Montana Capitals

The establishment of governance in the area eventually to become Montana is a decisive example of order in a frontier region. Upon arrival in what was then Idaho Territory, settlers and gold-seekers established quasi-governments to bring order and justice to the chaotic mining camps and isolated settlements of the territory. Mining districts—democratic organizations with a few elected public officers—provided settlers with a means to deal with claim conflicts and a forum to adjudicate differences.
These frontier institutions, however, could not bring peace during a wave of violent robberies and killings around Bannack and Virginia City (Alder Gulch) in 1862-1863. The territorial capital of Lewiston at the western edge of the Idaho territory had little effect on criminal activity since hundreds of miles and vast mountain ranges separated the capital from the settlements. Beleaguered miners and settlers chose two routes to peace and stability, a vigilante presence to challenge, if not cease, criminal activities and a concerted effort to found a new territory from the eastern section of the enormous Idaho Territory.
Sidney Edgerton, recently arrived chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Idaho Territory and retired congressman, travelled to Washington D.C. as an emissary to negotiate for creation of this new territory. President Abraham Lincoln and Congress supported the endeavor and signed the Organic Act which created the Montana Territory on May 26, 1864. Lincoln later appointed Edgerton the first territorial governor, and Edgerton identified Bannack as the interim territorial capital.
The built environment of Bannack reflected the town’s gold camp status with crude, haphazardly constructed log buildings serving the transient and fluctuating population. Nonetheless, the town held the first jail of the territory and a cabin which proved suitable for government administration. The first representative governing body, the Montana Territorial Legislature, met in Bannack during the winter of 1864-1865.
In this first session, the Legislature voted to move the territorial capital to the thriving mining and population center of Virginia City. The mixture of log and frame structures, a bit more refined than Bannack, would house territorial officials, courts, and the legislature for nearly all of the Territory’s first crucial decade of existence.
Another burgeoning mining camp located at a place called Last Chance Gulch challenged Virginia City’s capital status. Throughout the 1860s Helena rose in population and influence within the Territory while Virginia City declined. Virginia City held the capital through two elections in the 1860s, one of which was riddled with claims of fraud and mysterious burning of ballots. The election of August 1874 resulted in the designation of Helena as the territorial capital, though it too was marred by election fraud and not decided by the Montana Territorial Supreme Court until 1875.
The Lewis and Clark County Courthouse served as the territorial and the state capitol as Helena retained capital status after the granting of statehood in 1889. Proximity to proposed railroad lines, large industrial mining operations, and centralized location at a lower elevation, all aided the city in its first decades of service as the seat of government. By supporting economic prosperity and upholding the peace and stability sought by early settlers of the territory, this capital city grew into the modern seat of government for the expansive, geographically diverse state of Montana.

Bannack Historic District

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,…

Virginia City National Historic Landmark District

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…

Lewis and Clark County Courthouse

Much Montana history unfolded within this magnificent landmark, which served as both territorial capitol (1887-1888) and state capitol (1889-1902). Here in 1889 officials received word of statehood, and three hours later J. K. Toole was sworn in as…

Montana State Capitol Building

The gentle rise overlooking the Helena Valley enhances the stately character of the "People’s House." It is Montana’s grandest public space and a stunning example of high style public architecture. Iowa architects Charles Bell and John Kent…

Governor's Mansion

Montana’s Original Governor’s Mansion was built as a private residence for the William Chessman family in 1888, and was home to the Peter Larson family and the Harfield Conrad family before the state purchased it (along with much of the…

Montana State Capital Campus Historic District

Montana’s governmental landscape is an evolving political and cultural expression with deep roots. The seeds of the capital city were planted with local gold discoveries in 1864. Helena became territorial capital in 1875. Upon statehood in 1889,…