The Myth Behind the Montana-Idaho Border

When one looks across a map of the United States, traveling from the east to the west coast one sees that the states become larger in size. While traveling across the west, these large create a sense that the west goes forever and that you’ll never get out the state you’re traveling in Montana alone requires at least twelve hours to drive from the northeast corner to the southwest corner. But this mentality isn’t the same for the state of Idaho, especially for the northern panhandle. The panhandle is so small compared to the Washington to the west and Montana to the east, which the running joke is that when you travel through the panhandle, is that you better not blink or otherwise you’ll miss seeing Idaho. Idaho is a forgotten state in the west, all because of its size.

When dividing up the west, the locations of territory boundaries and state borders became a crucial question. Originally, Montana was a part of Idaho before it became its own territory in 1864 (Stein, 2008). When Montana became a territory the boundary Idaho and Montana was created. Later on the myth behind how the state line separating Montana and Idaho would come into place.

The standing myth is that originally that the Montana-Idaho border was supposed to be along the Continental Divide instead of the Bitterroot Range where the state line is located today. The surveyors in charge of surveying the Montana-Idaho border had gotten lost. The Bitterroot Range is so rugged that when the surveying team finally reached the Canadian border, they team said heck with it and weren’t going to go back and correct their mistake. Their mistake resulted in Idaho being only forty-five miles in length along the Canadian border.

There are variations in the myth in how the misguided surveying had gotten lost. Some say the team gotten drunk and didn’t know what they were. Others say that they were bribed by Montana less upstanding citizens or had gotten gold fever so bad that they couldn’t focus on their job. More forgiving theories is that the surveying team had faulty equipment or had simply had gotten lost. However, no matter how you look at it, looks like Montana took a bit of Idaho leaving Idaho a much smaller state. (Idaho State Historical Society, 1966)

However, in looking that the 38th congress, the very congress that commissioned Montana as its own territory, the original location of the Montana-Idaho border was the Bitterroot Mountain Range not the Continental Divide as it states in the myth. As stated the 38th congress, the western boundary of Montana territory would be, “following the crest of the Rocky Mountains northward till its intersection with the Bitter Root Mountains; thence northward along the crest of said Bitter Root Mountains to its intersection with the thirty-ninth degree of longitude west of Washington; thence along said thirty-ninth degree of longitude northward to the boundary line of the British possessions.” This boundary would later on become the Montana-Idaho state border. (Sanger, 1866)

While the United States government retained its right to change the Territory of Montana’s boundaries as it saw fit, the western edge of Montana has not changed since it became a territory in 1864. The location of the western boundary pleased Montana citizens, but greatly displeased Idaho. Idaho was unable to give their opinion of the location the boundary before President Lincoln signed the act into a law. According the Idaho State Historical Society, Idaho did not know about the proposed boundary, until after Montana became its own territory (1966). Most likely what happened was the poor communication system of the United State of the 1860s, either prevented Idaho from giving their opinion in time or prevented them from receiving information of the proposed boundary preventing them from being able in state their opinion in Washington D.C.

But this leads to another question. Why was the Bitterroot Range selected as the western boundary of Montana? In a 2014 news article in the Great Falls Tribune by Kristen Inbody, it said that there were five other proposed territory boundaries for Montana. One the western boundary would be along the Continental Divide just like it said in the myth. The suggestions are as follows: Montana as it is now with all of Yellowstone National Park, Montana being only eastern plains, a rectangle like the Midwestern states with the boundary going through present-day Great Falls and finally an area not including the Kootenai, Chippewa, and Absaroka tribes leaving Montana to be just the southeast corner with a little bit past present-day Billings. (Inbody, 2014)

Out of these proposed states, Idaho wanted its eastern boundary to be along the Continental Divide. It’s a logical boundary. The Continental Divide is a formidable mountain range but so are the Bitterroots. The ruggedness of both of the mountain ranges was why the Idaho territory was divided in the first and why the surveying team in the myth quit once they finally reached the Canadian border. However, the boundary the Montana-Idaho border has former congressman of Ohio Sidney Edgerton to thank for its location that we now of today.

According to Mark Stein (2008), because Sidney Edgerton was friends with President Lincoln, President Lincoln sent Edgerton west to help set up the government of the newly created Idaho territory because President Lincoln feared that the discovery of gold would result in another gold rush. Also, because the United States was in the middle of the civil war, Edgerton was in Idaho to keep an eye on the population that had originated from the South. However, when Edgerton arrived in Idaho, the governor gave his the task of overseeing mountainous/”boring” portion of the Idaho Territory. A year later when the residents and government officials of Idaho Territory learned the mountains were impassable during the winter, they made a proposal to Washington, D.C. to divide the territory. (Stein, 2008)

Sidney Edgerton either volunteered or paid by the wealthy residents of Bannack to travel Washington, D.C. to give Montana’s proposal for the location of the Montana-Idaho border (Unger, 2011). Now, Edgerton did not like the exclusion from the politics occurring in the capital of the Idaho Territory Stein, 2008). Therefore, when he went to D.C., he traveled with what was valued at time $2,000 worth in gold (Stein, 2008). It is debated on whether or not the gold was for bribery or to give an example of the wealth that Montana could contribute to the nation but it can be agreed upon that is best one shouldn’t tick off someone who has ties to the chairman of the House Territorial Committee and is friends with the President of the United States.

It is important to mention Sidney Edgerton did not get everything he wanted. Congress extended the lower eastern boundary of Idaho because Montana had plenty of farm ground. Idaho needed every acre so Congress gave them the Kootenai valley. (Stein, 2008)

While it is fun to say that a bunch of drunken surveyors is the reason why the state boundary exists and can relieve the some bitterness for being a forgotten state. The Montana-Idaho border is truly the result of politics and represents power of a ticked off congressional representative with a suitcase full of gold and has very influential friends.

Loni BlackmanMontanIdahoBorder

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