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Pioneers of Eastern Montana and Their Descendants

 Activity & Human Interest Home Page 

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Seventy-five early pioneer families residing in Eastern Montana formed a group called “Society of Montana Pioneers” during Territorial Days so that their life stories and county history could be remembered.  The charter members were organized on September 30, 1903. Membership was limited to the residents of nine counties that comprised Eastern Montana[1], or those persons who came to Montana previous to 1884 and “now reside in Eastern Montana, and also became members of the “Society of Montana Pioneers”. The cutoff date for membership was later amended to be December 31, 1900 and the name changed to “Pioneers of Eastern Montana and Their Descendants”.


“This Association was organized for the twofold purpose of preserving the history of the settlement and progress of Eastern Montana, and of promoting and preserving a brotherhood among those who were pioneers and bore a part in the civilization and up building of this portion of our grand commonwealth.”


The colorful Paul McCormick was the Society’s first president.  In 1873 with Major Fellows Pease he had ventured into Eastern Montana to establish a trading post near the mouth of the Big Horn River. After an extended siege by the Sioux the US Army from Ft. Ellis rescued the survivors. The Battle of the Little Big Horn cleared the way for him to open a mercantile business in Miles City, and develop a freight line to supply Fort Custer. He was a founder of Junction City and later moved to Billings to become one of the outstanding business and ranching men of his era. The log building now housing the Yellowstone County Museum was probably McCormick’s original home, which he constructed prior to 1896[2]. The logs for the cabin might have been moved to Billings from Junction shortly after he relocated his family to Billings in 1893[3].  The large logs, making up the cabin roof and supporting structure could have come from his Junction home constructed in 1879, or one of the McCormick-Spear Warehouses in Junction. More detail is required. The cabin stood next to his home at 4th Avenue and North 31st Street in Billings. The Sanborn maps show annual changes to the cabin’s interior, up to the time it was relocated to its museum site.

Henry Frith, one of the earliest residents of Yellowstone County, was the first Secretary and served in that capacity for the next twenty years. He was a soldier, miner, rancher, trader, and lawyer. He served in the Army, stationed in the Indian Territories and Texas, later settling on a homestead near Huntley where he also operated a general store.  In 1896 he graduated from Kent Law School in Ohio, and returned to Billings to practice law.

The Charter Members list includes names such as Allen, Ten Eyck, Rowley and Babcock. There is Charlie Bair, Christian Yegen and V. J. Salsbury. C. H.  Newman who built the first schoolhouse is there, as is Ray Hart of the Hart-Albin Company, and Thomas McGirl who had a ferry on the Yellowstone and established the Post Office at Huntley in 1878. The society is currently headquartered in Billings.

               The Pioneers of Eastern Montana has a great interest in the preservation of area history and site preservation. Many stories and tales were created by these early pioneers and published in government documents, manuscripts, letters and miscellaneous newspaper articles. Many articles are stored in boxes at various historical society, state institution and college sites throughout the United States. Some are still in the hands of their descendants. The major site for historical information about events occurring in the local area is well documented in the numerous War of the Rebellion volumes that describe Indian battles, road and trail construction, creation of forts, and naming of streams and rivers.  Secondly, the Congressional Reports prepared by early explorers and members of the Corps of Engineers define the areas historical significance and inter-nation relationships very well [American soldiers, France, Spain, Canada, England, Mexico, Indian Tribes & settlers]. Thirdly, the trapper & settler biographies, obituaries and their diary entries or diary’s written by others, define the main information pool. Many other articles of interest, created for profit at the time of the event, such as magazines and newspapers, round out the best sources. No one article or source provides sufficient detail by itself to complete the history; but sometimes that is all that is available.

Various Articles of Interest:


Application Form

See Application Form for eligibility requirements to join the Pioneers of Eastern Montana.

Tribute to Vernon Drake

Immediate Past President of Pioneers of Eastern Montana (2003-2004 partial year) and champion for preservation of local buildings and historical sites.

Pioneer Lineage Listings

Simple listing of a few of the Pioneers in Eastern Montana. All have published biographies, but only a few have linkages to a web site (noted.) Biographies not linked are available from the webmaster.

People & Places in Eastern Montana

Listing of websites where brief biographies of noted individuals and points of interest are published. (Intended to be a “starting site” for those who might be interested in developing a complete history of an individual or locale.) Developed almost completely from original sources described above.

Upcoming Meetings & Socials

Plan to attend these events sponsored by the Society.

Society Annual Meeting Summary

Details from meetings up to 1955 (in-part) when requirements for membership were changed to 1900 as the cutoff year. Some historical events are noted, along with listings of presidency, historian records and tales.

Pioneer Personal Biographies

Soon after the Parmly Billings Library was opened it was requested that the early pioneers prepare a short biography about themselves. These original documents still exist.

Boot Hill Cemetery - Coulson

This wee cemetery was formed when Dave Courier was killed in 1882, but before him were the extensive mass grave burials of Crow Indians who had died from smallpox. The early pioneers documented much of the history, and several versions are presented. Corrections to several record errors are noted.

Billings’ Early Ditches

Six of the early Billings’ ditch history is compiled. (1882-present) A certificate of ownership in the original Big Ditch is being sought. [4]

Master Listing

Link to an extensive Master Listing of all files relating to the early pioneers, wagon trails, vital records, land records, buildings, railroad construction, creation of Billings, various meeting minutes and more. This list encompasses three web sites and has numerous additional links for research. Here you will find many details about the local area and its early lifestyle.



A CD ROM has been prepared to store all available records of the society from 1902 through 2005. Contact WebMaster for details.







Cleve Kimmel  [email protected]

Please follow link to Instructions!

[1] According to M.A. Lesson, Editor of Warner, Beers, & Co., Publishers; in c1885 stated in HISTORY OF MONTANA, Chapter XXX: “The division of Eastern Montana may be said to grow out of the beginnings of commercial life on the Upper Yellowstone, … to have its mainstay in the enterprises which followed the work of railroad construction, and to base its hopes and ambitions on all that its location and physical characteristics promise for the future.”

[2] According to the Sanborn Fire Maps, the structure was on site in 1896.

[3] Reconstruction of the log home in Junction, and the one standing as the Museum, match the design and interior construction of each. The windows were rearranged in the cabin after the logs were moved to Billings, and the kitchen stove outlet log porting was changed to a different wall. Shortly after he moved the logs, all evidence of a town disappeared. Records of the actual move haven’t been located, but his letter files and land acquisitions established the date he moved to Billings.

[4] Refer to Minnesota, Montana Land & Improvement Co. Canal 1882-1900, May 2004, Harley O’Donnell