Each of the United States of America, except for the original thirteen, Texas, and California, was first organized as a “territory” before achieving admittance to the Union as a full fledged state. Originating with the famous Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, the territorial system provided the expanding United States with a method of governing frontier areas until they gained sufficient population and economic maturity to qualify for equality with older states of the Union. Territories represented a sort of compromise between colonies and states. They had limited powers of legislative government, but their executive and judicial officers were appointed by federal government. Not surprisingly, residents of these frontier territories usually demanded quick admission to statehood, so that they could gain control of their local governments. Until they had such control, federal supervision over their local affairs caused constant frustration. In Montana this time of frustration lasted for twenty five years, from the creation of Montana Territory in 1864 until the admission of the territory to statehood in 1889.
THE BIRTH OF “MONTANA”
The mining boom of the 1860s brought the first large white population and thus the first demands for government, to the vast empty region that became Montana. Prior to this time, the large eastern and small western sectors of future Montana had simply been attached to huge frontier territories whose centers of population lay hundreds, even thousands of miles away. The eastern two thirds of Montana, which is the far northwest comer of the Mississippi Missouri Basin, had been joined to a number of different territories. It formed the far extremity of Indian Territory until 1805; then was part of Louisiana Territory until 1812, 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, of course, on the outskirts of a different geographic province, the Columbia Basin. The United States and Great Britain held this area, known then as the “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 Stares and Canada. Then, the western portion of future Montana became the easternmost outskirts of Oregon Territory from 1848 until 1853 and of Washington Territory from 1853 until 1861.
It was, quite by accident, the advance of the mining frontier that caused the eastern and western halves of today’s Montana to be joined together in one political unit. In 1861-62, as miners began flocking into the newly opened gold fields of present day north central Idaho, the demand arose for creation of 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 Idaho and Montana and most of Wyoming. Its capital lay on the far western border at Lewiston. Significantly, the creation of Idaho brought the two halves of Montana within a common boundary for the first time.
Idaho Territory was a geographic impossibility from the day of its birth. The massive ranges of the Rocky Mountains divided it in half, and a thousand miles separated Lewiston in the west from the far eastern extremities. Even in 1863, at the time of the territory’s inception, 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 felt 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. They began agitating for the creation of a new territory, to be split away from Idaho along the crests of the Rockies.
Fortunately for their cause, the newly appointed chief justice of Idaho arrived at Bannack in September 1863. Judge Sidney Edgerton, a former Ohio congressman, unable to proceed to Lewiston because of the approach of winter, soon learned that the governor of Idaho had snubbed him by assigning him to the faraway judicial district lying east of the divide, even ,though he was, after all, the territorial chief justice. Both Edgerton and his nephew, vigilante leader Wilbur Fisk Sanders, took up the crusade to divide Idaho Territory. As Edgerton knew the President and many congressmen personally, the area miners chose to send him to Washington, D.C., to press their case for a new territory. Carrying two thousand dollars in gold with him, Edgerton headed eastward in January 1864. Meanwhile the Idaho Legislature at Lewiston agreed to the split and 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 this would have located Idaho’s new eastern border just west of the Deer Lodge Valley.
Arriving in Washington, Edgerton consulted with President Lincoln and found him agreeable to the idea of a new territory in the Rockies. More importantly, Edgerton discovered that his friend and fellow Ohioan, Congressman James M. Ashley, had already begun work on a bill to form the new territory. Since Ashley chaired the House Committee on Territories, he had the power to make his wishes felt. Ashley’s political muscle and reports of the area’s wealth of gold, which Edgerton reported very influential “in such a mercenary age as ours,” pushed the bill speedily through Congress.
While the bill lay in committee, Edgerton and his allies broke With the Idaho Legislature by maneuvering the new territory’s northwestern boundary three degrees to the west. This meant that the Idaho Montana border would, generally speaking, follow the Bitterroot summits northward to the Canadian boundary and that Montana would take a 130-mile-wide bite out of northern Idaho. In this manner, Idaho lost the handsome Flathead, upper Clark Fork, and middle Kootenai valleys to its new neighbor. The arrangement reduced the width of northern Idaho by three fourths I leaving it an awkward “panhandle,” cut off from the southern portion of the territory by the rugged Salmon River Mountains. Idaho petitioned Congress, with no success, to restore these “stolen” lands. The Lewiston area even advocated establishing yet another territory named Columbia, which would join together today’s western Montana, northern Idaho, and eastern Washington; but this plan got nowhere. So, by circumstance and scheming new territory emerged with its jagged western border.
Congress, preoccupied with the Civil War, devoted little time to the matter of founding yet another western commonwealth. The one serious threat to passage of the bill arose when the Senate voted to force the new territory to give the vote to Negroes. Even though there were few blacks the Northern Rockies, this explosive issue caused a deadlock with House of Representatives. The two houses of Congress finally compromised by restricting the vote to citizens of the United States, thus leaving the newly freed Negroes without a guarantee of the ballot on the distant mining frontier.
In a lighter vein, both the House and the Senate debated the name that Congressman Ashley had placed upon his creation. That name, “Montana,” no doubt stemmed from the Latin or Spanish adjective meaning “mountainous.” It first appeared as a place name in 1858, when one Josiah Hinman gave it to a small mining town near Pike’s Peak. The town soon died, but the name “Montana” lived on. Governor Denver of Kansas Territory remembered Montana and suggested it to powerful Senator Stephen A. Douglas as a possible name for a future territory in the Rockies. Ashley may or may not have heard the name from Douglas; at any rate, he picked it up and became enamored of it. After trying, unsuccessfully, to give the name to what became Idaho in 1863, Ashley determined to apply it to Idaho’s new neighbor.
When Republican Ashley’s Montana Bill reached the floor of the House, the Democrats began harassing him about the name. The Democrats suggested dropping it and substituting the title “Jefferson,” in order to honor the founder of the Democratic party, or even “Douglas,” to commemorate the prominent Democratic senator from Illinois. Ashley and the Republicans of course, would have none of that. Congressman Cox of Ohio suggested the Indian name “Shoshone,” but this was scuttled when the Colorado delegate pointed out that Shoshone meant “Snake.” Such a word had unfortunate implications during the Civil War, when pro Confederates from the North were called “Copperheads.” The debate reached the point of true absurdity when Representative Washburn suggested the name “Abyssinia” taunting the Republicans about their fondness for Negroes.
Although Ashley won his battle in the House, two weeks later the Senate raised another challenge to “Montana.” Again, as happened in the House, several members felt the classical name Montana inappropriate and argued that an Indian word would be better. As no one could suggest one with any relevance to the place, they too settled upon Ashley’s title, but only after this illuminating exchange:
MR. HOWARD: I was equally puzzled when I saw the name in the bill….I was obliged to turn to my old Latin dictionary….it is a very classical word, pure Latin. It means a mountainous region, a mountainous country.
MR. WADE: Then the name is well adapted to the Territory.
MR. HOWARD: You will find that it is used by Livy and some of the other Latin historians, which is no small praise.
MR. WADE: I do not care anything about the name. If there was none in Latin or in Indian I suppose we have a right to make a name; certainly just as good a right to make it as anybody else. It is a good name enough.
Montana it became, and Montana it has remained. Following approval by Congress, President Lincoln signed into law the bill creating Montana Territory on May 26, 1864.