Before maps and politics began fragmenting North America into nations, territories, reservations, states and counties, the boundaries were somewhat fluid. Tribal use of land fluctuated with seasons, available game, crops, alliances and enmity. Rivers acknowledged no boundaries as they flowed from Triple Divide Peak in the Northern Rockies to the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and Hudson’s Bay.
When Montana became a territory, it was divided into nine counties. Missoula County was established by 1860, which may seem odd, since Montana Territory wasn’t created until May of 1864.
A remote corner near the junction of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana remained part of Dakota Territory. It was eventually properly surveyed and on February 17, 1873, was attached to Gallatin County. Covering an area smaller than Manhattan Island, it has come to be called Lost Dakota.
Montana’s original nine counties were, to tell the truth, a bit unwieldy.
Missoula and Deer Lodge Counties extended from the Canadian border down through timber and ranching country to the rich mining districts of the southwest, with only Beaverhead County standing as a bulwark against their seeming inexorable march into southeastern Idaho Territory. In fact, in 1877, the Montana Territorial Legislature sent a memorial to Congress in Washington asking that a large part of southeast Idaho be added to Montana’s boundary.
In an act of Territorial ingratitude, Edgerton County, one of the original nine, was renamed for Lewis and Clark, although a slight error led to it being Lewis and Clarke County until it was corrected on February 10, 1905. Thus Sydney Edgerton (who is often credited with making off with most of northeastern Idaho for Montana) lost the honor of having a county named for him.
Ironically, Meagher County, created in 1866, honors Thomas Meagher, acting-governor of Montana who replaced Edgerton and whose death from suicide, accident, or murder has never been solved. Since his body was never found, he may well have died of old age. Foreign visitors (that is, people from out-of-state) are easily spotted when they pronounce his name “meager”—perhaps appropriately. The mnemonic to help them pronounce it properly is to think of his statue in front of Helena’s beautiful capitol building: With his sword upraised, he sits atop a restive steed—effectively “marring” the view of the Capitol. The county named for him, however, is Meagher-valous.
Jefferson, Madison, Big Horn, Choteau and Gallatin Counties completed the original nine, with Beaverhead and Madison managing to hang onto most of their original boundaries in the ensuing years.
Sorting out the dates, names, county seats and boundaries of Montana’s 56 counties is like trying to make a couple of dozen different jigsaw puzzles fit neatly into a Montana-shaped frame.
Take Musselshell County, for example. In the records of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Joseph Whitehouse wrote that on May 30, 1805, “we passed an Old Camp of 20 lodges, which we supposed the black foot Indians had lately left. They had left piles of Muscle shells, at each fire.”
That would explain the spelling of the original Muscleshell County, its county seat to be Kercheval City. Created by Montana’s Territorial Legislature in May of 1866, the name was changed to Vivion County (county seat Smithton) in November of the same year. Both names were tossed out in March of 1867.
Muscleshell-Vivion County had a brief, optimistic history. It was created to boost traffic for the “Missouri River & Rocky Mountain Wagon Road and Telegraph Company.” Kercheval City, they hoped, would capture steamboat trade bound farther upstream to Fort Benton. It was no boom town. Montana pioneer diarist Granville Stuart wrote, “June, 1866, Passed the mouth of Muscle Shell river, and the ci-devant metropolis of “Kercheval City,” which consists of two seven-by-nine log cabins with a little stockade around them.”
“Smithton” also came in for some ribbing. The November 24th edition of Bannack’s Montana Post, noted “There appears to be a doubt regarding the Smith in honor of whom Smithton, the capital seat of Vivion county, is designated. Some contend that the Governor [Green Clay Smith] received the honor, and others state that the member of the house from Beaverhead is the favored individual. On the whole, we are inclined to think that the compliment was bestowed upon the entire Smith family.”
McManus, the representative from Deer Lodge, opposed the name Vivion and moved to amend by inserting in place of Vivion, “Ives,” a member of the Plummer gang “who was an active agent upon roads at one time previous to his execution.”
