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Hamilton Montana History

By Connie Delaney

A brief History of Hamilton, Montana and the Bitterroot Valley

Hamilton, Montana is the Ravalli County seat of Government and the largest town in the Bitterroot valley.  This expansive, big sky, valley contains the Bitterroot river which runs south from the border of Idaho northward to Missoula where it joins the Clark River.  

The Bitterrot valley is named after the "bitterroot", which is now Montana's state flower and used to be an important food source for the Indian tribes in the valley.  Though this plant is quite bitter in its raw form, it commanded a high price in trading and was a fine meal then boiled and mixed with meat or berries.  Pulverized and seasoned with deer fat and moss, the cooked root could be molded into patties and carried on hunting expeditions or war parties. 

The Bitterroot Valley is framed to the west by the Bitterroot Mountains, and to the East by the Sapphire's.  The Bitterroot River starts just below the Continental Divide near Lost Trail pass on the Idaho/Montana border which is 7014 feet in elevation and ends near Missoula at an elevation of 3210 feet.  Hamilton holds a central position in the valley at about 3,500 feet above sea level and enjoys a temperate climate which is often referred to as the "Banana Belt" of Montana.

Jun13$22.jpg (58557 bytes)The Bitterroot Valley is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts providing a great richness of wildlife and outdoor opportunities.  This valley borders the two largest Federal wilderness areas in the US: the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness.  Hunting and fishing is abundant.  Fresh air, pleasant climate and beautiful scenery make this a backpacker's paradise.  Hundreds of rafters enjoy the Bitterroot river in the summer.  Cross country and downhill skiing are popular activities in the winter.  

Highway 93 (North and South) follows the Bitterroot river through the center of the valley and joins Interstate 90 in Missoula.  This spectacular highway runs from the center of Arizona into the middle of Ontario Canada and it so gifted in its sights, western culture and history that National Geographic Magazine chose to feature the highway in a three part feature article.  


The Bitterroot valley was home to several Indian tribes including the Salish, Nez Perce and Kootenai.  It is an important point on the Lewis and Clark Trail.  

St. Mary's mission in the Bitterroot Valley near Stevensville was the first permanent white settlement in Montana.  It was founded by Jesuit priest, Father Pierre DeSmet  in 1841.  It closed in 1850 and later burned. Father Josphe Giorda re-established the mission in 1866.

The town of Hamilton was founded by Marcus Daly who was  one of Montana's colorful "Copper Kings."   Daly was an Irish immigrant who made his fortune in the mines of Butte and founded the Anaconda Mining Company.  He established the town of Anaconda with his smelter.  Daly came to the Bitterroot valley in search of timber for his mines--and this he found in abundance. He built a mill to process the timber and formed a company town around the mill for the workers.  He built a beautiful summer home in the valley in 1887 and accumulated large tracts of land for his hobby of breeding and racing thoroughbred horses.  This large ranch was named the Bitter Root Stock Farm.   

The town of Hamilton was incorporated in 1894 and was named after James Hamilton, a Daly employee, who platted the town along the route of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1890.  By the time Daly died in 1900, Hamilton  was the commercial center of the Bitterroot Valley and the seat of Ravalli County.


The years from 1907 to 1911 in the Bitterroot valley were termed the "Apple Boom."  Many other towns in the west had their boom days fueled by mining discoveries, but Hamilton received its heritage from the enthusiasm of slick salesmen who took advantage of an extensive irrigation network conceived by Marcus Daly.  Enticed by the promise of fertile land and a good climate for growing fruit trees, many unsuspecting farmers came to the valley to give it a go.   From 1907 to 1911 the town's population jumped from 1,800 to 3,000.


By 1915 all the easily accessible timber had been cut from the valley and The Anaconda Copper Mining Company Mill closed. Two years after that the financial problems of the irrigation ditch builders reached a head and the Apple Boom went bust.  Many orchard farmers became disillusioned and moved away. 

The local economy remained shakey until 1927 when the Rocky Mountain Laboratory was established to research the cause of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Contrary to other parts of the nation, Hamilton enjoyed considerable growth during the depression years of the thirties until World War II.

Hamilton and Ravalli County are currently experiencing another economic boom.  The valley has been discovered as an outdoor paradise by urban professionals escaping the rat race.  The valley currently boasts 35,156 residents.    

Lewis & Clark

Lewis and Clark entered the Bitterroot valley on a cloudy, drizzly day, September 4th, 1805.  They did not consider the valley as the climate mecca it is seen as today, but as a cold, inhospitable spot.  The expedition, along with Sacajawea and her young infant,  had just come down over Lost Trail Pass, where they had lost the trail in the sleet and snow, even though they were being led by a local Indian guide named Tobe. 


The expedition had traversed the Continental Divide twice coming from the area of Dillon, Montana over into the Lemhi Valley and Salmon, Idaho.  After determining that the Salmon River was, indeed, impassable--as they had been told by their Indian guides, they had headed north for Montana again. 

On the morning of September 4th, everything was wet and frozen, and the ground was covered with snow.  They followed the Bitterroot river drainage into the valley where they met a village of Flathead which they reported as having 33 lodges, some 440 people and 500 horses. 

The expedition purchased 13 more horses from the Flatheads.  On September 6th the expedition set off down the valley following the Bitterroot river to Lolo Creek.  At Lolo Creek they named their camp, "Travellers Rest."  Hunters sent up Lolo Creek from the Travellers Rest camp met three Flatheads, one of whom agreed to accompany the Expedition as a guide over the Bitterroot mountains and introduce them to his people who lived on the other side at a place where they could build dougouts and sail to the ocean.  

The next day the Expedition headed up Lolo Pass following the Nez Perce trial.


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