Despite modernization of trucks and cars, freight trains, such as this jerk line from the 1880s, could still be seen working the back roads of Montana in the early 1920s. L.A. Huffman, Courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum Digital Collection, no. 40698


A century ago, the state of Montana was still one of the youngest states. The Rocky Mountain and Great Plains state received its star on Old Glory in 1889, 25 years after it had been made a territory carved out of the vast, lightly settled Western lands first acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. From 1870 to 1920, Montana grew from just over 20,000 American settlers to nearly 550,000 residents. The earliest pioneers to the territory included Catholic missionaries, miners, fur trappers, traders, cattlemen and town builders. 

Violence was ever present in the early years of Montana history. Lakota leader Red Cloud defeated the U.S. Army in his war to control the tribe’s territory along the Bozeman Trail in the mid-1860s, but despite the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, war continued and culminated in the Battle of Little Bighorn. But in the vast territory, violence was not just relegated to battles and skirmishes with the Indian tribes; vigilantism took the place of law and order in the mining camps and ranching communities across the territory until statehood.

With no shortage of historic source material, Hollywood producer Taylor Sheridan mined the post-Civil War history of the West and Montana for his first Yellowstone prequel series, 1883. Just a year after 1883’s debut on Paramount+, Sheridan returned with 1923, the much anticipated expansion of the Yellowstone universe. (Read more on page 60.) 

Just a century ago, the real Montana was still recovering economically and socially from World War I as drought and economic recession began to cripple the young state’s five most important industries: mining, ranching, railroading, logging and farming. On the state’s seven Indian reservations, poverty was pervasive and Native residents were still not considered American citizens. The passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act was still a year away from being the law of the land.

Sheridan, one of the greatest storytellers in television and film history, knows where to mine for drama, and in 1923 he did not shy away from the best or the worst of America’s and Montana’s past. As K. Ross Toole wrote in 1959 in Montana: An Uncommon Land: “The past and present in Montana merge uncomfortably for the liberal and the conservative alike. It is easier to ignore the past, or to deny that it has meaning for the present and the future, than to be confronted with the unclear composite in which an approximation of the truth shifts and moves in time.”

Ranchers and Homesteaders

In the 1920s, drought forced thousands of Montana homesteaders and ranchers to abandon their dreams, while those left behind fought for what grass and water was available for their stock and farms.

In 1923, an unknown ranching husband and wife posed proudly for a photographer in front of their remote homestead. If they were still on their land a decade later, they would have been considered fortunate, for over 60,000 of their fellow rural Montanans had abandoned their ranches and farms during the drought and recession by 1930. Courtesy Library of Congress


From Montana Territory’s first decades, women worked side by side with men on ranches and homesteads. Montana was also the first state to elect a woman to the U.S. House of Representatives, Jeannette Rankin, in 1916. True West Archives


As early as 1869, cattle and sheep ranchers were competing with each other for Montana’s rich grasslands. Until the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the competitive stock producers would repeatedly clash over control of grazing and water rights, especially during years of drought and recessive market prices for beef and wool. Arthur Rothstein, 1939, Courtesy NYPL Digital Collections


Beginning in 1890, the XIT Ranch was one of the first Panhandle Texas outfits to summer their cattle in Montana. Until 1897, when fences blocked their way, the XIT cowboys drove their remuda of horses and 10,000 to 20,000 cattle 850 miles on the Montana Trail to a two million-acre spread of leased land north of Miles City. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas


Towns and Tourism

Between 1910 and 1920, Montana’s population grew 46 percent. Railroads helped fuel the growth of homesteaders in rural areas while the state’s mining towns grew with the nation’s industrial need for copper. Butte was the only city with over 25,000 residents, while 90 Big Sky towns had 2,500 citizens or fewer. Tourism also grew after Glacier National Park, founded in 1910, joined Yellowstone as two of the state’s most popular destinations.

Cowboys including Teddy Blue Abbott (see page 22) who drove cattle herds north from Texas and Nebraska to Miles City, Montana, would have enjoyed spending their hard-earned money at Bill Reece’s Dance Hall, which opened in 1879. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Gift of Dan Don in honor of Irene and Edward Don


In 1902, three decades after Yellowstone became the first national park, tourism had become an important aspect of Montana’s railroad and hospitality economy. By 1912, the first dude ranch, the OTO, was founded 10 miles northwest of Gardiner’s rail and stage station (above) just outside Yellowstone’s main entrance. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas


In the early decades of the 20th-century West, few towns between Chicago and Seattle were as industrial and modern as Butte, Montana.
Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas


Freighters and Surveyors

In Montana in 1923, surveyors were still a few years away from mapping out the U.S. Highway system, which was yet to be funded let alone be built. National railways and short lines crisscrossed the state, but wagons, surreys and horses were still the primary mode of transportation and freighting.

In 1872, surveyors camped in the Upper Canyon of the West Gallatin River and worked tirelessly to map the Montana Territory. In 1925, a new generation of surveyors crisscrossed the Big Sky State to map out the routes of the newly created U.S. Highway system.Courtesy USGS


While the automobile revolution struck America just before the outbreak of World War I, many Montanans in the early 1920s were still more apt to be driving a wagon than a car. L.A. Huffman, Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas


Montana’s Native People

In 1923, Montana’s seven Indian tribes made up just two percent of the state’s population. The majority of approximately 11,000 Indigenous residents lived on seven reservations, but many of the Indian children lived apart from their families at eight boarding schools. The 1920s was a difficult time for all Montanans, but for the state’s Native peoples, it was an especially challenging decade marked by an increase in poverty and disease. Ironically, reservation life would improve during the Great Depression and World War II.

The Cut Bank Boarding School for Girls was located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The school opened in 1905 and was renamed the Blackfeet Boarding Dorm in the 1960s. Courtesy Archival Photographs from the University of Montana


While the federal government tried to introduce farming to Montana’s Indian reservations, stock raising of horses, sheep and cattle remained a cornerstone of the day-to-day life of the state’s Indigenous people. Walter McClintock, Courtesy Beinecke Library, Yale University

Mining and Industry

Between the 1880s and 1920s, Montana’s mining towns such as Butte modernized ahead of the rest of the state. Immigrants made up most of the labor force in the Big Sky State, and Montana had the largest Irish population west of the Mississippi.

At 1,100 feet under the town of Butte, these two copper miners toiled with their mule and ore wagon to make a living in 1910 in the Rarus Mine. The hard-rock mine was later consumed by the Berkeley Pit. N.A. Forsyth, Courtesy Archival Photographs from The University of Montana.


A miner in 1905 looks across Walkerville and the tailings of the rich silver lode from the Alice Mine on Butte Hill. Residents of the crowded mining town could take a cable car from the hillside town into Butte. Courtesy Library of Congress.


One of the first regions Chinese immigrants labored in Montana Territory was in the Alder Gulch gold camps near Bannack and Virginia City in the 1860s. In 1870, Chinese Montanans accounted for one in 10 residents, but by 1923 the descendants of the Chinese families who had helped build the territory into a state had nearly abandoned Montana. Courtesy USGS


Despite a recession in the early 1920s, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company remained an economic power in the city and state until the 1950s. Courtesy Library of Congress


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