Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


First Settlers in Yellowstone County

[Commentary on the origins of the early settlers] 

Revised 6 April 2002 (Added details)

Until after the Custer Battle in June 1876, the area bordering the Crow Reservation to the mouth of the Powder River inflow into the Yellowstone River was no place for white men. Congress broke early treaties with various Indian tribes making the area a hostile environment for trappers, tradesmen and settlers. Many stayed away. From the biographies of the early settlers, a time frame of Yellowstone Valley’s local area settlement can be created in order of their appearance; actual land records defining their origination have not been located, and appear to have been lost or destroyed. From these early pioneer settlers, a timetable for the creation of various first towns in Yellowstone County can be made. During this chaotic period from 1871 to 1876 the army had need to identify how they can best protect settlers and their military units. To assist them with this endeavor, they commandeered the riverboat ‘Josephine’ several times for exploratory examination of various rivers. The Yellowstone was one of the rivers explored during this time. The Josephine was 180 feet long and 31 feet wide, had a top speed of about nine miles per hour, and drew 20 inches of water without cargo. It made its maiden voyage up the Yellowstone in August 1873, piloted by Captain John Todd, reaching a point called Glendive Creek, where the town of Glendive would eventually be built. Refer to the Josephine trips in the Joseph Cochran biography for more details. Commonality of names has created confusion over time as to the ship’s crew, the purpose for the trips into the Yellowstone River, and where it went. The key trips are:

        Expedition up the Yellowstone River. Commanded by Lt. Col Forsythe and Lt Col. Grant. Military expedition ending at a point about 1 mile west of Duck Creek on June 7th, 1875. No civilians (excepting for boat crew) or photographers were allowed.  Two horses permitted.

        Reconnaissance to Yellowstone. Corps of Engineers survey trip into Yellowstone Park in July 1875. Boat was commandeered by the War Department while it was on a trip up the Missouri River for the army. Captain Ludlow commanded boat, and civilian personnel were permitted. He was permitted to take four scientists of his choosing. These were: Edwin Ludlow & assistant W. H. Wood, George Bird Grinnell & Edward S. Dana from Yale college, all traveling at their own expense. (Grinnell specialized in paleontology & zoology, Dana In geology.) Crews for this trip are often reported as being the ones on the earlier Col Forsythe trip. Boat did not travel on the Yellowstone River, but went to Carroll, MT. Five horses permitted.

        Fur trade and cargo trip May-June 1877 up the Yellowstone River. Commanded by Captain Grant Marsh the boat traveled up river to sell cargo to settlers and to take on fur pelts. Arrived at Baker Ground (McGirl’s Trading Post end of May 1877) and learned of new settlement further upstream. Arrived at McAdow’s Trading Post (Coulson) June 7th, 1877. Tied to Cottonwood tree on Joseph Cochran’s land. Tree became a local landmark denoting end point for the cargo trip into the post. McAdow or Anderson renamed his post as the town of Coulson, in honor of the Coulson Packet Company (Owner and operator of the Josephine riverboat). Note: In 1876, survey crews were establishing Guides and Meridians in the area. They named the Guide passing through the future site of Coulson as “Coulson Guide”.

Horace Countryman (Stillwater-Columbus)

Came to Montana in the 1860’s and settled on the Yellowstone River – Stillwater River junction north bank in early1875. Formed trading post known as Stillwater, later moved about three miles west and formed town of Columbus. He was the first to successfully reside on the river between Bozeman and the Big Horn River.

Paul McCormick (Fort Pease)

Left the Livingston area (circa August) 1875 with 46 others, including Major Fellows D. Pease, and floated down the river to the mouth of the Big Horn River. He established a trading post on the site and was immediately besieged by the Sioux Indians. His band fought the Indians until they March 4, 1876, when Major Brisbin rescued them. The survivors were taken to Bozeman. Immediately a Custer was defeated, the military established a fort at the location of where he had his trading post. McCormick was taken back to the new fort, and officiated in the opening ceremony of the new post before the end of June1876. Some wounded from the Custer battle were taken there, and their letters identified the June date.

