Montana turns 150 years old in 2014, and it’s a good moment to revisit books that can illuminate what life was like in this remarkable place during its territorial days. Here are ten titles that are guaranteed to transport you to another place and time:
The Vigilantes of Montana, Being a Correct and Impartial Narrative of the Chase, Trial, Capture, and Execution of Henry Plummer’s Notorious Road Agent Band by Thomas Dimsdale is the first—and most controversial—telling of vigilante justice in the gold-mining towns of Bannack and Virginia City in 1864. Dimsdale writes with a clear bias—he defends the hangings as necessary for assuring peace and order in the new territory. Contemporary readers should enjoy challenging the good professor’s sanguine rendering of the lynch craze.
Andrew Garcia’s Tough Trip through Paradise, 1878-1879 is the wildest of Montana territorial tales. Garcia, aka “The Squaw Kid,” narrates what happens when he leaves behind his life as a horse wrangler for the U. S. Army, marries a Nez Perce woman, and begins to see life through the eyes of a native woman who survived the Big Hole and Bear Paw battles. Garcia is profound, humble, and grandiose all at the same time. And his style can only be described as inventive and unexpected.
George Horse Capture edited The Seven Visions of Bull Lodge, as told by his daughter, Garter Snake. It is a moving account of the making of the head medicine man for the A’aninin or White Clay People (commonly referred to as the Gros Ventres). Bull Lodge’s story asks readers to see the Montana landscape with new eyes as the young man experienced a series of visions on high points in north-central Montana, visions that showed him the way to healing and curing his people.
The Bloody Bozeman: The Perilous Trail to Montana’s Gold by Dorothy Johnson is still a good read after all these years. In her inimitably witty style, Johnson tells stories of the many people—native and white—who occupied this short-lived trail between 1863 and 1868. You will not view characters such as Jim Bridger or John Bozeman in quite the same way after spending time with Johnson.
William Kittredege and Annick Smith, edited the must-read book on this list, The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology. This capacious gathering of many voices, many stories from Montana’s past and present offers a wonderland of tales told from native and non-native perspectives. It’s a perfect sampler that will guide you toward more reading on your own.
Plenty-coups: Chief of the Crows by Frank Linderman is an “as-told-to” account of the life and times of a great Crow chief. Plenty-coups’ vision early in life of the disappearance of the buffalo and the means for Crows’ adapting to that reality is one of the most important moments in all of Montana literature.
What was the gold rush like for the women who stayed behind to take care of families and manage family businesses? And what happened when those “gold rush widows” joined their husbands in places such as Virginia City? Find out by reading The Gold Rush Widows of Little Falls: A Story Drawn from the Letters of Pamelia and James Fergus by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith. Spend time with the Ferguses and their neighbors. The letters between the Ferguses are alone worth the price of admission as the couple negotiates their changing roles.
And what was it like to be an eleven-year-old girl, Mollie Sheehan, in Virginia City during the heyday of the vigilantes? Mary Ronan’s affecting memoir, Girl from the Gulches: The Story of Mary Ronan, edited by Ellen Baumler, will help you see through the eyes of that precocious child. Ronan was married to the agent on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and so she also shares stories of Charlo and the Salish and the Nez Perce War.
Granville and James Stuart arrived in the Beaverhead Valley in 1857 and were forever transfixed by what became the Territory of Montana. Granville’s collection of journal entries and historical reflections, Forty Years on the Frontier, makes for required reading for those interested in the fur trading days, the gold rush years, the rise and fall of the open range, and much more.
An acknowledged masterpiece, James Welch’s novel Fools Crow immerses the reader in the lives of Pikuni Blackfeet at the last moment before their eclipse following the Marias Massacre of 1870. The reader is unlikely to see settlement of Montana through the lens of manifest destiny after reading this book.