The Billings Outpost

Don’t miss map display

By WILBUR WOOD - For The Outpost

Hear ye! Hear ye! To all devotees of historic maps, or students of regional history, or both: be sure to visit the Yellowstone County Museum this month, to catch a fabulous display of some two dozen maps depicting territory that became (1) the western United States, (2) the state of Montana and (3) the Yellowstone Valley region.

The YC Museum is a venerable brown wood structure that you see just south of Logan International Airport, atop the Rimrocks north of downtown Billings. To get there on wheels, drive into the airport, pass the terminal, and circle around to a parking lot conveniently adjacent to the museum.

It’s well worth the trip.  When Elizabeth and I—two confirmed map enthusiasts—visited the exhibit last month we asked the curator, Rebecca Bakken, how long the show would be up.

“Through November,” she said, “but the Museum is closed the month of December.” 

She thought the map show likely would continue into 2014, but at that point she could not say for sure.

That’s why you need to go there before the end of November. (Elizabeth and I intend to return for a second viewing.)

The earliest maps include fanciful imaginings of the geography of the West, based more on hearsay or conjecture than on actual exploration.  The oldest map on the wall is dated 1778, two years after the Declaration of Independence.  It’s called “A New Map of North America” and when you locate the general area where Montana would be, there is no Yellowstone River and what came to be called the Missouri River is flowing out of a large (and absolutely mythical) lake.

By 1803, a map commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin—for use by the Lewis and Clark Expedition on their journey up the Missouri—is slightly more accurate on geographical details—repeat: slightly—and also includes vague notions about territory occupied by some of the indigenous tribes in the area, information compiled in 1801 and 1802  by a surveyor for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

William Clark produced useful maps of the entire expedition from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia River, then back.  (We own a book of these maps.)  A facsimile of Clark’s 1806 map of the Yellowstone River is on the Museum wall.  At the site that became Billings, Clark notes “Yellow Cliffs”—what we now call the Rimrocks.

A Jesuit Missionary, Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet (1801-1873) settled in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana, and drew a map to accompany the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851.  Kim Lugthart of Missoula—who curated the show and supplied most of the 20-plus maps—has said, “This is the first time anyone drew lines on a map indicating homelands of Indian tribes in this part of the world.”

Thirty years later came another map—one of three donated to this exhibit by Billings attorney Bill Cole—that indicates “definite location of the Northern Pacific Railroad through the Crow Reserve.”

It’s instructive to see the enormous amount of land, on both sides of the tracks, given by the U.S. government to the railroad—simply for “opening up the West.”

By the way, the Crow Reserve that year, 1881, was much, much larger than the present day Crow Reservation.  That is the sort of historical perspective this exhibit makes palpable. And that is what fascinates me—that, along with scanning early maps of my own native ground, the Musselshell Valley, and seeing things like the almost forgotten names of now-vanished towns.

A 1910 map traces the routes of all 12 railroads then operating in Montana.

A 1927 AAA map does the same thing for “Auto Roads in Montana.” (And yes, AAA does stand for American Automobile Association.)

Chas Weldon, YC Museum director, worked closely with Kim Lugthart to design the show, according to a Sept. 29 Billings Gazette article by Ed Kemmick, and a Museum volunteer, Bruce Larsen, played a large role in hanging the show.

Chas Weldon has said:  “This is the hardest and smartest exhibit I’ve ever done.” 

All the maps are high quality reproductions, and another smart thing Weldon and his staff did was to make sure they would keep them.

The Yellowstone County Museum also has important collections of Native American, cattle and sheep ranching, railroading and many other historical materials.  Admission is free; donations are welcomed.

If you’re interested in learning more about these maps and others, and possibly acquiring some reproductions, contact the curator of this exhibit, Kim Lugthart, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

Top Desktop version