Montana: Commentary

Montana Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Historical Compiler; Emily Kelley, Research Associate; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist and Digital Compiler; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant

Copyright The Newberry Library 2005

Pre-Territorial Period

Most of modern Montana was acquired by the United States from France through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, while that part of Montana west of the Continental Divide remained under British control. The larger, eastern section was successively part of the District of Louisiana, Louisiana Territory, Missouri Territory, unorganized federal territory, Nebraska Territory, and Dakota Territory. Jurisdiction over the area of modern Montana remained split along the Continental Divide until 3 March 1863 when Idaho Territory expanded to encompass the entire modern state. In 1804, the District of Louisiana created two huge counties, which included territory in present Montana. In 1812 and 1813 those counties were reduced in size, and no counties existed in the eastern two-thirds of Montana until 1864. Oregon and Washington Territories did include the area west of the Rocky Mountains within several large counties, which often stretched hundreds of miles across two or three modern states.

Most of these early counties had no practical impact on Montana, since there were few white residents in the area. Beginning in the late 1850s, several events opened the Montana country to settlers, and made it essential to establish governmental control of western Montana. In 1855, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens negotiated treaties with several Indian tribes. One of the treaty provisions permitted whites limited usage of Blackfoot lands, including the establishment of military forts, and the building of roads and telegraph lines. The Mullan Road, completed in 1862, was constructed from the Columbia River in Washington Territory, along the Clark’s Fork and across the Continental Divide to Fort Benton in Montana. While it was barely more than a footpath in some sections, the road did link East and West through western Montana. Finally, the discovery of gold in the late 1850s brought an influx of people to the area. As more non-Indians poured into western Montana, Washington Territory authorized the creation of Missoula County on 14 December 1860 to establish some territorial authority and provide governmental services. This new county covered most of the area of present Montana west of the Continental Divide. Missoula County can lay claim to having the longest continuous history of any Montana county, carrying over from Washington Territory, to Idaho Territory, to Montana Territory, and finally becoming part of the state of Montana.

Territorial Period

The boundaries of the state of Montana are unchanged since its establishment as a territory on 26 May 1864—with one small exception. A triangular area of about one and one-half square miles located west of Wyoming, north of the Continental Divide, and south of 44 degrees, 30 minutes north latitude, had originally belonged to Dakota Territory. When Wyoming Territory was established in 1868, this area was assigned to neither Wyoming nor Montana, and thus remained technically a part of Dakota Territory, though separated from the rest of the Dakotas by hundreds of miles. This oversight was corrected by the United States Congress on 17 February 1873, when it transferred the small area to Montana Territory. However, the confusion continued when the Montana Territorial Legislature mistakenly assigned the addition to Beaverhead and Madison Counties, which are located many miles from the orphaned area. The small triangle was actually located adjacent to Gallatin County, and it is a part of that county today. Poor geographical knowledge of this area, plus an apparent dependence on W. W. de Lacy’s 1865 map of Montana (which had been prepared at the request of the territorial legislature, and which erroneously depicted the Madison and Gallatin Rivers east of their actual locations in relation to the northwest corner of Wyoming), resulted in this mistake, which was never officially corrected by the legislature.

Disputes in the Montana Territorial Legislature, which had nothing directly to do with county boundaries, also affected county creation. Divided Civil War loyalties, combined with concerns over federal Indian and territorial policies, fueled clashes between the largely Democratic territorial legislature and the largely Republican territorial officials. Things came to a head in 1866 over whether the seating of the 2d and 3d sessions of the Democratic-Party-dominated territorial legislature violated the provisions of the territorial Organic Act. On 2 March 1867, the United States Congress, and its Republican majority, declared all acts of the 2d and 3d Montana Territorial Legislature null and void (U.S. Statutes at Large, vol. 14, ch. 150[1867], sec. 6/p. 427). Meagher and Musselshell Counties, both created in 1866, became casualties of this dispute. Meagher County was quickly re-established by the 4th session of the territorial legislature in November 1867, but a new Musselshell County did not reappear until 1911.

Indian Reservations

In general, county boundaries across the United States have been created with almost total disregard for Indian reservations. The practice followed by compilers of the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries has been to adhere to the instructions for county lines as set forth in session laws—regardless of how they relate to the reservations. Sometimes treaty lines were used to define county boundaries, but rarely were reservations left outside county jurisdiction for any extended period of time. In Montana, the Crow Indian Reservation in the southeastern part of the state is the only one that figured into county boundaries. In 1881, the Crow agreed to cede part of their reserve to the federal government, and the treaty was ratified by the U. S. Congress on 11 April 1882. Anticipating this cession, the Montana Territorial Legislature passed an act on 14 February 1881 to add all of the cession to Gallatin County, declaring that the area “shall, upon the ratification of said treaty, be attached to and become a part of Gallatin county, Montana” (Mont. Terr. Laws 1881, 12th leg., p. 124). This is the first explicit mention of the Crow Reservation as it related to county boundaries. Based on boundary descriptions dating from 1872, the remaining Crow Reservation was within the boundaries of Custer County. On 5 March 1885, the territorial legislature further complicated matters by attaching some of the Crow Reservation (the part west of the Big Horn River) to Yellowstone County for judicial purposes. This, in effect, made part of the reservation a non-county area attached to Yellowstone County, while the area east of the Big Horn River remained part of Custer County. A further land cession by the Crow in 1891 was added to Yellowstone County. The remaining portion of the Crow reserve west of the Big Horn River became part of Yellowstone County on 5 March 1897. Today the Crow Reservation lies across both Yellowstone and Big Horn Counties.

