Map Image of Lewis & Clark County, Montana
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Historical Summary of Lewis & Clark County

The area that became Lewis & Clark County was created within Montana Territory in 1864. Originally titled Edgerton County after a territorial governor, the jurisdiction was renamed in 1868 for the Lewis & Clark expedition which transversed it twice, once in 1805 and again in 1806. In 1872 its boundaries were redefined, taking on, for the most part, its existing appearance. Covering over 3,000 square miles, it occupies sections of such famous land forms & features as the Rocky Mountain Front, the Continental Divide, the Big Belt Mountains, the Over-thrust Region and the Missouri River. Rich in resources and scenic beauty, the County has attracted the attention of people from the earliest known times of North American human occupation to the present.

An increasingly diminished theory of North American human occupation brings people into the area about 12,000 years before the present (BP) via land. The theory considers evidence that people walked over receding continental glaciers and between two glacial lobes that left much of prehistoric Lewis & Clark County clear of ice. Now the evidentiary tide, and direction of population, is reversing, bringing people into upper North America earlier and from the south. How ever they arrived, the earliest humans here seemingly followed the glaciers while hunting 'big game' - Pleistocene elephant, elk and other large animals. This way of life never really ended as later animal forms evolved into those we know today, bison in particular being hunted. For millennia, people wandered in small groups over the lands of later Lewis & Clark County pursuing game, picking fruit and gathering foodstuffs such as camas. Small campsites characterize the archaeological record of those years, along with artifacts from activities such as stone mining (for tools and hunting equipment) and camas roasting along the Missouri.

Prehistoric travel was far reaching. The county’s boundaries contain segments of two major overland routes: the Old North Trail connecting Canada with the Southwestern United States running just east of the Rocky Mountain Front and west of the Missouri River and the "River Road to the Buffalo" followed by Lewis in 1806 along the Big Blackfoot river past present-day Lincoln and over Lewis & Clark Pass onto the vast eastern prairie. The first route promoted trade, the latter allowed mountain-dwelling tribes access to buffalo herds. All this activity went on unaltered for hundreds of centuries.

Then there came a change - transportation by way of the horse. By the late 1700s horsemanship was profoundly influencing Native American lifestyles, complementing existing life ways and creating new aspects of cultural practices, warfare and hunting. The source of horses, European people, quickly entered the area, bringing overwhelming technological and numerical forces and swiftly establishing cultural dominance. Between 1850 and 1950 this new culture superseded the old completely, leaving virtually no land form or life form unaffected by its presence. 

European settlement reportedly occurred in the area of Canyon Creek, north of Helena, just over the mountain pass leading to the "River Road" where white fur trappers and Native Americans formed a small mixed community around 1840. In the late 1850s a wagon road, the Mullan Road was cut over Mullan Pass west and slightly north of Helena. It drove northeast to near Silver Creek and then passed over the highlands west of Prickly Pear Canyon to emerge near the Missouri River south of Great Falls and on to the steamboat landings at Fort Benton. Settlers used this route in the early years to access mining regions in Idaho and southern Montana.

Gold and silver deposits found where Silver Creek exited the mountains some fifteen miles northwest of Helena encouraged Silver, later Silver City, the first permanent settlement in the county. From 1862 to 1865 it was the seat of local government until voters selected Helena for that distinction. Helena itself was built on a much richer placer deposit complemented by ore bodies to the south. An ambitious and well seasoned population of investors and businessmen took root there after many years of surviving the rigors of gold camp living and eventually made Helena the financial, political and cultural center of Montana. Located on the main wagon road from Fort Benton to points south, Helena was positioned as a commercial distribution point. The Northern Pacific railroad arrived in 1883, assuring the city permanency. J. J. Hill’s Great Northern soon followed, devising a locally supported north to south route from Butte to Great Falls to feed his overland route. Locally, a light rail, or streetcar system connected newly built Fort Harrison (1890), the sprawling State Nursery, suburban developments and a large ore smeltering works at East Helena to Helena itself. Thus, Helena ascended to join the constellation of ‘civilized’ communities, its most fortunate inhabitants enjoying the finest lifestyles Victorian America offered.

Development occurred throughout Lewis & Clark County between 1868 and 1893 fueled largely by gold and silver mining, although agriculture swiftly followed, first as a supplement to the mining camps and then as a source of exported goods. Lode (hardrock) mining followed placer finds around extruded stocks and dikes that shattered overlying rock layers in the Boulder Batholith to the west and north and the Big Belt Mountains to the east of Helena. Hand labor placer operations were replaced by powerful water pressure systems that rapidly reduced natural streambeds. The regions around Unionville, Rimini, Marysville, York and, to a lesser degree,  Lincoln were designated large mining districts, peppered with shafts and adits surrounded by camps ranging from a few rude huts to sizeable communities with platted streets, schools and proper stores. Enclosed ore processing facilities, or mills, operated at several localities, their workmen adding to the population.

