Dawson County Montana Genealogy Trails
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Dawson County, Montana
County History

[Source: the History of Montana by Helen Fitzgerald Sanders Volume 1 1913. Transcribed by Barb Z.]

Dawson County

Dawson county is called "The Gateway to Montana." It is situated in the extreme eastern portion of the state, "extending north and south a full third of the distance between Wyoming and Canada, and east and west another full third the distance between North Dakota and Idaho." The 13,194 square miles within this county is mostly prairie land similar to that of western Dakota. A high divide rises between the Musselshell and Missouri rivers, which mark the western and northern boundaries of the county. The rolling prairie-land is broken here and there by the "buttes." which form a characteristic feature of the northwestern landscape, and a chain of scoriated hills flanks the southern boundary. By far the greatest portion of this section, however, is smooth, rolling plains, well suited for agriculture.

Between the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers we find the lowest elevation in the state 2,100 feet above sea level. This, of course, gives a longer growing season, the advantages of which are obvious. The land of Dawson county may be roughly classified as bottom land which can be irrigated, bench lands which will, if properly cultivated, contribute millions of dollars worth of wheat and other grains to the market, and, lastly, grazing lands that sustain immense numbers of cattle and horses.

This region is well watered. The Yellowstone and the Missouri rivers drain its prairies. Flowing into the former stream are the Big Dry, Musselshell and the Redwater, all of which have many tributary creeks and streams that give every opportunity for building ditches and reservoirs for a perfect irrigation system which will assure successful crops. Under the state laws, which are most liberal, the farmer may secure perpetual water rights, which obviously increase the value of the land.

Most of Dawson county's tillable soil is of that variety popularly known as "dry land." This, however, is a misnomer in its literal sense. The high average annual rainfall, coupled with the fact that it comes at the most opportune time during the growing season, have produced wonderful results which show that tins is virtually n continuation of the great Dakota wheat belt

Speaking of the agricultural possibilities of this section, Professor Thomas Shaw, of Minnesota, an eminent authority on dry land culture, says:

"The soil is brownish in color, more or less a volcanic ash in its texture, and it is exceedingly rich in mineral elements of plant growth. The only serious concern of those who till this soil will he to keep it supplied with humus, that is, vegetable matter. It is the brown color of this soil, and the brown color of the grass in autumn that has misled people in regard to this county. In their haste they have concluded that it was no good for fanning. The ranchmen who grazed this free land fostered that view. The longer they could maintain the delusion that the land could not be farmed, the longer would they be supplied with free pasture."

The climate of eastern Montana is excellent. The air is dry and exhilarating. The summer months are temperately warm, but never oppressively hot. The winters arc sufficiently open to permit thousands of cattle, horses and sheep to range without shelter in the open.

The snow fall is generally light. By April the frost is out of the ground and plowing can be begun.

The heaviest rainfall occurs in May, June and July. The latter part of July and the first part of August are marked by warm sunshine and occasional showers. The following precipitation record will give a clear idea of the climate: Inches.
January .............................49
February.............................53
March.................................00
April...................................33
May.................................4.78
June.............................. 5.12
July................................4.21
August..............................53
September........................70
October.............................00
November.........................44
December.........................46
Total.............................1759


Under these favorable conditions of soil and climate the crops of Dawson county are unusually rich. Winter wheat, corn, barley, oats, rye, potatoes, alfalfa and many kinds of fruits and vegetables are raised in abundance.

At the Fourth International Dry Farming Congress, held at Billings in October, Montana came first among the many competing states, and Dawson county first among the counties, capturing forty-three premiums.

The Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Canal constructed by the United States Reclamation Service, is the largest and longest in the state. The Yellowstone river is dammed at Glendive and feeds the canal, which waters a strip of land fifty-five miles long and from one-half mile to five miles wide, containing approximately sixty-five thousand acres. The law authorizing the building of this canal for the reclamation of arid lands permits settlers to take up homesteads, but under slightly different conditions than those that prevail in other localities. The cost of constructing the ditch is, of course, assumed by the government, but it will be ultimately repaid by the land owners, who benefit by the use of the water. The cost will amount to $42.50 per acre, to be paid in annual assessments of $3.00 per acre.

