Montana - History and Heritage

Montanans' love of history runs deep. Even before Montana became a state in 1889, there was a historical society. The people who established Montana's political and social structure were keenly aware of the importance of history. They knew that history preserved and properly interpreted is an essential tool for public understanding and appreciation of this special land. As a result of this awareness, Montana is able to provide visitors with excellent opportunities to experience the history of the western frontier, its lifestyle and the people who lived it.

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
This historic site celebrates the heroic expedition of the Corps of Discovery, led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark. Thirty-three people traveled with them into unknown territory, starting near what is now known as Wood River, Illinois, in 1804, reaching the Pacific Ocean in 1805 and returning in 1806. Today's 3,700-mile trail follows their route as closely as possible given the changes over the years. Because the intrepid explorers spent more time in Montana than any other state, the state has 2,000 miles of trail and attractions that interpret their deeds. Nearly 25 percent of the entire Lewis & Clark Trail, as well as almost half of the recognized campsites, are in Montana.
Today, much of the Montana landscape that Lewis and Clark crossed remains unchanged. From solitary sandstone through river canyons to mountain meadows, Montana’s rivers and highways flow past scores of landmarks related to the expedition.

Glasgow and the Milk River
The Milk River heads at St. Mary’s Lake in Glacier Park and flows north into Canada. Meandering north of the border, it skirts the town of Milk River and then enters Montana north of Havre. From there it flows east, converging with the Missouri River at Fort Peck. Just as in the time of Lewis and Clark, white-tailed deer, upland game birds and a host of songbirds, furbearers and numerous small mammals can be seen in the area during much of the year.

Great Falls
"The grandest sight I had ever beheld," wrote Meriwether Lewis on June 13, 1805, as he got his first look at the Great Falls of the Missouri. There were actually four sets of falls: Black Eagle, Rainbow, Crooked and the Great Falls, each with a beauty all its own. The Corps of Discovery had plenty of time to "enjoy" the sites during a grueling portage around them. Today, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center commemorates and explains the expedition’s daring escapades.

Gates of the Mountains (Helena)
The evening of July 19, 1805, was a hot one in the territory that would later become Montana. On the Missouri River, not far north of the present state capital, the hardy members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition toiled to move upstream. Rock embankments made towing from shore impossible, and the deep channel forced the men to row rather than pole their boats forward.

Suddenly, there loomed before them towering rock formations unlike any they had ever seen. From both sides of the river, limestone cliffs rose to a spectacular height of 1,200 feet. "In many places," wrote Meriwether Lewis, "the rocks seem ready to tumble on us." At each bend in the waterway, great stone walls seemed to block passage, only to open like gentle giant gates as the expedition drew near. In his journal, Lewis wrote: "I shall call this place: Gates of the Mountains."

The name stuck, and for nearly two centuries travelers have ventured down this stretch of the Missouri to marvel at its natural wonders. The "Gates" are located about 20 miles north of Helena. The canyon area is only accessible by water or by traveling more than a dozen miles over trails through the Helena National Forest and Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area.

Missouri Headwaters (Three Forks)
The Missouri headwaters area (the convergence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers) forms the 2,300-mile Missouri River. This was a geographical focal point important to early Native Americans trappers, traders and settlers. Coveting the region’s bountiful resources, the Flathead, Bannock and Shoshone Indians competed for control of the area, as did the trappers and settlers who followed. Considering it an essential point in the geography of this western part of the continent, Meriwether Lewis wrote that the country opens suddenly to extensive and beautiful plains and meadows, which appear to be surrounded in every direction with distant and lofty mountains. The legendary Sacagawea was captured here as a child and eventually returned as a member of the Corps of Discovery. Missouri Headwaters State Park preserves much of the region’s abundant wildlife, lush vegetation and scenic beauty, which have attracted people for thousands of years.

Beaverhead Rock (Dillon)
Sacagawea recognized this huge landmark, resembling the head of a swimming beaver, while traveling with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the site is 4,949 feet in elevation and 71 acres in size. The site is undeveloped and unsigned, and is designated a primitive park. There are no fees to visit.

Lolo Hot Springs
This area is the gateway to the Bitterroot Valley and was an important junction in western history. The pass was used by the Lewis and Clark Expedition en route to the Pacific. The Nez Perce Indians had used it for generations as a buffalo trail before the explorers’ arrival. Visit the Lolo Pass Visitor Information Center on U.S. Highway 12 near the Idaho/Montana border to learn more about the historic Lolo Trail.

Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone is the last free-flowing river in the lower 48 states. From its headwaters in Lake Yellowstone downstream 670 miles to the Missouri River in North Dakota, the Yellowstone flows as it has for centuries, in its natural state, undammed and untamed. As it flows through Montana, the big river goes through many changes—from steep-walled canyons where boulders churn the green waters to the eastern part of the state where the river broadens to take a lazy path through fertile farm country.

State Capitol (Helena)
When Montana became a state in 1889, the first step was to choose a capital city. Legislators, not wanting to risk political fallout, asked the people to decide. A political war between two "Copper Kings," Marcus Daly and William Clark, resulted in massive bribery and vote-buying scandals. It is estimated that each man spent almost $3 million to determine what city would become Montana's new capital. It wasn’t until 1894 that Helena was finally chosen, narrowly defeating Anaconda.

