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A Brief Custer County History
Courtesy of the Custer County MTGenWeb Project
Copyright ? 1999 - 2000, Patricia Easton. All Rights Reserved.

The Land:

Custer county is rolling plains and prairie. Varied, alkali buttes and colored sandstone bluffs give way to the open and fertile Yellowstone River valley, as well as some Ponderosa Pine covered hills. Creeks are lined with cottonwoods, and the area is rich in coal. Several rivers run through this uniquely beautiful area.

Custer County was originally Big Horn County. When the original nine counties of Montana Territory were formed in 1865, Big Horn County covered the majority of eastern Montana from the Canadian border to Wyoming and the Dakota's. In 1869, Big Horn County was divided in two: the northern portion became Dawson County; the southern half remained Big Horn.

In 1877, Big Horn County was renamed Custer County in remembrance of General George Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn. Prior to 1869, all government for Big Horn County was handled in Gallatin County due to the primarily uninhabited area. In 1877 Custer County began handling it's own government, although most records in the county courthouse are not frequent until the early 1880's. Later, additional chunks of Custer County would break off to form several new counties. Prior to Montana Territory, this area was Louisiana Purchase, Nebraska Territory, Dakota Territory, and Idaho Territory.

The Original Inhabitants:

Thousands of years ago, this area was occupied by nomadic aboriginal tribes. Little is known of these earliest inhabitants, but pictographs and medicine wheels remain in the vicinity of Custer County to testify to their existence. Before the buffalo roamed this area, the nomads are believed to have hunted mastodon here. Centuries later and pushed west, the Native American Tribes of the Plains would also travel and hunt this land. The rich prairie grass which grows here allowed ample grazing for the numerous buffalo who were native to this area. Native Americans, dependent on the buffalo and wild game, relied on this area for their hunting grounds. Several tribes lived in or migrated through Custer County, most notably the Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Hunkpapa and Ogalala Sioux. Many other nearby tribes frequented the prairie here for hunts. The arrival of the military began the confinement of the tribes, and the horrific attempts to wipe them out. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the most well known Native Americans of the area, both made their presence known on these plains in the last attempts to save Native American freedom. The now legendary defeat of the U.S. Military in June of 1876 at the Battle of Little Big Horn, marked the end of many folkways, and nearly the existence, of the Native Americans.

The Military:

Crazy Horse was an expert at using these hills to his advantage during military confrontations.

One of the last untamed areas of the United States was Montana. In the mid 1800's, certain areas such as eastern Montana, were occupied exclusively by Native Americans. Most early Montana Posts were built to protect miners and hunters from raiding bands of Native Americans. As the quest for land grew, more and more white settlers pushed into the last remaining areas. Encounters with Native Americans became more frequent, and the number of Forts on the plains grew. In July of 1876, following Custer's Last Stand, Congress approved the building of Post Number 1 on the Tongue River. Completed in September of 1876, the Tongue River Cantonment began under the command of Colonel Nelson Miles (later a General, Lt. General, and General in Chief). In the Fall of 1877, the Cantonment was moved two and a half miles up the Tongue River (present day western Miles City), and officially named Fort Keogh in honor of Captain Myles Keogh, killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Fort Keogh would be home to the 1st and 2nd Calvary, and to the 5th, 7th, and 22nd Infantry. Although the primary years of occupation and service were the 1880's, Fort Keogh was active until 1898 when it was gradually closed. Through the years of Fort Keogh's operation, the growing town of Miles depended heavily on it's services and soldiers.


The first town, Miles or Milestown, grew as a result of the Tongue River Cantonment. Named for General Nelson A. Miles, General Miles adamantly banned alcohol at the post. It was Miles' soldiers, in search of ladies and liquor, that provided the customers for the now famed saloons and brothels that established Milestown. In early 1877, Big Horn County was renamed Custer, and Miles became the new county seat. Miles City Townsite #1 was in full swing late in the year, when General Miles reduced the size of the military reservation. This opening of new land allowed the growing town occupants to spread, and Miles City Townsite #2 was incorporated in July of 1878. It is these two sections that were known as Old Miles (aka Old Town) and New Miles (aka New Town). Later, both areas would become simply Miles City. Miles City was everything the wild west was notorious for: cowboys, liquor, gambling, and all that goes with it. Dr. Lorman Hoopes notes in his book This Last West that the Yellowstone Journal on March 13, 1880 said of Miles City: "we have twenty-three saloons in our town and they all do a good business; we are going to have one church soon," the population was noted as 550 people. Hoopes also notes that there were 42 saloons by 1881, and Miles City was consuming 1,000 bottles of beer per day. Miles City soon required other services, and merchants, saddleshops, and laundry houses soon followed with other respectable businesses. The lush prairie brought sheepherders and cattle ranchers, and those looking for new hope out west. With the railroad traveling through Miles City, the stage coach, and nearby ferry, it did not take long for Miles City to become the hub of eastern Montana and the west. Now a mecca, Miles City settled into being a respectable, yet wild town. The area would sustain itself through the years to come, spreading further into the county, and depending heavily on land resources and ranching.

Weather and Wildlife:

Custer County is not for the faint of heart, and it's beauty comes with a price: the weather. The weather in this area can range from -40? to 110?. The temperature has been known to change 50 degrees within a day. There is a saying in Montana, "if you don't like the weather just wait five minutes; it'll change." Whoever thought that up must have lived in eastern Montana. Summer in Montana is hot, dry, and parched. The wind here can be brutal, bringing with it severe storms and microbursts. The rainfall can be unpredictable and sporadic, and gullywashers are common when the rain finally arrives. Winters are generally harsh-- cold, snowy and windy; although there have been Christmas' that were 70?. While the snow can become deep in spots, the prairie wind usually does not give the snow much chance to settle. The horrific winter of 1886-1887 provided a valuable learning experience to the ranchers of Custer County. The practice of growing and storing hay had not begun here, and come spring, many ranchers found cattle skeletons six feet above in trees where the animals, then at snow level, had tried to find shelter and feed. It was said that you could walk a creek from end to end on cattle bones, never touching soil.

This harshness also provides a unique wildlife. The prairie here, lush with prairie grass, was home to the buffalo. It is also home to the mule and whitetail deer, antelope, and elk. Black bear once roamed the Custer County plains, but now are rarely seen. Mountain lion still hunt the outer county areas, preying on ranches, especially in the spring. There are a few bobcat, fox, and badger, and coyotes prowl throughout the county. Bald eagles are occasionally seen, and Custer has several types of birds and owls. Rattlesnakes are common outside of town, as are the raccoon along the rivers and corn fields. Prairie dogs and grasshoppers are always abundant, competing for first place as every rancher's pest that won't go away.

A Brief Custer County History
Courtesy of the Custer County MTGenWeb Project
Copyright ? 1999 - 2000, Patricia Easton. All Rights Reserved.

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