Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


Yellowstone County – Its Beginnings

[Compiled as a study guide for those interested in locating Research Materials] 

Friday, March 07, 2008.


Montana Counties in 1900 (Yellowstone County shown in yellow)

 Twenty-six counties existed in 1900. The boundary locations, identification, and names of the counties varied almost annually from the time Montana was a Territory, until it reached statehood on Nov 8th 1889. Various mapmakers had different boundaries and county names during this time. Population in 1890 was 132,159; consisting of 2,532 Chinese, 860 Indians, 1,490 Africans, 6 Japanese, with the balance white. Males outnumbered females two to one. In 1900 Butte was the largest city with 30,000 persons, Billings was sixth in size with 3,000. In 1885 Billings had 800 residents. The Crow Reservation Bill opened 1,150,000 acres for settlement southeast of the Yellowstone River area in 1906, followed by the installation of a great government ditch used to reclaim some 35,000 acres of former Crow Indian land in Yellowstone Valley. The selected land consists of sandy loam well suited to agriculture; the rest was basically barren-hilly land! Identification of the Yellowstone County boundaries from 1864 to present is shown on a Boundary Map.

When the Territory of Montana was established in 1864, the entire region was divided into nine political counties: Beaverhead, Big Horn, Chouteau, Deer Lodge, Edgerton, Gallatin, Jefferson, Madison and Missoula. Later, when Lewis & Clark County was created, some map makers called it “Clarke & Lewis County.” Filing for land ownership was originally located in Helena, then other locations as time progressed. Records are now housed at the Billings location. The land offices were:

Land Office Location[1]

Opening Date


April 27, 1867


October 5, 1874

Miles City

October 19, 1880


November 26, 1890


April 20, 1891

Great Falls

August 1, 1902


July 2, 1906


May 3, 1907


July1, 1910

In 1924 only the offices in Great Falls and Billings were open. The Great Falls office closed in 1950. All available original records from the various offices were transferred to Billings upon their closure. Although a few people were living on some of the land prior to survey, their land holdings were eventually factually established by the government survey. In researching for first land holders’ records check both the Patent and Warrant files. [Provided by the BLM-2001]

The political boundaries identifying the counties, created by the Territorial Legislative Assembly, were essentially “straight-lines” without regard to geological terrain features. Various mapmakers, however, created real county lines from the available bureau land records & surveys. The location of farms and towns is best identified through the use of the BLM’s Range, Township and Section information starting from the MONTANA Meridian. From that you can locate where various types of property would be located today.  For general interest according to the mapmakers, the area represented by present-day Yellowstone County started out as being in Big Horn County with a small portion in the west located in Gallatin & Meagher Counties. It stayed that way until 1872. In 1872 eleven counties were formed, plus the Crow Reservation south of the Yellowstone River. The county was then in parts of Big Horn, Gallatin, Meagher and the Crow Reservation. It stayed that way until 1882, although the mapmakers showed slightly different boundaries for the counties. In 1882 all of the current Big Horn County was changed in name to Custer County.  In 1883 Yellowstone (as a separate county) was created by the General Land Office and published in a map titled “Montana Territory.” Custer, Dawson, Meagher, Gallatan and the Crow Reservation bordered it. The Political map did not recognize Yellowstone County until 1884, when they showed it as a separate entity. This map showed Yellowstone County bordered by Custer, Meagher, Gallatin & the Crow Reservation. Rand & McNalley in 1884 did not recognize the formation of Yellowstone County, and showed county lines essentially the same as for the 1882 political map; Yellowstone County was again within Custer County. After 1883 the county borders were changed many times. When Billings was first created, the county seat was at Miles City, County of Custer. The inconvenience and expense to travel there for judicial and official business transactions created a need for a new county for the people in Billings and surrounding areas. The local councilmen applied to the territorial legislature and on March 3rd, 1883 their request was granted, and Yellowstone County was established. Billings was the new county seat. Election of county officers occurred later. A portion of the Custer County liabilities existing that were relevant to the new county area, were transferred. As the eastern section of Montana grew, Custer County (parent to Yellowstone) was too large for comfort and convenience of witnesses, jurors and others who wished to travel to the county seat, located in miles City. Some had to travel from 200 to 400 miles, which cost the Custer County $60 to $80 per person. Accordingly, a new county was evidently needed. Miles City and the eastern residents of Montana agreed, and plans for a new county were created in 1882. In early 1883 the people asked the Legislature to divide Custer County, making Billings the county seat for the new division. The main question being posed was what to name the new county. Billings and Yellowstone were proposed. Residents of Billings supported the name Billings, others, Yellowstone. On 23 November 1883 at 2:30 pm news reached Billings that a new county was created, naming Billings as the County Seat. Settlement with Custer County over the assets of Yellowstone County, at the time of the division was not settled, and Custer County brought suit against Yellowstone County for a sum of $57,547. The case was eventually dropped.

The Indian name for the southeastern area of Montana was “Land of Shining Mountains.” This was adopted by a four-man French exploration party in1743 led by Chevalier de la Verendrye, son of Sieur de la Verendrye, who had earlier sought a route to the Pacific Ocean. He reportedly saw the Big Horn Mountains 62 years earlier.  Francis A, Laracque and two companions, accompanied by the Crow Indians, reached the Yellowstone River, near to where Billings would be eventually located.

Crow Indians called the Yellowstone River, “Elk River”, and early French explorers called it "Roche Jaune" (yellow rock); which were literal translations of the Minnetree Indians term for the river.  Crow Chief, Daniel Old Elk said that the name "Yellowstone" came about simply as the result of a mistake: "In our language we always called it the Elk River.  The words sound alike, and the French didn't understand Crow very well."  Therefore, contrary to some beliefs that the Yellowstone River was named for the Yellow colored rock found in the Grand Canyon section along the Yellowstone River, it was probably a poor translation of Crow language to French, causing the confusion.  An 1872 map prepared by Augustus Mitchell, showed the river to be named “Yellow Stone River.”

