Yellowstone Genealogy Forum

Yellowstone County Town's Early Pioneers

(Revised 6 November 2002)

Much of the history of how some towns in Yellowstone were created, and the persons and corporations behind them, can be found in the ancient Title Abstract documents of Yellowstone County. Here are listed thousands of persons, major businesses & their owners, and how they got started. For those researchers who would like to know a little more about their ancestors who helped form these towns, delve into their wills and personal statements they made regarding their life during the early years in Montana, then this is the place to start. If you are an aspiring author, who would like to write a book about Billings, or other towns and the county, then this is the place to start! The abstract files, donated to the Yellowstone Genealogy Forum by the "Abstract Guarantee Company", summarize and identify land and court records that made up Yellowstone County; plus they include sworn statements about the conditions of the time from property owners and neighbors that cannot be located elsewhere.

Yellowstone River, which flows through the county, was originally called in the Minnetree language “Mi tsi a da Zi”, meaning Elk River, but it was translated as “yellow rock” river. French trappers referred to it as “Riveaux de Roches Juane” meaning “river of yellow rocks”.  In 1798, David Thompson of the Hudson Bay Company visited the area and translated the name as “Yellowstone”. In 1805 a map sent to President Jefferson by Lewis and Clark referred to the valley area as Yellowstone. Both the river and the valley were called Roche Juane until 1818. (See Yellowstone County for details)

The University of Montana-Bozeman houses a very extensive collection of history about the Yellowstone Valley area, including the early stage routes, trails, discoveries of the Yellowstone Lake & Rivers, neighboring counties, and related pioneer efforts. This collection entitled the Merrill G Burlingame Papers (1880-1990), Collection No. 2245 created January 1996, is a must for anyone interested in the local history, neighboring counties, and the developmental changes that took place over the years.

Although this site is created for Yellowstone County, the Yellowstone Genealogy Forum has records regarding some of the neighboring counties and their townspeople. These files contain thousands of names, and family groups. The files described below, and on the following pages, are normally stored at the GenRoom in the Billings Parmly Library and available for viewing during normal library hours. However, they have been temporarily moved offsite due to lack of storage room. For information about any of the files listed, please contact Cleve Kimmel.

A significant amount of history and noted pioneer biographies are contained in “People-Places-Events” for Yellowstone County. This extensive site is currently under construction, and approximately 200 events with pictures will available when the site is completed. If you have a Yellowstone County event that you would like published, please email the web-master.

