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Celebrates such Montanans as John Bozeman and Gary Cooper.

It is fitting that the pioneer most celebrated by the Pioneer Museum, operated by the Gallatin Historical Society in Bozeman, Montana, is the town founder— John Merin Bozeman. The Georgia native came to what would soon become Colorado Territory during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of 1858–61, but in 1862 he left, nearly broke, for a new gold strike at Grasshopper Creek in what would soon become Montana Territory. Before a town came to bear his name, a trail did.

In spring 1863 Bozeman and trail guide John Jacobs scouted an overland wagon route from the Oregon Trail along the Platte River (in what would become Wyoming Territory) to the goldfields of Virginia City. Between 1863 and 1866 some 3,500 people used the route. Before reaching the Gallatin Valley, the 450-mile trail passed through Cheyenne and Sioux country, posing a major problem for both would-be prospectors and the U.S. Army. By 1867 hostilities had all but shut down traffic on the Bozeman Trail, sparking Red Cloud’s War (aka the Bozeman War).

After blazing his trail, Bozeman had taken to the Gallatin Valley, where in August 1864 he platted an agricultural community to raise wheat, corn and potatoes to feed the miners. The town of Bozeman was born. Bozeman himself recorded land claims, recruited new businesses, encouraged construction of the first flour mill in the valley and was later elected probate judge.

In April 1867 Bozeman and partner Tom Cover, seeking a lucrative flour contract, headed for Fort C.F. Smith, the northernmost and newest of the three U.S. Army military posts on the Bozeman Trail. Along the way, on the south side of the Yellowstone River, Cover claimed Blackfeet Indians attacked the pair, although later historians have raised questions about his story. Cover suffered wounds but managed to escape. Bozeman died by the very trail named for him. The following year the Army abandoned the three forts and officially closed the trail to traffic, making Chief Red Cloud the victor— for the time being—of his war.

The Pioneer Museum recounts the life of the trail/town founder, centering on an exhibit of various personal items. You’ll also learn about Fort Ellis. Four months after Bozeman’s death the United States established the fort just outside town to protect and support settlers moving into and through the Gallatin Valley. Townspeople in turn benefited financially from the presence of the fort, although twice in December 1867 soldiers destroyed the buildings of merchants found to be selling alcohol to other, less temperate soldiers. In April 1876 the “Montana Column” departed Fort Ellis as part of the Army campaign to locate and conquer hostile Plains Indians, and troops from the fort also participated in the Nez Perce War of 1877.

The museum itself shares space with the Gallatin Historical Society in the 1911 county jail. In 1977, when the jail was still operating, the newly formed society moved into the historic building. Once the last prisoners were transferred to other jails in 1982, the society made extensive renovations and turned the building into a museum. Many of the artifacts remain, as do a few of the original jail cells. The balcony above the main floor is partially supported by springs from former inmates’ beds.

Other pioneers and artifacts get their due. Among the artifacts are wagons, stagecoaches and a keelboat. A main floor gallery considers the impact of the Great Sioux War of 1876–77 and features an arrowhead display. The museum’s gun collection includes 19th-century rifles and revolvers and a cannon used in skirmishes with Sioux warriors. One popular balcony exhibit commemorates actor Gary Cooper (1901–61), a Helena native and onetime Bozeman resident. The display includes some of Cooper’s personal items as well as memorabilia from his many Hollywood films, which include High Noon, The Westerner, Man of the West and The Hanging Tree.

The Pioneer Museum more than lives up to its mission statement to preserve and promote the history of Gallatin County and southwest Montana. You’ll find it at 317 W. Main Street in downtown Bozeman. For more information visit or call 406-522-8122.


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.