Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


Land Ownerships & Transfers

[From Forum Title Abstract Files of Early Pioneers] 

Revised 5 September 2003 [Corrected data errors]


The Clark’s Fork Valley area was settled in three basic manners; and in tracing ones ancestors’ history, could prove to be misleading. It is not possible to use the Bureau of Land Management Warrant or Patent Title files by themselves to determine where an ancestor was over the approximate period of time during the 1877 to1882 land rush. Many obtained Land Patents in name only. Please consider the following when searching for your ancestor’s trail. The Forum land files supplement the BLM files, and are filled with thousands of names and events.

Land Procurement – Original Homesteaders

When the land office in Bozeman received the land plat for the Valley area in April 1877, the rush was on to claim free land for farming, timber, and other normal activities. Many of the settlers had previous claims for land in other states, and initially these settlers were restricted to 160 acres of “free land.” These people filed and received real Patents through their diligence in meeting the requirements of Section 2306 of the Revised Statutes of the United States for homesteading. This took from two to ten years to accomplish. They settled almost exclusively on or near the Yellowstone River north banks. By 1878 virtually all the land between Bozeman and Big Horn River was taken. The heaviest concentration of settlers was in the Canyon Creek area (Riverfront Park vicinity and further south.) Through an error in accountability for School Land allotment made at the time Montana became a State, some of domain land had to be returned. Since the land acquisition moved so fast, some of this land was settled before it could be set aside; thus creating a need for a Congressional Act[1] to take back those lands. In the local area, Section 16 in Range 26E Tp 1S (Riverfront Park area) was one of those parcels. Six settlers were disposed. Another was Section 36 in Range 25E, Township 1N (Big Ditch pickup area, south of Park City.)

Land Procurement – Northern Pacific Railroad

After the Indian Wars were settled, NPR began to freely move into the area. Delays of construction created by the Indian wars caused significant loss of revenue since settlers wouldn’t come, nor would investors gamble on future profits from land sales. Many lost their fortunes. Initially it was planned that the track would go from Bismarck west to the Yellowstone River, pass through the Crow Reservation to Pryor Creek and cross at that point and continue on to Fort Benton.  Heman Clark, the general contractor for NPR at that time and residing in Miles City, created a special interest group to further his and the railroad’s financial future by gaining large returns on investments from sale of NPR land as it passed through the territory. Clark solicited support from TF Oakes (current NPR President), Frederick Billings (Previous NPR President), John B Westbrook (Miles City), and Thomas C Kurtz (from Moorhead, MN). They pooled their resources and established an operating capital of $200,000 and filed for charter in Minneapolis as “Minnesota and Montana Land and Improvement Company.” Filing was performed on March 24, 1882. This insiders’ group conceived of a new method of authorizing land ownership through the use of “scrip”, not to be confused with “script” issued by the government to war veterans. According to an article printed in the Century Magazine, September 1882:

“The creation of a new town on a line of railroad pushing its track out into vacant, treeless spaces of the west, is an interesting process to observe. The speculator, or a company of speculators, look over the ground carefully fifty or a hundred miles in advance of the temporary terminus of the railroad, and hit upon a site which they think has special advantages, and is far enough away from the last town. They make a treaty with the railroad company for a section of land, agreeing perhaps, to share in the prospective profits on the sale of lots. They then “scrip” the adjoining sections of government land, or take it up with desert land claims. The speculator with his pocket stocked with scrip is able to pick out any choice sections not occupied by homesteads or preemption claimants. Having thus obtained a sufficient body of land to operate with the founding of the new town is trumpeted in newspapers and in all the frontier region for hundreds of miles there is a stir of excitement about the coming city. Billings on the Yellowstone is a good example of a town made by this process.”

A contract between NPR and Heman Clark (acting on behalf of his new Land Company) on April 1, 1882 provided the firm with 29,394.22 acres in and around Billings [Clark’s Fork Valley.] NPR was paid $113,558.86 for the land. On March 20, 1883 NPR made two conveyances of overlapping odd numbered sections on the Montana Prime Meridian to the Land Company covering the Billings Site (Section 3-1S-26E and Section 33-1N-26E). The Land Company then formed a new company within its shell and organized as the “Billings Townsite Company.” Heman Clark (still NPR General Manager) was appointed president and managed the operations associated with the two sections and the sale of lots. Essentially this limited the ability of non-members to speculate in land development profits in the Yellowstone Valley. Most of the prime locations were under control of the Land Company. NPR and the Land Company initiated extensive marketing, and sale of the land was underway almost immediately.

Land that was settled by homesteaders before NPR filed for the land was exempted from the NPR acquisitions. Basically this was land near the river, with some exceptions for settlers operating quarries near the rims.

Frederick Billings (Co-founder of Minnesota and Montana Land and Improvement Company) purchased from the Land Company all of Section 5, T1S in Range 26E on 15 June 1883 for $35,600. He held the property for a year, and then traded it back to the Land Company in exchange for two other sections (Sections 3 & 19) in Range 25E, T1S. For the exchange he paid an additional $1600. He now held 1,280 acres of prime real estate and had a greater investment in the land company. [This huge amount of money had to have been used as a ‘prop’ to bolster the land company’s value, and present an inflated value to the Billings area land price.]

