When you first drive out onto Montana’s plains, you’ll get an inkling that something is amiss—that somehow, you’re doing it wrong.
It will take a moment, but then you’ll realize: This is a landscape that begs to be experienced from horseback. The gullies, the draws, the slight rises, the rolling hills all demand a slower and more intimate form of travel. The place must be seen, but also heard, and smelled; the ever-present song of wind in dry grass, the springtime scent of cottonwoods in the creek beds. A sky so wide that you want to ride out in the open, just for the feeling of being awed and small beneath all that blue.
Agriculture is the economic driver in Montana’s "Golden Triangle."
This impulse has held true for generations of people, real and imagined. In Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Newt reflects on the draw of the northern plains in the opening pages: “Once in a great while Newt dreamed that the Captain not only left, but took him with him, to the high plains that he had heard about but never seen. There was never anyone else in the dreams: jut him and the Captain, horseback in a beautiful grassy country.”
It was this tantalizing pull—along with the promise of prime, undiscovered rangeland—that brought the Hat Creek crew north in McMurtry’s iconic classic. Montana.
The very idea of it haunts the novel, and haunts the characters, too. A place “stretching even farther than hearsay, away and beyond the talk of men.” A place that today is still rife with myth and legend, looming large in the American consciousness. The charms that lured cattlemen, trappers, and outlaws in the late 1800s are much the same as the ones that draw hunters, anglers, recreationists, and individualists to this day: Wide-open spaces, few people, unspoiled landscapes, freedom, and opportunity.
Although Montana is the destination that drives the tale, the Hat Creek outfit’s eventual arrival is rather anticlimactic. They settle in, build a house and corral, make a few trips to Fort Benton, and for the most part, that’s all we hear. The story brings us elsewhere, and we leave Newt to manage the new ranch from atop the mare, Hell Bitch, surveying the vast, unpopulated expanse of this strange and beautiful northern land.
A surveyor’s depiction of the Fort Benton area in 1856.
But was it really as desolate as McMurtry leads us to believe? To be sure, Montana has never been a populous place; to this day, the population hovers just over one million, and cattle still outnumber humans three to one. Ever since the mid-1800s, when Johnny Grant and Conrad Kohrs traded cows to settlers, and Nelson Story drove the first longhorns up from Texas, cattle have dominated the area’s short-grass prairie. But the bovines weren’t the only ones showing up at this time. By 1876, when Woodrow Call and company arrived, Montana—and Fort Benton, in particular—was a veritable hive of activity.
Founded in 1846, Fort Benton was one of the first established white settlements in the interior West. Known as the “Birthplace of Montana,” its only predecessor was St. Mary’s Mission, a small Jesuit missionary in present-day Stevensville. While St. Mary’s may claim an earlier settlement date, Fort Benton soon outpaced the mission in size and importance.
As the final fur-trading establishment on the Upper Missouri River, Fort Benton quickly became a critical hub not just for trappers, but for settlers, whiskey runners, merchants, gold miners, outlaws, lawmen, local Native groups, and the U.S. Army, which bought the fort in 1865 following the decline of the fur trade. During its early years, Fort Benton was anything but genteel; the mix of saloons, dance halls, plenty of whiskey, a transient population, and a penchant for vigilante justice made for more than a little excitement. But by the 1880s, order emerged out of the chaos, and with it prosperity, families, houses, and a downtown complete with civilized brick buildings.
Steamboats could travel up the Missouri to Fort Benton, but no farther. Because of this, the town also became the terminus of several important trails that carried goods, people, and animals overland in every direction. The Mullan Road, built by the Army in 1860, spanned the 640-mile distance between the Missouri River and the Columbia River at Walla Walla, Wash., providing a crucial link between the East and the interior Northwest. The Whoop-Up Trail, also headed in Fort Benton, allowed commerce between the Missouri River and points north, well into Canada. While the arrival of the railroads spelled the end of the steamboats, the trails remained in use for some time. Today, visitors to the state can still find—and travel on—remnants of both of these roads.
In fact, a surprising number of artifacts remain from that time, both physical and cultural. In the area where McMurtry’s ragtag travelers end up—somewhere between the Milk and the Missouri rivers—agriculture is still the primary economic driver, although the homesteaders of Call and McCrae’s era eventually grew into large-scale farms. Today, Call’s property would most likely find itself planted with several kinds of wheat, falling as it does in the middle of the area now known as the Golden Triangle, named so for its productive, volcanic soils, long summer days, and crop-friendly conditions.
