Harmon’s Histories: Montana’s earliest newspapers were fiercely independent

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

When Martin Kidston launched the Missoula Current five years ago, I was both excited and supportive. But at the same time, I’ll admit, I was skeptical. Could a small, independent, (initially) one-person-operation succeed? 

Well, as time has shown – yes.

Martin told me the other day the online journal was “founded on the belief that local news matters. The greater Missoula region needed more reporting, more perspectives and more journalistic competition.”

That caused me, as most things do, to wonder about the past: What motivated those earliest Montana scribblers?

As it turns out they, too, were independent people, seeing a need in their community for local coverage free of outside influences.

In the first edition of Montana’s first newspaper, the Montana Post, in Virginia City, August 27, 1864, Editor John Buchanan made it clear: “Believing that political demagogues have well nigh ruined our country, we shall not make our paper the organ of any clique or faction. The enterprise is our own, and we are under the hire of no man or party.”

Many other Montana newspapers, in the decades that followed, reflected that same spirit of independence.

Sun River Sun – February 14, 1884

David B. Hall, editor of the Sun River Sun (Sun River, MT), announced in February, 1884, “The Sun shall be a thoroughly independent, nonpartisan paper, devoted to no particular party, sect, order, but to the Interests and general welfare of Montana, and of the Sun River and adjacent valleys in particular.”

A parallel tenet was boosting the community – letting the folks “back in the states” know about the growth of their communities and their businesses “out West.”

Wright & Hendry, the publishers of Livingston’s Daily Enterprise, in their 1883 initial issue announced, “The Enterprise will be devoted to the advocacy and exposition of the interests of Livingston and the tributary country in particular, and of the territory of Montana generally.

“The newspaper is one of the indicative features of western growth, and this is so entirely true that the outside world very properly forms its opinion of the stage of progress attained by a western town by the standard news papers published therein, and for the purpose of arriving at such opinion constantly applies for “sample copies” of those papers.”

Rocky Mountain Husbandman, Diamond City, Montana –  Nov. 25, 1875

In 1875, R. N. Sutherlin, the editor of the Rocky Mountain Husbandman in Diamond City, declared it’s cause was agriculture: “For ten long years the Montana farmer has toiled on in his quiet, unassuming way, isolated and alone. We shall ever be found boldly and fearlessly championing the cause of the sons of toil.”

Others, like Bromley & Devine, the publishers of the Billings Herald, also made clear from their beginning in 1882, the No. 1 priority of their publication was profit. “We trust that all the residents in that portion of Montana lying contiguous to Billings, or in fact in the territory at large, will perform the very pleasant duty of writing us, enclosing the amount necessary to secure the paper as their especial property during the next year.”

F. Kline and H. Brundage, in establishing the Dillon Tribune in 1881, saw a great future for their community given the arrival of the railroad, the town’s healthy climate, “free from malarial and misamatic influences” with “cool water” and “free pure air (not to mention) endless miles” of grazing land and farming land.

For Will Hanks, the publisher of the Great Falls Tribune when it debuted in 1885, it was all about the water: “Where there is available water power in a good country there must be a city, and … that city must of necessity have before it a very bright future. With this knowledge we have cast our lot in this young town of Great Falls with great expectations.”

For Fell & Vrooman, publishers of the Mineral Argus in Maiden in 1883, it was both independence and booster-ism: “We have started this publication at the solicitation of mining…grazing and agricultural interests. We shall aim to be independent…the champions of no clique or ring.”

That’s not to say there weren’t political boosters as well. There were a few Montana newspapers that openly stated their political affiliations in their salutatory announcements.

Daily Yellowstone Journal – Miles City, October 18, 1882

The Daily Yellowstone Journal, published by W. D. Knight in Miles City, debuted on October 18, 1882, declaring, “We now see the necessity of party organization, and with this issue of the Journal places itself squarely on the republican platform.”

Many more papers would follow that pattern in the 1880s and 1890s.

Then, there were a few Montana publications with other purposes in mind. W. H. Buck, editor and publisher of the Benton Record stated in his initial volume in 1875, that he had wanted “to establish a journal wholly devoted to the advancement of temperance efforts,” but admitted such an effort would likely fail.

Instead, he said, his newspaper would take on other issues of the day, not the least of which was “the utter mismanagement of Indian affairs in general (because of) corrupt agents.”

Of course it’s not possible to talk about Montana newspaper history without acknowledging one of the darkest periods  the decades-long control of the state’s press by the Anaconda Mining Company, as documented in Dennis Swibold’s book, “Copper Chorus: Mining, Politics, and the Montana Press.”

Then, too – infamously and unforgivably – it’s also impossible to ignore one of the most inflammatory salutatory messages in Montana newspaper history from Missoula’s first newspaper, debuting on September 15, 1870.

Missoula & Cedar Creek Pioneer, Sept. 15, 1870

Joseph & W. H. Magee’s Missoula and Cedar Creek Pioneer declared, “For the advancement of all of the varied interests of our beautiful mountain land, and in advocacy of securing all the social and political privileges to its white citizens, we shall labor unceasingly.

“We shall deal in no gentle mood with those in our midst who would impede the onward march of empire by fostering and giving employment to heathen Asiatic slaves in preference to the free-born, large-souled and intelligent white men who have ever composed the glorious vanguard of American civilization.”

In the end, we have to admit Montana journalism has embodied it all: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Though a tad late, congrats to Missoula Current on its fifth anniversary.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.