MTPR

Where The West Was Born: 'Montana 1889'

Feb 22, 2018

Between 1864 and 1889, the buffalo were exterminated, the Indian wars ended, tribal nations were confined to reservations, cattle and sheep by the tens of thousands grazed the open range, Butte exploded into a city with electricity and millionaires, and multiple railroads connected Montana to the world. “Montana 1889” tells the many stories of this overwhelming transformation by entering into the lives, emotions, and decisions of Indians, miners, cowboys, women, and entrepreneurs who were cooperating and competing in the new state.

We are excited to offer an exclusive extended interview with Ken Egan about his book Montana 1889 via our podcast and web streaming.  

Montana 1889

The following are highlights from a conversation with Ken Egan about his book, Montana 1889. Ken is also the Executive Director of Humanities Montana, a program sponsor since 2008. To hear the full conversation click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.

Sarah Aronson: “Today I am in Yellowstone Park, and I wish I were dead.” Who said that and why?

Ken Egan: Laughing 

So that’s Rudyard Kipling in July of 1889. He’s on a tour across America, specifically he’s stopping at Livingston, MT and then going down into Yellowstone National Park. He’s very much a child of the British Empire, so he wants to put the Americans in their place. He’s particularly upset because it’s the 4th of July and there are American flags everywhere and everyone is being obnoxiously American.  

The beginning of the book hosts “Visions.” The last sentence of the first vision was spoken by Plenty Coups to Frank Linderman in 1930:

                “You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away.”

Why did you include these voices?

One of the things I’m trying to do is to allow space for multiple points of view on what happened in Montana during the 25 years [as it transitioned from territory to statehood]. I use the Visions as introductory insights into these different points of view. In the case of Plenty Coups, it is a haunting statement from a pre-reservation Leader-Chief-Visionary who now has to adjust to the reality of the reservation.

We have a number of other visions in there, including James J. Hill, who probably a lot of folks know. He’s not a Montana figure, but he covers the region because he builds the Great Northern Railway. His vision is of a paradise found, primarily an economic paradise.

And then we have Frank Linderman, who’s an extraordinary character. Linderman is talking to an old trapper, who basically says, “Montana’s gone to hell now that it’s a state.” The Visions are meant to, as it were, lay down these different possibilities for the Montana that’s emerging, and I hope they inspire the reader with an openness. We have to allow for multiple voices, we have to recognize that there are parallel lives going forward.

In addition to being a historian and the Executive Director of Humanities Montana, and also a white man, what’s the responsibility associated with those privileges in writing history?

Absolutely, great question, and it leads to really one of the most important things I would say which is that I felt it was my moral obligation, my historical obligation, and my obligation as someone who is part of Humanities Montana to represent, to acknowledge, to share stories of Indigenous peoples. But I also recognize that it is not my story to tell. So as often as possible I quote directly from Indigenous sources. When I can’t, I try to do respectful paraphrases, but in the end I would encourage every reader to go to Indigenous sources. They have the stories to tell.

But you may well wonder, “But why did I need to include them?” Because we are all living here together. I worry that at times we remain almost blinded to the story of how settlement took place and the consequences of settlement for peoples, and for animals, and for our land. I want to be very honest about that. I hope the book stimulates some very useful conversations about how we get along. I used the phrase earlier and it’s a very sincere phrase on my part—maybe truth and reconciliation—where we honestly, frankly encounter what’s happened here, take it on, and then move forward.

Is that your vision?

That’s my vision. Thank you. That is my vision, yes.

About the Book:

Montana’s tumultuous statehood year captured in new history

The year Montana became a state comes alive in Ken Egan Jr.’s “Montana 1889,” a vivid description of the people and politics swirling through Montana during that crucial time. Insightful and compelling, Egan’s new book makes a worthy sequel to his “Montana 1864,” the highly acclaimed history about Montana’s territorial year.

Egan, executive director of Humanities Montana in Missoula, said he was was struck by the changes between those years. “It was one of the most rapid and dramatic transformations of land and peoples in United States history,” Egan said.

Between 1864 and 1889, the buffalo were exterminated, the Indian wars ended, tribal nations were confined to reservations, cattle and sheep by the tens of thousands grazed the open range, Butte exploded into a city with electricity and millionaires, and multiple railroads connected Montana to the world.

“Montana 1889” tells the many stories of this overwhelming transformation by entering into the lives, emotions, and decisions of Indians, miners, cowboys, women, and entrepreneurs who were cooperating and competing in the new state.

Calling Egan’s book “the best kind of history,” Robert R. Swartout, Jr., professor emeritus of history at Carroll College in Helena, said Egan is “one of the most gifted Montana historians of our generation.”

The 288-page book by Riverbend Publishing of Helena includes historic photographs, maps, and an extensive list of sources for readers who want more information about specific people and events. It sells for $23.

Ken Egan
Credit Phoebe Haefele

About the Author:

Ken Egan Jr. is the author of Montana 1864: Indians, Emigrants, and Gold in the Territorial Year, Hope and Dread in Montana Literature and The Riven Home: Narrative Rivalry in the Ameri- can Renaissance, as well as many articles on western American literature. He co-edited Writers Under the Rims: A Yellowstone County Anthology. After completing his Ph.D. in American liter- ature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he taught college literature and writing for 25 years. He currently serves as executive director of Humanities Montana, which provides programs and grants on history, literature, Native American Studies, and more all over the state of Montana.