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It was a gamble, trying to start a town in the middle of nowhere. But then, John Bozeman was a gambling man.

It was 150 years ago that the charismatic trail guide persuaded a motley crew of discouraged gold miners, hopeful farmers, dreamers and adventurers that they should settle where the dusty, dangerous Bozeman Trail crossed Sourdough Creek.

The spot was hundreds of miles from the nearest U.S. Army fort, hundreds of miles from Salt Lake City, and a good day’s ride away from the gold digs at Virginia City, the magnet that drew some 10,000 miners.

The spot Bozeman picked looked promising for an agricultural town. Creeks and springs crisscrossed the Gallatin Valley. Native grasses waved like fields of wheat. Antelope played.

William W. Alderson, a Methodist minister, miner and farmer, born in England, wrote in his diary on July 15, 1864, that the valley and stream looked “so pleasant and inviting,” he and his brother decided to settle here. By July 27 he was calling it “home.”

The settlement was strategically located. A town here would be the first supply outpost reached by emigrants’ wagon trains after crossing hundreds of miles from the Oregon Trail on John Bozeman’s illegal shortcut to the gold through Indian treaty country.

So on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 1864, a meeting was called “to give official form to the dream of founding a town,” as the late historian Merrill Burlingame wrote.

Alderson kept the minutes for the Upper East Gallatin Association in his elegant longhand, one of many records on file today at the Gallatin History Museum.

Alderson moved that the spot known as Jacobs’ Crossing be renamed Bozeman, and the assembled men agreed. Bozeman was elected chairman and recorder, Alderson secretary, and a fee of $1 was set for filing land claims. The next day, Bozeman recorded seven claims.

The town consisted of a few tents made from wagon covers and the start of a half-dozen log homes. Soon the settlers were giving away land along the trail that they declared to be Bozeman’s Main Street.

Ten days after the settlement’s founding, W.J. Davies camped nearby and was visited in the morning by Elliott Rouse and John Bozeman, who told of the “wonderful townsite” they had discovered.

“They spoke eloquently of its many advantages, its water privileges and its standing right in the gate of the mountain ready to swallow up all the tenderfeet that would reach the territory from the east, with their golden fleeces to be taken care of,” Davies recalled in 1891. “All that and the promise of numerous corner lots prevailed with me and I moved camp to the great city of Bozeman.”

Even with a strategy of “mining the miners,” there was no guarantee the settlement would survive. Montana Territory, created just three months earlier by Abraham Lincoln’s signature, would produce plenty of ghost towns.

Gallatin City, started earlier near present-day Three Forks, would fail. Virginia City, once the largest town in the inland Northwest, would shrink to fewer than 200 souls.

Why did the town of Bozeman survive and thrive? Was it economics? Geography? Government aid? Or the personalities of the pioneering men and women who made this their home?

‘Strongest man I ever knew’

Founder of City of Bozeman John Bozeman

Portrait of Bozeman's founder John Bozeman.

John Bozeman was something of a wild West rock star.

Just 29 years old when the town was named for him, Bozeman was tall and strong and described by contemporaries as “a manly man” and “quite a favorite with women.”

Davies wrote that Bozeman was “known in all the mining camps as a brave, determined man, a great mountain pathfinder and Indian fighter; a man the people would be very ready and willing to follow almost anywhere.”

Davies, seeing Bozeman carry a load that would have broken a mule, called him “the strongest man I ever knew.”

“His sense of honor in some directions was terribly sensitive,” Davies recalled, “while in other directions his conscience was very elastic.”

Bozeman had abandoned his wife and three daughters in Georgia to chase the dream of gold in the West, just as his father had abandoned the family for the California gold rush when John was about 14.

The chase took Bozeman away from the Civil War and out to Colorado and Montana. He apparently decided standing in cold streams panning for gold wasn’t for him. Instead he saw opportunity in guiding emigrant trains on a shortcut to the gold – even if it meant the risk of getting scalped.

George Irwin II joined one such trip in 1863. After most of the 100-man wagon train was turned back by a hostile Indian party, Bozeman continued on with a small group of 10 men who dared to travel through Indian country. Moving at night, their one supply horse and food were lost. The party went hungry for four days and became so despondent, some were ready to sit and wait for death.

“There was one, however who knew no such word as fail. It was John Bozeman,” Irwin wrote in 1888. “He succeeded in imparting to us some of his restless energy and by inspiring us with his indomitable courage, the march was again taken up.”

Bozeman shot an eagle for food and got the group out safely.

Irwin remembered him as “six feet two inches high, 200 pounds, supple, active, tireless and of handsome, stalwart presence. He was genial, kindly and as innocent as a child in the ways of the world. He had no conception of fear…. He never knew was fatigue was.”