The earliest known written appearance of the “Yellowstone River” name occurs on a 1797 John Evans' manuscript map. Evans, a Welshman, was employed by the Spanish to explore the Missouri River, showed a tributary stream on the Missouri listed as "River Yellow Rock." Hiram Chittenden [a historian] considered the name to be a translation of the Minnetree Indian expression Mi tsi a-da-zi, which was transformed in French to “Roche Jaunes” (Rock Yellow) or Pierre Jaunes (Stone Yellow). Later, in 1798, famed Canadian geographer David Thompson penned “Yellow Stone” as an anglicized version of the “River Yellow Rock” wording. [National Park Service Article by Beth Kaeding-1997]

The name “Yellowstone” appears to have descended from two translations; the native races who lived on the rivers banks, and the French trappers. On the Yellowstone River, 75 miles below its origin in Yellowstone Park, lies what is called “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.” It is distinguished by the yellow tint in the canyon walls. There are varying degrees of shading, from bright yellow to the hues of orange. Lt Doan in 1870 noted the “Brilliant Yellow Color” of the rocks. Captain Barlow and Dr Heyden in 1871 refer to the color as “yellow, nearly vertical walls.” Raymond in 1871 speaks about the “bright yellow of the clay.” Captain Jones in 1873 that “about and in the Grand Canyon the rocks are nearly all tinged with a bright yellow.[2]

Although Chittenden reportedly believed that the name "Yellowstone" originated from the colorful walls of the Grand Canyon section of the Yellowstone River located within the present-day national park, most history buffs today do not agree. Their reasoning is that the earlier historic uses of the name referred to the yellowish sandstone bluffs that border the river for 100 miles or more near present-day Billings, Montana. It is unlikely that the Minnetree Indians or the early Euro-Americans knew of today's famous canyon near the headwaters of the river in Yellowstone Park.

The first account, defining the origin of Sacrifice Cliff and the Smallpox Epidemic comes from a report by Dr Allen when he interviewed Chief Plenty Coups as he talked about his uncle and the River Crows. Dr Allen, from his shop in Coulson, noticed hawks and crows hovering over “Skeleton Cliff”, a shale-ribbed butte tipped with pine trees. Following the birds he discovered bright colored cloth that was hanging from nearly every tree, and each held a skeleton, about 100 in total. The bodies were draped in bright blanket shrouds and bound to the trees with rawhide thongs, Property of the dead, found around the trees, included necklaces of elk teeth, moccasins, brass or copper rings and other articles. Chief Plenty Coups stated: these Indians were “big men, heap tall, heap strong” and proud of their long braided or wrapped around their heads for a battle.  They had no squaws. They were noted for making what he called ‘Guarded Villages’.  “The braves lived upon the peak (Skeleton Cliff) to guard the Crow villages (below), and they were young, strong and knew no fear, so ‘their hearts sang all the day long.’ They did not fear the strange sickness taking the Sioux and Blackfoot as far down as the Missouri ‘for the Great Spirit had been very kind to his Crow children.’

“Then a warrior found his limbs heavy and tired, weak like those of a sick squaw. His throat burned, and red spots on his face and body stung like the sting of a bee. He was carried to a sweat lodge so evil spirits could be sweated away and then bathed in cold water, but nothing they did was good. The Great Spirit could not seem to hear them. Medicine men danced and sang and beat tom-toms to no avail and the young brave was taken across the Slippery Log to the Happy Hunting Ground. He was bound to a tree on the side of the cliff with his war bonnet, tomahawk and war club, dried meat was left and his horse killed and left on the ground below for his journey.”

“Soon another warrior was stricken, and more until the hunting village was in great fear of the evil spirit painting faces of the warriors as though for battle and making them like one who drank the white man’s fire water. After sweat lodges and baths many had terrible visions and talked strange talk before plunging knives into their heads to stop the pain.”

“The Crows did not desert sick brothers. The strong ones who carried the dead to sleep their last sleep sickened and also died until only 16 were left. Fearing the evil in their veins and that the evil spirit might destroy all the tribe they smoked the medicine pipe in council and agreed ‘it is better that 16 braves die than that the great nation of Crows be destroyed.’”

“And so the 16 rode their horses to the highest butte in the valley and drove them over and down onto the sharp rocks below to die together.”

Lt James H. Bradley, on April 15, 1876, in his journal gave a similar account of what was thought to be smallpox, and the location for the “Place of the Skulls.”

“He arrived at the lower end of the Clark’s Fork Bottom, where the Metra is currently located, from Fort Shaw along with 207 men commanded by Captain Rawn. He described hieroglyphics on the rimrocks and the high point just west of Boothill called “Place of Skulls” by the Indians. Lt. Bradley’s account placed the time about 1800 when one band of about 4,000 Crows camped at the base of the bluffs when the disease almost wiped out the band and the plain was covered with bodies and horses running wild. His account said two braves who remained with the sick rode their horses over the cliff to appease the evil spirit. Other Crows later placed skulls and bones of the dead on a natural shelf about two-thirds of the way up to the point southwest of Boothill, known as “Skeleton” or “Bone Hill” and hunting ground for arrowheads and souvenirs as late as 1881.”

The “Guide to the Northern Pacific Railroad and Its Allied Lines”, printed in 1883 also gives another version.

“It stated that the tribe determined that 40 young warriors would sacrifice themselves by riding blindfolded over the cliff. The date was 70 years earlier. This cliff was located across the Yellowstone River opposite to where Kelly’s grave was located. It was called “Skull Butte.”

According to Dr Allen, “the place where Kelly was buried was called “Kelly Mountain.” It was used as a medicine point for young Crow or Absarokee braves who went alone for fasting and prayer with the Great Spirit before becoming a full-fledged warrior. After three or four days alone without food, drink or sleep the Great spirit gave the youth a name, a mission in life and instructions for making his medicine or good-luck talisman. The medicine usually consisted of objects in a buckskin pouch worn by the warrior and guarded closely. “

It is believed that the Clarks Fork Bottom was formed about the time of the Ice Age. Geologist Dave Alt once said that before the Yellowstone River was formed the area was inundated with water, and the rims were the “beaches”. Evidence of the Ice Age is still noticeable by deep scratches in the sandstone boulders located at the entrance to the valley (across from Boot Hill Cemetery). Ice-entrapped rocks created the grooves, as the glacier passed through. When it melted, the waters were thought to reach the rim tops.

