Southwest Montana: A Profile (3 of 4)

Southwest Montana

Fur trappers, followed quickly on the heels of Lewis and Clark into the new frontier. Searching for beaver to satisfy the latest fashion demands of Europeans, they wandered to what would become Montana Territory and particularly to the southwest sector of the state. But they were not settlers, just passers-through, and they left behind a mostly negative legacy that included degradation of the natives and a depletion of resources that saw the profits flow to only a few.                

Natural processes dictated southwest Montana would be the state's most mineralized region. Treasures hidden in the streams and rocks were the result of volcanic activity. A molten intrusion - a batholith in geologic speak - occurred below the earth's surface, intermingling with limestone. In this area, the batholiths are mostly in the form of granite. When molten magma comes in contact with limestone, it reacts to create a wide variety of minerals. As the magma hardens, the mineral forms an outside layer over the intrusion separating it from the limestone. This mineral-filled contact zone may be anywhere from a few feet to a few hundred feet thick. Prospectors were aware contact zones around granite intrusions, especially those in limestone, are likely to contain any of several different kinds of ore bodies, including deposits of gold.                

Prospecting, gold panning and mining were the catalysts for the white man's initial appearance, temporary invasiveness and occupation. Thousands of fortune-seekers stampeded to what is southwest Montana to comb the gulches and hills searching for the shiny gold.               

The first "colors" were found in 1852, in southwest Montana by a French Canadian half-breed, nicknamed Benetsee. Granville Stuart who would be known as "the Father of Montana," heard of the find and prospected "Benetsee Creek" - today's Gold Creek, eight miles west of Garrison Junction. Here, in May 1858, Stuart and his three partners made Montana's first reported gold strike. Then in July 1862, a major discovery of gold at Grasshopper Creek gave birth to Montana's initial Territorial Capital, Bannack. Efforts to define our boundaries and coin the name "Montana" grew from this mining camp.               

Montana's largest strike ever, in May 1863 at Alder Gulch. Virginia City evolved from it and its population exploded to 10,000. It took over Territorial Capital status from Bannack in the spring of 1865. When the elusive gold nuggets were found in today's Helena in 1864, the claim was under the name of "Last Chance." Helena grew and became the Territorial Capital in 1875 and the capital of Montana when statehood was granted in 1889.                

As word of these and other discoveries reached the eastern United States and Europe, would-be-miners crowded onto the steamboats coming up the Missouri River to Fort Benton and then ventured overland to Montana's gold camps. Other eager treasure hunters straggled north from the fields of Colorado, Nevada and California. Many boomtowns grew out of the frantic search for the yellow metal as well as from silver discoveries. Granite, Elkhorn, Confederate Gulch, Diamond City, Montana City, Garnet, Horse Prairie, Southern Cross, Pony and Marysville were but a few of the legendary camps. Philipsburg, in the Flint Creek Valley, with the now ghost of Granite, became Montana's richest silver mining district.                

The gold period of the 1860s through the 1880s was a heady and turbulent era, but by the 1890s copper began making its rise to stardom. Considered one of the most prolific mining districts in the world, Butte earned the title "richest hill on earth." Not only was it born from gold when a prospector discovered the stuff in 1865 on Silver Bow Creek, but it became a major producer of copper, and of silver as well.                

Prospectors and their followers rushing into Southwest Montana during the 1860s created a demand for goods and provisions, especially beef. The Beaverhead, Madison, Big Hole and Deer Lodge valleys became Montana's most important livestock ranges. Some of the cattle outfits still in operation today, have been in the same family for many generations and grew from those first years. In 1862, Conrad Kohrs bought a ranch in the Deer Lodge Valley established by a former Metis fur trader named Johnnie Grant. It became one of the largest cattle empires in the state; today it goes by the brand Grant Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site. The Gallatin and Bitterroot valleys, evolved into productive farming regions thanks to this new population. Bozeman, established in 1864, grew from agriculture. In the late 1860s, three flourmills were in operation in the Gallatin.


Rick and Susie Graetz