Early Montana

Tour curated by: The Explore Big – Montana's Historic Places Team

The earliest historical sites in Montana reflect the period of transition when European building ways and property ownership ideas marked a land long in use by Native Americans.

The nomadic lifestyle of Montana’s indigenous people resulted in portable shelters as ephemeral as any seasonal activity. Few extant structures remain from this period, teepee rings, cairns, and drive lines provide a glimpse of the patterns of the earliest peoples. Instead of monuments and buildings, knowledge of a given environment, natural landmarks, and a tribe’s interaction with a place are the cultural elements sustained across generations. Both the Sleeping Buffalo Rock—moved from its original locale and marked with a sign to preserve the knowledge of its existence—and the Wahkpa Chu’gn Buffalo Jump are well-preserved examples of the human hand in a vast land.

European traditions, however, favored permanent settlements with buildings and building ways maintained indefinitely. Although canvas tents and temporary structures provided shelter for early settlers, the establishment of forts, missions, and later towns instituted the tradition of permanent settlement and land ownership in a newly charted territory.

The earliest extant buildings in Montana are representative of the frontier era—trading posts and military buildings fortified for defense, missions established to convert native peoples, and a few cabins and town buildings preserved by the descendants of Montana’s pioneers. Settlement patterns are those of an early era, situated on waterways or organically grown around mines. Despite the loss of temporary and transitional buildings, Montana’s early sites identified with historical markers tell a story of place, of human activity, and of the persistence of culture.

Locations for Tour

Founded in 1846 as the fur trade transitioned from furs to buffalo robes, Fort Benton was both a trading post and a center for distribution of Indian annuities. In the early 1860s, Montana’s gold rush and the initiation of steamboat traffic made…

From the 1850s to 1887, Fort Benton was the trade center for this region of the American and Canadian West. Like others who chose to stay when the fur trade declined, I. G. Baker (the last American Fur Company factor at the fort) turned to new…

Alexander Glover, a native of Scotland, came to ranch in the Deer Lodge Valley in 1865. The first to settle in the Warm Springs Creek drainage, he built this cabin of saddle- notched hewn logs. On April 12, 1868, Glover, at thirty, married…

According to the United States War Department, Fort Assinniboine was established in 1879 “for the purpose of protecting the citizens of Montana from the hostile incursions of Indian tribes dwelling in that region; and especially … the Sioux which…

Immense herds of bison once roamed the great North American prairies. As many as 30 million of the great shaggy beasts moved seasonally in herds of 25 to 300, following the same patterns year after year. Bison, or buffalo, were the lifeblood of the…

The British Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post on this site in 1846. It was the powerful company’s last post built within the boundaries of the United States and represents the British effort to stave off competition from American…

Wilson Butts followed the stampede to Last Chance Gulch in 1864, staked his claim here, and built a serviceable one-room cabin. The following spring his brother Jonas arrived with a wife and three young daughters. Jonas added a front room and porch…

Pennsylvania brick mason Louis Reeder came to Helena in 1867 to practice his trade. Reeder invested in real estate and among his properties were these lots along the steep hillside of West Cutler Street. Between 1875 and 1884 Reeder constructed a…

Construction layers of this original homestead tell much of Nevada City’s “boom and bust” history. In 1864, miner Frank Finney and his bride, Mary, moved into a cabin on this property that had been constructed the previous year. The cabin forms…

Light timber framing with board-and-batten walls characterizes this early home original to the Nevada City townsite. Inside, the original, well-preserved, muslin-covered walls are a rare example of a frontier decorating technique. The cabin’s first…

The spectacular gold deposit discovered in Alder Gulch on May 26, 1863, led to the rapid growth of this colorful and legendary gold camp town. Thousands of fortune‑seekers rushed to the area, and by 1864 the Virginia City area boasted 30,000…

Fort Missoula, established in 1877 to provide military control over western Montana’s Indian tribes and protect local settlers, was the only permanent military post west of the Continental Divide. There was little conflict, but the fort’s…

The Federal Reserve Bank of Montana identifies the Allen and Millard Bank, which opened here in 1864, as the first real bank in Montana Territory. While other businesses in the territory called themselves banks, most were actually express companies…

A nearby wind-swept ridge overlooking the Cree Crossing on the Milk River was the original resting place of this ancient weather-worn effigy. There the boulder sat as the leader of a herd of reclining buffalo envisioned in an outcrop of granite.…

Situated on a key gold rush trail, Deer Lodge grew into an important ranching and retail center during the 1860s. By 1869, the thriving village boasted grocery stores, harness and saddle shops, barber shops, photography galleries, blacksmiths,…

Jesuit priests and lay brothers founded St. Mary’s Mission—the first mission in the Northwest—near this site in 1841. The Jesuits closed the mission in 1850, returning in 1866. For the next quarter century, they helped the Salish adapt from…

Fort Owen’s log and adobe walls witnessed dramatic changes as the Bitterroot Valley emerged from remote wilderness to settled agricultural community. The Jesuit fathers who had established St. Mary’s Mission nearby in 1841 closed their doors in…

Offering an eclectic architectural mix, Old Town tells the story of Billings’ growth. The Northern Pacific founded the community as a railroad hub in 1882, and by the end of 1883, some 400 canvas tents and crude buildings lined the streets. The…

Bannack epitomizes the tough, primitive towns that sprang up with gold discoveries. Its story also illustrates a century of survival, through boom and bust periods associated with resource extraction and technological advances. On July 28, 1862,…