Many famous cattle trails of the 1770’s headed toward “free” grass country in Montana and Wyoming. The westward surge of settlers during the next few decades brought many farmers who obtained Land Patent under the Homestead Act of 1882, the Desert Land Act of 1877, the Carey Act of 1894, the Reclamation Act of 1902, the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 and the Stock raising Homestead Act of 1918. Yellowstone County was created on Feb 26th 1883, six years before Montana achieved statehood. According to a WPA Project Book “Montana”, published by Viking Press in New York in 1938, the locale was settled mainly by Irish, English, Scottish and Scandinavian settlers. Francoise Larocque arrived in the area ten months before Captain Clark, in September 1805, looking for beaver. Until the government survey parties arrived in about 1853, the traders and trappers left little or no record of their visits. The early surveys (1853-1873) were delayed by trouble with the Sioux Indian tribes. In 1874 Addison Quively reported the “Yellowstone Valley valuable for neither agriculture, grazing, nor minerals, but . . . interesting. .  as the last home and burial place of horrible monsters of the earliest animal creation.” In June 1876 news of the Custer Battle drew nation-wide attention to the region, and more troops were sent to subdue the Sioux. The land, which had been a wild and little known, was opened to stockmen and settlers. Most grouped themselves around stage stops and post offices. The town of Coulson was created in 1877, and two years later an irrigation ditch was dug in the area and the valley began its magnificent refutation of Quivey’s judgment. By 1938 there were over 600,000 acres of irrigated land in the region.

Lt. Mullen and a small party of men were sent on 1 August 1851 to explore the Yellowstone Valley for a suitable route that could be used by the NPR. They followed the Yellowstone River upstream almost to the Billings area, then turned north going through the Musselshell Valley to Judith River. It was ten years before white men passed through the valley. In 1863 James Stuart and a party of 15 men made the journey. In 1865 gold seekers went in every direction searching for the precious metal, and the Yellowstone became a popular highway. In 1868 a treaty with the Crow Indians removed all of the land north of the Yellowstone River from their reservation.  In 1871, NPR sent out a second expedition to locate suitable railroad sites. It consisted of Mr. Muhlenberg (engineer), and an escort of cavalry. They started out from Bozeman and traveled easterly along the river reaching a place near the mouth of the Pryor Creek called, “Place of the Skulls.” Here they disbanded for the winter. It was in this same year that Congress granted a charter to NPR to construct a railroad across Montana, and promised complete protection against the Indians. In the spring of 1872 two survey parties were sent out, one surveying the Pryor Creek area [Huntley.], while the other set up camp at the junction of the creek and the Yellowstone River. Col. John Gibbon was in charge of the soldiers and the camp. They were attacked by Sioux warriors, but were able to drive them off. On August 20 1872 the survey reached a spot about six miles from the camp, and then they turned north toward the Musselshell. On September 25 the survey teams disbanded. In July 1873 the teams restarted the survey under the protection of General Custer. Red Cloud opposed the survey but was defeated and caused no more trouble.  Another survey started out from Bozeman under Colonel Brown, and consisted of 149 mountaineers. The army carried with them a famous gun called “Big Horn Gun.” Supplies for the survey teams were brought up river as far as the mouth of Glendive Greek in 1873.  River boat “The Key West” came as far as Wolf Rapids, just below Miles City. [Note: At this time it was planned that NPR would route their track upriver on the south side of the Yellowstone to Pryor Creek, then cross and make way up to Fort Benton. It wasn’t until later, around 1881, that they decided to make the main line go through the Coulson area.  This action apparently prompted John Alderson to quickly plat out a townsite for the trading post called Coulson, with hopes that it would pass through his land. The routing certainly appeared to be directed that way.  NPR changed the route slightly, and passed through John Schock’s land, bypassing Alderson’s altogether, essentially creating the way for the eventual town of Billings. See details about the formation of Coulson and Billings.

John Colter, a member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, after being discharged when the work was finished, traversed the area after first visiting the Yellowstone Park region. James Stuart, gold hunter, encountered Indian trouble in 1863. John Bozeman brought his immigrants to about eight miles south of Wyola to Fort Smith on the Big Horn land in 1884. 

The route was abandoned four years later by Presidential Order and “white’s” were forbidden to enter the area for any reason. In 1913 Hardin County was carved from Yellowstone and Rosebud Counties. Pictured above is the early Crow village “Lodge Grass.”  Early rustlers used a gorge nearby called Garvin Basin in the Big Horns to hide stolen cattle.





Perry W. McAdow was one of the best-known men in the early Montana mining days. He arrived at Fort Owen in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana in 1861. He had found some gold in Gold Creek, and later with A. S. Blake, discovered placer gold at Pioneer Gulch. This brought other prospectors and droves of wagon trains to the area. He went to Grasshopper Creek, a place where later, Bannock & Fairweather discovered Alder Gulch in 1863. McAdow started a sawmill but sold it in 1864 and went to the Gallatin Valley area to try ranching and operating a gristmill. He gave that up, and in 1877 (date not verified)[3] moved to the Yellowstone River area and became a merchant and sawmill operator in what was later to be called Coulson [land located at what is now called Josephine Park]. After trying to get NPR to center their planned town in Coulson proved to be unsuccessful he tried to encourage development in the area (referred to sometimes as “East Billings”) by adding a horse drawn streetcar line. Eventually there were two such cars. The $.25 fare was offset by free beer at the Coulson end. The line ran from 27th Street & the rail line, south on 27th St to 6th Ave south, then northeast into Main Street of Coulson, a distance of two miles.