Most of the towns created in Yellowstone County were due to the influence that the Northern Pacific Railroad had over their beginning. On May 31, 1870, July 2, 1864, and as amended on March 1, 1869, the Northern Pacific Railway Company, a Corporation, was "granted the right, from the United States Government on July 2, 1864, to issue bonds and secure same by mortgage upon its railroads and telegraph line for the purpose of raising funds with which to construct said railroad between Lake Superior and Puget's Sound" as part of the original Congressional Act granted earlier. On July 1, 1862 Lincoln signed the first Pacific Railway bill. On July 2, 1864 he signed the amendment (13 Stat, Ch 217) authorizing the Northern Pacific land grants. Northern Pacific Railroad Company was given Patent Rights to sections of land that lay adjacent to the centerline of the track. Mineral rights for coal and iron were excluded. Additionally they retained a 200 foot easement on each side of the track centerline for the track and telegraph line installation. This included both Government and Indian lands regardless of prior title. As the railroad expanded across America they were constantly issuing mortgages upon the railroad to assist in the financing. To repay the mortgages they platted various areas for towns and sold those tracts to persons and corporations. Each section comprises one square mile of land, and in Yellowstone County the railroad established one town approximately every six miles along their track (once every six sections of land). This spacing was created mainly to support the distance a farmer could travel in a day to reach the railroad terminal. As the railroad meandered across the territory it cut across various sections at odd angles. Some of the land they obtained by patent was not full sections. Not all of the towns created in Yellowstone County exist today. The lands that lay adjacent to the railroad's Patent Rights were open for homestead, purchase, or belonged to the Indian Nations. As part of the original agreement, Napoleon Carron in Minnesota was appointed representative (?) and guardian for the Indian tribes rights along the way. When he died, a legacy of Quit Claims proliferated the legal system, each having claimed rights to land in Montana. The government secured the Indian land by offering script in exchange for the land, and this land was later sold or homesteaded to settlers. Many of the land claims originated in New York, some from Arkansas, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The battles for ownership went on for decades. Typically, the landowner mortgaged the property, had a squabble about repaying the loan, and additional loans were taken out. Soon the clarity of the title disappeared. The Forum's files describe these events as they unfold to create the towns, and identify the people who participated in the developments. Additionally as time progresses the land moves from basic sections of 80 to 640 acres in size, and from homesteads[i] to platted areas (Subdivisions) for urban development. Many people who made these original purchases are identified, along with their successors, and the reasons for sale, transfer or loss of properties. Most of the founding families' wills are contained within the files. Billings original land plat was established under an Article of Incorporation subsequent to the creation of the "Minnesota and Montana Land and Improvement Company" dated March 23. 1882 and filed March 26, 1896. This land firm was created under the general laws of the State of Minnesota and recorded in Book G of Incorporations on pages 111 to 113. It was re-recorded later in Montana Territory in Book B of Incorporations on page 208. Its purpose was to buy, own, improve, sell and deal in real, mixed, personal property, and estate. On June 1, 1882 the original Billings town plat was filed in Miles City, Custer County. It was refilled some 17 years later in Yellowstone County on June 3, 1909. The town was surveyed and laid out on 3 April 1882 by Theodore F Branch. Streets were 80' wide; and alleys 20' wide. Regular city lots were 25' wide and 140' in length. Given that the town was platted, the "Northern Pacific Railroad Company, a Corporation" sold to the Minnesota and Montana Land Improvement Company the platted area comprising 1102.35 acres. This land came from property they owned in S3T1S and S33T1N in Range 26 East. Not included were rights of ways and some residual acreage. Transfer cost was $40,000. One of the first investors for the town land was E G Woolfolk, Vice President of the land company. He purchased lots #8 & #9 in the original town site for $200 on May 3, 1883. Lot # 9 underwent numerous title changes, quit claim deed transfers, will decrees, and sheriffs' sales during the past 100 years. On 15 June 1883 Frederick Billings purchased all of Section 5, Tp 1South, Range 26 East and other lands, excepting for the Railroad right of ways, for $25,600. This piece of land adjoined the town to the west. On 12 December 1884 Frederick Billings purchased 1280 acres in Sections 3 & 19, Tp 1S, Range 25E for $1,600, this is toward Laurel. On that same date he reconveyed 640 acres of land in Section 5 Tp 1S Range 26E back to the Minnesota and Montana Land Improvement Company. On 1 November 1888 the Minnesota and Montana Land and Improvement Company (first party) resold the entire parcel of land owned by them to Oliver P C Billings, of New York, Trustee of the land company for the original sum of $40,000.

"All and singular the lots, pieces and parcels of land situate, lying and being in Yellowstone County, Territory of Montana, belonging to the first party, as shown by all deeds, monuments and evidence of title to real estate in the name of the first party, now of record in the office of the County Clerk and Recorder of Deeds of Said Yellowstone County, Montana Territory."

Oliver Billings died on 9 January 1894, and Samuel E Kilner was appointed trustee of the land company holdings. On 1 August 1900 Samuel was released from the $40,000 obligation originated by Billings in 1888. It was paid in full.

Chere Juisto has prepared a detailed and in-depth history summary of Billings, its people and businesses,, and it will certainly answer your innermost question about the town! History of the town's location, the shocking loss of its neighboring town, Coulson; business building locations and their construction dates, and details about the water supplies and city fathers' problems are well documented. Be sure to read this excellent article about Historic Downtown Billings.

Acquisition of Government Land in Yellowstone Valley Area


Most of the land established for settlers in 1876 belonged to the Bozeman Land District. However, claims and proofs of titles could be made before the Deputy Clerk of the District Court in the area where the land is actually located. These clerks held virtually the same power as the Land Office personnel. Looking for old land filings [prior to 1900] will most certainly prove to be a difficult task, if not altogether nearly impossible since not all of the original land record filings appeared to have been microfilmed before destruction. The government set aside five distinct types of lands for which settlers could take title. Each of these title types required essentially the same personal requirements; in that they: “Must be a Head of Family, widow or single person, over age 21, citizen of the United States or has declared their intention to become one,” may enter upon any offered or non-offered land, or un-surveyed land where Indian Title has been relinquished. [Acquisition of land within the town limits is not applicable.]


Pre-Exemption Land.     They can agree to purchase up to 160 acres. A fee of $3.00 is to be paid within 30 days after making the settlement. Within one year actual residency and cultivation of the tract has to be shown. At that time they can purchase the land for $1.25 per acre if the land is outside of the NPR land limits [odd numbered sections within their 40-mile corridor] or $2.50 per acre if within their land limits. They can submit proof of residency anytime after six months and obtain title to the land. In addition, anytime before the contract expiration they can convert the land to homestead.


