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Field Division of Education
History of Glacier National Park
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The Frontier Period - Miners, Cattlemen, Railroads

Only four years before the boundary survey, Generals Sheridan and Sherman ascended the Missouri and made several tours of inspection, including Fort Benton. They passed over the divide south of the Park, and Sherman went on to the Pacific. At this time, 1870, Fort Benton was an important point, with a heavy steamboat traffic. Quite a number of settlers were already in the region and more were coming constantly. The Union Pacific was building a northward line toward the territory. The cattle industry was already established. Much of the territory in 1870 was indicated on the accompanying maps of this report as unexplored except along certain routes. (Sheridan, etc.)

The real settlement of Montana began from the west towards the east. This was true of cattle, mining, and agricultural interests. The first settlement began with the cattle industry in a small way when the "road ranches" along the Oregon trail began wintering cattle in western Montana. This cattle business was stimulated by the Mormon war of 1857-8, which caused many "gentiles" to retreat into the Montana-Idaho region with their cattle. The troop operations afforded something of a market in addition to the settlers passing through, and shortly after this the development of military posts and the discovery of gold gave a more permanent basis to the cattle business.

In 1858 the construction of the Mullan road began to connect Fort Benton with Walla Walla. This was much used for a few years, being completed just in time to be an important means of providing supplies to the miners who were rushing to Montana after the discovery of gold in 1862. In 1864 Montana's first legislative assembly was held and the following year it is estimated that there were 150,000 people in western Montana. This number later dwindled considerably, but mining and agricultural interests were firmly entrenched at an early date so that the cattle business did not dominate the state as it did in Wyoming. In 1864 the famous Bozeman trail was opened, providing a more direct route into Montana. Leaving the Oregon trail at Fort Fetterman on the North Platte, it came into Montana via the valley of the Big Horn. Its way led through Indian country and consequently it was the scene of many bloody encounters. For long periods of time it was unusable.

The drives up the Chisholm trail had as part of their objective the stocking of the ranges of Montana. The great drives may be said to be dated in 1871 but the movement of cattle to the north continued for many years. As late as 1902 a shipment of southern cattle to Montana ranges was made.

The placing of the Indians on reservations after the final Indian wars of the '70's opened the major portion of eastern Montana for settlement, and here the cattleman spread out rapidly from the west ahead of settlement. The open range had, however, a short life in Montana, for the settler pushed in rapidly behind the cattleman, making fenced ranges an early necessity except in the region north of the Missouri, which, for some reason, was much neglected. Even under open range conditions it was little used, possibly from fear of Indian troubles, although on the whole the Blackfeet participated relatively little in the Indian disturbances.

The coming of the railroad was much later in Montana than in most western states. Not until 1880 did a rail line cross the borders of what is now Montana. This was the Utah Northern, now forming part of the Oregon Short Line. The Northern Pacific was built through in 1880-1881, after many vicissitudes, mostly of a financial nature, which need not concern us here. Finally, in 1893, the line of the Great Northern was completed across the northern counties of the state.

The work of railroad building was far less romantic than in the case of the Union Pacific. The supply problem was far less than in the former case, both because of the parallel line and the presence of river transport. The building of the Great Northern was marked by some record track-laying operations, the average for one season being over three miles a day. To chief engineer Stevens of the Great Northern also goes the credit for discovering the long-sought Marias Pass, which is now known by his name.

In 1889 the line of the Great Northern had been built down the Missouri and into the mining districts of Helena and Butte. James J. Hill sent John F. Stevens west to see if he could locate a more northerly pass over the Rockies than any yet known. Stevens, at this late date, on December 11, reached the top of the pass. Only one half-breed Flat Head accompanied him anywhere near the pass and even this companion gave up. Stevens reached the top of the pass alone and spent the night walking up and down to prevent himself from freezing. It may be noted, however, that by this time the Glacier region was to some extent known. In 1882 Prof. Raphael Pumpelly had attempted to cross Cut Bank Pass, succeeding the following year, and in 1855 George Bird Grinnell, whose name is so intimately linked with the Park, had made his first trip. Prospectors were working on the edges of the territory. The modern period had begun. (See: Osgood; The Day of the Cattleman; Hebard and Brininstool; The Bozeman Trail; Sanders; History of Montana; Grant; Early History of Glacier National Park.)

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