18 July 2009

Montana's Real Birthplace

The Real “Birthplace of Montana”
By Ken Robison

Ben Myer, a teacher from Ronan, recently asked the Overholser Historical Research Center an interesting question: "What is Montana's Birthplace?"

I responded as follows:

"Dear Ben, Sound like you have a good class, asking good questions.

First, let me say that we should celebrate all early settlements in this Upper Missouri River land--St. Mary's Mission, Fort Benton, and Fort Connah each have claim to some "fame" in our history.

Fort Benton's claim to "Birthplace of Montana" is formed on the fact that Fort Benton is the oldest continuous settlement in Montana, and it has the oldest permanent structure (Old Fort Benton’s Block House).

Both Fort Connah and Fort Benton date to 1846, although the log buildings at Fort Benton were completed in 1847. The Block House had its original logs encased first in adobe, framed around 1900 by wood wainscot framing, and a few years later covered by concrete. Its logs have continuity back to 1846-47, perhaps even older since the logs from Fort Lewis were floated down the Missouri to construct Fort Benton. My understanding of the one building at Connah is that almost all logs, perhaps all, are replacement logs so it hardly constitutes an "original structure." In addition, Fort Connah has long been vacated and has been moved from the original site.

Stevensville is more complicated, but here is my understanding. St. Mary's mission was founded in 1841, but vacated in 1846 when the Catholic Fathers withdrew in the face of the Blackfoot threat. That ended continuous settlement. John Owen arrived in 1850, bought the church facilities, and formed Fort Owen. When the Jesuits didn't return, at their request Owen burned the chapel. When Father Giorda reestablished St. Mary's in 1866, he built a new mission about a mile south of Fort Owen, building a new chapel. I understand a portion of that chapel is in the current structure. In 1864 the name was changed to Stevensville.

Thus, St. Mary's mission was not continuously occupied, and none of the structures date earlier than 1866. So, how, as Wikipedia claims, can Stevensville claim to be "the first permanent settlement" in the state of Montana? Even the combination of Stevensville, Fort Owen, and St. Mary's Mission cannot be recognized as a "permanent settlement" except perhaps from 1850 to the present day. By 1850, Fort Benton was four years old!

I know its complicated, but I believe Fort Benton "wins the horns" (to use an old steamboating term) as the oldest continuous settlement with the oldest structure, and therefore is the real "birthplace of Montana." Meanwhile, let’s enjoy them all since all were important in the development of Montana.

Sources: I'll let you and your students add to this, but the picture becomes clear from:
Joel F. Overholser's Fort Benton World's Innermost Port
Jeanne O'Neill & Riga Winthrop's Fort Connah
Jeanne O'Neil's Men of the Mission

In addition, see the following websites: