MONTANA HISTORY ALMANAC: Montana divided into first counties

2012-01-28T21:30:00Z MONTANA HISTORY ALMANAC: Montana divided into first countiesBy KIM BRIGGEMAN of the Missoulian
January 28, 2012 9:30 pm  • 

Feb. 2, 1865

The nine original counties of Montana were established by the first territorial legislature in Bannack City. Montana was divided into the counties of Beaverhead, Chouteau, Deer Lodge, Edgerton, Gallatin, Jefferson, Madison, Missoula and Big Horn.

All nine counties exist to this day with altered boundaries. Big Horn covered the entire eastern third of the territory. Edgerton County, named after the first territorial governor of Montana, is known as Lewis and Clark.

Only two of the original county seats hold that distinction now - Fort Benton in Chouteau County and Virginia City in Madison County. Missoula County's original seat was at Hellgate, just west of the present town. A courthouse was built in Missoula in 1865, and the seat was moved there in 1866. There were no white settlements in Big Horn County, so there was no county seat.

By the time it gained statehood in 1889, Montana had 16 counties. Twenty-two of its 56 present counties were formed during the county-splitting craze between 1911 and 1919.

Feb. 4, 1884

Salish Chief Charlo was uncharacteristically jovial as talks with Secretary of Interior Henry Teller broke off in Washington, D.C. Charlo, Antoine Moiese and other chiefs, along with Flathead Agent Peter Ronan, had traveled by train to the capital in January.

Teller, along with Montana's territorial delegate Martin Maginnis and other government officials, had tried for several days to convince Charlo to join the rest of his tribe on the Jocko Reservation. As before, Charlo steadfastly refused to leave his Bitterroot home, despite enticements such as his own house on the reservation and an annuity of $500. At one point Teller had given the sullen chief a piece of paper to sign. Charlo angrily refused it.

Between meetings, Charlo underwent successful cataract surgery, which greatly improved his eyesight.

On the final day, Charlo said his people were free to move if they wanted to (Moiese took 18 families to the Jocko later that year). But the chief pointed out they had patents to their land and could not be legally dispossessed. Teller agreed, but warned that the reservation lands intended for Charlo's people would be sold unless occupied.

"When the interview ended, Charlo ... wore a bright smile and was chuckling with his companions over their ‘victory over the whites,' " according to Michael Leeson's "History of Montana," published the following year.

Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at


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