It’s no secret Montana is divided. Mountains in the west, plains in the east. Hippies in the west, cowboys in the east. Blue counties in the west, Red in the east. It seems like we have two separate states.
I thought about this when after I interviewed Mayor Bret Smelser for the “Sidney Strangers” feature. Following a meeting with Gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill, the mayor made an off-hand comment about the divide between the urban west and rural east and where oil tax profits should go.
I Googled the question about dividing the state and came across a list of U.S. proposed state partitions on Wikipedia. In 1939, it was proposed that Montana should be divided at the Continental Divide: the west would be the State of Kootenai and the east the State of Absaroka.
Then the print issue of MJR went into full production mode, and all hopes of looking into this myth went by the wayside. But this week, the magazine went to the press, giving Dillon and me some time to research another possible bust, and UM Archives had our answer.
The Montana Territory was partitioned out of the Idaho Territory — consisting of present day Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — through Congress and passed into law by President Lincoln on May 26, 1864. It became Montana, with the same borders as today, on November 8, 1889, as the 41st in the Union.
Congress defined the border by the 44-degree and 30 minutes north latitude. It was formed to the west by the crest of the Rocky Mountains along the Bitterroot Mountains and northward to the boundary line of British possessions.
But like many political boundaries across the world, the U.S. Congress didn’t take social and political values into consideration.
The New York Times article written in 2008, “A State That Never Was in Wyoming” reported about how a group of business and political leaders in northern Wyoming drew a plan to break off pieces of Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana to form the state of Absaroka and its capital — Sheridan.
The Times argued that the country felt worthy of statehood in the ’30s based on its geography, history, economic base and politics — all these aspects can still be seen today.
As for Kootenai and Western Montana, all I could uncover is that the Idaho Panhandle was a haven for fleeing southern Democrats after the Confederacy crumbled, which could explain its beet red politics.