Major Baker’s soldiers brought in first cattle on the range; who were escorting railroad surveyors in 1872. Sioux Indians, led by Black Moon, attacked the soldiers (near future site of Huntley) and stole the cattle. Next year the cattle were seen grazing alongside the Buffalo. Military operations following the Custer attack in 1876 led the way for Nelson Story to expand cattle growing in the valley area. Story became a big cattle rancher in the Park City and Crow Agency Reservation area. Hoskins and McGirl had a stagecoach station & store at Huntley in 1879. They sold out and moved to Yellowstone County to become its first large cattle ranch. The bought their cattle in Oregon and had J. J. Walk trail them to Yellowstone in 1880. Walk teamed with A. A. Ellis to become leading cattlemen in the north Yellowstone River area in the county. Ed Cardwell established a cattle ranch at Merrill (west of Columbus) in 1878. As the railroad approached Billings herds were being driven up from Texas. The Billings Post reported on June 27, 1882 that there were 200 cowboys in Coulson, waiting for the Musselshell and Yellowstone Valley roundups. Dab Floweree trailed 2,000 head of cattle from western Montana for shipment from the Billings terminal. He was the first to ship cattle east. Within a month after the railroad reached Billings, there were 334 carloads of cattle being shipped, with an estimate of 20,000 cars by the end of 1882. Many other investors entered the arena, and soon many ranches dotted the area. The winters of 1886-1887 decimated the cattle herds by about 50%, thus ending the spectacular growth.

The first wedding recorded in the county was for John Schock and Mrs. Alice Reed (nee Alice McCleary from Utah), April 27 1881. Twelve weddings occurred in 1882, and 32 in 1883. Soon afterwards, hoboes killed Joseph Clancy, [saloon owner in Billings]. In 1884, 20 marriages were performed, and 36 the following year. Filing of the weddings generally took a year to record. R. Lavigne was one of the original settlers, and no one knew his first name until the marriage records were examined. It is Romeo. In 1882, Billings’ established a ‘subscription’ school system that opened in October. Before that time, the first school in the county (then part of Custer County and others) was in Ed Newman’s homesteaded log cabin settlement on the banks of the Yellowstone River. First teacher was Nat Givens, a widower with six daughters, during the children’s three-month term. During this time, a covered wagon of Dr. Lucius Nutting passed through, stopping at an area ranch. A school trustee met him and asked if anyone could teach school? Miss Lilly Nutting said, “I will teach your school.” She was hired on the spot, and proved to be a most capable teacher. Also teaching at the Newman cabin school was Miss Emily Alling, whose parents settled at Park City. The cabin was later moved and served as the school for beet family farmer’s children. Yellowstone County established school districts at the towns of Junction, Billings, Newman, Canyon Creek, Park City and Columbus in February 1883. By November 1883, there were 460 children in schools; ages 6 to 21.  Eve Ash, daughter of George Ash, was teacher of the first school in present Billings. They held classes in various rented buildings, including one that burned. Eve married Samuel Garvin, a local stockman. The town raised money to keep the school open, and Miss Gee was hired as the teacher to finish out Miss Gee’s term. The firm of Nelson, Crowe & Gagnon, constructed the first building built as a school. It was completed in January 1884. Miss Rose Camp taught primary grades, and Miss Graham taught upper levels to 75 students. During the early years George Washington Shoemaker was principal, and a strict disciplinarian. [Later he operated a drug store.]  It was reported that his eyes were once ‘blackened’ by an irate father whom he hat whipped. His sister, Martha Washington Shoemaker, was county superintendent of schools. The school was located on swampy land, and the foundations became undermined, and the building was condemned.  Drainage systems were installed, and the school reopened. In the spring of 1886 an epidemic of Scarlet Fever broke out, causing Mayor Walter Matheson and the city council to close the school for two months. The school board objected, stating that the children would be running about loose.  The next school in the area was located eight miles west of the Newman school at Canyon Creek in 1883, with Mrs. Sam Salsbury as teacher. [Note: This is the Newman land in Section 15]  Textbooks came from Bozeman, and the desks were handmade. Since the area now had three schools, a territorial superintendent, Cornelius Hedges, conducted a “Teachers Institute” in 1883, featuring a spelling bee for the teachers in the Congregational Church, in Billings. For the 1885-1886 school year, Billings divided the school system into four two-grade rooms. The only other school with more than one room among the counties 12 districts in 1889 was located at Park City. The original School Districts as of February 1883 were: Junction, Billings, Newman, Canyon Creek, Park City, and Stillwater. Laurel’s original school was a log structure, where Mrs. J. A. Gardner taught all eight grades. This school operated until 1907.

Mrs. John Alderson was the first woman to arrive in Coulson, followed by Mrs. Burnstein and Mrs. Thomas Nicholson. Mrs. Alice Reed (McCleary) was the fourth. [Alice Reed biography]

On August 4, 1882, the Billings Post Office was established, and it was predicted that mail delivery would soon commence. It did, about a year later.  Lucius Whitney was postmaster.

Early ranchers were mainly cattlemen, the range was “open”, and cowboys ruled the lane. The formation of Billings created a near-disastrous hunting and sightseeing trip in January 1883 when four businessmen traveled the area. According to a BILLINGS POST article at that time, it was stated that sheep herds and barbed wire had spread much farther than previously thought. F.H Foster, George W. Hulme, Jules Breuchaud, and H. W. Rowley, prominent early residents of the county and members of the Minnesota and Montana Land and Development Co. reported seeing numerous barbed wire fences in the Judith Basin area north of Billings. Fred Foster was a real estate dealer, and later Billings city mayor and clerk of the district (land office commissioner). Breuchaud was a leader in the creation of Yellowstone County and later became county treasurer. He originally came to Montana as a subcontractor for Herman Clark on the NPR. Clark later gained fame as being the inventor of underpinning for skyscrapers and construction of dams.

