September 25, 2015

Homicide in Montana Territory: An Initial Look

by Jeff Malcomson, Photograph Archivist

Studying homicide in Montana's territorial period opens a window into the society being constructed during Montana's early period from 1864-1889.  It gives context to the popular story of vigilantism in
Montana, and emphasizes the level of violence, and particularly lethal violence, endured by Montana's early residents.

While many homicides related to on-going vigilante justice in both Helena and surrounding Edgerton County (changed to Lewis and Clarke County in 1869) and the farming areas of Gallatin County around the fledgling town of Bozeman, property disputes and personal quarrels also led to lethally violent encounters.  The ubiquitous nature of firearms in territorial Montana also meant that many intense disputes would lead to bloodshed.

The tables included here, taken from a presentation made Sep. 26 at the Montana History Conference in Bozeman, show the statistics gathered through initial research into homicide in Montana Territory.  The standard among criminologists and historian's of homicide is to calculate the homicide rate as a figure per 100,000 residents.  The threshold for a high rate of homicide, according to one expert, is 9 homicides per 100,000, and a rate of 34 per 100,000 is considered extremely high.  Through the use of newspaper accounts in the Montana Post from 1864-1867 and coroner's inquest records from early Lewis and Clarke County, we can see astronomically high rates of homicide in the earliest days of the Territory.  We also see reduced rates of lethal violence in the latter 1880s in Lewis and Clarke County approaching that 9 per 100,000 threshold as statehood approached for Montana.

More research will follow, and a more complete picture of the history of lethal violence in Montana Territory should help us to understand the widespread violence found in our early history and why it occurred.