Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Long inhabited by various Native American groups, Montana was first systematically explored by Americans in the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–6). Subsequently, fur traders and trappers entered the area, but the real burst in American migration into Montana started with the discovery of gold in 1858. Prospectors swarmed into the area, and on March 26, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill creating the Montana Territory.

Ranchers and homesteaders soon followed, and with the end of the Indian wars the territory's European American population exploded from 38,159 in 1880 to 132,159 ten years later. Settlers vigorously pressed for statehood, and on November 8, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison signed a bill recognizing Montana as the forty-first state.

The basis of representation in the legislature was particularly important in drafting the state constitution. The Great Plains region of Montana, devoted to ranching and with a homestead rush then under way, was relatively unpopulated compared to the mining and timbering counties in the western third of the state. To ensure that their interests were protected, Plains delegates sought and won language for equal representation of each county in the new state senate (one senator per county), while the state house of representatives would be based upon population, but with the proviso that each county was entitled to a minimum of one representative. The battle over apportionment of the state legislature in 1889 in turn reflected the underlying regional divisions in the state that have continued to the present day.

In the wake of statehood, homesteading was actively promoted by the Great Northern Railroad and the Milwaukee Road, and tens of thousands of settlers flooded into the semiarid Plains between 1890 and World War I. This influx of newcomers in turn engendered the creation of dozens of new counties, with the result that the state went from sixteen counties at the time of statehood to fifty-six by the early 1920s. This development further institutionalized rural dominance of the state legislature, and this would remain unchanged until the federal courts mandated change in the 1960s.

From its beginning Montana has been a state whose economy is heavily dependent upon the boom-and-bust cycles of resource extraction (minerals, oil, gas, and timber) and the insecurities of uncertain rainfall and commodity prices in its agricultural sector. In the western counties, where mining and associated activities dominated, progressive politics and labor unionism were relatively strong. In the Plains, after brief flirtations with a variety of third-party experiments, rural and Republican conservatism became firmly entrenched.

These two traditions were manifest in a variety of contradictory expressions. Montana became one of the first states to adopt the initiative and referendum and in 1916 became the first state to elect a woman, Jeannette Rankin, to the U.S. House of Representatives. On the other hand, even in the progressive west, the range of political choice was narrow due to the heavy influence of corporate giants like the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in state and local politics. These clashing traditions came to a head in the gubernatorial election of 1920, in which Democrat Burton K. Wheeler, representing a progressive coalition of workers and farmers ranging from conservative trade unionists to Nonpartisan League dryland homesteaders and socialists and revolutionary communists, was defeated by Republican Joseph Dixon who, though no friend of corporate power, was nonetheless tolerated by it as the lesser of two evils.

After 1920 the Anaconda Company, in alliance with other business giants like the Montana Power Company, wielded pervasive control over the internal politics and policy of the state. The mining company owned most of the state's larger newspapers and wined and dined the legislators when they met for brief sixtyday sessions once every two years. Ironically, the state at the same time would send to Washington liberal and progressive-leaning politicians like Wheeler (elected to the Senate in 1922), Thomas J. Walsh, and later Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf. Observers have long tried to account for what some have called the schizophrenia of Montana politics, but certainly one reason is that these individuals were far less threatening to the big business community in faraway Washington dc than they were in the governor's mansion in Helena.

The conservative environment of state politics was also reinforced in part by the malapportionment of the state legislature. Since Montana's fifty-six counties had equality of representation in the state senate and a minimum of one per county in the statehouse, the rural Plains counties were grossly overrepresented in relation to their population: as few as 16 percent of the state's voters could elect a majority of the state senate. But in 1964, in the case of Reynolds v. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that inequality of population in state legislative districting violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which in its judgment required that political subdivisions within a state be as nearly equal in population as practicable. When the Montana State Legislature failed to reapportion in accordance with the standard set, a federal district court did the job for it in 1965.

Reapportionment seemed in turn to trigger a more general drive to reform the constitutional system. In 1970 a call for a convention to write a new state constitution won substantial approval statewide, with support generally highest in the western counties and lowest in the Plains counties. The legislature responded by enacting legislation for the election of delegates and the convening of the assembly, and in the November 1971 special election 100 delegates were duly elected (58 Democrats, 36 Republicans, and 6 independents). The convention then proceeded to write a new constitution that included several innovations. Among these were annual legislative sessions, election of legislators from single-member districts, statewide property tax assessment, apportionment by a nonpartisan and independent districting commission, and fully open and public legislative sessions.

In addition, the new constitution explicitly recognized the individual right of privacy and included articles guaranteeing a "clean and healthful environment" and "equality of educational opportunity." It also mandated voter review of local government every ten years, which allows citizens, if they choose, to review and select new forms of local government, an innovation unprecedented in the United States.

