Family history and progress collide in the popular TV series “Yellowstone” and its various spino¥s, much of them set and filmed in Montana. If your roots in the state go as deep as the Dutton family’s, read on for how you can find your own genealogical gold in “The Treasure State.”
Montana was first home to a number of indigenous groups, including the: Assiniboine/Nakoda, Blackfeet, Cree, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Salish. Today, the state has 12 federally recognized tribes, as well as seven reservations within its present borders. Montana’s distance from other settlements (as well as its harsh western terrain) resulted in relatively late exploration by Europeans. The Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through modern Montana in 1805 as part of its survey of the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. Its members were the first non-indigenous people known to have visited the area, and their journals provide insight into their experiences and encounters with Native peoples. Fur traders followed, but the industry dwindled a few decades later. In 1841, Roman Catholic missionaries established Saint Mary’s, recognized as the first permanent white settlement in the state.
CAUGHT IN THE DIVIDE
The Continental Divide, which runs through Montana, helped define the land’s territorial history. Land west of the Continental Divide was variously claimed by the United States, Great Britain, Spain, Russia and France through the 1820s. The United States and Great Britain agreed to joint ownership of the “Oregon Country” in 1818, and the United States took full jurisdiction in 1846. From then, western Montana was part of Oregon Territory, then Washington Territory in 1853.
Land east of the Divide changed hands multiple times between France and Spain, then was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. It remained unorganized until becoming part of Nebraska Territory in 1854, then Dakota Territory in 1861.
RUSH FOR RICHES
Gold discoveries in the early 1860s increased interest in the region. Prospectors traveled on foot or via steamboat to found boomtowns that disappeared as soon as the gold did. Ample land also attracted ranchers.
The whole modern state was part of Idaho Territory in 1863, and President Abraham Lincoln signed an act creating Montana Territory in 1864. Montana’s new residents included supporters of both sides of the then-ongoing
Civil War, reflected in contemporary place names: Yankee Flat, Unionville and Confederate Gulch, to name a few. New US settlements further strained relationships with local tribes. which had been worsening for decades. In the famous “Custer’s Last Stand” of 1876, the Sioux, Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne defeated George Armstrong Custer and his US cavalry on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. Also of note, Nez Perce leader “Chief Joseph” surrendered to the US government in the Bear Paw Mountains a year later. Tribes were driven from the region or confined to increasingly small reservations.
Copper was discovered in Butte in the early 1880s, leading to the rise of “copper kings” like Marcus Daly. The conglomerate Anaconda Copper Mining Company became one of the largest mining companies in the world, and had far-reaching impact on local politics and even media. The mining industry—of gold, copper, and (later) coal and natural gas—attracted workers from around the country. Their travel was made easier by the arrival of railroads, including the transcontinental Northern Pacific Railway that was ceremoniously completed in Gold Creek.
BOUNTIFUL AND BEAUTIFUL
Montana became a state in 1889 alongside Washington and its neighbors North and South Dakota. Its population boomed from 20,000 in 1870 to 243,000 in 1900. Some 300,000 people filed for homesteads in Montana, driven (in part) by campaigns from railroads. Homesteaders sought their fortune in Montana as early as 1862, when the first Homestead Act was passed. But the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 offered even more land and shortened the amount of time needed to take ownership. Despite mine closures and agriculture setbacks throughout the 20th century, Montana’s natural beauty and wide-open spaces continue to draw admirers.
1803 The United States
acquires vast land—including most of modern Montana—in the Louisiana
Purchase 1841 Catholic missionaries found St. Mary’s, recognized as the first permanent white settlement in Montana
1846 Great Britain cedes
its claim to “Oregon Country,” including
western Montana 1864 Montana Territory is established 1872 Yellowstone National
Park is created
1876 The Sioux and
Cheyenne defeat George Armstrong Custer at the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn 1883 The Northern Pacific Railway, which ran from Minnesota to the
Pacific, is completed in Gold Creek 1889 Montana is the 41st
state in the Union
1916 Montanan Jeannette
Rankin becomes the first woman elected to Congress
Purchase 1924 Petroleum County is created from Fergus
County, the last major change to Montana’s county boundaries
The Montana legislature first required practitioners such as clergy, doctors and midwives to keep birth and death registers in 1895, but didn’t mandate state-level registers until 1907. The state office of vital statistics has records from 1907 to the present, though they’re restricted to immediate family members and other authorized representatives. Individual counties may have kept birth and death records earlier. You can find surviving records at the county clerk office.
Subscription website Ancestry.com has collections of birth and death records (both indexes and, in some cases, images of original records) sourced from the Montana Historical Society and department of health. Likewise, the free FamilySearch website has a statewide index of deaths dating to 1860 and birth and death records for a handful of counties.