There is, besides irrigated land, a vast quantity of railroad land for sale and government lands suitable for dry land farming and grazing, open to settlement. In the fourth report issued by the Dry Farming Congress, the following statement was made : "It hardly seems creditable, and yet it is an incontestable fact, that nearly five million acres of tillable farm lands are still open to the homesteader in Dawson county. Of the 8,455,280 acres that constitute the area of the county, there is sixty per cent of this land that is tillable. At the present time not to exceed ten per cent of the arable land of the county has been pre-empted. With the figures at hand to substantiate the claim, coupled with the certain agricultural success of the last few years, the people of that section are justified in making the claim that Dawson county to-day possesses one of the richest, greatest dry farming domains to be found anywhere in the world, and at the present time nine-tenths of it is still available to the homesteader." There is much of the county that has never been surveyed. Hundreds of streams and creeks do not appear on the map. An authority on the subject classifies the land as follows

"The Lower Yellowstone district, the Redwater country, the Big Dry country, the Musselshell, and the Missouri. By far the larger part of the settlement is confined to the Lower Yellowstone north of Glendive, a strip of country eighty miles long. The Redwater river rises in the Sheep bluffs and goes almost directly northward to the Missouri river, a distance of a hundred miles. The district, embracing some of the finest prairie land in the state, is directly tributary to Glendive, and is destined to rapid development. The Big Dry and its tributaries drain another large district in the west central portion of the county, while all of the western and northern townships are in the Musselshell and Missouri districts."

Another important feature of Dawson county is its coal fields. It is said that the largest single coal belt in America extends diagonally along the western border of North Dakota, thence through eastern Montana and into Wyoming. In Dakota the coal is of a dull, soft lignite variety, hardly fit for commercial purposes, but as the strata are traced west and south they improve in quality. In Dawson county this native coal is called sub-bituminous and its glistening surface shows its superiority to the coal of Dakota. It is assumed that practically all of this county is underlaid with coal beds. Scarcely a ranch is located that the farmer does not find an outcropping on a cut bank of an exposed surface vein within a short distance, where he can obtain fuel. In the vicinity of Glendive are a number of mines that supply the local market. Some of these mines have attained considerable depth and coal of the lower levels is of better quality. There seems no reason to doubt that in the future the Dawson county coal fields will be utilized for general commerce.

Glendive, a prosperous town of about three thousand five hundred inhabitants, is the county seat. It is pleasantly situated on a level sweep of valley on the south side of Yellowstone river. At this point the Northern Pacific Railway enters this great valley and follows the river for almost its entire length on its way to the coast. Glendive is one of the main division points of this railroad.

During the past five years there has been much work in progress connected with the surveying and building of railways, surveying of irrigating canals and the construction of the government works of the Lower Yellowstone project. This has, of course, brought capital into the town and created a better local market for the adjacent farms. It must be remembered that from Glendive to the mouth of the Yellowstone stretches a valley eighty miles in length, which contributes its commerce to that town ; the great Redwater country with its live stock, farming and irrigation enterprises, is tributary to it also, and it virtually controls all of the district lying between the Northern Pacific Railway and the Missouri river.

Glendive promises to become a railway center. It has a new railroad under construction which will be completed in the near future. A branch road known as the Missouri River Railway Company, is building from Glendive to the town of Sidney, fifty miles down the Yellowstone. This will facilitate communication for the farmers of the valley and will make Glendive a market center for most of that district. This company is also building an extension of its line from Mandan, North Dakota, to meet the above described branch at Sidney. A survey is under way for an extension from the main line at Glendive nearly due west, which will open up bench lands north of the Yellowstone, and passing north of Miles City in Custer county and Forsyth in Rosebud county, will open a rich section in the Upper Musselshell and finally join the main line at Helena. This project will shorten the main line one hundred and fifty to two hundred miles, which seems a sufficient guarantee of its consummation. When these plans are completed Glendive will have four railroads radiating in different directions.

In addition to being a railway center Glendive has the advantage of possessing a navigable waterway. Long before the steam engine entered the Yellowstone valley, steamboats brought supplies to the frontier posts of Montana and returned to St. Louis with cargoes of buffalo hides. After the construction of the transcontinental railroad steamboat traffic on the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone decreased and was for years practically suspended. Recently interest in inland navigation has revived and steamers once more stop at Fort Benton on the Missouri and Glendive on the Yellowstone.

There is little doubt that the great rivers are destined to figure again in the transportation and commerce of the northwest. During 1909 the steamers "Expansion" and "Extension" plied from Glendive to Sidney and Mondak carrying supplies for the United States Reclamation Service in the construction of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Canal. The dam near Glendive does not prevent navigation, for it is a low-water dam and steamboats can pass over it during the months when the water is high. Although the necessity for river navigation is not yet at hand, with the settlement of the country and the increase in export products, it will become an important factor in overland transportation.

Glendive is making progress in civic improvement. Many new business blocks and residences testify to its prosperity. The laying of cement sidewalks, the parking of streets and building of boulevards are occupying the attention of public-spirited citizens.

[Source: the History of Montana by Helen Fitzgerald Sanders Volume 1 1913. Transcribed by Barb Z.]



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