Hulme was secretary for the townsite company, and Rowley was an engineer for NPR. Rowley directed the work on Clarks Fork bottom irrigation canal. Pictured here is the 1,000-foot flume spanning Alkali Creek bottomland to provide irrigation to the “Heights” farmers.


These four had left Billings with buffalo guns hoping to do some shooting, and to check on the progress at the Barker mining district. The weather changed from hot Chinooks to blizzards, causing frostbite before reaching the Al Olden ranch on the Musselshell River. Breuchaud reported seeing 2,500 sheep in good condition at the P. J. Malles ranch and Barcail Post Office on Careless Creek. Next day the group reached the Steven’s ranch, then on to Ubet. The next day they went to the Milray ranch on Buffalo Creek where they met Mr. Sererenve, who had 5,600 sheep along with appliances for ‘sheep dipping.’ Milray had 2,000 sheep. At the Edgar ranch, four miles from Utica, they found another 2,500 sheep in good-fat condition, with another 2,500 on winter pasture. The group was astonished at the many miles of barbwire on these ranches.

Details and original records about the Northern Pacific Railway Co. (NPR) are located in other sections, but development of the county left many people wondering what was going to happen. Residents waited for railroads which were never built, or which were on drawing boards for many years before being completed. It was actually “by chance” that Billings ended up on the main line of the company. By 1882 the NPR had surveyed 200 miles of track north to Fort Benton (major site of river navigation) for its main line, and announced plans to build the line starting from Fort Benton. Billings was planned to be on a branch-line extending west. NPR again ran into financial trouble, changed their board of directors, and changed the plans of where the line was to be built.

In 1883, on September 8th, the northern transcontinental railroad line was completed, climaxing the career of Henry Villard, current NPR president.. He was born in Bavaria in 1835 and christened Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hilgard. During the Bavarian revolution in 1849, at age 14, he refused to lead his classmates in prayer to their king. As a result he was not passed to the next grade. His father (slated to be on the supreme court for the king) sent him to a French school, but was unable to force him to study law. While at school he took the name of a classmate, Henri Villard, and sailed to America in 1853, and immediately headed west. He joined the railroad in Ohio and worked on the wood-train crew for the Indianapolis & Madison Railroad for a short while. He stayed with relatives in the Belleville, Il area, writing for the local German newspaper “Bellville Zeitung.” In 1863 he returned to Bavaria to make up with his father, and upon returning found that Lincoln had been assassinated, and that General Lee had surrendered. He became a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and worked for civil service reform. He married William Lloyd Garrison’s daughter, then poor health sent him to Germany to recoup. There he met unhappy investors in the Oregon & California Railroad Co. The investors sent him to Oregon to investigate. He found the line had poor management and suggested a re-organization. In 1880 the NPR was approaching his Columbia River transportation empire, and he first urged the use of his facilities to thwart the advances. He set up a “Blind Pool”, a confidential circular asking 50 persons to subscribe to an $8,000,000 pool, and purchase controlling interests in both companies. With 24-hours he raised twice that amount, with only Villard’s hand receipts for collateral. Using this pledged money as leverage, he became president in September1881 and work progressed more rapidly. He had 15,000 Chinese coolies and 10,000 other workers laying track. This set the stage for the upcoming Gold Creek link-up. A covered pavilion was fabricated for 1,000 dignitaries, including Ulysses S. Grant, 36 senators and congressmen, nine generals, 50 journalists and countless government and businessmen arriving on special trains. The Fifth Infantry Band from Fort Keogh played as General Grant assisted Villard in driving home the golden spike. Completion costs, lower earnings than anticipated, and a $20,000,000 second mortgage forced the Northern Pacific stock to tumble. Villard resigned on January 4, 1884 and returned to Germany, with most of his fortune gone. In 1886 he returned to New York as a representative of the Deusches Bank of Berlin, and re0entered the railroad business to assist the Oregon and Transcontinental Railway. The following year he returned to NPR. After the NPR went into receivership in 1893, Villard left all business pursuits to complete his memoirs. He died in Dobbs Ferry, NY, on November 12, 1900.

In 1885, Billings’ residents expected that NPR would build a line from Billings to Cooke City via the Clarks Fork mining area. (Clarks Fork received its name by explorer, Captain Clark in 1807.) In 1886 they thought that a group of eastern capitalists from Philadelphia would build the line, called “Clarks Fork & Cooke City Railroad Co.” In 1887 they thought the line to the Red Lodge coalfields and Rock Creek would be built, but Congress delayed action because part of it was on Crow Indian Reservation land. On March 4, 1887 The President signed a bill authorizing construction of the Billings-Red Lodge branch line. Construction started, but again residents had to wait. The NPR line from Billings to Laurel was completed in 1889 and daily train service was established. A branch to Rockvale was added in 1898.

In 1894 a Wyoming branch of the Burlington Railway Co. was added to provide connections to Denver, Kansas City, and St. Louis. During the 1900-1901 season a 44-mile branch line was built east around the Pryor Mountains, over Pryor Gap to Tuluca Junction and south into the Big Horn Basin area of Wyoming. This provided a renewed interest in northern Wyoming and Billings jobbing interests. However, the route was expensive to travel and inconvenient. In 1911 the Burlington built a 35-mile connection from Fromberg through Bridger to Frannie, Wyoming. This connected with the NPR track at Fromberg, and caused the Tuluca branch line to be abandoned. The old 44-mile line was ripped up on a Sunday to prevent a pending court order to stop the removal. When Burlington Railway started construction it arranged for use of NPR tracks from Billings to Huntley (13 miles), and south to Fromberg (37 miles), and to use the same roundhouse and division point facilities of NPR. [The original plat map of Section 33, Tp26, shows provisions for the Burlington and NPR lines merging together on 21st street. The Burlington lines run along 5th Avenue N.]  NPR found that their space was too limited and more land was needed in the Billings area. Land costs in the Billings’ area were on the rise, and became too expensive, so they bought 100 acres in Laurel. There they installed a new switchyard, machine shops, roundhouse, loading docks, ice house and other supporting facilities.