Homesteaded Land.        They can obtain up to 160 acres of un-appropriated public land. They must certify that the entry is made for actual settlement and cultivation, and must pay the legal fee and the commission fee.

        160 acres. $10 fee; $6 commission

        80 acres. $5 fee; $4 commission


Within six months they must take up residency, and reside thereon continuously for five years. At that time, or within two years afterwards, they must provide proof of residency and cultivation by four witnesses. This proof and certificate from the Registrar of the Land Office is then forwarded to the GLO in Washington. The GLO then issues a Land Patent. The government does not recognize any sale of a Homestead Claim. A settler may prove his residency after six months and convert the Homestead declaration to Pre-Exemption status if so desired. There is only one Homestead privilege allowed per person. [Additional rules allowed any homesteader who has less than the 160-acre limit to increase his holdings to 160 acres.]


Soldier’s Homesteaded Land.            Any person having served at lease 90 days or longer in the Army or Navy during the Civil War, and was honorably discharged and loyal to the United States, is eligible to acquire a homestead. The length of service is deducted from the time needed to prove residency, providing the soldier has resided and cultivated his land for at least one year after improvements were started. The homestead declaration may be filed through agents, but within six-months they have to personally appear. The widow of a soldier, or if she is deceased, or married again, the minor heirs, can through their guardian, make the homestead application. Should the soldier have died in service all residency requirements are waived.


Tree Land Claim.            The government provided additional land, up to 160 acres, that could be obtained in the same manner as Pre-Exemption Land. This land had to be devoid of any timer. Costs for the land were:

        $14 Land Office Commission (80 to 160 acres) at time of entry

        Plus $4 payable at time of final proof.


The tenant must break or plow five acres during the first and second year. The first five acres must be cultivated during the second year, and the other five the following year, and planted with timer the following year(s). The trees must be cultivated and protected, and at the end of eight years there must be at least 675 living, thrifty trees on each 10 acres of land that required to be planted; and not less than 2,700 trees planted per each 10 acres of land. Fruit trees are not considered timber. After submitting proof, the settler can then take title. Final proof has to be submitted within ten years.


Desert Land Act. Any person meeting the eligibility requirements may file his oath with the Registrar of the Land Office in the District where the desert land is located. [Desert means arid land that is barren and unfit for use, but if irrigated would make good land for grazing or agricultural purposes.] The land must be reclaimed, and up to 640 acres [in compact form – one piece] may be purchased. Within three years of taking the oath, the parcel must be irrigated. Costs for the land are:

        $.25 per acre due at time of taking the oath

        $1.00 per acre due within three years of the oath.


This act applied only to lands in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Dakota Territories.


Major enterprises that sprung up in the county are identified and their corporate board of directors is identified. Failures and expansions of these businesses as Montana and Billings starts its life, are related in the document files. Some of the key businesses and prominent people of interest, and what occurred, for example that one can find in these documents are:

First National Bank of Billings

Billings Loan & Trust Company

Billings Land & Irrigation Company. . Formed in 1882 to provide water for flushing of the streets and water for parks, failed in its endeavor. They did later succeed in providing irrigation water. H. W. Rowley engineered the project and construction was performed by I. D. O’Donnell, a nationally known irrigation and conservation expert. The first water was turned into a ditch called the “M&M Canal” on July 30, 1883.  On May 15, 1900 local farmers took over the operation as a cooperative enterprise with $64,000 invested, and called themselves “the Big Ditch Company”. The local Chamber of Commerce has routing maps of the irrigation canals and ditches. Its pickup point was upstream of Laurel.

Northern Pacific Railroad & Various Others

North Brothers, Inc.

Cove Ditch Company

Empire Building and Loan Association

First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Billings

Grey Ditch Company

High Line Ditch Company

Lockwood Irrigation District Company

Billings Normal School (MSU-Billings)

St. Vincent's Hospital

Security Building & Loan Association

Moss Mansion

Logan Field (Airport)

Sugar Factory

George Swords

Joseph & Frank Zimmerman

Preston Moss

Christian Yegen

Frederick Billings

Yellowstone County Towns & Early Pioneer Records

Information about the following towns, and the early landowners and developers in the area, is available. Some plat maps are provided (through attached links) that depict the settlement developments, subdivisions and town site extensions from origination through about 1960. Not all available plat maps are provided, but some others can be made available upon request to the YGF. The plat maps contained within the following links are approximately 400,000 bytes in size so the load time may be significant. Additionally, the Parmly Billings Library[P], MSU Billings Library [MSU], Gen-Room [G], and the Family History Center Libraries [FHC] contain several good research books about Yellowstone County and the formation of its cities. Many others not listed below are available for the researcher. Some of the major ones extracted from the library index files in the Gen-Room and MSU-Billings are:

** Good source for establishing how Billings was created.

Billings, Montana (Connects to text files and plat maps)

Identification of the original town site and some of the additions made over time that created the city are noted. Not all of the additions are available; but approximately 70% of the early city boundaries are recorded in these summaries. Abstract Case file numbers are noted for reference, and they refer to the files held by the Forum. Huntley Project's water rights cancellation is noted in Abstract # 9988. Details on the water ditches throughout the city are identified.

