Nelson Story was a vigilante, gold miner, cattle rancher, self-made millionaire — a rough, tough, larger-than-life character straight out of an old western — and without him there would probably be no city of Bozeman as we know it today.

Yet in the nearly 100 years since his death, no one has seen fit to write a book about the colorful, controversial Story — until now.

John Russell, who spent years doing research on Story, thinks he knows why.

“I’m guessing there hasn’t been a lot done about him after his death because a lot of people didn’t want to remember him,” Russell said Monday. “There were a lot of people in the community, town and valley who resented the hell out of him.”

The Montana Historical Society Press has just published the first solidly documented biography, “Treasure State Tycoon: Nelson Story and the Making of Montana” by Russell, 63, who worked as the Gallatin History Museum’s executive director for nearly 17 years.

Russell will give a reading and book signing Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., at the Museum of the Rockies as a benefit for the nonprofit Extreme History Project.

The book’s third chapter on Story’s famous 1866 cattle drive from Texas to Montana, published earlier in Montana, The Magazine of Western History, just won the Wild West History Association’s award for best scholarly article of 2018.

Writing a fair history of Story poses challenges. On the one hand Story took great risks to make his fortune, like mining for gold in Alder Gulch or driving cattle through Indian territory in defiance of Army orders. He used his wealth to build up Bozeman, launching a flour mill that employed many, operating a bank and constructing the downtown brick buildings that today house Schnee’s Boots Shoes & Outdoors store.

Story could be very generous — taking money of out his own pocket to improve schools and churches. At Christmas he drove a sleigh through town to hand out food to poor families, and he let a family abandoned by a violent father stay rent-free in one of his north-side houses.

Most importantly, Story’s donation of land, money and a roller rink helped get the state agricultural college to locate in 1893 in Bozeman.

“He was instrumental in getting the university, that’s the main thing making Bozeman what it is today,” Russell said. “Without that, it might be more like Big Timber.”

Yet Story was also investigated and brought before grand juries twice, in Bozeman and Virginia City, for fraud and underhanded dealings with the Crow Agency — such as selling the same goods twice. He escaped conviction by paying about $10,000 in bribes, Russell said, adding that the community was willing to look past his shady dealings as long as the economic benefits trickled down.

Story had a short fuse and was known for being violent, not only toward rivals like Joseph Lindley, but also toward his own family. Russell found a Dec. 13, 1879, arrest record after Story assaulted his wife, Ellen, hitting her across the face with the back of his hand, which left a scar. As late as the 1900s his grown sons once found Ellen crying after his abuse in the family mansion. They grabbed their dad and demanded he apologize to their mother.

Russell found some of his evidence, with help from his wife Peggy, by reading through court cases filed in Gallatin County since the founding of Montana Territory to the 1920s. He also gathered information from the Montana, Kansas and Gallatin historical societies, from surviving relatives, and letters between Nelson and his sons that grandson Malcolm Story saved.

“There’s a lot to acknowledge — I don’t know if I’d use the word admire,” Russell said, “and a lot to shake your head and say, ‘You son of a gun.’”

One of the things he’s most proud of, Russell said, is discovering new information — even some stories that Nelson’s great-granddaughter Martha Drysdale had never heard.

“Treasure State Tycoon” is available for $29.95 in hardback and $19.95 in paperback editions.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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