The map of Montana doesn’t always make sense

Missoula is in Missoula County, but what about Deer Lodge?

February 28, 2021 10:44 am

Missoula is the seat of Missoula County. Wibaux is the center of government for Wibaux County on the other side of the state. The towns of Cascade, Fergus, Musselshell and Rosebud all reside in counties of their name fellows. Makes sense, right?

Ah, but one of the charms of the Treasure State is its whimsical illogic.

How to explain that at least a dozen towns in Montana don’t lie in one of the 56 counties of the same name?

The list:

Bighorn – Treasure County
Carter – Chouteau County
Choteau – Teton County
Deer Lodge – Powell County
Fallon – Prairie County
Lincoln – Lewis and Clark County
Ravalli – Lake County
Richland – Valley County
Sanders – Treasure County
Custer – Yellowstone County
Sheridan – Madison County
Sweetgrass – Toole County

There are about as many examples as explanations as to how this came about. Some got separated in the 1890s, after statehood, or before or during the county-splitting days leading up to and during World War I. Many shared names of prominent white men, always men, who had no direct connection to them.

Deer Lodge, the town, was separated from Deer Lodge County when Powell County was created and Deer Lodge made its seat in 1901. The name came from the white tails attracted to the area now called Warm Springs, where stands a 40-foot mound formed by thermal waters bubbling up and depositing minerals higher and higher over eons. The mound was a once a tourist curiosity with a cupola on top but today is surrounded by high fences and no trespass signs. Deer still abound on the grounds of the Warm Springs State Hospital in Deer Lodge County.

If you wanted to attract homesteaders to your new town on the Poplar River in northeastern Montana in 1913, or to your new county in the triangle between the Missouri River and mouth of the Yellowstone in 1914, you called them “Richland.”

Sweetgrass is a stone’s throw from Canada on Interstate 15, not far from the three buttes of the Sweetgrass Hills. It was one of the vast regions where sweetgrass, so central to American Indian cultures, once grew in abundance. Give yourself at least four hours on good roads south to get to Sweetgrass County, and another 35 minutes to reach the county seat of Big Timber on the Yellowstone.

A wing-weary crow would have to fly 330 miles from Carter, a grain-shipping port in the Golden Triangle, to reach Ekalaka in Carter County. Both were named for Thomas Henry Carter, a U.S. Senator in early statehood who died in 1911. Carter lived his Montana life in Helena, but the Montana Central Railroad honored him by renaming the Chouteau County town of Sidney in 1905.

The Legislature created Carter County in 1917 but not before changing its name from the proposed “Sykes.” Harry N. Sykes had actually lived in the new county. He was bank president in Ekalaka and ranched in the vicinity, meanwhile serving two terms in Helena as a representative and one as a senator from Custer County. Sykes’ sudden death in 1913 following a routine gall stone operation at a Camp Crook, South Dakota, hospital. At the time he was championing Ekalaka as the seat of the proposed new county of Fallon. Baker got that nod, but Ekalaka was rewarded, and Sykes rebuffed again, four years later.

Speaking of Fallon County, it’s drained to the north by O’Fallon Creek. At the creek’s confluence with the Yellowstone River is the town of Fallon, but by then the waters have already flowed into Prairie County at Ismay, 30 miles upstream. Both county and town were named for Benjamin O’Fallon, Indian agent for the Upper Missouri in the 1820s under his uncle, Capt. William Clark, who floated past the town of Fallon in 1806 but never set foot in the county.

Side swipe: Other Montana counties with names bearing the fingerprints of Lewis and Clark include Judith Basin, for Clark’s cousin and future bride Julia (Judith) Hancock, and Marias, for Meriwether Lewis’ cousin Maria Wood, whom Lewis was disappointed to find already married by the time he got home in 1806. Oh, and of course Lewis and Clark County.

The town of Ravalli, named for Montana Territory’s most influential Jesuit missionary, was a railroad station on the Northern Pacific just over the hill from St. Ignatius Mission on the Flathead Indian Reservation. It’s in Lake County. To the south, Father Anthony Ravalli (1812-1884) spent his last years at St. Mary Mission near Stevensville and left an indelible stamp on the Bitterroot Valley. It was fitting to name the Hamilton-based county for him, although the state legislature in 1893 first considered Bitter Root County.

Sideswipe: “Bitter Root” was first rebuffed as a county name years earlier. On Dec. 14, 1860, the Washington Territorial Legislative Assembly in Olympia broke off the western chunk of Spokane County, now all of western Montana. Despite a petition signed by 77 residents and visitors (many of them on  John Mullan’s wagon road crew) to call it Bitter Root County, the final act dubbed it “Missoula.” It was the first known recorded use of the word and probably sounded less bitter to the ear. To this day there’s no town or county called Bitterroot, one word or two, although you’ll find a number of erroneous references to the latter on the Internet.

Almost every state in the union has a town named in honor of Abraham Lincoln, and Montana is among at least 16 that kicked in a county to boot. The high-country town of Lincoln, on Highway 200 in Lewis and Clark County, was moved down to the Blackfoot River from Lincoln Gulch, a placer gold field named four months after the president was assassinated in 1865. Three mountain counties separate that Lincoln from Libby, seat of Lincoln County in the northwest corner of the state.

Choteau and Chouteau County? The county was one of the nine originals created by the territorial government in 1865. Choteau, the town on the Rocky Mountain Front, was in Chouteau County until the creation of Teton County in 1893. They’re both named for the Chouteau brothers, Pierre Jr. and Auguste, of the wealthy family that established St. Louis, Missouri. The brothers and their agent Alexander Culbertson built the last fur trading post on the Upper Missouri at Fort Benton in 1846.

Sideswipes: Pierre Chouteau also lent his name to the capital of South Dakota. Augusta, Montana, was reportedly named not for Auguste Chouteau but for the daughter of rancher Dion (D.J.) Hogan, a close friend and partner of Conrad Kohrs who in 1868 drove the first market cattle out of Montana from Sun River to Salt Lake.

Not much is left of Sanders, Montana, east of Hysham on the Yellowstone River. But it does have its own Wikipedia page, zip code and a community center on the National Register of Historic Places. The Northern Pacific Railroad wanted to put a roundhouse at Sanders but the landowner refused to sell. It ended up in Forsyth, the next county over. It’s a 6½-hour drive west and a world away from Sanders to Dixon, the closest town in Sanders County.

That’s nothing, almost, compared to the nine hours it takes to get from Sheridan in southwest Montana to Sheridan County, in the northeast corner with Plentywood as its seat. You can see some great country, though, and you’ll cross 16 county lines to get there.

The Sheridans, Custers and both Sanders and Sanders County are named for the same men –  Gen. Philip Sheridan, all 5-foot-5 of him, from Ohio; Col. George Armstrong Custer, also from Ohio, and Wilbur Fisk Sanders of New York, organizer of the Montana Vigilantes and the Montana Historical Society and one of the state’s first two U.S. Senators. All three served in the Union Army in the Civil War and, while Sanders lived the bulk of his life in Helena, none resided in the Montana counties that bear their names.

Custer, however, died in his. It’s now called Bighorn.

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