Recognizing the growing importance of the strip-mining of Montana coal, the proposed constitution also established a coal-severance-tax trust fund in which not less than 25 percent of severance tax revenues was to be earmarked for the trust, and it also stipulated that "all lands disturbed by the taking of natural resources shall be reclaimed." The draft constitution also asserted a public interest in water and its uses and opened up the door for subsequent actions by the legislature and the courts to spell out what public activities constituted a "beneficial use" of the state's water. The document's provisions for the protection of natural resources, including water, and for moving assessment of property values to the state were controversial and appeared to threaten the economic position and assumed property rights of both the mining and agricultural communities, who lobbied vigorously against ratification.

The subsequent referendum vote on the constitution was extraordinarily close, with a winning margin of only 2,532 out of 230,298 votes cast. Further, the vote showed a sharp division of opinion between urban and rural voters. The constitution was approved in only twelve counties, all in the mountain west of the state. In contrast, the constitution lost badly in the Plains counties.

By the 1990s a new political geography appeared to be emerging. Rather than an urbanrural or mountain-plains line of division, the new pattern has isolated Democrats to places where the labor union presence and tradition remain strong, counties with a substantial proportion of Native Americans, and counties with sizable numbers of public employees, such as Lewis and Clark County (Helena) and Missoula County, site of the University of Montana, the state's liberal bastion. Montana appears to be undergoing a critical political realignment, moving from a state in which the two major parties were evenly matched, with strong and consistent regional bases of support, to one dominated by the Republican Party. One expression is Republican control of both houses of the state legislature and the governorship. Another is the growing strength of a radical antitax, antigovernment ideology in which voters now routinely face constitutional initiatives to repeal or abolish taxes, require a public vote on any new taxes, or require a supermajority vote in the legislature to increase taxes. Finally, the state has become identified as an incubator of ultra-right-wing causes like the Militia of Montana and the Montana Freemen, even though such fringe groups have enjoyed little real support.

On at least two issues, however, contemporary Montanans are all agreed. First, they do not want a retail sales tax. In 1971 the people soundly rejected a sales tax referendum. In 1993 they rea.rmed that opinion in a second referendum vote. Montana remains one of a handful of states that does not have a sales tax, and consequently it relies much too heavily on property and personal income taxes to support state and local government. Secondly, there is a strong willingness to use the tools of direct democracy–the initiative and the popular referendum. From 1972, when the new constitution was adopted, to 1999, ninety-four initiative petitions to create new statutes or amend the constitution were circulated for signatures. Of these, thirty-one qualified for November ballots and eighteen were approved by the voters.

But the most important story about Montana politics today is perhaps the dominance of conservatism. The causes of this are hard to discern, but there are some indicators. First, the state's economy remains heavily dependent on "boom and bust" market forces in the resource and agricultural markets, and throughout the 1990s Montana's income growth was anemic, with significant job growth apparent only in the low-wage service sector, a sector noted for the absence of labor unions. Second, the state's population, which declined by 7 percent in the 1980s, turned around and exploded, with a 10-percentage-point increase between 1990 and 1998. The bulk of the growth in population has occurred in the mountain region. The western counties, with their rugged mountains, evergreen forests, clear lakes, and blue-ribbon trout streams, are being transformed into a "lifestyle frontier." Into these attractive environs come many with comfortable incomes (often in retirement accounts or earned elsewhere). Their needs provide employment in the construction and service economies, the former to build trophy homes and summer cabins, the latter to work at a growing number of pricey restaurants, boutiques, and resorts.

From 1990 to 2000 the population of the state grew by 103,000, but during the same period twenty-two counties experienced population declines, most of them in the Plains. The declines have been the greatest where farming and ranching have remained the predominant economic activity, and it is this uneven economic growth and the increasing disparities in wealth and income that suggest a new Montana configuration is emerging.

In the Plains of Montana the state's eastern boundary is an artificial line on the map–the cultural and economic distances between Jordan, in central Montana, and Belle Fourche, in western South Dakota, are minimal. In contrast, light years of material and psychic distance separate both of these communities and the hundreds like them in the Great Plains from the soft ambience and comfortable affluence of places in Montana like Bozeman, north of Yellowstone National Park, and Big Fork on the shore of Flathead Lake. But both Montanas seem to be merging into one conservative hegemony dedicated to keeping taxes low and government services minimal.

See also PROTEST AND DISSENT: Freemen.

Jerry W. Calvert Montana State University

Lopach, James J., et al. We the People of Montana: The Workings of a Popular Government. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing, 1983.

Malone, Michael, Richard B. Roeder, and William L. Lang. Montana: A History of Two Centuries. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Toole, K. Ross. Twentieth-Century Montana: A State of Extremes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.

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