History of Chouteau County

Chouteau county was named for Charles P. Chouteau, the fur trader whose history is identified with that of old Fort Benton. Prior to its division in i9i i this was the largest county not only in the state but in the entire United States. Situated immediately south of Canada it covered a vast territory extending one hundred and sixty-eight miles east and west and one hundred and eight miles north and south. With an area of 15,439 square miles in 1910 it had but 17,191 inhabitants. It was far too enormous for the convenient administration of its affairs. Fort Benton, the county seat, is located in the extreme southwest portion, and the county was so large that people in some parts, in order to get to the county seat were compelled to travel two hundred, and in some cases, two hundred and fifty miles, of which distance in some instances, fifty or more miles had to be traveled before the railroad was reached. This condition led to an agitation to remove the county seat to Havre, but it developed that the real sentiment was for division, and to avoid any county seat removal fight, a convention was held at Havre, October, 1909, to discuss the matter of division. The result was an agreement, signed by the entire delegation from the towns represented at the meeting, to work for a three county division before the coming legislature.

The Havre convention agreed upon the following division: draw a line from the Canadian line south to the Missouri river, three miles west of the range line, between ranges 17 and 18. Thence draw another line between townships 30 and 31, beginning at the west boundary line of the county, and running each to the range line between ranges 8 and 9, thence south to the line between townships 28 and 29, and thence west to the first line mentioned. Everything west of the north and south line constitutes one of the new counties, and everything lying west of the line, and north of the east and west line constitutes another new county, the remainder to be Chouteau county.

Chouteau county is for the most part prairie land. The Bear Paw Mountains rise in the eastern section and the Little Rockies and the Highwood ranges are in the southern portion. The rivers are the Missouri, the Teton, the Marias, the Milk and the Arrow. The Missouri river crosses the county and for many miles separates it from Fergus county. The elevations are not generally high, and the mountainous area is not, large.

Rough lands border the rivers at places, but perhaps three-fourths of the county consists of prairies, plains and rolling hills.

The average precipitation of northern central Montana is about seventeen and one-third inches and in some localities near the mountains it is above twenty. "Throughout the year the distribution," says the' government weather report, "is especially favorable for agriculture since more than half of the annual amount falls during the four principal growing months, April ,to July, inclusive."

The annual mean temperature is 40.4 at Chester, 41.9 at Chinook, 44.1 at Fort Benton, 41.9 at Havre and 38.8 at Gold Butte. Chinook winds are more common than in other parts of the state and modify the cold of winter. A comparison of temperatures shows that Havre is warmer during the winter than any point along the Great Northern in Minnesota orNorth Dakota. Records kept at the places named for periods ranging from thirteen to thirty-eight years show the mean temperature for the months of November, December, January, February, and March, according to the table published in the Havre Promoterto be: At Havre, 21.5 degrees; at St. Paul, 21.1; at Duluth, 18.8; at Morehead, 13.7; at Crookston, 13.1; at Pembina, 8.9; and at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, 20.6. The mean winter temperature of Havre is practically the same as that of St. Paul, but the climate is more agreeable. There are more days of sunshine; and owing to the lack of humidity in the atmosphere when the temperature is at zero at Havre the cold is less chilling than it is at St. Paul when the thermometer is fifteen degrees above zero.

There is timber in the mountains, but few trees away from them. Coal, which is relied upon for fuel, crops out at many places, and is mined at Havre, Big Sandy and Chinook. One of the most productive gold districts of Montana is near Zortman in the Little Rockies.

The stock industry is a leading one and before its division the country ranked second in value of livestock. Cattle and sheep in great numbers flourish on the nutritious native grasses that everywhere abound. Fort Benton, Havre, Chinook and Harlem are the centers of this industry.

The soil for the most part is fertile and produces large yields of wheat, oats, barley, rye, flax, corn, root crops, alfalfa and blue- joint grass.