A devastating winter in 1886 and 1887 crippled the stock business [See Article Following], and by 1890 the population had shrunk from 1,500 to 836. When prosperity was re-established, it was based on a solid foundation of growing cattle industry and agriculture under irrigation. Early experiments encouraged the growing of sugar beets, and in 1906 a factory was built to refine the beets into sugar. The first field workers wee Japanese, but the factory found them to be unsatisfactory, since they didn’t like the tedious work. After one season they were replaced with industrious Russian-Germans who had heard of new jobs and were willing to work by the “Dutchman’s Lantern”, [early morning moon] to make their way in America. Mothers carried their babies with them into the fields where they hoed or thinned the long rows of beets. Soon thereafter these people bought land and adopted the American way of life. Many settled on the Huntley Irrigation Project, where they soon made up a third of the population. In 1918 the Sugar Company imported Mexicans to replace the German-Russians in the fields.

In 1913 the Billings and Central Railroad (formed by R. E. Shepherd & Associates) built a spur line from Billings to Shepherd. They operated up to two trains daily. NPR took over the line, and in 1917 built a branch line from Hesper to Rapelje through the Lake Basin area.

In 1916 the first commercial oil well was drilled in the county, at Billings. It went 1,900 feet deep to reach oil reserves without encountering water along the way. The derrick was located near the Pierce Packing plant, and it was a landmark for many years. Oil production did not occur from this well. Twenty years later, at Wolf Point, oil was discovered, and the fields opened a new avenue of revenue.

Winter of 1886 – 1887

The winter was so severe that Charles Russell’s painting “Last of Five Thousand” immortalized starving cows, and was used as a yardstick for bad times for many decades. This winter wiped out many ranchers and stockmen with losses from half to all of their herds. Previously the winter of 1880-1881 was the yardstick, but there were only 25,000 cattle in Yellowstone Valley at the time. Cattle were expected to winter on open rangeland without additional feed. The summer of 1886 was dry, according to Billings Gazette articles. The grasses were chewed low to the ground by hungry cattle, so the animals were driven to lush grass pastures on the Crow Reservation. The Indian agent, without permission from the Crow Indians, took it upon himself to order them to drive the cattle back, and sent a U.S. Marshall and Indian police to carry out his order. Abandoned cattle camps and corrals were burned. Since the Indians only had a few cattle of their own, the use of the grass by the large herds was no problem for the Crows. In payment for the grass, the cattlemen had arranged for the Indians to have fresh beef from the herds. When hearing about Deputy Marshall Quively’s order, Chief Bobtail Crow went to Billings and expressed a strong desire to scalp the Marshall.

Just before Christmas, the weather was balmy, but on Christmas Eve snow started to fall, and the temperature dropped to 9 below, remaining there until the 28th for a brief spell, returning to below freezing. During the days, temperatures of 24 below were recorded in January. Water for residents was hauled to them in barrels from the Yellowstone River, but the waterman became ill and could not make deliveries. Town residents had to melt snow. The snow was so heavy, that jackrabbits left the prarie and gathered in the jail yard for protection from the cold.

Charles H. Grosse, a German brewer, fully intoxicated, left Billings on New Years to return to Coulson. He made it as far as the east end of Billings on the railroad tracks, his body frozen stiff. Thickest snow of the season started in the Dakotas and moved into Yellowstone. On January 5th, Oscar Gruwell, left his sheep camp on Thirty Mile Creek, to attend a New Year’s dinner in Junction City. He arrived two days late, and without eating the whole time. Freighting outfitters bringing merchandise from H. Clark & Co. left Meeteetse, WY in November for Billings. They struggled along until reaching Pryor and Blue Creek, at which point they had to abandon the attempt and turn back. For three days they had only coffee, first brewing the grounds, then drying the grounds and smoking it.

Coulees started to fill with dead cattle, and ‘Crow’ Davis of Clarks Fork reported seeing 50 Indians feeding on them. McGirl and Hoskins tried to roundup as many cattle as they could. Stage driver Harry B. Drum (later land office registrar) stated that for a week at a time it was impossible to move the stage from Lavina to the Fort Benton route. Mail carriers tried each morning to get through, but usually had to turn back at Graveyard Hill (Boothill Cemetery), Willow poles in the snow helped to keep them from driving into snow several feet thick.

At Living Springs (Hedgesville) tunnels in the snow connected corrals and haystacks. Hedges entire band of sheep was swept down a creek by water from a sudden spring thaw. Drum’s stage run did not quite reach Utica, where Charles Russell spent the winter and painted the scene used by a ranch foreman to report the effect that the winter had on his herd. The fast moving spring thaw came as quickly as the cold, leaving great masses of snow in coulees. Stage trails became streams of slushy water, making travel difficult. Counting of dead cattle was also difficult. Animals that survived the cold now “dropped like flies’ as thy became stuck in the soft snow, drowned in the swollen streams or bloated on new grass. Eastern stock owners were shocked to hear reports of 50 to 75% loss, confirmed at spring roundup. In the Mendenhall herds of 20,000 cattle near Fallon, the remaining 700 survivors were given to the ranch hands in lieu of pay. Steers were seen waking on stubs left as their hooves were sloughed off and frozen snow cut into their legs. Animal bodies floated everywhere on the Yellowstone River, and were seen on every sandbar.

On January 6th Alex McDonald’s feet were frozen during a 15-mile trip in bright, clear weather of 24 degrees below zero. On January 9th it was 38 degrees below zero. F B Kennard reported that his cattle weren’t dead, but were “getting in great shape for it.” On January 10th David Porter, Adam Cruthers and Thurston started for Billings from the McMillan coal mine (Five Mile Creek, 13 miles northwest of Billings). Cruthers had his neck and wrists frostbitten. Porter was found dead, and Thurston couldn’t be found. Coal supplies ran short in Billings, and the wood haulers had to quit. Rations were handed out at Crow Agency to the Indians, and drinking melted snow water caused people to become ill. Only cattle horns protruded above the snow on Alkali Creek. An express train car from Stillwater (Columbus) was derailed, its stove starting a fire, but was extinguished with three kegs of oysters.

