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Back 40: The first families in Gallatin Basin

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Pages from the 1910 census

By Al Lockwood EBS Contributor

Homesteading got a late start in the Gallatin Basin, the area now known as Big Sky. The years 1865 to 1900 saw active settlement in other parts of Montana under the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862 and later revisions to it, which gave settlers title to 160 acres of land for farming at little or no cost.

But it wasn’t until after the first true road was cut into the Gallatin Canyon in 1901 – to supply the Cooper Logging Camp in the Taylor Fork area – that ranchers began driving cattle up the logging road to the meadows of the Gallatin Basin. Once there, they built cabins and staked out their 160-acre homesteads.

If there were settlers in the basin in 1900, the U.S. Census Bureau didn’t send anyone to count them. However, by 1910 enough people lived and worked in the area that the government included them in the 13th federal census.

In May of that year, a census taker named Sadie Porter from Yellowstone County, Mont., counted 50 workers encamped along the Madison River just over the divide from the Gallatin Basin. These workers were employed by the Montana Reservoir and Irrigation Company, which built Hebgen Dam from 1910 to 1914.

The single page of Porter’s census is cataloged in the bureau’s 1910 records along with seven pages of data collected June 3-10 in Gallatin County, by a Bozeman farmer named Henry F. Cowherd.

Cowherd was assigned to count the settlers in the Gallatin Basin, which was designated by the Census Bureau as “Basin Precinct – Gallatin National Forest – School District No. 54.” Most of Cowherd’s workdays were likely spent on horseback, riding up rough dirt roads and into canyons looking for ranchers, lumbermen and prospectors.

On June 4, Cowherd documented the family of Augustus Franklin Crail on their homestead in the West Fork Meadow area. Two of the Crail homestead buildings still stand in Big Sky as part of the Crail Ranch Homestead Museum.

Only three of the 47 Gallatin Basin residents in 1910 were born on foreign soil: Chalis Johnson, a farmer, was born in Sweden; Patrick Shien was a miner from Ireland, and Andrew Levinski, a miner born in Germany. All others were born in the U.S. or its territories, and 15 claimed Montana as their place of birth.

Levinski, a 51-year-old prospector who emigrated to the U.S. in 1872, would later become one of the most infamous people in the Gallatin Basin area.

In January 1917, Levinski shot and killed two prominent Gallatin County citizens as they rode to his mining camp along what is now called Levinski Creek, as told in Janet Cronin’s and Dorothy Michener Vick’s 1992 book “Montana’s Gallatin Canyon: A Gem in the Treasure State.” Levinski was angry over threats to take his mining claims. He was brought to trial and acquitted, and shortly thereafter disappeared from the area and was never seen again.

On June 6, 1910, the same day he counted Levinski, Cowherd recorded Tom Michener and his family, whose descendants lived in Gallatin Canyon until recently. Tom’s daughter is the author Dorothy Michener Vick whose history of the canyon, written in collaboration with Cronin, is still popular today.

On June 7, Cowherd tabulated the Lytle family – William, known as “Billy,” and his wife Etta, known as “Pearl,” who was blind but a very capable and independent woman. After marrying Billy, she was so good at handling her household chores and cooking for the hunting parties that few realized that she couldn’t see, according to Cronin and Vick.

On June 10, 1910, his last day of census taking in the Gallatin Basin, Cowherd documented the Karst household. Pete Karst, age 34 from Wisconsin, is listed simply as “farmer,” but, Karst was the original entrepreneur of the canyon. He developed transportation services, established lodging and restaurants, and even set up an early ski run across from his cabins along the Gallatin River in Karst Kamp, a few miles north of Big Sky.

The stories of the Crails, Micheners, Lytles, Andrew Levinski, Pete Karst and many others whose names appear in the 1910 census are told in Cronin and Vick’s “Montana’s Gallatin Canyon,” as well as “Images of America: Big Sky,” by Jeff Strickler and Anne Marie Mistretta.

Al Lockwood spends his summers in Big Sky and is a past chair of the Historic Crail Ranch Conservators. Visit for more information on the history and people of Big Sky’s early days.

3_Census 1910Jun6 Gallatin Basin

A page from the U.S. Federal Census of the Gallatin Basin Precinct recorded on June 6, 1910.

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