Homesteads

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

The federal government’s strategy for populating a newly claimed territory and limiting land use by Native Americans led to a series of Homestead Acts passed between 1862 and 1912. Under these acts the government promised hundreds of acres of free land per homesteader if a settler could “prove up” a homestead claim within a certain time period. Thousands of people took advantage of this opportunity and many formed creative partnerships to acquire even more land.

Railroad companies recognized the opportunities to expand their market and soon joined the homesteading frenzy. The Northern Pacific Railroad sold thousands of acres of land to eager buyers while the Milwaukee Road aggressively marketed its properties in the “Treasure State.”

Homesteaders cobbled together barns, cabins, and shacks using readily available materials such as wood, stone, and sod. If their agricultural efforts were successful they built more permanent structures. Farmhouses and agricultural boom towns boasted buildings not only in utilitarian folk styles but also in the Neoclassical Revival, Queen Anne, and Rustic styles.

Some farms prospered despite the difficulties of dry-land farming; however, prosperity was short lived. A major 1920s drought and post-WWI economic disaster ultimately signaled the end of the Homestead Boom.

To this day homesteads pepper Montana’s rural landscape, reminders of a time filled with optimism and bravery.

Locations for Tour

The fertile Sun River Valley attracted twenty-six-year-old, Kentucky-born James C. Adams, whose worldly experience belied his youth. Orphaned at ten and a Civil War prisoner at sixteen, he came to Virginia City in 1864 at eighteen, already a seasoned…

Christopher and Edward Wilson chose this narrow canyon as headquarters for their ranching operation in 1887. The brothers lived in a dugout while they built a more serviceable two-room cabin using granite hand-cut from the nearby hillside. By 1895,…

In the 1870s, ranchers and prospectors looking for gold in the Judith Mountains clamored for military protection as they settled a region recently controlled by the Blackfeet. In response, the federal government constructed Fort Maginnis in 1880.…

Sweeping views of the Spanish Peaks, the Madison Range, and the Gallatin Canyon provided a magnificent setting for Augustus Frank Crail to locate his ranching headquarters. Crail carved out a 960-acre ranch purchasing three homesteads, school lands,…

Pioneer George S. Watkins arrived in Montana in 1864. The "cattle king of Madison County" ultimately acquired thousands of acres, including much of the Madison basin. Here he built a summer cow camp with two large cabins, a barn, and a…

Scottish-born homesteader Thomas Murray came to the Judith Basin in 1883 and settled on 160 acres running cattle and sheep on the open prairie. By the turn of the twentieth century, the Thomas Murray Ranch, known in its heyday as the Meadow Brook…

Helena mining man W. C. Child initiated this ranch about 1885, as the “White Face Farm” stocked with some of the first purebred Herefords in Montana Territory. Then came the infamous “Hard Winter of 1886-87,” when deep snows and months of…

Prominent miner and state legislator Owen Byrnes filed a homestead claim above Silver King Lake in 1908, adding to this property the purchase of other claims and railroad grant lands. Pristine forests and natural meadows formed the perfect backdrop…

Widowed in 1864 after her husband died in a mining accident, Jane Ferris found work as a housekeeper for Sheridan Valley rancher John Barber. Barber likely built the log cabin core of the main residence for Jane and her two children. Barber died…

Nestled between dramatic cliffs and the Yellowstone River, this collection of buildings catered to the tourist trade between Livingston and Yellowstone National Park. Local entrepreneur John Hepburn came to Montana in 1888 and worked for many years…

Oliver Bonnell, his wife Lucy, and their seven children settled in Livingston in the early 1890s, where Bonnell operated a boot business and later a feed store. In 1905, they acquired title to 640 acres from the Northern Pacific Railroad. The…

George and Martha Cheever arrived in Miles City with daughter Lucretia in 1889. There Martha and Lucretia taught music while George worked as an engineer for the state reform school. In 1905, Lucretia married Ernest Shy, and the newlyweds accompanied…

This ranch embodies the history of progressive agriculture in Montana. Missourian John W. Popham brought his family to a homestead covered with sagebrush and bitterroot. They gradually cleared the land, did subsistence farming, and supplemented their…

With an entourage of four covered wagons and over thirteen-hundred head of burros, horses, and Angora goats, Stanton Brannin and his large family began a hazardous journey from New Mexico to Montana. Two years later in 1897, the Brannins filed a…

In 1881, Clarence Goodell and his bride, Parmelia "Millie" Priest, made the treacherous 300-mile journey from Helena to the Judith Basin. The Goodells built a log cabin there and staked a tree claim on the Judith River. By 1889, the…

The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 brought settlers to Montana and to this area called the Big Flat. Neil J. Scherlie was among the first to file a homestead claim and over the course of four years, three sisters and two brothers made claims nearby.…

Finnish immigrant Gust Heikkila filed his 160-acre homestead claim along the Little Belt Creek coulee in 1902. By 1905, other Finnish settlers had homesteaded the area, calling it Korpivaara, “potentially dangerous wilderness,” for the remote…