In mid-March a dark cloud rolled in from the southwest with a chill that soon changed to a Chinook.  The fast melting snow by evening time floated away the wooden sidewalks in Billings, made a raging torrent of water that swept away a bridge on the north end of the town marooning a young grocery boy with his horse and wagon. A man named Anderson swam across with his team of horses to notify the family of Judge Goddard (7th Street N and 26th St) and J J Walk, that they wouldn’t be home.

Even with all this trouble, the growth continued.

History of Important Events Leading to the Creation of Yellowstone County

“Chronicles of the Yellowstone” by E. S. Topping (Trapper) & June 27th Billings Gazette

In 1840 Father De Smet, wearing his famous Black Robe, lived among the Crow Indians as a missionary and baptized the first Indian. He continued his work there until 1880 when the mission work became permanent through the start of a mission at St. Xavier by a Mexican priest. In February 1887, Father Prando and Bandini officially founded the church there. During the Sword-bearing uprising, a number of Indians withdrew from battle and escorted the priests to the Big Horn.

In late 1875, a few settlers arrived on the Yellowstone. Horace Countryman and W. H. Norton set up camp on the Stillwater, becoming the only permanent settlers of the time. Temporary settlers arrived in the vicinity of Fort Pease, hoping that it would provide some protection. George Herendeen set up camp at Baker’s Battleground[4] and became a meeting area for the wolfers.

[Not reported by Topping was the trip made to establish the trading post Fort Pease in about September 1875 by Paul McCormick. Refer to the Paul McCormick file] After rescue of the McCormick party from the fort by the army early in 1876, Lt James H Bradley was a member of a military force going down river to take part in the Sioux War. He arrived at the fort on April 21, 1876 and wrote in his journal “we found the fort in the condition it had been left, and it is evident that the Sioux have not been in the vicinity and are ignorant of its abandonment.” The next month the Sioux discovered that the fort had been abandoned and destroyed the buildings by fire. He reported having passed the Countryman’s ranch, “the last occupied house on the Yellowstone.” Lt Bradley was part of a force of 27 officers and 42 enlisted men under the command of General Gibbon en route to Fort Ellis. The route taken was on the north side of the river and the whole length of the country was traversed in the journey to find the Sioux and take part in the battles against them. After the tragic annihilation of General Custer and his command on 20 June 1876, a relentless war against the Sioux followed. The Sioux were chased and forced into the Yellowstone Valley area and in 1877 they were defeated. This led way for settlers to freely come and set up homes.

In November 1875 Topping constructed a mackinaw (round bottom Bull boat – wood branches and buffalo skins)) at Bottler’s ranch, on the upper Yellowstone River (Park County), and loaded it with specimens from the Yellowstone National Park. He started downstream on way to the Philadelphia Centennial. David Kennedy (ex-soldier from Fort Ellis) accompanied him on the trip. One day’s run brought them to Benson’s Landing. There they found Jack McKenzie and Billy Smith preparing to take a stock of goods down the river. They waited there until the third day, when their fleet of four boats started down together. At Baker’s Battleground they picked up David Kennedy and John Williamson. McKenzie’s boats were not well handled and turned over several times on the trip. At least half of his merchandise was lost, and nearly all of the remainder was carried in the largest boat. When they neared Fort Pease the weather turned cold, and Topping, seeing that the river was going to freeze over concluded to stop near the fort for the winter and wolf (hunt), so just above the mouth of the Big Horn River he left some provisions, ammunition and bedding and ran the boat down to Fort Pease. Williamson and Kennedy walked back and packed their things about three miles up the Big Horn River, and built a small log house called “Topping’s Camp.” From there they went hunting and placed out wolf baits.

After the Custer Battle, settlers appeared in great quantities. One of the first was H. A. Firth, who took up a ranch on the Yellowstone near to Baker’s Battleground. Following him was Henry Kiser, who built a cabin in the western part of the county, on a creek bearing his name. In late 1876 the McAdow brothers (Bozeman) scouted the Clark’s Fork bottomland for a future site. They selected a section of land on the north side of the river, and Perry settled there the following summer.

In the early summer of 1877 a mail and stage line was established along the north bank of the river from Bozeman to Miles City, a distance of 340 miles. [The Crow Indians owned reservation land on the south side of the river.] General Sherman made the trip in July of 1877 and wrote to the secretary of War: “We found ranches established all along down the Yellowstone, and the mail contractors have already put on a line of two horse spring wagons, so that soon the route we passed over will fill up with passes.” This stage line connected with another at Miles City, which continued to Bismarck, Dakota Territory, at the terminus of the NPR. It was expected that boats would be able to ascend to within 150 miles of Bozeman by 1878. [This boat traffic did not happen.]

The town of Billings, and its predecessors, Canyon Creek and Coulson were instrumental in the populating of the valley. Some interesting events that lead to the creation of Billings are noted in the Billings attachment. Homesteader names that appear in the BLM records may be misleading. Some of these landowners were only used for land acquisition, and not for settlement. When examining the files please check to determine who the real owners were. At the BLM you can browse the “blue card index” for names of original settlers who started the homestead filing process, but failed to complete. The index is by name and defines the property location.

In May 1882 residents of Coulson were waiting the arrival of a traveling showman, advertised as a ventriloquist and magician, who was making the rounds in Yellowstone Valley. Soon after the crowd had gathered a one-horse rig from which dismounted a man with prominent features, trim aspect, and wearing a long coat and a style of clothing strange to the place. The liveryman rushed up to take charge of the ‘equipage’ as the hotelkeeper and several loiterers rushed up and greeted him warmly.

“Well, you will have a big crowd tonight,” one volunteered. The newcomer replied, “Why, I didn’t know anyone knew I was coming?” “Oh, yes, the coach driver had one of your bills. We will all be there for the show.”

“Show?” the stranger questioned with surprise. “Why, I am a preacher, and I am going to hold church.”

