Montana’s history really began when it ran out of “frontier.” That is, when growing towns and economic development began to give it a distinct character. There was no frontier to its west because the Pacific Northwest region had been settled first. As with any other Western state, the Hollywood myths ring false. The state’s true history is its 20th century, as it was animated by agriculture, mining, railroads, and its nascent “tourism industry.” Montana’s history is biography about the people who made these things.
In Treasure State author John Clayton’s Stories from Montana’s Enduring Frontier, we learn that the vision of one man was the catalyst for building the famed Beartooth Highway; that Charles Russell traded drawings for drinks in Great Falls saloons; and that John “Liver-Eating” Johnston’s colorful life even transcended Hollywood myth. These well written essays appeared in a variety of regional publications such as Montana Quarterly and High Country News.
Charlie Russell came west from St. Louis at sixteen to be a cowboy. It was 1880 and he timed it right, as the “open range” cattle culture on the Montana plains was at its height following the conclusion of the Indian wars. In “The Best Kind of Cowboy Hero” we learn that Russell worked on ranches and sketched this milieu. Unlike his great contemporary, Frederick Remington, Russell was artistically unschooled, and wasn’t interested in making paintings of ideas, or portraying the western historical record on canvas, as Remington did. Russell’s talent lay in his sharp rendition of daily life, and “an emotionally evocative depiction of cattle ranching and a strong sense of storytelling.” His famous painting “The Last of 5,000” depicts an emaciated cow surrounded by wolves on a frozen prairie, as commentary on what ranchers endured during the nightmarish winter of 1886-’87.
In “Origins of the Beartooth Highway,” Clayton tells the fascinating story of the engineering feat that connected Red Lodge, Montana with Yellowstone National Park. The road was completed in 1936 thanks to the visionary effort of one Dr. Johann Carl Frederick Siegfriedt (1879-1940). Siegfriedt was a beloved physician and civic-minded citizen of Red Lodge, once serving a term as mayor. In 1924 one of the local coal mines shut down and the town faced a dicey economic future. Dr. Siegfriedt at the head of a group of like-minded prominent citizens decided that the key to Red Lodge’s prosperity was linked to Yellowstone, seventy miles west on the other side of the formidable Beartooth Mountains. The project took four years and involved the sort of engineering hazards found in unforgiving terrain. This and the development of travel routes into Glacier National Park marked the beginning of Montana’s modern tourism industry.
“Vacation to the 1830s” is a whimsical look at the modern-day “Rendezvous” phenomenon in the West. Every summer, certain historical sites such as Fort Bridger and Pinedale, Wyoming, and Cache Valley, Utah, are visited by fur trade-era reenactors, who dress in period costumes and perform the wilderness rituals (minus the legendary debauchery) of the annual gatherings of mountain men. Clayton observes: “For a country so supposedly ignorant of history, America is full of reenactments: colonial villages, Civil War battles, restored Victorian homes.” And nowadays Jim Bridger and Kit Carson taking a weekend away from their day jobs to entertain tourists.
John “Liver-Eating’” Johnston was the prototype for Jeremiah Johnson, the 1972 film about such men starring Robert Redford. As “The Mountain Man Who Outshone His Legends” tells us, the real life Johnston shared much of the character of his Hollywood counterpart, but was even more interesting. He arrived late (1840s) in the Rockies as the beaver trade wound down and eventually found work supplying firewood to Missouri River steamboats, hunting, trapping, and generally wandering. He got his nickname when in his absence a Crow war party killed his pregnant Flathead wife, and in the ensuing years a vengeful Johnston killed a number of Crow men in single encounters, allegedly feasting on the liver of one victim. In old age he was “Dad” Johnston, the first sheriff of Red Lodge. Clayton relates the amusing story of Johnston’s final interment in Cody, Wyoming, at a tourist venue called “Old Trail Town” in 1974. Cody boosters, after losing Buffalo Bill Cody to Colorado in 1917, lacked a genuine dead western legend, and got one in Johnston. They even lured Robert Redford to Cody to serve as a pallbearer in the July 4th ceremony.
“Resurrecting Haydie Yates” (born Emma Hayden Eames in 1897) is the story of a Montana ranchwoman with roots in the aristocratic East. She was a staff writer at the New Yorker in the late 1920s, eventually buying a ranch after spending a few summers as the guest of Irving “Larry” Larom’s “Valley Ranch” near Cody, Wyoming. Larom was a Princeton graduate who is credited with inventing dude ranching, as he encouraged rich Eastern friends to spend summers at the Valley Ranch and pay for the privilege. Haydie married a Yale graduate and World War I veteran named Ted Yates, and the young couple bought a 3,200 acre ranch on Lodge Grass Creek on the east slope of the Big Horns north of Sheridan, Wyoming just over the Montana line. But the working cattle ranch failed, albeit taking years to do so, and the Yates’ eventually retreated to New York, where Haydie continued her journalistic career with three editorial jobs at what were once called “women’s magazines.” Her western experience produced a remarkable memoir 70 Miles From a Lemon (1948). The title describes the ranch’s remoteness from a favorite grocery store in Sheridan. In it she writes: “No other place out there could ever be as much our hearts’ desire as that perfect spot on the Lodge Grass.”
A book about Montana wouldn’t be complete without a good outlaw story. And in “Fame and Bandits” Clayton chooses one that took place just down the street from his home in Red Lodge. On September 18, 1897, four associates of Butch Cassidy’s “Wild Bunch” (although Cassidy himself was not present) attempted — and failed — to rob the Carbon County Bank. A four-day, 80-mile pursuit by a mounted posse like the one in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid resulted in the capture near Lavina, Montana, of Harvey Logan, alias “Kid Curry,” Walt Putney, a notorious Wyoming horse thief, and Harry Longabaugh, alias “The Sundance Kid” — himself. The fourth, George “Flat Nose” Currie, avoided capture halfway through the pursuit by detouring to Columbus, Montana, where he decamped on a train. The three failed bank robbers were imprisoned in Deadwood, South Dakota, to answer charges about a bank robbery in nearby Belle Fourche, and where five weeks later they escaped into the mists of legend and historical contention related to these outlaws, especially Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Harvey Logan-Kid Curry committed suicide as the Pinkertons closed in on him following a botched train robbery in Colorado in 1904. The lives and ends of the rest remain a mystery.
These are just a handful of historical essays in a collection that is a great introduction to Montana history for the general reader.