I’m sure I was a pioneer woman or maybe Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke in a past life. I love learning about western history and exploring historical sites in places like North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
It’s more than curiosity that draws me to these places. I never fail to feel an eery sense of familiarity, not so much with the location, but with the lifestyle, the events and people that lived there more than a century ago.
Perhaps it’s my overactive imagination fueled by the many books I read about the history of the west. I particularly enjoy finding old or long-forgotten books, memoirs of people who actually experienced the joys and hardships of settling the frontier.
Montana is my favorite place to experience history. This beautiful state works hard at preserving the past and curating the stories of the common people that settled, struggled, and survived under conditions we would consider unthinkable.
Here’s a shortlist (and great starting place) of some of my favorite, and mostly unknown, Montana history reads. Although they fall into the memoir/biography category, the styles vary, offering a little something for everyone's taste, time, and interest level.
“This House of Sky, Landscapes of a Western Mind,” by Ivan Doig
Ivan Doig is my favorite author. He never fails to pull me into his stories with lyrical descriptions and memorable characters. “This House of Sky” was his first book, something between a memoir and an autobiography.
Based on his life growing up in the mid-1900s on the sheep ranches of Montana, the story is both a lesson in history and a reflection of how family dynamics can be both simple and complex at the same time.
Doig’s writing is beautiful, both poetic and descriptive. As I read about his eccentric family and the people that came and went in his life, I could picture them so vividly. The places he lived and the events in his life were described with such clarity, I was sure I had been there to witness it myself.
It’s hard to believe our way of life has changed so much in seventy or eighty years. But interestingly, you will discover that our feelings and relationships, especially with family, haven’t changed that much at all.
“This House of Sky” is a slow read. It needs to be read with a bit of patience, especially in the beginning. But once you get started, you will find yourself immersed in a world very different from the one we live in now.
“My Life As An Indian,” by J. W. Schultz
“My Life As An Indian” began its life as a series of stories published in the periodical, “Forest and Stream” very early 1900s. It was published in 1907 as an autobiography based on the true, personal story of a young man from the east who decided he wanted a life of adventure.
And adventure he did have. Landing in the untamed territory of Montana at nineteen years of age, the author soon finds himself engulfed in Native American life, marrying a woman from the Blackfeet tribe and learning many of their traditional ways of living.
I enjoyed the honest look (both the good and the bad) into how Native Americans lived, what their relationships were like, and how the arrival of settlers, trappers, and traders affected them. It is a real look at racial indifference and misunderstanding of cultures that went on over one hundred years ago.
Despite some of the old-fashioned words, phrases, and use of punctuation, the story is an easy read. If you are into the history of the west, you will love the details. If you are interested in relationships and cultural diversity, you will find it here. But it’s also an informative, entertaining escape into the past.
“The Generous Years, Remembrances of a Frontier Boyhood,” by Chet Huntley
“The Generous Years” is another autobiography. This time by well-known television newscaster, Chet Huntley.
Chances are you aren’t familiar with him, but you’ve probably heard of Big Sky, a Montana ski resort started by Huntley is 1973.
Your parents will likely remember Chet Huntley from the NBC nightly news which he co-anchored with David Brinkley during the ’50s and ’60s. I can slightly recall the “Good night, David, Good night, Chet” routine that would end their broadcast.
Maybe it was only my impression as a very young girl, but Huntley seemed so serious and professional. His autobiography shares an entirely different side of his personality. In his book, Huntley uses a touch of humor and simple detail to describe his early years in what was still considered the wild frontier.
I enjoyed reading about his family, his adventures, and his love for his home state of Montana. Within his story, he talked about interactions with the Native Americans, WWI, and how politics and copper mining took its toll on the people in the Butte/Bozeman area.
If you want an accurate and engaging story of Montana life in the era surrounding WWI, “The Generous Years” is the perfect book for you.
“A Hard Won Life, A Boy on His Own on the Montana Frontier,” by H. Norman Hyatt
“A Hard Won Life,” is one of those books that makes you appreciate your life. This amazing story of how a young boy survives the most dangerous situations and hardships is almost impossible to believe at times.
The biography is based on the hand-written memoir of Fred Van Blaricom, the young boy in the story. Years later, his papers were discovered and turned into the book, “A Hard Won Life.” The events are backed up with detailed facts, researched by the author H. Norman Hyatt.
Hyatt’s research was intense. And the book includes it all. Appendixes, a bibliography, and even an epilogue that gives you more information about the people mentioned in the story.
It may sound too much like a history book. And in a way it is. But, the book is so much more than that. I loved all the details. I was compelled at times to look up places on the map, double-check on an event, or read more about the lives of some of the more well-known people he met during his lifetime.
If you enjoy history, appreciate research, and love stories about how people overcome adversity this is a great read. As I said, this book will definitely make you appreciate the simple things in life.
“Ike, Boy of the Breaks”, by Roberta Donovan
“Ike, Boy of the Breaks” is a biography written by Roberta Donovan. The story is based on the life of her father who grew up in an area of central Montana known as the breaks.
Donovan’s rendition is a simply written story, detailing the hardships her father and his family managed to survive.
Although it lacks the literary style of Doig, the warmth and humor of Huntley, or the insights into racial indifference shared by Shultz, it’s an informative, easy read.
Like the book, “A Hard Won Life,” Ike’s adventures and experiences along the Missouri River will have you marveling at the strength, ingenuity, and perseverance of pioneer children.
I found this book especially fun to read because I lived in central Montana and I’m familiar with the breaks and surrounding areas, including Lewistown which is mentioned in the book.
This book is great for someone who enjoys western history and is looking for a quick, easy read. It’s also perfect for young people, middle school and high school age students. Hand them a copy the next time they start whining about how rough their life is.
Learning from Montana’s past
I find the things people endured while settling Montana, accepted as part of life just a century or so ago, both amazing and inspiring. With limited knowledge, money, or resources, the early settlers made do with what they had, practiced common sense when they could, and helped each other out whenever possible.
You don’t have to be a history buff or native of Montana to appreciate these stories. I love that these books, written so long ago, have no political agenda. Told only with the purpose of capturing history from the common man, they are moving reminders of how far we have come. Not just in Montana, but as a nation.
And while we still have a long way to go, perhaps we can learn a few lessons from those early Montana pioneers about applying common sense and working together to get ourselves there.