The earliest historical sites in Montana reflect the period of transition when European building ways and property ownership ideas marked a land long in use by Native Americans.
The nomadic lifestyle of Montana’s indigenous people resulted in portable shelters as ephemeral as any seasonal activity. Few extant structures remain from this period, teepee rings, cairns, and drive lines provide a glimpse of the patterns of the earliest peoples. Instead of monuments and buildings, knowledge of a given environment, natural landmarks, and a tribe’s interaction with a place are the cultural elements sustained across generations. Both the Sleeping Buffalo Rock—moved from its original locale and marked with a sign to preserve the knowledge of its existence—and the Wahkpa Chu’gn Buffalo Jump are well-preserved examples of the human hand in a vast land.
European traditions, however, favored permanent settlements with buildings and building ways maintained indefinitely. Although canvas tents and temporary structures provided shelter for early settlers, the establishment of forts, missions, and later towns instituted the tradition of permanent settlement and land ownership in a newly charted territory.
The earliest extant buildings in Montana are representative of the frontier era—trading posts and military buildings fortified for defense, missions established to convert native peoples, and a few cabins and town buildings preserved by the descendants of Montana’s pioneers. Settlement patterns are those of an early era, situated on waterways or organically grown around mines. Despite the loss of temporary and transitional buildings, Montana’s early sites identified with historical markers tell a story of place, of human activity, and of the persistence of culture.