Land Speculation Sale

When the Land Company started to advertise property sales in the Yellowstone Valley, other investors waiting for information as to where the development would be located, began to scramble for their small portion of profits once they were made aware of where the major cattle and freight shipping point would be located. This created a unique situation in land ownership and the subsequent creation of Billings’ early subdivisions that might lead one to believe that their ancestor was really homesteading in the area prior to creation of the subdivision. Only the homesteader names appear on the Patents filed with the BLM. Multiple land transfers took place virtually simultaneously in attempts to maximize profits in the “land grab” that occurred when the town of Billings was created by the Land Company. [Not all transfers identify the sales prices. Land was generally worth about $2.50 an acre prior to the time that Billings was created.] Domain land that was previously considered to be worthless (since there was no irrigation), and was positioned in the even numbered sections adjacent to the local holdings of the Land Company (managed by the Billings Townsite Company) became hot parcels for profit taking. From the Forum files, it appears that many easterners wanted in on the action. Either individually or collectively as small groups, they hired local attorneys to secure land grants in their name (or the attorneys located eastern farmers to initiate the acquisition). The schemes accomplished by these people who appear to be homesteaders in the area went typically as follows: (File #1852 – Foster’s Subdivision example)

July 20, 1882 Power of Attorney released in advance to L A Luce (attorney in Montana), along with a $200 retainer, to accept an additional 80 acres of homestead lands in the name of William Blair, and to sell same land as directed.  Issued in Arkansas. (Completed 160 acres of land under the Homestead Act for William Blair.)

September 27, 1882   Patent application recorded for 80 acres (Section 32, Rn 26E, Tp1 E1/2-SE1/4) adjacent to Billing’s townsite west side for William Blair. Recorded in Gallatin County, MT.

September 28, 1882   Quit Claim Deed issued by Peter Koch (Notary Public) to Robert Foster (resident living at 1717 4th St SE, Minneapolis, MN) in William Blair’s name by L A Luce at Gallatin County, to sell the property.

June 30, 1884 Patent issued to William Blair and recorded by the United States. (Filed on December 30, 1899) [Note that William Blair was never in Montana, and it was issued to him after he had sold the land two years earlier.]

May 9, 1899 Release of Dower for the above land to Robert Foster granted by Martha Blair. (Apparently an oversight in authorization release.)

After collecting this and other similar adjacent small parcel lands from out-of-state homestead investors, Robert Foster releases his interest in the full land parcel by refilling applications at different county seats:

October 23, 1882      Warranty Deed issued to transfer title from Robert Foster to Thomas G. Kurtz. Recorded by H H Mund, notary public in Custer County, MT.

October 30, 1882      Warranty Deed acknowledgement issued to transfer title from Lucinda Foster to Thomas G. Kurtz. Recorded by John Wetenhall, notary public in Hennepin County, MN.

December 26, 1882    Plat of Foster’s Subdivision filing from TC Kurtz & Co., acknowledged by clerk in Custer County. Blocks 47-54-55-56-57-58-51-59-60 corresponds to blocks 1-8-45-44-2-9-268-269-286 in original town plat.

June 9, 1883            Plat of Foster’s Subdivision filing acknowledged by notary public in Clay County, MN

September 26, 1883   Plat of Foster’s Subdivision filing acknowledged by notary public in Hennepin County, MN

November 16, 1883   Power of Attorney released by Lucinda and Robert Foster to Fred Foster for their interest in the land.

December 3, 1883     Plat of Foster’s Subdivision filing issued by Landowners (Kurtz and Foster) in Custer County.

January 29, 1884      Quit Claim issued by Fred Foster to Lucinda and Robert Foster by Probate Judge in Billings.

July 17, 1887           Warranty Deed transfers 1/4th interest in all platted property to John H Conrad for $3,000. (Yellowstone County notary public)

October 29, 1890      Quit Claim Deed transfers Conrad’s 1/4th interest in all platted property to John R King for $4,000. (Yellowstone County notary public)

December 4, 1891     Warranty Deed transfers King’s 1/4th interest in platted property to J A Savage. (Park County notary public)

December 22, 1892    Warranty Deed transfers 1/4th interest in platted property back to Robert Foster by J A Savage. (Park County)

December 24, 1892    Warranty Deed interest in selected platted property from Robert Foster to John R King for a $2,000 promissory note due in one year. Sale resulted from foreclosure proceedings. (Yellowstone County)

Numerous other transfers, foreclosures, receiverships, assignment of creditors and bank arrangements on this small piece of land take over from here. If one were to look only at the homestead patents from the BLM records, and take them at face value, the true nature of land ownership would be overlooked. The original homesteader (William Blair) used in this example was never in Montana. A co-adjacent homesteader, Hezekiah James (Arkansas homesteader), who also sold his land to an attorney, was part of the formation of Foster’s Subdivision through these land transfers, and also wasn’t in Montana. It appears strange that these homesteaders sold their land before receiving their actual Patent title.









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[1] This Act is not available from the BLM Offices, as no record of it was ever reported to them. . On February 2, 1901, the Department of the Interior General Land Office, Washington. D.C. issued a final approved listing for 4,621.72 acres of confiscated and presumably non-assigned lands to be taken from the Public Domain and transferred to the state for use by school districts. Reason for the discrepancy was not noted, but probably after achieving statehood, the amount of land assigned for school districts must have been in error, and more was required. [This land was adjacent to the rivers, and all of it probably had homesteaders by that time, so it was deliberately omitted.] The Abstract Title files held by the Forum indicate that there was a lengthy process to clear land titles in the previously assigned homestead, mining claims and other titles for these two sections, since they were not completely “Domain Land.” Records for Section 16 and 36 (Riverfront Park and the Big Ditch pickup point on the river) show they were finally placed into School lands in 1889. Six title transfers were made in the Riverfront Park area, Section 16, but names of the original landowners were not noted.