The Missouri River and its banks in low light near Fort Benton, Mont.
Cattle ranches still dominate the largely undeveloped landscape, and each spring, cow-calf pairs pepper the rolling grasslands. During the late 1800s, cattle expanded rapidly and widely over the open plains. So widely, in fact, that they outpaced their carrying capacity; drought and the harsh winter of 1886–87 decimated the herds. In response, the ranchers who weathered the storm began to fence their cattle, and the era of the open range came to an end.
Good grazing draws more than just cattle, and the area remains home to abundant game, including whitetail and mule deer, big horn sheep, antelope, elk, and birds, and outfitters thrive in this hunter’s and angler’s paradise. Paddlefish and sturgeon patrol the Missouri River, throwbacks to the age of the dinosaurs. The grizzlies that so frightened the Hat Creek boys and their horses have been absent from their historical territory for generations, but in recent years, the great bears have begun venturing back out of their Rocky Mountain strongholds and onto the plains, where their ancestors once greeted Lewis and Clark.
And now, thanks to government and citizen efforts, the place will continue to support abundant wildlife and outdoor recreation opportunities well into the future. The American Prairie Reserve is stitching together a patchwork of rangeland and bringing back the long-lost bison. And not only does the Upper Missouri bear the distinction of being a federally named Wild & Scenic River, but the Upper Missouri Breaks are designated a National Monument, as well. When Lewis and Clark described “scenes of visionary enchantment,” it was the Upper Missouri’s bluffs and sandstone canyons they were admiring.
Credit: Courtesy of River and Plains Society
The steamboat O.K. moored in front of the Grand Union Hotel on the Missouri River.
The landscape isn’t the only aspect of the area to have gained recognition and protection, however. A National Historic Landmark and a Preserve America Community, the town of Fort Benton itself is a study in dedication to heritage. While the rolling plains, wide skies, and constant wind evoke the atmosphere of Lonesome Dove, the Fort brings the realities of historical life on the plains into stark focus.
Everywhere you turn in Fort Benton, the past is on display. The steamboat levee is now a public park, where visitors can stroll and read about the town’s heyday, when the nation’s “innermost port” saw a brisk business in buffalo hides, liquor, and lawlessness. The grande dame of the historic district is the Grand Union Hotel, built in 1882 and lovingly restored to its former splendor, replete with leather sofas, dark wood paneling, and an ornate brick facade. It is the sort of place one imagines Jake Spoon might approve of: A place to enjoy a fine supper, a round of cards, and a clean and comfortable feather bed. Jake isn’t the only one, though, who would appreciate Fort Benton’s amenities. Recently, Forbes Magazine named Fort Benton one of America’s 15 Prettiest Towns, and National Geographic Traveler listed the area among the Best Trips of 2013.
When Newt and Call visit Fort Benton, they meet with soldiers at the Fort itself. Newt learns quickly to turn the horses he’s breaking away from the frozen Missouri when he leaves the confines of the fort’s walls, to save himself an untimely end. And, while many of the fort’s adobe buildings have long since met their own ends, one still remains. It is around this old structure that an astonishing complex of museums has arisen.
Half a dozen museums beckon, putting the past on vivid display: Sculptures; paintings; and taxidermied animals, including grizzlies, mountain lions, and bison taken from the last wild herd near the Missouri River in 1886 and once featured at the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C., are now on display at the Museum of the Northern Great Plains. Also on display are paintings by renowned artists John Mix Stanley and Granville Stuart, while the Starr Gallery of Western Art exhibits prints of works by Swiss painter Karl Bodmer, which provide some of the most accurate renditions of Native American life during that era. The office and living quarters of the founders of Fort Benton are also on display at the Starr Gallery. Clothing, furs, weapons, provisions, tipis, blankets, trade goods, houses, and a blacksmith shop can all be found within the museums of Old Fort Benton. The list of historical artifacts and information housed there is nearly limitless, and indeed, together, they paint a vibrant picture of the kind of life that awaited Newt, Call, Pea Eye, and the rest of the crew when they arrived in Montana.
The White Cliffs of the Missouri River Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument.