The crowd looked at him with mingled feelings of which disappointment and disgust were the main ingredients. Finally, one shaggy-haired individual beckoned to the stranger to come out into the middle of the street, and pointed a grimy and shaking finger to the west. “Do you see those mountains over thar, parson? Well, behint those hills is a lot of Missourians. They might need you. We don’t.” According to the version of the pioneers, this was the welcome of Rev. Benjamin B. Shuart, Congregational missionary to Coulson. He was a super-salesman and created a need in the town and played an important role in the beginnings of Billings. After being assured that the church’s ministry was secured he bought a farm in the western part of the county and named it the ‘Hesper’ farm. He established a dairy and became the first person to produce butter for sale. In 1887 he sold the farm to I.D. O’Donnell, under whose management it gained wide prominence through its development as a model irrigated farm. This farm became a “Gretna Green”, where young people could start matrimonial ventures. Many young people slipped away to Hesper to have the ceremony said by the preacher-farmer (Shuart), and many romances started in those fields. Rev. Shuart officiated at virtually all funerals held at Boot Hill Cemetery. (Through 1889 when Mountain View – O’Donnell Cemetery officially opened.) One week after his arrival he officiated at William Preston’s funeral. William was killed by his former partner, Dan Lehy. He also said last rites for ‘Muggins’ Taylor and Judge Fawkes, and many others. In 1892 Shuart went to Oberlin, Ohio to supervise the making of a land-leveler for preparing the ground for irrigation. He perfected the device and patented it while living on the Hesper ranch. Rev. Shuart loaded his church for services by other pastors and religions. The first to use his church, two weeks after construction, was Rev W.W. Van Orsdell (Brother Van), a noted Methodist pioneer preacher. The Episcopalians listened to Rev. William Horsfall not long afterwards, and with Shuart’s aid started to organize an Episcopal Church. This was St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the second to be built. During this time the Baptists and Presbyterians were mingled with the Congregationalists. Soon they felt the need for their own churches, and left to do so.

In summer of 1883 Rev Father Palladino, S. J., was pastor at St. Francis Xavier church in Missoula. He came to Billings and preformed the first mass here. Father Halton performed the first baptism in the Catholic faith (he was from Dakota Territory) in November 1884. He was appointed pastor of the diocese of Helena for a short while, and was then appointed pastor of Livingston, with Billings as a mission attached to the Livingston parish. During one of his visits to Billings he secured two lots, and built a small church (constructed at a cost of $2,000). The building committee members were Dr. Rhinehart, Patrick Gogarthy (relocated to Washington state) and Thomas Hogan (Carbon County). The church was blessed August 21, 1887 under the title of St. Joachim. Prior to construction of the church, and until the spring of 1888, the Jesuit fathers attended to Billings Catholics from St. Xavier’s mission located on Crow land. In 1888 they became dependant upon the Miles City parish, and were attended every fourth Sunday by Father Pauwelyn.

In 1891 Father Pauwelyn was promoted to Butte, and for the second time Billings was re-attached to the Livingston parish. Father Coopman was pastor. This continued until the spring of 1897, when Father VanClarenbeck (from Kalispell) was appointed as the first resident pastor. He remained pastor until December 1904, when he moved to Lewistown. Father VanClarenbeck purchased two lots upon which the rectory stands, and built the rectory itself. He also is responsible for building the bell tower on the old church, and for the obtaining of a bell. He completed the church building and made it fit for divine service. During his pastorate the St. Vincent’s hospital was built. In 1898-1899 he erected the priest’s house and the hospital. In addition, in 1891 Billings’ only lynching took place.

In December 1904 Father Thomas F. Stack was appointed pastor in Billings, coming directly from Red Lodge. In May of 1905 he realized that a larger building would be needed and he purchased six lots on 31st Street and 3rd Avenue North for $4,000. The corner stone for the present church was laid August 12, 1906.

School Districts Formation

Soon after Billings was founded, in September 1882, [One year before Yellowstone County was created] residents living around the Newman ranch petitioned the Custer County Commissioners to establish a school district for them. This was accomplished, and Billings was placed in “School District #3 of Custer County.” This area extended from Pompeys Pillar to Canyon Creek. The only school in the area at that time was the original Newman School [Established 1879.]

After creation of Yellowstone County in 1883 the county area north of the Yellowstone River was divided into six school districts:

1.      Junction

2.      Billings

3.      Newman

4.      Canyon Creek

5.      Park City

6.      Columbus


On 10 March 1898 District #3 was redrawn to include the South Hills area of Duck Creek & Blue Creek that extended to the Crow Indian Reservation and Carbon Counties. This district was later subdivided from 1912 to 1915 into Districts: 3, 34, 40, 44, and 45. District #17 was established for the Crow Indian Reservation. That portion of the original District #3, located on the north side of the Yellowstone River, was annexed by District #2 in 1916. The remainder, on the south side of the river, was left as District #3.

School records after 1914 are located in the Yellowstone County Courthouse. A composite CR-ROM record of over 100,000 student-years for the period from 1914 through 1931, consisting of Districts #1, and #3-#56 has been prepared by the YGF, and a copy placed in the School District’s office. Prior to 1914, the records are retained by Miles City, at their Courthouse. This data disk is available for purchase.



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[1]Some of the first settlers’ biographies state that there was a temporary Land Office in Canyon [Canyon Creek townsite] during the massive rush for acquisition of land in the local area. Files relating to this station have not been located. These would be the filing records for the area preceding 1900.

[2] Illustrated History of Yellowstone Valley, 1907 By State of Montana; author not noted.

[3] Some references stated he moved to the Coulson area in 1867 to start his sawmill.  This places him too early on the Yellowstone River, as no white men were present in June of 1875 when Col Forsythe traveled the area.

[4] Details of the battle are recorded first hand in Senate Document #16, 42d Congress 3d Session. Note: The official government guide to this document is incorrectly posted as being in the 43rd Congress. Document printed January 6, 1873. A map was published, but not included.