Countless books have been written about Lewis and Clark’s adventures searching for the Pacific Ocean: trekking across hostile Indian lands, befriending Sacajawea, and fording treacherous rivers. Fewer books have been written about Montana’s equally colorful and exciting history outside of the famous expedition. Bozeman’s local historian, Phyllis Smith, begins to fill in these gaps with her book Montana Sweet Grass Country: from Melville to the Boulder River Valley.
Montana Sweet Grass is a detailed history of Sweet Grass County, from the early 1800s up to the present. This south-central piece of Montana has been considered prime land for both Indians and sheepherders, in turn. Perhaps this beautiful land is, as Crow Chief Arapooish pronounced, blessed by “the Great Spirit [who] has put it exactly in the right place; while you are in it you fare well; whenever you go out of it, whichever way you may travel, you fare worse.”
Smith records Sweet Grass’s history carefully, using text, photographs, and maps to give readers a well-rounded picture of the area’s past. Montana Sweet Grass can be divided into chapters on geography and chapters with anecdotes about people’s lives and trials settling towns in the region. The book’s geography lessons are thorough, spanning everything from the height of Granite Peak to who owned and sold what ranch in Dornix. The historical chapters are equally descriptive, recounting familiar stories like John Bozeman’s wagon trains and Nelson Story’s famous cattle drive from Fort Worth. Smith also documents the little-known details, like how immigrant Norwegian farmers first brought sheepherding to the area and how several Chinese immigrants stayed in Big Timber thirty years after the Northern Pacific Railway was finished. Montana Sweet Grass then marches right up to the present, examining Reed Point’s “Great Montana Sheep Drive” of 1989 and the movie industry’s renewed interest in the Boulder River Valley in the mid-1990s. Smith is refreshingly resistant to nostalgia; she gives these contemporary stories the same attention given to John Bozeman.
Montana Sweet Grass is an attentive look at the history of a small piece of Montana, for those who wonder about the heritage of the land that is “exactly in the right place.”
Montana Sweet Grass Country: from Melville to the Boulder River Valley can be found at Country Bookshelf and other local bookstores.