You might think your town is old, but it probably isn’t the oldest in the country.
That is unless you live in St. Augustine, FL. Which looks pretty good for being 454 years old.
That’s older than America for those playing at home.
So that got us thinking, what is the oldest city in Montana? And how old is that when you put it into perspective of St. Augustine or American Independence in 1776?
Because even if your Montana city or town is old, it isn’t really all that old in the grand scheme of things. For example, the Pyramids in Egypt were built around 2600 BC, a cool 4100 years before St. Augustine.
And now that we have you thinking about how the time line of your existence is really kind of unimpressive on the timeline of history, let’s drop right into the analysis.
These are the 10 oldest cities and towns in the Treasure State according to their ‘date of foundation’:
- Helena (Photos)
- Missoula (Photos)
- Billings (Photos)
- Great Falls (Photos)
- Kalispell (Photos)
- Havre (Photos)
- Anaconda-Deer Lodge County (Photos)
- Miles City (Photos)
- Laurel (Photos)
For being 154 years old, Helena doesn’t look a day over 40. And the newest city in Montana? That would be Bigfork — a brand spanking 113 years old.
How We Determined When A City Was Founded In Montana… Or Is It Settled?
Surprisingly, there’s not a definitive data set that contains the dates of incorporation or settlement for cities in America. Put differently, there’s no official data set from the Census that contains when every place in America was founded.
So what did we do instead?
Use the internet’s version of official government data — Wikipedia of course!
For the majority of cities in Montana, Wikipedia offers data on some kind of ‘date of foundation’ in the infobox. Unfortunately, because it’s Wikipedia and not a sprawling government bureaucracy, that can take the form of any of the following nomenclature (plus others):
And then even more stuff — for example Atlanta has a ‘Terminus’ date, whatever that is.
If no ‘date of foundation’ was found in the infobox, we looked to the general text in the History section of the city for ‘Founded in XXXX’.
All in all, we were able to collect data on 14 out of 21 in Montana with over 5,000 people. That’s good for a 66.7% completion rate.
We then ranked them from oldest to newest with Helena turning out to be the matriarch of Montana at the ripe old age of 154.
Here’s a look at the top ten and a snippet of their history from Wikipedia.
The Helena area was long used by various indigenous peoples. Evidence from the McHaffie and Indian Creek sites on opposite sides of the Elkhorn Mountains southeast of the Helena Valley show that people of the Folsom culture lived in the area more than 10,000 years ago. Before the introduction of the horse some 300 years ago, and since, other native peoples, including the Salish and the Blackfeet, utilized the area seasonally on their nomadic rounds.
Archaeological artifacts date the Missoula Valley’s earliest inhabitants to the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago with settlements as early as 3500 BCE. From the 1700s until European settlements began a hundred years later, it was primarily the Salish, Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille, Blackfeet, and Shoshone who used the land. Located at the confluence of five mountain valleys, the Missoula Valley was heavily traversed by local and distant native tribes that periodically went to the Eastern Montana plains in search of bison, leading to conflict. The narrow valley at Missoula’s eastern entrance was so strewn with human bones from repeated ambushes that French fur trappers would later refer to this area as Porte de l’Enfer, translated as ‘Gate of Hell’. Hell Gate would remain the name of the area until it was renamed ‘Missoula’ in 1866.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition brought the first U.S. citizens to the area. They twice stopped just south of Missoula at Traveler’s Rest. They camped there the first time on their westbound trip in September 1805. When they stayed there again on their return in June–July 1806, Clark left heading south along the Bitterroot River and Lewis traveled north, then east, through Hellgate Canyon. In 1860, Hell Gate Village was established 5 miles (8 km) west of present-day downtown by Christopher P. Higgins and Frank Worden as a trading post to serve travelers on the recently completed Mullan Road, the first wagon road to cross the Rocky Mountains to the inland of the Pacific Northwest. The desire for a more convenient water supply to power a lumber and flour mill led to the movement of the settlement to its modern location in 1864.
Lockwood bordered Crow “Mitsiadazi” Reservation, in the 1800s. Cows replacing the buffalo brought an end to the plains Indians way of life. Lockwood was named after Captain Lockwood, reputed as a famous Indian fighter and surveyor for the government, camped in the foothills in the late 1800s. In 1907, settlers opened a public road through Lockwood flats of heavy loam to the 2nd crossing of dry creek, to the Dry Creek Road traversing to the Reservation. The old Indian supply road is still etched into the side of the hill at the south end of Exxon Road which was later called Peter Hoe Road.
