The Great Debate: What is Montana’s Oldest City?
We love learning interesting facts about Montana's history. This little gem is especially interesting, because the debate still lives today.
Montana became the 41st state of the U.S. in 1889, so we are technically one of the youngest states, though the history of the region far predates its official statehood. With the region's rich history, we have to wonder: what is the oldest city in Montana?
This can actually be a difficult question to answer; do we go by when the town was settled? Officially founded? What sort of guidelines do we use to define the official beginning of a town? An online search produced several different opinions on the matter. It could be mere months—even days—that separate the founding of the oldest cities.
First, we have Stevensville, located in the Bitterroot Valley in western Montana. Originally named St. Mary's, Stevensville was established in 1864, and claims to be the first permanent settlement of non-indigenous people in Montana. If that claim is true, it could be evidence that this really is the oldest 'official' town in Montana.
Another argument can be made for Virginia City. Established in 1863, it was known as a boom town, filled with thousands of prospectors searching for gold. Virginia City has been declared a Historical Area, but a few people live there year-round. Though it was a somewhat temporary mining community, does it technically count as the oldest official town in Montana that still stands today? We'll have to see, because we have one more contender.
Our final pick for the oldest city in Montana is Helena. The state capital was established in 1864, close to Stevensville's establishment, and has been central to our state's history since. Depending on the criteria we use, Stevensville and Helena could be in a close race for oldest town in Montana.
The establishment of these settlements are separated by mere days or months. So which one came first?
Technically, Virginia City is the clear winner, but if we are going with towns that are still thriving today, Helena or Stevensville would be the top contenders. It's a complex debate, to say the least.
Either way, each of these towns lives on as an important piece of state history. Plus, we rather enjoy the ongoing debate; it helps keep history alive.