A remarkable growth in the number and production of farms has taken place in the past four years, before which time farming was chiefly on irrigated tracts. The Milk River valley is very extensive and many acres near Havre, Chinook, Harlem and Dodson are irrigated, besides smaller areas in other parts. Great crops are grown on irrigated lands, and the irrigated acres will be greatly increased when the Milk River reclamation project is completed. The increase in the number of farms and the production of farm products is due to the settlement of bench and prairie lands, back from the valleys, and their cultivation without irrigation. Large crops have been harvested in almost every instance by farmers who have followed the approved methods of cultivation.

The products of the unirrigated farms of Chouteau county displayed at the Montana State Fair of 1911 were wonderful both in quality and variety and received many prizes.

The transition from a range country to a grain growing country is here but in its first stages. But it is to be noted that in portions of this country sufficiently remote from each other to give the assurance of similar results in practically all portions, grain yields have been good for several successive seasons.

Winter wheat properly grown has frequently shown twenty-five bushels to the acre, and in some instances the yields have been higher. Oats yield from thirty-eight to sixty bushels, the yields approaching the latter figures coming from careful preparation of the seed bed and equally careful farming. Well grown crops of flax have yielded better than twelve bushels, and alfalfa yields on these lands without irrigation from two to two and one-half tons per acre.

Not until very recent years has there been anything like a fair appreciation of the productive capacity of these bench land barns in the growing of vegetables and root crops without irrigation.

There are many roots and vegetables that mature early enough to escape the dry season, and these plants as a class do not require a great deal of moisture. There is no reason why every farmer who, farms without irrigation should not have a garden to supply his family with vegetables, and to furnish a source of income.

While the growing season in the Fort Ben- ton section is comparatively short, the length of the summer days of sunshine makes up for the lesser number. Peas, beans and potatoes develop to perfection here, and of the latter, farmers hereabouts every year ship carloads to outside points.

This vicinity is known as the "Big Grass Country." Two classes of barley, the hulless and the two-rowed, have been successfully grown. The hulless barley is early maturing, and one of the best dry farm spring grains. It yields an average of nearly twenty-five bushels to the acre and its bushel's weight is sixty pounds. It has high feeding value for all classes of livestock. The common two- rowed barley is a little slower in maturing and does not yield quite so well as the hulless, yet it gives very profitable returns.

One of the most promising upland farm grain and forage crops is the corn. The earlier maturing strains have been grown over the state and grain yields ranging around forty bushels, with forage yields of three tons to the acre, have been harvested. Alfalfa, broom grass, tall oat grass, and corn fodder may be profitably raised. Alfalfa has been grown in all sections of the state and is well adapted to the lands such as surround Fort Benton. During the past six years alfalfa has been raised on the various sub-stations throughout the northern Montana, the yield ranging from one to three tons, with an average of approximately two tons per acre harvested.

As mentioned above, good yields of corn fodder have been harvested. This indicates good feeding possibilities and suggests the great dairy development which always comes where corn is raised.

In addition to the standard stock feeding crops, some of the root crops, like mangels and sugar beets, may be profitably raised and will furnish cheap feed. Since the feeding of livestock is bound to be one of the most profitable of the farm activities, and valuable feeding crops may be raised, there is no reason why the farmers of the "Big Grass Country" should not become extensive and successful feeders and dairymen.

The Montana Central division of the Great Northern runs from Havre crossing the county from northeast to southwest and affords communication with Great Falls, Helena andButte.

Fort Benton, an old, rich and historic town, situated at the head of navigation on the Missouri river, is the county seat and is the commercial and financial center of an extensive country. It has a daily newspaper, large banks and business houses, and many costly business buildings and residences.

The population of Chouteau county in 1900 was 10,996 and 17,191 in 1910, an increase of 56.3 per cent. The assessed valuation of property in 1908 was $12,632,632 and $17,862,407 in 1911 before its division, an increase of forty-one per cent in three years.


A History of Montana
Sanders, Helen Fitzgerald
Chicago: Lewis Pub. Co.., 1913
Pages 719-722