Work on the state capitol began in 1899. The new building was completed and dedicated on July 4, 1902, and reflects the Greek Renaissance style. Interior murals feature themes of Montana’s past including Charles M. Russell’s magnificent historical depiction of Lewis and Clark meeting the Indians at Ross’ Hole on September 5, 1805. Today, tours of the newly renovated State Capitol Building are offered year-round.

The Rankin Ranch
The Rankin Ranch, Helena area, is the former residence of Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1916), before women were allowed to vote. She served two terms (1917-1919) and (1941-1943) on behalf of Montana. Best remembered for her pacifism, she also played an important role in women's rights and social reform movement. She was the only member of the House to oppose the declaration of war against Japan in 1941. A statue of her graces the grand staircase in the Montana Capitol.

Great Northern Railway Buildings National Historic Landmark (Glacier National Park)
Comprised of five building complexes: Belton Chalet, Granite Park Chalet, Many Glacier Hotel, Sperry Chalet and Two Medicine Store. Together they exemplify a distinct architectural style that was used on a massive scale for park concessions development (c. 1913-15). This National Historic Landmark probably contains the largest collection of Swiss-style buildings and the only U.S. examples of the use of a European system of hostelries built a day’s hike or ride apart.

Going-to-the-Sun Road (Glacier National Park)
The Going-to-the-Sun Road, the first National Park Service transcontinental divide road, had a profound impact on road design policy throughout the national park system even before it was complete. The 49-mile road and its associated features are a defined historic district, which collectively retains extraordinary integrity and offers nearly the same experience for visitors today as it did during the early years.

Fort Peck Dam (Glasgow)
Fort Peck Dam is one of the largest earth-filled river impoundments in the world. Its original purpose was not only to control floods but also to create jobs in a depression-saddled economy. In 1933, the undertaking was the nation's largest public works project. A photograph of the Fort Peck Project, taken by Margaret Bourke-White, graced the cover of the first issue of LIFE magazine in 1936. The construction of the dam, at its peak that same year, provided 10,456 jobs; the dam was completed in 1940.

Nez Perce National Historical Park
For thousands of years the valleys, prairies, mountains and plateaus of the inland Northwest have been home to the Nimiipuu, or Nez Perce, people. Today, the 38 sites of Nez Perce National Historical Park are scattered across the states of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana and have been designated to commemorate the stories and history of the Nimiipuu and their interaction with explorers, fur traders, missionaries, soldiers, settlers, gold miners and farmers who moved through or into the area. Big Hole National Battlefield, near Wisdom, Montana, is one of two visitor centers on the trail.

Big Hole National Battlefield (near Wisdom)
This is the site of the tragic engagement between the non-treaty bands of the Nez Perce and the U.S. Infantry led by Col. John Gibbon on August 9 and 10, 1877. The National Park Service interprets and maintains the battlefield, which is open year-round. There are two self-guided trails, visitor center, museum, along with daily ranger programs in the summer months.

Bear Paw National Battlefield (near Chinook)
One of the four Montana locations of the Nez Perce National Historical Park, it commemorates the battlefield where Chief Joseph made his eloquent speech of surrender, stating, "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

Historic Trails In Montana

Montana Dinosaur Trail
The Montana Dinosaur Trail takes visitors on a unique trail across the landscape of Montana. Travelers will discover the amazing variety that Montana has to offer—in its scenic treasures, its paleontological treasures and in the communities, large and small, that host the trail stops. Come and see "Leonardo", the world’s best-preserved dinosaur, the "Peck’s Rex" at the Fort Peck Interpretive Center or the "Wall of Bone" at the Makoshika Dinosaur Museum.

Lewis and Clark Trail
From 1804 to 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led what would become perhaps the most famous expedition in U.S. history: the Corps of Discovery, commissioned by president Thomas Jefferson to find a dreamed-or northwest water passage. And even though they didn’t find any such passage, they did discover what would later become present-day Montana. In fact, during their journey, they spent more time in Montana than in any other U.S. state; nearly a quarter of the route is here as are half of the recognized campsites.

Across the Montana, you’ll find more than three dozen discovery points along the Lewis & Clark Trail, ranging from the National Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls to the site of the expeditions only fatal encounter with an Indian tribe on the Two Medicine River. Montana is also the place where Sacagawea was amazing reunited with her brother. In August 1805, as Lewis and Clark spoke with members of the Shoshone tribe, Sacagawea recognized the chief as her brother, whom she hadn’t seen for five years. This amazing bit of luck led the expedition to name their camping spot amp Fortunate, about 20 miles south of present day Dillon.

You’ll also find the last remaining physical evidence intentionally left by the expedition at Pompeys Pillar National Monument.  Here, Captain William Clark carved his name in a stone outcropping above the Yellowstone River on July 25, 1806.

Many Lewis and Clark Trail sites in Montana offer views that are nearly unchanged from the early 1800s. It is easy to look at the natural landscapes and image what you might have felt if you had been among the 33 "Corps of Discovery" expedition members. Today, highways parallel most of their route, making a scenic loop tour that winds through every region of the state.

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