Sign In

Area History

Discover the Rich History of Bozeman, Montana

Nestled in Gallatin County, Bozeman, Montana is a thriving city with a fascinating history. As the fourth largest city in Montana, it lies just north of Yellowstone National Park and boasts a diverse range of historical and cultural attractions. Let’s take a closer look at the captivating history of Bozeman, its key figures, and important milestones.

Explorers and Pioneers

Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) During the early 19th century, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on their epic journey across the western United States, passing through the Gallatin Valley, which is now part of Bozeman. They named the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin rivers that run through the valley. Today, Bozeman is proud to commemorate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with various events and exhibitions, including a display of original artifacts at the Museum of the Rockies and the Weekend of Discovery at Head Waters State Park in Three Forks.

The Bozeman Trail

Established by John Bozeman in 1864, the Bozeman Trail served as the northern spur of the Oregon Trail, connecting Landrock to Virginia City, Montana. For three years, Bozeman led settlers along this trail until it was closed by the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes, who sought to halt further immigration into their territory. In 1883, the Northern Pacific Railway completed a route through what is now known as Bozeman Pass, paralleling the historic trail and forming the foundation for present-day Interstate 90.

Fort Ellis and the Gallatin Gateway Inn

In response to political unrest and the death of John Bozeman, Captain R.S. LaMotte and two companies of the 2nd Cavalry of Fort Shaw established Fort Ellis in 1868. Named in honor of Colonel Augustus Van Horne Ellis, who was killed in action at Gettysburg, the fort provided protection to settlers in the Gallatin area.

As Montana’s railroad network expanded during the 1920s, the Milwaukee Railroad constructed a spur line to transport travelers to Yellowstone National Park. The overwhelming success of this venture led to the construction of the luxurious Gallatin Gateway Inn in the town of Salesville (now Gallatin Gateway). Opening on June 17, 1927, the inn has since been designated a Historic Landmark and restored to its original grandeur.

Montana State University

Established in 1893 as a land-grant college, Montana State University (MSU) has since evolved into a renowned institution, offering 46 fields of study, 125 areas of baccalaureate degrees, 38 fields of master’s degrees, and 15 fields of doctorate degrees. MSU is home to KUSM (a public television station), the Museum of the Rockies, Air Force and Army ROTC programs, nine national fraternities, and five national sororities. In 1993, MSU celebrated its centennial anniversary.

Montana’s Formation

Montana achieved statehood in 1889, with gold-seekers being the first pioneers to arrive. Over time, cattle and agriculture became the state’s dominant industries, shaping its identity and laying the foundation for its future.


Captured from her Shoshone tribe as a child, Sacagawea later married explorer Toussaint Charbonneau and played an instrumental role in guiding the Lewis and Clark Expedition through the region in 1805. The following year, she led William Clark across the valley from the three forks to the pass leading directly into the Yellowstone area.

Three Forks, located west of Bozeman, was also the site of a bloody battle between the Blackfeet, Flatheads, and Crow tribes. John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, participated in this fight in 1808, siding with the Flatheads and Crows. Despite being outnumbered, Colter and his allies emerged victorious.

John Colter’s Escape

In the spring of 1808, John Colter and fellow explorer John Potts left Manuel Lisa’s trading post at the mouth of the Big Horn River to hunt and trap in the Gallatin Valley. While at Three Forks, they were attacked by the Blackfeet tribe, resulting in Potts’ death and Colter’s capture. Stripped and forced to run for his life, Colter managed to evade his pursuers, hide in the river, and ultimately escape. Today, an annual late-summer run commemorates Colter’s daring feat, following a trail that replicates the challenging conditions of his escape.

John Bozeman and the Town’s Namesake

Arriving in 1863, John Bozeman saw the area’s potential for agriculture and as a central supply stop for gold miners. He guided wagon trains along the Bozeman Trail, which he discovered, and contributed significantly to the region’s growth. However, Bozeman was murdered in 1867 near the Yellowstone River, leaving behind a lingering mystery about the identity of his killer.

Jim Bridger and Nelson Story

Frontiersman Jim Bridger arrived in Bozeman in 1864 and led the first wagon train through the canyon north of the town, now known as Bridger Canyon. The nearby mountain range was later named the Bridger Range in his honor.

In the mid-1800s, Nelson Story settled in Bozeman and played a crucial role in establishing Montana’s cattle industry. He drove 3,000 head of cattle from Texas to Bozeman, defying the U.S. Army’s concerns for his safety. Story was also an early supporter of Montana State College (now MSU), and the historical Ellen Theater in downtown Bozeman is named after his wife.

Malcolm Story

Nelson Story’s grandson, Malcolm, continued the family tradition of making a mark on Bozeman. Known for his exceptional storytelling abilities, he helped keep the spirit of the past alive through his captivating tales.

Bozeman, Montana is a city steeped in history, from the early days of Lewis and Clark to the pioneers who shaped the region’s identity. This thriving city continues to celebrate its heritage through various events, exhibitions, and landmarks that give visitors a glimpse into its fascinating past.

Pioneer Museum
Bozeman Chamber of Commerce