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Shaping the West

This post is originally from Nov 2015, less than a month before the release of An Angel Called Gallagher, book four in the Montana Gallagher series. I am now writing book nine simultaneously while I write the next Crooked Creek installment, and find myself delving once again into Montana's history. The post originally contained cattle and mining, but I have added timber and immigrants.

Montana | Image by Hunter James (Unsplash)

MONTANA IS STEEPED in rich history and fascinating stories. It was built by settlers who saw what the land could give, what they could bring to it, and what they could take away. Cattle and mining were two of the most significant shapers of Montana history, and it so happens, both make an appearance in my Gallagher series. One of the most enjoyable and time-consuming steps of writing is the research. Not all research makes it into the story, but it does help shape the foundation upon which the stories are built.


“The range cattle industry has seen its inception, zenith, and partial extinction all within a half-century. The changes of the past have been many; those of the future may be of more revolutionary character.” – Conrad Kohrs

IN A LAND of soaring mountain peaks, lush forests and abundant wildlife prevails a history rich in trappers, miners and nomads, each with their own remarkable story. The history of cattle ranching in Montana is not as old as others, but it was a beginning for what would become a long-lasting way of life for many people choosing to carve out a life in this rugged land. What was once home to millions of bison and the native peoples, became a land taken over by ranchers and farmers.

The railroad into Montana, still a territory at this time, completed in the early 1880s, made it possible to market the cattle and the roundups began, but not without serious challenges. "Because of the challenges, Stockgrowers Associations were formed, the first in 1881. They discussed the Indians, predators, diseases, legislation and outlaws. The Indians were starving and often stole cattle; the white man had killed all their bison. Wolves were destructive predators, hunting in packs and killing cows, calves and many sheep and lambs." (2)

Conrad Kohrs, one of Montana’s first cattle barons and greatest pioneers, passed away in Helena, Montana in 1920.

Did you know?

“Range Wars” between cattlemen and sheep growers didn’t happen in Montana. For a time, Montana cattlemen found it profitable to raise sheep. Then, when cattle became profitable again, they switched back to cattle. Montana ranges support a wide variety of grazing animals, both wild and domestic.(


"By the late 1880’s, Helena had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the world." (1) Not bad for a lessor-populated area of the west. However, the richest and most well-known mining history in Montana surrounds Butte, where the territory's (later state's) great legacy was built on copper mines. In fact, it became known as “The Richest Hill on Earth” because of the rich ore veins. I watched Ken Burns’ "The West," a great documentary presented by Stephen Ives. In the eighth episode titled ‘Ghost Dance’ they discussed the great mining town of Butte, Montana and how it affected Montana. In 1882, when Butte’s mining boom began, they weren’t considering the consequences of what they were taking from the earth, with no thought to reclamation, but that was due primarily to limited technology of the time and poor decision-making. "A century of mining left scars that have become the Nation’s largest Superfund site, with the huge Berkeley Pit lake as the centerpiece." (2)

The result is an area left barren of trees, and a huge pit remaining in the earth.

In 1882 the district produced nine million pounds of copper. In 1883 production leaped over 250%. By 1884 there were four large smelters operating and Daly was building what would become the world’s largest metallurgical plant at Anaconda, thirty miles to the west. (2) WWII made the mining kings of the area wealthy, but it wasn’t to stop there. At one time there were over 3,600 mines in Montana. Today there are fewer than 100.


Old Wagon | Image by Stephen Hui (Unsplash)

WITH THE RAILROADS and dreams of finding goal came an influx of immigrants searching for their piece of the promised land. Many believed their futures and fortunes lay in California's coastal soil, while others find success in Oregon and Washington, but the great Rocky Mountain territories could not be ignored.

"The 1870 census was the first to record the population of the Montana territory. According to these figures, foreign-born residents accounted for approximately 39% of Montana's population. For comparison, foreign-born individuals accounted for 14.4% of the national population in 1870 while in current day New York City the foreign-born population is roughly 20%." (4)

Chinese, Irish, and Scandinavian immigrants built most of the railroad's labor force. Montana's first governor was an Irishman, and Polish citizens were encouraged to settle in the Trout Creek area, which is to this day, a rugged, beautiful, and sparsley populated town. Italians, Scots, Irish, Swedes, and more settled in Montana and gave birth to many first-generation Americans and Montanans.


THERE IS A great deal of controversy in the Montana's early timber history. "The lumber industry was active in the Flathead Valley on a small scale beginning in the 1880s, increasing greatly when the Great Northern Railway reached the valley. Timber trespasses - the stealing of timber from the public domain - were common in the 1890s in the accessible wooded valleys of the Flathead." (5) Having lived in the Flathead for half my life, I can attest to the amount of timber that is still harvested.

The tribes knew well how to control overgrowth of undergrowth, encourage certain plants species to thrive, clear trails, and to control insects. They nourished the timberland with controlled fires. While I love the dense forests we have today, there is wisdom in those early practices. Trading posts, missions, the gold rush, boomtowns, and railroads all required timbers, and none more so than the railways and copper mines, even if it meant stealing from protected lands. (6)

Those familiar with the Gallagher books know how much Ethan Gallagher struggles against progress. He didn't like the mine in the nearby mountains, he fought laying tracks for many years, and he will continue to fight against industry he does not believe is in the best interest of both the land and the people.

Books and articles aplenty have been written on each one of these subjects, and go into such detail that only the most interested historian or researcher will want to delve into the mountains of information. I have only skimmed the surface for my research, though there are times when I lose myself for hours.

If you are truly interested in learning more, I've provided sources and further reading below:


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