Mountains give Montana its name and its grandeur, but the larger portion of the state is given over to sweeping plains - the majestic Big Sky Country. As in other parts of the West, a procession of immigrants put the land to different uses. Some succeeded and stayed, others failed and departed.
First, the Indians came for buffalo. The Blackfoot, Crow, and other Indian tribes tracked huge herds across the plains, using the animals for food and clothing, and sheathing tepees with their skins. Then, in the 1870’s, white ranches arrived to make use of the open range and its native grama and bunch grasses, which provide ideal food for cattle. They drove their herds from as far as Texas, more than 1,000 miles away, because grazing was free.
Soon after came professional buffalo hunters in search of animal hides to ship back east. By 1885 the seemingly inexhaustible buffalo herds had all but disappeared, and Mountain’s dozen - odd native Indian tribes, deprived of the animals that gave them sustenance (and now almost entirely dependent on the federal government), were relegated to six reservations by the end of the century.
The vast open range went the way of the buffalo in the early 20th century when hordes of sodbusters arrived to farm the land offered by the U.S. government. After staking out the range with barbed wire and bringing in a few good wheat crops in a run of unusually rainy years, most of the sodbusters abandoned their farms by 1920, defeated by grasshopper plagues, drought, and windstorms that blew away the topsoil.
Today many visitors come to Montana to enjoy a venerable western institution - the dude ranch. Such ranches got their start when railroads began bringing tourists, mainly from the East, to Yellowstone Park in the 1880’s and nearby ranchers welcomed the strangers into their homes, charging a fee as a way to help keep things together in tough times. Later, in the 1920’s, a few droughts - threatened cattle ranches were revived by doubling as vacation sports. A whole new tourists trade developed, and now more people than ever visit Montana’s dude ranches. Some city dwellers choose working ranches where they can become part of the crew for a few days; others want only a little horseback riding or fishing. But all appreciate the truth in western artist Charlie Russell’s words: “You can get in a car to see what man has made, but you have to get on a horse to see what God has made.”