But really, it seems, Lonesome Dove isn’t a book about things; aside from saddles and boots and guns, a hat and a bedroll and a deck of cards, the objects of everyday life hold little interest for the cast of characters. Ultimately, Lonesome Dove is a book about people, and the relationship they have to the land—and to each other. This is the oldest story there is, and it continues to play out daily, all over the world.
But in Montana, the story feels just a bit bigger, the stakes a little higher, the characters a little wilder. This was the case in the late 1800s, and it’s still the case today: The mountains, rivers, and wide-open spaces continue to draw dreamers and doers with their siren song. McCrae tells Clara that they’ve heard that “Montana’s the last place that ain’t settled,” and that sentiment still rings true when we call the state the Last Best Place. Just like the Hat Creek outfit, we still want to believe the rumor that Montana is iconic and wild and waiting.
Is it true? Maybe, maybe not. There are fences and laws, and steamboats no longer ferry barrels of whiskey straight to the doors of dance houses and brothels. Wagons no longer creak their way West over the Mullan Road, laden with supplies. Bison no longer roam in multitudinous herds. On the other hand, the land runs on for miles out here, without a house in sight. Antelope and elk graze. Bears spill out of the mountains in the spring, and venture onto the plains. Cattle are still a way of life. Neighbors skirmish, and come to one another’s aid. The river breaks glow gold in the late afternoon sun. Blizzards arrive with their terrible force. The crops wither and thrive on the whim of the weather. The people are tough and proud and kind as the day is long. Horses thunder over the prairie, eating up the miles. The sky stretches out forever. The wind blows on and on.
Plan It: Fort Benton is set to accommodate your every need.
The Fort Benton Heritage Complex, 406-622-5316
- Historic Old Fort Benton
- The Starr Gallery of Western Art
- Museum of the Northern Great Plains
- Hornaday/Smithsonian Buffalo & Western Art Gallery
- Homestead Village
- Museum of the Upper Missouri
Fort Benton’s Annual Summer Celebration
Montana’s premier small-town festival, complete with music, rummage sale, pig roast, Old West reenactments, crafts, dancing, parade, fishing derby, a mustache and beard contest, etc.
Choteau County Fair
Classic country fair, complete with bar-b-q brisket competition, 4-H livestock sale, pig wrestling, and demolition derby.
Upper Missouri River Guides, 406-691-1135
Missouri River Canoe Company, 406-378-3110
Adventure Bound Canoe & Shuttle Co., 877-538-4890
Missouri River Outfitters, 866-282-3295
Three Rivers Canoes, 406-621-3486
Hitch ‘n Rail Ranch, 406-378-2571
[Where to Stay]
The Grand Union Hotel, 406-622-1882
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and elegantly restored to its 1882 splendor, the Grand Union Hotel is located in the center of Fort Benton’s Historic District. The hotel offers 27 exquisitely renovated luxurious rooms.
The Lark & Laurel Bed and Breakfast, 406-403-3768
The Lark and Laurel features four delightful and accommodating bedrooms, all of which are found up the graceful front staircase. On the main floor are the common rooms; Parlor, Cabin Room, and Dining Room. The ambience of the décor throughout the house is influenced by the colors and sights of old Europe and Montana’s beautiful songbirds.
Virgille Mercantile Homestead Cabins and Bed & Breakfast, 800-426-2926
Most Cabins offer authentic wood burning cook stoves, charcoal grills, drinking water, cookware, dinnerware, and lanterns. Cabin guests share modern men’s and ladies’ bath house facilities, located inside the old Virgelle Icehouse building. Four Bed & Breakfast rooms are located above the restored Mercantile.
[Where to Eat]
Union Grille, 888-838-1882
Enjoy relaxing dining in a historic riverside western atmosphere enhanced by an innovative menu and professional courteous service. Seasonal outdoor dining is offered within a stone’s throw of the river.
Wake Cup Coffee House, 406-622-5400
Quirky, cozy and welcoming coffee shop with excellent baked goods and lunch options.
Missouri Breaks National Monument Interpretive Center, 877-256-3252
The Missouri Breaks National Monument Interpretive Center highlights the natural and cultural history of the area. Boating information for those floating the Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri River is available, as well as hands-on exhibits about the land, the wildlife and culture of the area.
Fort Benton Chamber of Commerce, 406-622-3964