John M. Bozeman, with fellow guide John M. Jacobs, blazed a route more direct than the Oregon Trail to the Gallatin Valley and the gold-mining camps beyond. And once he got here, the city's first "developer" presented mid-19th century European settlers with another viable place to homestead.

Bozeman was said to care little for money, except as a means for gambling.

Less impressed was Edward Neally, who wrote for Atlantic Monthly in 1866 of his year in Montana. Neally, with a note of sarcasm, described “a half-dozen huts, dignified with the name Bozeman City.”

“Here lives a Cincinnatus in retirement, one of the great pioneers of mountain civilization named Bozeman … He is looked up to among emigrants much as Chief Justice Marshall is among lawyers. I saw the great man, with one foot moccasined and the other as Nature made it, giving Bunsby opinions to a crowd of miners as to the location of the mythical mines.”

Wild West town

Thanks to “the great man” and industrious pioneers, the little settlement grew quickly.

John Bozeman encouraged Thomas Cover and Perry McAdow to start a flour mill in 1864. Bozeman and George Frazier built the town’s first frame building, City Hotel, and John lived upstairs.

John Stafford and W.S. Rice had built the first hotel – a one-and-a-half-story log building (today the site of Gallatin Masonic Lodge No. 6, where the palomino horse sign turns). There the town’s first Christmas Eve ball was held in 1864 and first wedding in 1865.

Alderson, who married the couple, started a dairy on a hill south of Main Street, on what is now Willson Avenue, and soon was selling potatoes to the gold miners.

The Spieth & Krug Brewery was founded to serve thirsty travelers in 1866, the same year that Nelson Story made his famous cattle drive from Texas to Montana.

Bozeman would boast several brick buildings by 1872, including gunsmith Walter Cooper’s and the Metropolitan Hotel, as well as its first bank and the Avant Courier newspaper.

It was still a wild West. Women were scarce. Rosa Beall would recall “howling wolves” attacking the canvas wagon box set on the ground where she and her two little girls cowered. Crow Indians camped in town and pestered housewives for biscuits.

John Bozeman wrote a few letters to his mother in Georgia, reassuring her that he was in good health, would really like to come home to visit his wife and children, if he weren’t so busy with the emigrants. He wrote he had been “up and down, rich and poor several times.” In December 1866, he told his mother that the town was really getting organized, building a schoolhouse and a church. He signed it “your affectionate Son until death.”

By 1867, Bozeman was bustling, but its existence was precarious.

On March 25, 1867, Bozeman wrote to acting territorial Gov. Thomas Meagher asking for Army support. Settlers were getting ready to evacuate, he wrote, after “reliable reports here that we are in imminent danger of hostile Indians, and if there is not something done to protect this valley soon, there will be but few men and no families left in the Gallatin Valley.”

On April 17, 1867, despite great misgivings, Bozeman rode out with Cover, heading to Fort C.F. Smith on the Bighorn River in Indian country, to seek orders for the flour mill.

The next day, while camped east of Livingston, Bozeman was shot to death. Cover hobbled back to the Nelson Story ranch with a flesh wound, telling of an attack by horse-stealing Blackfeet Indians.

It wasn’t until 1946 that Story’s son Thomas Byron revealed to the Bozeman Chronicle’s manager that his dad’s best tracker had found suspicious evidence at the murder site – Bozeman’s gun and scalp were intact, and rocks had been picked up and thrown, perhaps to shoo off horses.

Rumors persist to this day that it was jealous husbands, not Indians, who engineered John Bozeman’s murder.

Historian Phyllis Smith, in her book “Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley, a History,” reported her 1993 interview with Roy Walton about his conversation around 1916 with Billy Frazier, son of the hotel owner. Young Billy was said to have seen Bozeman riding out of town and overheard his mother’s comment, “Isn’t he a handsome man?” To which his father replied, “Yes, and take a good look at the son-of-a-bitch as this is the last you are going to see of him!”

Whatever happened, John Bozeman did his little town a big favor by being killed.

“The entire territory was shocked by his death,” Burlingame wrote. The murder, blamed on Indians, immediately created strong pressure on Gov. Meagher and the federal government to respond to the threat.

By August 1867, the Army had built Fort Ellis three miles east of Bozeman. The

fort gave the town both a sense of protection that attracted more settlers, and a major customer to buy its goods.

“Bozeman’s death perhaps did more to advance the town and the valley,” Burlingame wrote, “than he would have been able to do had he lived.”

Secrets of survival

Historians offer several theories why Bozeman survived and thrived.

Crystal Alegria and Marsha Fulton, co-directors of the Extreme History Project, have written an article for the Montana Historical Society magazine arguing that federal support – in the form of Fort Ellis and Fort Parker, the Crow Indian agency at Livingston – was critical to the town’s survival.

