June 13, 2019

Montana and the Nation's Flag

by Kirby Lambert, Outreach and Interpretation Program Manager

While July 4th is celebrated as America’s birthday, since 1949 citizens of the United States have also celebrated June 14th as National Flag Day. The Treasure State is, of course, represented by the 41st white star on the field of blue in the upper left-hand corner of the “stars and stripes” (that’s us—the second-from-the-left star on the second-from-the-bottom row). But what did Old Glory look like when it only had 41 stars? Or did it, in fact, ever have exactly 41 stars? That’s a more complicated question than you might think.

In January 1889 there were 38 states, and 38 stars on the flag.

On February 22, 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed an omnibus bill that paved the way for the entrance of Montana, Washington, and North and South Dakota into the Union.  By July 4, 1889, however, none of those territories had yet become states, so the U.S. still had a 38-star flag.

This mural depicts President Grover Cleveland (right), Secretary of State Thomas F. Bayard (left),
and Joseph K. Toole (standing), congressional delegate from Montana Territory at the signing of the
 “Omnibus Bill” on February 22, 1889,
 an enabling act which ultimately led to the creation of four new western states:
Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington.

 In November of 1889, the four territories did become states:  North and South Dakota on the 2nd; Montana on the 8th; and Washington on the 11th.  Although the states were admitted to the Union on those dates, the flag—as is always the case—would not officially be changed until the following July 4th.  Manufacturers began making 42-star flags in anticipation.  

On July 3, 1890, however, Idaho became the 43rd state. Therefore, when Montana’s star was added to Old Glory on July 4, 1890, it was officially a 43-star constellation. In reality, however, no one had had time to manufacture 43-star flags. Most of the flags actually used that day were 42-star flags.

On July 10th, 1890, Wyoming became the 44th state, so many manufacturers went straight to making 44-star flags, knowing that 43-star flags would soon be obsolete. This 44-star constellation remained official until Utah was admitted to the Union in 1896.

A relatively small number of 41-star flags were manufactured in spite of the fact
such  a configuration was never the official design of the U.S. flag.

 Obviously, the early 1890s were a confusing time for flag makers and the result was a wide variety of unofficial and inaccurate flags. Although the U.S. flag never formally had 41 stars, some 41-star flags were nevertheless manufactured. The Montana Historical Society has two in its permanent collection.

For more information refer to: The Stars and the Stripes: The American Flag as Art and as History from the Birth of the Republic to the Present, by Boleslaw and Marie-Louise D’Otrange Mastai (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 1973 (reprinted 2002).