was not only rich but also appreciated by the masses. Or so it seemed.
With his thirst for public office revitalized, Clark did his best to buy his way into the U.S. Senate, and actually pulled it off. Daly, infuriated by the way his bitter enemy achieved his seat, demanded an investigation by the Senate. The investigation uncovered a wealth of improprieties on Clark's part, so he resigned. Down, but not out, Clark took a deep breath and plunged immediately back into the thick of things. Once when Robert Burns Smith, governor of Montana and hardly an ardent admirer of Clark's, was out of town, Clark arranged for his friend A. E. Spriggs, the lieutenant governor, to appoint Clark to the U.S. Senate. This lunatic act embarrassed the state of Montana, causing Smith to nullify the appointment upon his return. Meanwhile, Daly had sold his Anaconda Copper Company to Standard Oil to form the Amalgamated Copper Company, and Clark was now up against a nameless, faceless opponent.
He chose to link his fate with another, younger copper king, Augustus Heinze, hoping to form an alliance that Amalgamated couldn't match. At this time, Heinze was more influential than the older, less active Clark, and the team of Heinze and Clark soon had complete control of the mining world in Montana. It seemed as if Clark's last wish -- to garner the Senate post he had been denied for so long -- would be realized with Heinze's help. And so it was -- Clark served his state as a senator from 1901 to 1907.
The 20th Century -- At the beginning of the 20th century, Montana experienced a boom of a different type. The Indian Wars had ended, and white settlers declared the land a safe and fertile haven for farming. The U.S. government helped things along in 1909 when it passed the Enlarged Homestead Act, giving 320 acres to anyone willing to stay on it for at least 5 months out of the year for a minimum of 3 years. Homesteaders arrived from all over the country to stake a piece of land.
Sentiment for the homesteaders was never good, and the generalization that homesteaders were stupid, dirty people became increasingly popular. The truth is that Montana's agricultural backbone was created by these extraordinary people who came west to establish farms. Wheat became -- and still is -- the major crop in such areas as the Judith Basin, in the center of the state, and Choteau County, north of Great Falls.
When the Great Depression hit Montana, farming was challenged by severe drought, and jobs were nowhere to be found. Roosevelt's New Deal was a lifesaver. Without the jobs created by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, the state might have never recovered its economic balance. Of particular help was construction of the Fort Peck Dam in the mid-1930s, which employed more than 50,000 workers. The earth-filled dam, the largest of its kind in the world, took almost 5 years to complete.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.