Thomas McGirl & Omar Hoskins (Baker Ground-Huntley)

Arrived at Baker Ground (site of minor Sioux battle with Col Baker’s troops) south of the River on May 9, 1877. He reported that the riverboat ‘Josephine’ stopped there at the end of May 1877. He operated a trading post there.  In 1878 he relocated to the north side of the river, and formed Huntley, and operated a post office.  McGirl acquired 160 acres for cash and homesteaded two parcels of land (37.62 & 14.32 acres) in Sections 26 and 24, 2N, 27E. Hoskins, along with E. H. Lee acquired 310.05 acres for cash in Section 18, 8S, 21E.

Alonzo Young (Young’s Point – Park City)

Date of arrival not noted, but identified by the other pioneers as being after McGirl and before Cochran. He established trading post three miles east of Park City. He relocated west and founded Park City. Homesteading land records were not available.

Henry A. Frith (Baker Ground-Huntley)

Henry Albert Frith is considered by some to be the first settler in what is now called Yellowstone County. He served in the Army, and in the winter of 1876 – 1877 he, along with his regiment commanded by General Miles, was ordered to Montana to disarm the Sioux Indians, and establish Forts Keogh and Custer. After completing this task, in early spring he was discharged and took up a homestead on 160 acres (NE Section 34, 2N, 27E). The title was granted on Sept 6, 1890. He operated a general store branch opened by Thomas McGirl until 1879, when he left for the Yogo mining district to act as deputy recorder. The Indians tributes him by saying the he was “always talking with a straight tongue.” His place was located about mile north of the river. He might have arrived after Perry McAdow and John Alderson.

Bela Brockway & Edward Forest (Canyon Creek)

Both families were in the area after McGirl settled into Baker Ground on May 9th 1877, and before Joseph Cochran arrived in mid May 1877. Second school in the Billing’s area was located here.

Joseph Cochran (Canyon Creek)

Arrived in mid May 1877, and acquired land (area immediately west of Josephine Park, apparently including Sections 10 and 16). He is reported to be the first to actually file at Bozeman for land in the area. However, the BLM has no records of any filings at the Bozeman land office from 1864 to about 1901. Congress took back some of his land for use as school land for Montana. The famed ‘Josephine Tree’ was located on his land, and identified by area surveyors in 1878. The tree later washed away. Journey of the Josephine River Boat trips identified.

Perry McAdow & John J. Alderson (Coulson)

Arrived after mid May 1877 immediately after Cochran arrived. Perry McAdow established a sawmill and Anderson started a store on property located in Sections 2 and 34. Cochran, Brockway and Forest supplied timber for his mill. After the Josephine appeared on June 7th, 1877, he & John Alderson named the trading post Coulson. This small town consisted of tents originally, and ran in a northeast direction along side the river, south of where the I-90 crosses, and was located on John Alderson’s land. It was a post office site until 1882, when Billings was settled. When the railroad approached the site, John Alderson drew up a plat and filed in October 28, 1881. Perry’s land, consisting of 457 acres eventually became site for the Billing’s water plant, some housing tracts and Josephine Park. The Yellowstone River rapid called “Ramsey’s Rapids” was on the right bank of the river, across from the south edge of McAdow’s property. In later years the river changed course and the rapids disappeared.


Later Settlers and their Land Filing Dates[1]

Henry Colwell’s house was near the river, and located in Sections 14 & 15. He filed on May 9, 1879.

Orson Newman filed on sections 15 & 16 on May 15, 1879.

Aaron T. Ford filed on May 17, 1879, on the southwest corner of Section 10.

Charles H. Newman filed Dec 16, 1881 on the southeast half of the southeast quarter of Section 10.

Peter Cooper filed July 17, 1880 on an Indian Allotment in Section 19.

Benjamin Hogan filed in 1881 on a portion of Section 18.

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[1] Recorded in article “Crow Sessions South of Yellowstone River” April 24, 1936. Note that the BLM reported in 2002 that the filing records were lost for this time frame. Only the recording dates were saved.