Montana — History and Culture
Montana is a fascinating montage to Native American heritage, Wild West pioneering and natural beauty. Few places in the US feel as wild as this state, where grizzly bears are common in the wilderness and big cities feel like small towns. The mix of cowboy culture and outdoor recreation creates a fun destination for anyone with an interest in the great outdoors. You’ll be warmly welcomed in Montana if you come with an eager respect for the state’s immense natural endowment and hearty appetite for adventure.
Montana is one of America’s most important regions for traditional Native American heritage. Several major tribes including the Shoshone, Cheyenne, Crow, Blackfeet, and Flathead had been living here for 3,000 years before the arrival of the first Europeans in 1743. The French explorers came looking for the elusive Northwest Passage, but an impending Indian War between the local tribes discouraged them from prodding further.
It took 60 years for the next foreigners to reach Montana. The American Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the Yellowstone River in 1805 and traveled upriver into Shoshone territory. The expedition was greeted warmly because they had the Shoshone chief’s sister Sacajawea with them working as their guide. Fur trapping was the first industry, but when gold was discovered in 1864 at Last Chance Gulch in modern-day Helena, everything changed.
Gold sparked Montana’s colorful Wild West period. The state was so remote that it lured a steady flow of outlaws, prospectors, prostitutes, con men, and other adventurous souls to boom towns like Virginia City, Bannock and Nevada City. The Native Americans were tolerant of the intruders at first, but eventually the swell in migrants created trouble between the settlers and Indians.
The hostilities came to a head in 1876 when General Custer launched a full-on war against the Cheyenne and Sioux tribes. Custer was killed at the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn, which today is a national historic park. This temporary victory lasted only until 1880, when all remaining Indian tribes were forced onto reservations.
Mining continued to be an important part of Montana’s economy as huge copper deposits were discovered outside of Butte. To encourage settlement, the government let homesteaders move onto large tracts of land in the early 20th century. They formed the farming and ranching sectors that continue to thrive today. Wheat is still Montana’s main crop and the land is still largely unpopulated and wild.
Montana is a wonderful example of the American pioneering spirit. Born on the back of mining, the state eventually expanded its economy into agriculture and ranching. The latter two rural industries make up the social and cultural fabric of much of the state’s sparse population. Montana’s largest city, Billings, has only a touch over 100,000 residents. The nickname Big Sky Country refers not only to the vast rolling landscape, but to the expansive space between settlements. This is a state that requires no effort to escape modern urban life.
Between the endless rolling plains of the east and the mountains of the west, Montana has some of America’s largest tracts of wilderness. Outdoor recreation of all kinds is a major part of both tourism and the locals’ hobbies. Ranchers, cowboys and horses play a big role in Montana’s culture, as does its rich Native American past that has been enjoying a revival in recent years. Though largely conservative and independent, the people of Montana are hospitable to visitors who come to enjoy the beauty and traditions of their land.