The downtown core and much of the rest of Billings is in the Yellowstone Valley which is a canyon carved out by the Yellowstone River. Around 80 million years ago, the Billings area was on the shore of the Western Interior Seaway. The sea deposited sediment and sand around the shoreline. As the sea retreated it left behind a deep layer of sand. Over millions of years this sand was compressed into stone that is known as Eagle Sandstone. Over the last million years the river has carved its way down through this stone to form the canyon walls that are known as the Billings Rimrocks or the Rims.
About five miles south of downtown are the Pictograph Caves. These caves contain over 100 pictographs (rock paintings), the oldest of which is over 2,000 years old. Approximately 30,000 artifacts (including stone tools and weapons) have been excavated from the site. These excavations have indicated that the area has been occupied since at least 2600 BCE until after 1800 CE.
5. Great Falls
The first human beings to live in the Great Falls area were Paleo-Indians who migrated into the region between 9,500 BCE and 8,270 BCE. The earliest inhabitants of North America entered Montana east of the Continental Divide between the mountains and the Laurentide ice sheet. The area remained only sparsely inhabited, however. Salish Indians would often hunt bison in the region on a seasonal basis, but no permanent settlements existed at or near Great Falls for much of prehistory. Around 1600, Piegan Blackfeet Indians, migrating west, entered the area, pushing the Salish back into the Rocky Mountains and claiming the site now known as Great Falls as their own. The Great Falls location remained the tribal territory of the Blackfeet until long after the United States claimed the region in 1803.
Working using his own capital, Charles Edward Conrad, a businessman and banker from Fort Benton, Montana, formed the Kalispell Townsite Company with three other men. The townsite was quickly platted and lots began selling by the spring of 1891. Conrad built a large mansion in Kalispell in 1895. Kalispell was officially incorporated as a city in 1892. Since that time, the city of Kalispell has continued to grow in population reaching 19,927 in 2010. As the largest city in Northwest Montana, Kalispell serves as the county seat and commercial center of Flathead County. The city is considered a secondary trade center with a trade area of approximately 130,000. The city also is home to Kalispell Regional Medical Center, which boasts a 150-bed facility.
Havre was incorporated in north central Montana in 1893. It was founded primarily to serve as a major railroad service center for the Great Northern Railway (built by James J. Hill) with its location midway between Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul. A statue of Hill stands near the Havre Amtrak station to commemorate the key contributions his railroad has made to Havre’s and Montana’s history.
8. Anaconda-Deer Lodge County
Deer Lodge was one of the original 9 Montana counties, as constituted with the establishment of Montana Territory in 1864. The original county included what are now Silver Bow County (separated in 1881), Deer Lodge County, Granite County (separated in 1893) and Powell County (separated in 1901).
9. Miles City
After the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, the U.S. Army created forts in eastern Montana, including one where the north-flowing Tongue River flowed into the east-flowing Yellowstone River. The first fort was known as the Tongue River Cantonment or the Tongue River Barracks and was founded on August 27, 1876. A second, permanent fort was constructed on higher ground two miles to the west of the mouth of the Tongue and this became Fort Keogh.
Before Laurel became a city or a community, people passed through the site during the gold rush period, when gold was discovered at the Clarks Fork headwaters. They came by team and wagon, and by small steamer vessels up the Yellowstone River. The government was in the process of planning a railroad to the west coast, and had surveying crews out to map the country on the most direct route. Many of the prospectors that went west in search of gold, felt that gold might be found in other parts of the state, so some returned to the Yellowstone Valley, and others came from the East to settle here. However, this did not take place until after the Custer Massacre in 1876. It was not until 1877 that the white man felt safe in the Yellowstone Valley, after the power of the Sioux was broken. So it was that while the memory of the Massacre of General Custer and his Command on the Little Big Horn River was still fresh in the minds of settlers of Montana, that a little community was established in the Yellowstone Valley.
Oh How Time Flies For The Oldest Towns And Cities In Montana
So there you have it, a look at some of the oldest places to live in Montana. If we missed your city’s ‘date of foundation’, let us know in the comments. Or feel free to take a look at the table of the oldest places in Montana.
And now, let’s raise our glasses, to the next 100 years of existence for these cities and towns in the Treasure State.
And for those wondering, here are the newest additions to Montana:
- Bigfork (Founded in 1905)
- Lewistown (Founded in 1905)
- Sidney (Founded in 1905)
Detailed List Of The Oldest Cities In Montana
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