Laurel, Montana (Direct connection to plat map)

Laurel is located about 12 miles due west of Billings. The major sections of land were owned by the railroads under a land act created on July 2, 1864. Section 9, T2S,R24E was used to initially create the town. Plats of the Laurel Heights Subdivision created in 1907, and the sale of many original lots are defined in Abstracts 5541 & 37107. Some of these lots were later subject to judicial court actions for quieting of the complex title ownerships. Numerous persons are identified in these actions, each with their own claim to the same land.

Midway between Laurel and Billings is a small town (now basically abandoned) called Hesper. The case files on this town are located in the Billings summary of Abstracts and plats. Laurel contains a major railroad switchyard, one of the largest in the West. The town site of Mossmain is not separately identified in the case files.

Yellowstone River Ditch Owners (1894)

In addition to the Minnesota & Montana Land & Improvement Company’s 39-mile long ditch that was used to irrigate the main area on Billings, there were 15 others. ID O’Donnell compiled the listing:

        Canyon Creek Ditch Co          

        Italian Ditch Co

        Old Hill Ditch Co

        Yellowstone Ditch Co

        Newman (and others) Ditch Co

        Thomas McGirl

        SR Miller

        L Nutting

        CO Gruwell

        A Countryman

        HP Nelson

        William Rodgers

        Merrill Ditch Co

        Grey Eagle

        William Deal

Also in work was the Huntley Project. It was established to irrigate some 30,000 acres of land that was formerly on the Crow Indian Reservation. The canal started near Huntley and irrigation was planned for the area north of the Burlington & Missouri River railroad and both north and south of the Northern railroad. Not all of the property titles were properly recorded.

Big Horn County & Early Pioneer Records

Land Patent rights of original owner Anna Myers and related court actions to take title are discussed in Abstract #4690.

Carbon County & Early Pioneer Records

Information about the Higham Land & Livestock Company's receivership of the abandoned railroad property in Section 8 is described. Various mortgages in 1909 are noted in Abstract #61 & 5754.

Stillwater County & Early Pioneer Records

Land, oil and mineral rights of some of the properties in Section 23, T21E are established. Files cover 1917 through 1921. Abstract 519 & 7404.

Park & Gallatin County & Early Pioneer Records

Original town site of Cooke, Montana are contained in Abstract 2964. Files cover 1887 to 1942. Charles Hoffman & Gottfried Buchler's wills are presented, along with numerous transfer of title actions.

Musselshell County & Early Pioneer Records

Numerous court actions and land transfers for this county are contained in Abstracts 2369, 2602, 2841, 2854 & 6428. An in-depth discussion of the railroad's mineral rights are covered along with many foreclosure actions, summons and various court actions taken to clear the titles. Large deposits of oil were the center of ownership controversy. There are 418 pages of testimony in file # 2602 covering Sections 12 & 13, T10N, R30E; and Section 7, T10N, R31. Actions started in 1907 and continued for about 40 years.

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[i] The passage of the Homestead Act by Congress 0n May 20, 1862 ended many years of controversy over the disposition of public lands, most of which was acquired from the Louisiana Purchase, for which the government wanted people to settle there. From 1830 onward various groups called for free distribution of these lands others opposed the plan. The Act was signed by President Lincoln and became law on Jan. 1, 1863 allowing any citizen to file for a quarter section of free land  (surveyed but unclaimed public land up to 160 acres). The land was transferred to the homesteader at the end of five years as a Land Patent, providing “the homesteader built a house on it, dug a well, broken (plowed) 10 acres, fenced a specified amount, and actually lived there. Additionally, one could claim a quarter section of land by "timber culture" (commonly called a "tree claim", but presented as a Timber Patent). This required that you plant and successfully cultivate 10 acres of timber.” Note: See Benjamin Hubbard “A Brief History of Public Land Policies”, 1965. In Yellowstone Valley, the settlers apparently were allowed to ‘fudge’ a wee bit on the time, with three years being the reported time from pre-emption filing to actual receipt of the Patent.  Other revisions to the Homestead Act allowed up to 640 acres (full section) to be acquired in this area.