Musselshell County was reincarnated in 1911 with new boundaries and a correctly spelled name.
By 1889, when Montana achieved statehood, the number of counties had increased to 16. The completion of the Northern Pacific and growing agricultural production in Eastern Montana led to more divisions. Once town boosters pictured the railroad bringing in hordes of optimistic settlers, and farmers shipping out vast harvests, the temptation became irresistible. Our own county! Our own county seat! County jobs! More votes in the Legislature!
The plains had been little more to the railroad than a long stretch to get across on the way to more profitable places. Now towns at coaling and watering stations provided market opportunities, and where there are opportunities, there are opportunists.
The greatest of these was Dan McKay, an entrepreneur of boundless enthusiasm who, by chance, ran a lucrative business constructing the courthouses and other substantial buildings necessary to new counties eager to prove their importance. His enthusiasm appealed to Montana’s farmers and ranchers who felt that the Anaconda Company and the railroads had too much power. Besides, more rural counties meant more legislative votes for rural interests.
McKay’s greatest ally was the “Leighton Act” which allowed counties to split by a petition, a vote of the people, and taxable revenue.
In 1915, The Glasgow Courier expressed some cynicism over McKay’s boosterism. “There has sometimes been a little loose talk going on in Montana about state splitting, but most of our energy has been absorbed in county splitting. When all the counties are split up into the smallest possible fragments we expect that Dan McKay will give his attention to driving a wedge into the Rocky mountain range that will split the state into East Montana and West Montana.”
Today there are fifty-six Montana counties, and there is no telling how many more there might have been if the Legislature hadn’t called a halt to the breakup in 1925.
The creation of Petroleum County in 1925 ended the county boom. Dependent on ranching and oil, the county has fewer than 500 residents within 1674.5 square miles. That works out to a little over two thousand acres per resident, giving them more than the average share of Montana’s Big Sky. That’s a lot of elbow room, but a bit inconvenient if you suddenly need to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor.
Efforts in the 1930s and 1960s to reconsolidate some counties were unavailing. It is far easier to break an egg than put it back together.
In case you aren’t thoroughly confused yet:
• Missoula County was actually created by the Washington Territorial Legislature. It then became part of Idaho Territory in 1863 before settling on Montana in 1864.
• Modern references state that the Leighton Act was passed in 1915. However, in 1913, Governor Stewart vetoed a “log-rolling” bill because it interfered with the passage or defeat of the previously introduced Leighton Act.
• Granite County was carved out of Deer Lodge County because its booming silver mines had made it a power in the Nation. The price of silver crashed in the nationwide Panic of 1893 and there was discussion in the early 1900s of parceling Granite Co. back between Deer Lodge and Powell counties.
• Big Horn County was renamed for Custer in 1877, but the name returned in 1913 when it carved acreage out of Rosebud and Yellowstone Counties.
• Custer County was reduced when land was taken to form parts of Yellowstone, Rosebud, Fallon, Prairie and Powder River County, including parts of the Cheyenne and Crow Indian Reservations.
• Deer Lodge County today covers less than half a percent of its acreage when it was created by the Idaho Territorial Legislature in January, 1864. Among counties which drew land from it were Silver Bow, Granite, Powell, Flathead, Lewis and Clark.
• Powell County’s county seat is in Deer Lodge, while Deer Lodge County’s county seat is in Anaconda. The nearby National Forest is the Beaverhead-Deerlodge. Deer Lodge County was briefly named Daly County, for the Copper King Marcus Daly. Adherents of Copper King W. A. Clark agitated for Clark County, which would probably have resulted in a lot of mail being misdirected to Lewis and Clark County, with or without the “e.”
• All the county splitting has left a perplexing tangle of names and dates. Some county sites date their creation a year earlier than state records. This is generally because the county considers their petition and vote the deciding factor, but the legislature takes ratification by the next legislative session to be the official date.