Each mine and its immediate community required lumber, supply access, means of power, communication lines and water in great quantities. Around each grew a spider web of roadways, telegraph and often electric lines, water ditches and flumes, as well as the attendant trails answering to sawmills, fields, pastures, farms and ranches. As early as 1866, overland transport into the area had been advanced by the Kingston & Gillette toll road up Prickly Pear Canyon and after 1883, rail lines quickly extended away from their main tracks and wove up narrow canyons to serve these outlying regions. In Helena, entrepreneurial bankers Samuel Hauser and Col. Charles Broadwater, representing the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads respectively, aggressively vied for such markets, at times laying rails on either side of the same valley.

Vast ranches developed in the county’s central and the northern plains, feeding the expanding population and shipping wool, mutton and beef to urban markets by the trainload. At the head of the Prickly Pear Valley, Malcolm Clarke’s ranch set the foundation for the Sieben holdings of the next century, beginning a phase where many local financiers branched out into grazing. They were soon joined by increasing numbers of small operations as public land offerings and railroad land grant sales attracted homesteaders. Communities like Wolf Creek, Augusta, Gilman, Craig, and Canyon Creek formed to serve agricultural neighborhoods. Lincoln, in the meantime developed a logging industry and later became a favored summer resort.

The national ‘silver panic’ of 1893 ended the county’s accelerated development. Virtually all silver mines closed, affecting the Rimini area and places west of Marysville in particular. Many Helena fortunes were ruined and the collateral economic effects prompted entire communities to be abandoned in an exodus of population never seen since. Struggling survivors held onto gold production, still vital at places like Marysville’s Drum Lummon mine and Spring Hill south of Helena but the industry was much reduced. Agriculture surfaced as the major industry. Helena’s political and financial status buffered the impact but the days of confident wealth were over. Rail lines withered, schools closed and the importance of formerly marginal influences such as recreation, public service, lumbering and small business rose to the fore. Mining continued on a sporadic basis and reworking old mine leavings, mechanized placer mining (dredging) and, later, some mineral mining (sapphires) remained active.

The early 20th century heralded unprecedented effects on land, culture and lifestyles fostered by rapid technological advances tempered by global economic stress and war. Large institutions were created to respond to and harness forces of such magnitude. In Lewis & Clark County, Federal government agencies, the National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U. S. Bureau of Reclamation took on significant roles in administering unsettled and abandoned lands, complementing State Fish and Game programs of wildlife reintroduction that regenerated hunting and fishing on a recreational plane. The Great Depression of the 1930’s reintroduced an atmosphere of economic stultification but it accelerated major irrigation developments, road building and similar public works of lasting influence. The first half-century saw small electrical generating dams on the Missouri River followed by large water management systems directing runoff on the Missouri and Sun rivers into wide-reaching irrigation regions. Agricultural production was influenced by federal controls during the Depression and later crop support programs. Rural living information extended out of the land grant colleges to considerable effect. Nonetheless, agricultural areas declined in population as production margins narrowed.

Military events influenced much in this era, bringing various changes. During World War II, Fort Harrison supported combat training teams and dog team units stationed near Rimini. In the closing decades of the 20 century Fort Harrison expanded as a post, supporting an ever more sophisticated and militarily engaged Montana National Guard to local economic advantage. Carroll College, an emerging institution of higher learning in Helena, closed to train Naval officers and emerged into an altered post-war society to develop as a co-educational, university level school.

America’s economic poweress and status as world leader in the late 20th Century energized life in Lewis & Clark County, as elsewhere. Expanded federal and state governmental programs exerted broad influence on rural development and infused Helena’s economy with new residents and wealth. Regenerative federal funds were directed at Helena’s decaying commercial center. Suburban growth ballooned, sprawling into the Helena Valley, the surrounding hills and reaching far out into the county. Ranch and farmland were thus equally reduced. In response to human impact on natural systems, federal and state regulations attempted to protect land by managing its use, resulting in issues of magnified intensity highlighting recreational, developmental, agricultural, conservation and industrial interrelationships. The County benefitted greatly when a segment of the national interstate highway system passed through Helena and along the Missouri River toward Great Falls. Tourism, long an aspirant industry in a county aware of its recreational, scenic, historical attributes, was thus enhanced, along with those commercial fronts reliant on surface transportation.

At the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, Lewis & Clark County faces challenges of expansion rather than decline. Evolving global relationships in the areas of commerce, security and environmental management will still dominate the county’s future and land use questions will form around the resultant pressure points. Whatever periods of boom, bust, natural disaster and relative quietude might come, the people of Lewis & Clark County, well tested over countless generations, will no doubt persevere.