On this date in 1864, the U.S. president who described America as the "last, best hope of Earth," took a respite from his duties as wartime commander-in-chief to sign legislation designating the Montana Territory.
Although it didn't become a state until 1889, the place never lost its aura. Nearly a century later, partly in homage to Abraham Lincoln, writer William Kittredge dubbed Montana "The Last Best Place." In one sense, Lincoln had taken the baton from Thomas Jefferson, who included the area in the vast expanse he commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore. The reports on their upper Missouri River adventures were among their most evocative writings.
In another way, by 1864, it was an old story: The lure of gold in the Northern Rockies had brought white miners and prospectors into the territory. So, federal officials ignored existing treaties and agreements, drew new maps, and plastered place names of their choosing on a stunning landscape that only a handful of people in Washington, D.C., had ever seen.
"Montana" was one such example, but how it acquired that lyrical name is a story in itself.
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It seems that the name Montana City, with variations on the spelling, arose when a group of prospectors settled in Colorado. "It was a very pretty site, on the right bank of the Platte River, and thirty or forty feet above the level of the stream, commanding a magnificent view of the mountains," Montana historian Wilbur Edgerton Sanders would write decades later.
He was describing the founding of Denver. One of the town's settlers, Josiah Hinman, had recently matriculated form Wisconsin's Beloit College, which had a Latin language requirement. It was Hinman who proposed Montana, a Spanish derivative of the Latin word meaning "mountains." Political exigencies intervened, however. The men on the Platte, desiring favorable treatment from the only law in that part of the world, decided instead to call their settlement after the Virginia-born, Ohio-raised governor of Kansas. His name was James W. Denver.
It was James Denver, in turn, who suggested to influential Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas that the huge territory to the north be called Montana. "I'm in love with Montana," John Steinbeck once wrote. "For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it's difficult to analyze love when you're in it."
Like me, Steinbeck was a Californian, and our home state is also a special place. But going to Montana is like traveling back in time to an earlier California, which is to say, a place with fewer people and more wilderness. Sitting at my desk writing this note the night of Memorial Day, the recollections come flooding back: fishing for trout in the Big Hole River, marveling at double rainbows in the sky over Yellowstone Valley, watching a dusty July 4 rodeo in Livingston, sipping scotch in the Wise River Club, which is really just a spacious saloon, and listening to Claudia Appling Williams and her band Montana Rose sing country tunes in The Mint.
Why are these memories so special? I've fished with friends and kinsmen all over the West and in Virginia, too. I've seen plenty of rainbows, listened to live music wherever I could, gone to rodeos since I was a kid, and drank more whiskey than I care to think about. If John Steinbeck couldn't explain it, I probably shouldn't try. But I will.
Montana is still a place where the scale of things can put human beings in their place. You can really see the stars at night, for one thing. If you tarry too long in the woods, you might see more than stars. Once while fishing for brookies on LaMarche Creek with my then-14-year-old son, we found ourselves a little too far from the car as the sun set. Darkness comes fast in the mountains and in the fading light we saw a ghostly shadow -- a lone wolf skirting our trail, trying, we thought, to get between me and my boy.
Another time, after a day of floating down the Big Hole River, I made the only political contribution of my life. It was only a hundred bucks, Montana's state limit, and it went to my fishing guide, Steve Gallus, who said he wanted to run for the legislature. Only after writing the check did I ask Steve whether he was a Democrat or a Republican. He told me he was a Democrat, but strictly speaking the answer is that Steve is a buddy. That's the other part about "the Last Best Place" --I've explored it with people I care about.
My dear friend Raymond Strother midwifed my connection to Montana. I finished a book there one summer with another old friend named Patrick Dillon. I was thinking of both of them this Memorial Day weekend. Pat left the University of Washington for the U.S. Army and was a combat infantry officer in Vietnam. I'm grateful he made it home. Ray's only brother did not. Claud Paul Strother was killed days before he was scheduled to come home on a mission that wasn't supposed to be his. "I miss him every day," Ray wrote Monday.
Memorial Day, we must remember, is harder for some families than for others.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.