County-Splitting in the Twentieth Century

In the early years of Montana Territory, county development proceeded at a deliberate pace, so that by the end of 1911, there were only twenty-nine counties. Between 1912 and 1925, activity increased and the number of counties nearly doubled to fifty-six; in contrast, the population of Montana increased only 15% between 1910 and 1930. Why the sudden rush to new counties? A combination of factors made Montana’s prospects look bright—most of the state had been surveyed and homesteaders were moving in, World War I brought a heightened demand for several natural resources found in Montana, the railroads were expanding and promoting settlement, and the weather produced good crop-growing conditions (Chaney, “Dan McKay”). Since territorial days, county creation was the responsibility of the legislature, but in 1911, the legislature passed an act shifting responsibility for county creation to local citizens and boards of county commissioners. Citizens could then petition their county board, and if certain conditions were met, the commissioners would call an election to vote on the establishment of a new county.

In 1912, Blaine and Hill Counties were created using this new method of “petition and election,” and in subsequent years even more new counties were created. Much of this activity was promoted and encouraged by Dan McKay, who became known as Montana’s leading “county splitter.”  McKay is known to have been involved in the creation of at least seven, and perhaps as many as twelve, Montana counties. He was a lobbyist and civic booster extraordinaire who saw a business opportunity in, first, convincing folks that they needed a new county, and, second, helping them with the legal and political maneuvers that led to success. Playing upon local boosterism, optimism about Montana’s future growth, and highlighting the advantages of a new county (less distance to travel to the county seat, more county jobs, improved economic prospects for the new county seat, etc.), McKay then offered himself as the person who could make this happen—and all for a fee of only $1500 (Burlingame, “Political Divisions,” 17–18). It is not surprising that such efforts sometimes resulted in heated exchanges wrapped up in civic pride, envy, regionalism, and greed. A headline from The Fairview Times (Richland County) of 28 January 1915 provides some idea of the importance these actions could signify, “Look At This! How Thimblerigging Politicians Bunco and Flim-Flam the People In Making New Counties.” This article is about the problem boundary between Wibaux and Richland Counties. Richland County was created by petition and election on 27 May 1914, while Wibaux was created by the same means on 17 August 1914. The two counties shared a common boundary, but the legal boundary descriptions did not match, creating a disputed area that both counties claimed, and in which both counties created precincts and selected judges. The situation was rectified in February 1915 when the state legislature passed a law giving Richland County control of most of the disputed area, but months of acrimony surrounded the settling of the boundary dispute.

Unfortunately, the rosy outlook for Montana in 1911 had changed by the early 1920s. The end of World War I meant decreased demand for certain resources, and drought spread across much of the state. The cost of operating the new counties outstripped the ability of county residents to pay the necessary taxes. Delinquent taxes and foreclosures increased, and many of these new counties came close to bankruptcy.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park, created as America’s first national park in 1872, also affected Montana’s county boundaries. While most of the park lies in Wyoming, the northern edge and part of the western side are in Montana, covering just 263 of the Park’s 3468 square miles. Between 1887 and 1978, that part of Yellowstone National Park in Montana was outside the jurisdiction of any county. (A similar situation did not exist with Glacier National Park, also located in Montana.) When Park County was created from Gallatin County on 1 May 1887, the legislation very clearly and intentionally excluded Yellowstone National Park from Park County’s boundaries. This situation was known as “Exclusive Legislative Jurisdiction” in which the federal government retains most county responsibilities (Van Zandt, 150). As early as 1929, this peculiar status raised questions about taxation and the validity of marriages (Haines, 2:332–333), but throughout the early twentieth century the revised codes of Montana confirmed Yellowstone’s exclusion from the state’s network of counties. It was not until April 1977 that the Montana legislature passed a law adding parts of Yellowstone National Park to Gallatin and Park Counties, subject to the approval of voters in the two counties. The proposal was approved at the election held 7 November 1978, ending the non-county status of the national park. 

Sources and Acknowledgments

Two works by Merrill G. Burlingame were useful in the compilation of Montana. His History of Montana (1957), written with K. Ross Toole, provided background information and explained events in Montana history. Burlingame’s unpublished “Political Divisions in Montana” (1974) documented the evolution of counties and the development of Indian reservations. The Montana Atlas and Gazetteer (1994), a modern collection of topographic maps, was helpful in accurately locating geographic features and lines of longitude and latitude. Nineteenth-century maps of Montana, available online at “David Rumsey Map Collection” ( were used to identify locales that have changed name or disappeared.

Special thanks are due Elaine Hooley of the MonDak Heritage Center for help with the Richland County/Wibaux County boundary. Queries to several counties were met with generous responses. Staff from the offices of Clerk and Recorder in Dawson, Fallon, Hill, Richland, Sheridan, and Wibaux Counties, as well as several local librarians, provided copies of county commissioners’ minutes, maps, newspaper clippings, and other helpful information.