Montana lurched into statehood in 1889 on ungreased wheels.
“What really hit me is statehood itself was such a bitter result,” said Ken Egan, whose latest book is titled, not by coincidence, “Montana 1889.”
The new state Senate was hopelessly split 8-8 between Republicans and Democrats. The other chamber was in even worse shape. Contested seats resulted in two houses meeting separately. After years as a territory, the Montana Legislature was finally eligible for full representation in Congress. Embarrassingly, each party sent its own set of delegates.
“What a comedy of errors, a carnival of folly for the new state,” Egan wrote.
Don’t expect a blow-by-dry-blow account of the march to statehood here by the man who three years ago published “Montana 1864.” That book covered the territory’s birth year.
Like it, “1889” is part Wikipedia, part poetry as Egan, the executive director of Humanities Montana in Missoula, bridges the quarter century between the two.
Egan calls the interim between 1864 and 1889 “one of the most rapid and dramatic transformations of land and people in United States history.”
The railroads came, the buffalo disappeared, tribal nations were constricted to reservations. Their hunting domains had given way to cattle and sheep by the tens of thousands. Butte and Helena, which weren’t even around when President Lincoln made Montana a territory, were urban centers of industry, electricity and millionaires.
Women found voices, and Egan spends a lot of ink on them in “Montana 1889,” even though the subtitle of the book is limited to “Indians, Cowboys, and Miners in the Year of Statehood.”
“When I toured with ‘Montana 1864’ a lot of readers said, boy, we’d sure like to see more women’s stories,” Egan noted this week.
So while his new book is amply populated by the William A. Clarks, James Ferguses, A.B. Hammonds, James J. Hills and Wilbur Fisk Sanders of the Montana world, along with something on most of Montana’s tribes, Egan has unearthed oft-overlooked stories of no fewer than 10 women, nearly one for each of the months he divides the book into.
There’s Bertha Muzzy Bower, who arrived in the Big Sandy area in 1889 and 15 years later wrote “Chip of the Flying U” as B.M. Bower, leading the novel’s admirers into believing they were reading a man’s work.
There’s Mary Gleim, the bodacious madam businesswoman of Missoula’s West Front Street who bought her first downtown building in 1889 — and was sent to prison five years later for dynamiting rival Bobby Burns’ home in an attempted homicide.
Montana’s first female lawyer, Ella Knowles, was admitted to the bar in December 1889, a couple of days after Cornelius Hedges examined her and expressed surprise to find her so well read.
“She beat all I ever examined,” Hedges wrote in his diary on Christmas Eve.
Two black women fit into Egan’s narrative. Sarah Bickford, a former slave, wound up owning the Virginia City Water Co. Rose Gordon, who started school in her birth town of White Sulphur Springs in 1889, was the daughter of a former slave and a black immigrant from Scotland.
Egan said his favorite female study was of Clara McAdow, who owned a mine at Maiden in the Judith Mountains when she came to the Helena constitutional convention in July 1889 to lobby for women’s suffrage.
“What I like about her story is she’s not just such a character of the first order but she kind of represents the freedom women were finding here in Montana,” Egan said.
Aside from the statehood gig, Montana in 1889 became home to its first and only Kentucky Derby winner, a horse raised near Twin Bridges named Spokane. Charles Broadwater opened the palatial Broadwater Hotel and Natatorium near Helena in August. Havre sprang up as a key tent city along the new Great Northern line, which was rechristened as such in September. Marias Pass was “discovered” by a surveyor from the same railroad that December.
Missoula co-founder C.P. “Cap” Higgins died on Oct. 14, 1889, a day that corresponds 128 years later with Egan’s book signing Saturday at Shakespeare and Co. at the south end of the Higgins Avenue Bridge.
Montana was admitted to the Union as the 41st state on Nov. 8, 1889. Five days earlier, Salish Chief Charlo grudgingly bowed to pressure to abandon his Bitterroot homeland for the Jocko Valley.
The move didn’t happen for almost two years, but Charlo’s words, as quoted in “Montana 1889,” reflected both his personal desperation and the plight of all American Indian tribes by the time Montana became a state.
“I will go — I and my children,” Charlo told retired general Henry B. Carrington in Stevensville. “My young men are becoming bad; they have no place to hunt. My women are hungry. For their sake I will go. I do not want the land you promise. I do not believe in your promises. All I want is enough ground for my grave. We will go over there.”