In the 1870s, gold mines played out and a national depression hit, bankrupting the Northern Pacific Railroad that was planning to lay its transcontinental tracks right through Bozeman.

The forts provided a lucrative market for Bozeman’s flour, meat and produce in those lean years, and the townsfolk often exaggerated the Indian threat to maintain the military presence, Alegria and Fulton said. The federal agencies served as an economic “bridge” until the Northern Pacific finally arrived in 1883.

Kim Scott, Montana State University archivist and a historian, agreed.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Scott said. “We ‘hate government’ in the 21st century, but the simple truth is without the federal government there would be no Bozeman.”

Michael Fox, history curator at the Museum of the Rockies, cited four main reasons why Bozeman survived and thrived – the railroad, farming, MSU and Yellowstone National Park.

The railroad was Bozeman’s “lifeline,” Fox said, without which the town would likely die. The Northern Pacific came to Bozeman because it was promoting Yellowstone as a tourist destination even before the tracks were built. The railroad chose Livingston as the jumping off spot for Yellowstone, and then had to build a major tunnel through Bozeman Pass.

Bozeman promoted itself from the 1880s on as a great grain-growing region, “the Egypt of the West,” Fox said. Thanks to the railroad, it could sell wheat and barley back East.

In 1893, after losing the competition for the state capital and state penitentiary, Bozeman landed the state land-grant agricultural college. It didn’t seem like much of a prize at the time, but it grew to become Montana State University. The university not only developed new strains of grain to help Montana farmers but also became the city’s biggest employer and economic engine.

Bozeman’s closeness to Yellowstone Park has also been a major economic driver, Fox said. The park buys supplies from Bozeman, hires construction contractors and road builders. It also attracts newcomers, much as gold did back in 1864.

“One of the reasons we’re able to survive effectively as a town is when one of the economic drivers is not doing well, you can count on the others,” Fox said.

Bozeman held major celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the city’s founding in 1914, 90th anniversary in 1954 and 100th anniversary in 1964. There were parades and floats, speeches, a German band, softball games, Indian dancers, a governor’s visit and special sections in the newspapers.

This year, the 150th anniversary is passing almost unnoticed. The Extreme History Project directors said they have been concentrating on a Sweet Pea Parade entry celebrating the 100th anniversary of Montana women’s suffrage.

However, to commemorate the town’s 150th anniversary, the Extreme History Project is preparing “Who Killed John Bozeman?” an audience-participation “whodunit” to be performed at the Museum of the Rockies on Oct. 4 and 5. It will present competing theories to the audience for debate in a town-hall meeting format.

The Extreme History Project also offers walking history tours that cover Bozeman’s early history, “From Tents to Town” (for times and dates, see

The fact there are no parades may suggest how far Bozeman has come in 150 years and how secure residents feel about its future.

No doubt the 50th and 100th year celebrations were “promotional,” said Dave Swingle, museum instructor at the Museum of the Rockies. Today, Swingle said, with a population of roughly 40,000, Bozemanites are more likely to worry about the city being “too attractive” and bringing in too many people.

“The early pioneer guys definitely had guts, a tremendous amount of courage,” Fox said. “They also had tremendous vision.

“They had the same appreciation of the grandeur of the Gallatin Valley as people who drive through have today,” who see the mountain peaks surrounding the valley, Fox said, and say, “’Wow, this is just a special and amazing place.’”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582–2633.

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Hover your mouse over the images to see a transcription of the document.Transcriptions of the pages are included after the images.


East Gallatin Montana Ter. Aug. 9, 1864

At a meeting held by the Settlers of Upper East Gallatin at “Jacobs Crossing” on Tuesday Aug. 9, 1864, J.M. Bozeman was elected chairman and W.W. Alderson secretary.

The chairman states the object othe meeting to be to form a claim association for the purpose making law etc. in relation to farming claims and for mutual protection.

On motion of W.W. Alderson, it was resolved that the town and district be called Bozeman and that the boundary of the district shall be as follows. Commencing at the northeast corner of Kimball’s claim thence east to the base of the mountains, thence in a southerly direction around the base of the mountains to Gallatin River, thence down said river to a point due west of said Kimball’s claim, thence east to the place of beginning.



Minutes of first meeting cont.

Res - 3rd that after any settler stakes out and records a claim, he must be an actual settler on said claim within ten days thereafter in order to hold said claim.

On motion of J.M. Bozeman was elected recorder and the sum of one dollar the fees for recording a claim.

On motion the meeting adjourned.

J.M. Bozeman, Chair W.W. Alderson, Secy.

Source: Gallatin History Museum


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