Exhibit: Appropriate, Curious, & Rare: Montana History Object by Object

Montanans at Home

While thoughts of home evoke a strong emotional response from most Montanans, the specifics of what exactly constituted “home” varied greatly by time and place. For nomadic Plains Indians, it most often meant a buffalo hide tipi, the location of which was determined by the tribe’s territory and the season of the year. Their possessions were minimal since households had to be easily transported on dog- or horse-drawn travois. Well into the twentieth century, the first home for newcomers to the Treasure State was most often a one-room cabin, dugout, or tarpaper shack; a Spartan barracks; or a bedroll on the ground. Conversely, wealthy Montanans like Butte’s Copper Kings dwelled comfortably in elaborately furnished Victorian mansions that rivaled those found anywhere in the country.


Tipi liner

A’aninin (Gros Ventre) tipi liner, 1875-1900, MHS 1981.67.09

Staying warm in a region where temperatures fell well below zero and remained there for extended periods required great adaptability and resourcefulness.  Plains peoples nestled their winter camps among trees that provided both a windbreak and fuel for the fires they used to heat their lodges and cook their food. Tipi liners—originally made of tanned bison hide—were secured to the inside of the tipi poles to produce a second wall that offered insulation and helped draw smoke up through the smoke hole at the top of the tipi. Illustrated liners also often served a second, cultural function. This painted canvas liner features drawings that document intertribal warfare: gunfights, battles, scalping, horse capture, retreat, and hand-to-hand combat.  In 1959, A’aninin (Gros Ventre) elder Julia Ereaux Schultz bequeathed this unique tipi liner to the Montana Historical Society, saying “I am proud of the Indian heritage in Montana, and I want future generations of Montana people to see some of the wonderful things left to us.”

Horn spoon

Carved Horn Spoon, 1900, MHS X1982.44.23

Indigenous women utilized a variety of natural materials to make utensils for harvesting, preserving, and preparing food. Hard sandstone and granite were used for grinding slabs (metates) and steatite or soapstone to make bowls, while quartzite rocks made fine berry pounders.  Bison shoulder blades served as plates, bison bladders as water bags, and sheep horns as ladles or cups. Antlers could be fashioned into handles for knives with chert or obsidian blades. This spoon, carved from cow horn in 1900, measures less than nine inches in length. By the turn of the century, Montana’s indigenous people had long had access to metal kitchen utensils, but many preferred to create the types of tools they were accustomed to using. Women often had to substitute new materials—like cattle horns—for those that were no longer available, such as bison horns, during the early reservation years.

My Cabin, Montana

My Cabin, Montana by Peter Tofft, 1866, MHS 1996.86.01

Peter Petersen Tofft (1825–1901) was born in Denmark. Although accounts of his life vary in detail, all agree that he traveled extensively as a young man, working as a whaler, miner, and illustrator. By December 1865 the itinerant artist found himself in southwest Montana painting such settings as Fort Owen, St. Ignatius Mission, and Fort Connah. His subsequent travels around the Territory included Virginia City and Helena where, on May 28, 1867, the Herald reported that “No finer ornament can be had . . . than paintings from the hand of Prof. [sic] Tofft, portraying truthfully, the rarest scenes in the Rocky Mountains.” Of the “rare scenes” he portrayed perhaps none is more unique than this detailed watercolor showing the interior of his cabin, showing the typical trappings of an early gold miner, and adorned with Tofft’s own paintings.

Original Governor's mansion

Original Governor's Mansion, 1888

This stately 1888 Queen Anne style residence holds a myriad of stories. Many, but not all of them, are associated with the nine First Families who called the Original Governor’s Mansion home between 1913 and 1959. Today, the historic house museum is curated by the Montana Historical Society and offers visitors a window into the life of affluent Montanans in the first decades of the twentieth century. The home provides a wonderful place to explore not only the lives and stories of its residents and their household staff, but also the political and social issues that affected them. As noted by author Larry Gill, “Within these walls have been enacted all the protocol required of dinners and receptions of state, many of the inter-party councils of war and of peace through which the wheels of government are greased. Here also have been played all the little dramas and tragedies, the heartaches and happiness of private family life . . . . The house was built to be a home.”

David Hilger's Buffalo Chair

Buffalo Horn Chair made by David Hilger, c. 1886, MHS X1927.01.01

Chicago’s Tobey Furniture Company began incorporating steer horns into their furniture in the mid-1870s, and companies across the nation followed suit. This chair, donated to the Montana Historical Society by David Hilger in 1927, offers a Montana take on the trend, using buffalo instead of cattle horns. While the exact date of the chair’s manufacture is uncertain, its horns came from buffalo Hilger shot between 1881 and1886. Hilger hunted them from horseback, using a carbine Winchester, and estimated that he killed as many as eighteen buffalo in one “stand,” and around 300 buffalo in total. He ate the meat from his kills and sold their hides for five dollars apiece. Hilger was one of the last sportsmen to hunt buffalo in the Judith Basin, and by 1884, most of Montana’s bison herds were gone. Hilger’s chair reminds us of the evocative, symbolic power bison have for many Montanans, native and non-native alike.

Maternity dress

Maternity Dress, 1905, MHS 2014.20.01

Regina Parker Davis (1878-1910), the wife of Wibaux sheep rancher Al Davis, wore this maternity dress made of copper-colored sateen, velvet, and lace in 1905. A treasured item lovingly preserved, the simple elegance of the dress belies the hardships—and danger—that attended childbirth in Montana’s rural areas during the homestead era. Prenatal care was essentially nonexistent and women generally gave birth at home, relying on neighbors, their husbands, or, if they were lucky, midwives, to oversee their deliveries. Lack of proper care often proved deadly for mother and child alike: from 1911 to 1919, nearly 9,000 women and infants died during childbirth in Montana, which had one of the highest maternal death rates in the nation. In the 1920s and 1930s women gradually began to take advantage of “lying in” rooms and homes if they lived near one. After 1930, when obstetric practices became regulated, Montana women gained the option of giving birth in hospitals.