Upon arrival in what was then Idaho Territory, settlers and gold-seekers established quasi-governments to bring order and justice to the chaotic mining camps and isolated settlements of the territory. Mining districts—democratic organizations with a few elected public officers—provided settlers with a means to deal with claim conflicts and a forum to adjudicate differences.
These frontier institutions, however, could not bring peace during a wave of violent robberies and killings around Bannack and Virginia City (Alder Gulch) in 1862-1863. The territorial capital of Lewiston at the western edge of the Idaho territory had little effect on criminal activity since hundreds of miles and vast mountain ranges separated the capital from the settlements. Beleaguered miners and settlers chose two routes to peace and stability, a vigilante presence to challenge, if not cease, criminal activities and a concerted effort to found a new territory from the eastern section of the enormous Idaho Territory.
Sidney Edgerton, recently arrived chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Idaho Territory, traveled to Washington D.C. to negotiate creation of a new territory. President Abraham Lincoln and Congress supported the endeavor and signed the Organic Act which created the Montana Territory on May 26, 1864. Lincoln later appointed Edgerton the first territorial governor, and Edgerton identified Bannack as the interim territorial capital.
The built environment of Bannack reflected the town’s gold camp status with crude, haphazardly constructed log buildings serving the transient and fluctuating population. Nonetheless, the town held the first jail of the territory and a cabin which proved suitable for government administration. The first representative governing body, the Montana Territorial Legislature, met in Bannack during the winter of 1864-1865.
In this first session, the Legislature voted to move the territorial capital to the thriving mining and population center of Virginia City. The mixture of log and frame structures, a bit more refined than Bannack, would house territorial officials, courts, and the legislature for nearly all of the Territory’s first crucial decade of existence.
Another burgeoning mining camp located at Last Chance Gulch challenged Virginia City’s capital status. Throughout the 1860s Helena rose in population and influence while Virginia City declined. The election of August 1874 resulted in the designation of Helena as the territorial capital, though the election was disputed and not decided in favor of Helena by the Montana Territorial Supreme Court until 1875.
The Lewis and Clark County Courthouse served as the territorial and state capitol after Montana gained statehood in 1889. Proximity to proposed railroad lines, large industrial mining operations, and the centralized location at a lower elevation, all aided the city in its first decades of service as the seat of government. By supporting economic prosperity and upholding the peace and stability sought by early settlers of the territory, this capital city grew into the modern seat of government for the expansive, geographically diverse state of Montana.