Montana Followed Meandering Path Toward Statehood (Part 1 of 2)
When Montana became a territory on May 26, 1864, Bannack, now a state park, became the first territorial capital. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)
Each of the United States of America – except the original 13, Texas and California – was first organized as a territory before achieving admittance to the Union as a state. Originating with the Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, the territorial system provided the expanding U.S. with a method to govern frontier areas until they gained sufficient population and economic maturity to qualify for equality with the states. Territories represented a sort of compromise between colonies and states. They had limited powers of legislative self-government, but their executive and judicial officers were appointed by the federal government. Not surprisingly, residents of frontier territories usually demanded quick admission to statehood so they could gain full control of their local governments. Until they had such control, federal supervision over their local affairs was a source of constant frustration. Montana’s time of frustration lasted 25 years – from the creation of Montana Territory in 1864 until the territory was admitted to statehood in 1889.
The mining boom of the 1860s brought the first sizable influx of whites to Montana and the first demands for government. Until that time, the large eastern and small western sectors of what would become Montana simply had been attached to huge frontier territories whose centers of population lay hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. The eastern two-thirds of Montana, which occupies the far northwestern corner of the Mississippi-Missouri Basin, had formed the far extremity of Indian Territory until 1805. It also was part of Louisiana Territory until 1812, the Missouri Territory until 1821, a general Great Plains Indian Country until 1854 and Nebraska Territory until 1861, when it became the western sector of newly created Dakota Territory.
The northwest corner of Montana lies on the periphery of a different geographic province, the Columbia River Basin. The United States and Great Britain held this area, known as “Oregon Country,” under a joint occupancy agreement until 1846, when they agreed to extend the 49th parallel boundary to the Pacific as the dividing line between the United States and Canada. The western portion of future Montana then became the easternmost portion of Oregon Territory from 1848 until 1853 and of Washington Territory from 1853 until 1863.
Quite by accident, it was the advance of the mining frontier that caused the eastern and western regions of Montana to be joined together into one political unit. During 1861-62, as miners began the rush into the newly opened goldfields of present-day north-central Idaho, settlers demanded a new territory in the Northern Rockies. Congress responded in March of 1863 by creating Idaho Territory. Carved out of Washington, Dakota and Nebraska territories, Idaho embraced an enormous area, including all of present-day Idaho and Montana and most of Wyoming. Its capital lay on the far western border at Lewiston. Significantly, the creation of Idaho brought eastern and western Montana within a common boundary for the first time.
Idaho Territory was a geographic impossibility. The massive ranges of the Rocky Mountains divided the territory in half, and a thousand miles separated Lewiston in the west from the far eastern extremities. Even in 1863, Idaho’s population was shifting rapidly eastward across the Continental Divide to the mining camps on the upper Missouri. With good reason, the Bannack-Virginia City miners believed that Lewiston – hundreds of miles away over endless, snow-clogged mountain passes – could never govern them properly. The outrages of the Plummer Gang tended to prove their point. Miners began agitating for the creation of a new territory to be split from Idaho along the crests of the Rockies.
Fortunately for their cause, Judge Sidney Edgerton, the newly appointed chief justice of Idaho, arrived at Bannack in September 1863. Edgerton, a former Ohio congressman, was unable to proceed to Lewiston because of the approach of winter. He soon learned that the governor of Idaho had snubbed him by assigning him to the faraway judicial district Iying east of the divide. Both Edgerton and his nephew, vigilante leader Wilbur Fisk Sanders, took up the settlers’ crusade to divide ldaho Territory. Edgerton personally knew the president and many congressmen, so the miners chose to send him to Washington, D.C., to press their case. Carrying $2,000 in gold, Edgerton headed east in January 1864. Meanwhile, the Idaho Legislature at Lewiston obligingly petitioned Congress to carve a new territory named Jefferson out of Idaho, with the dividing line along the Continental Divide and the 113th meridian, locating Idaho’s new eastern boundary just west of the Deer Lodge Valley.
From “Montana A History of Two Centuries” by Michael P. Malone, Richard R. Roeder and William L. Lang. Reprinted by permission of the University of Washington Press