For thousands of years before the coming of European settlers, the site of present-day Billings was hunted by migratory peoples. Traces of their camps and elaborate cave drawings have been discovered and preserved at many sites in the region. By the time of America's westward expansion, the predominant tribes in the area included the Crow, Sioux, and Cheyenne.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1806 passed through the present site of Billings, and just 30 miles away William Clark climbed Pompey's Pillar, a 200-foot-high natural rock formation, which he named after the son of his female Indian guide. Although many Europeans explored the area, fierce resistance from the natives prevented any settlement. This led to the so-called "Sioux War," one of the more intense struggles between the U.S. Army and the native people. The infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn, where a large group of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors killed General George Custer and his entire 7th cavalry, took place 65 miles to the southeast of the future site of Billings.
Billings was founded in 1882 by the Northern Pacific Railroad as a rail head for the company's western line and named for the president of the railroad, Frederick Billings. Over the next six months more than 2,000 people settled in the town, which was incorporated as a city in 1885. The wide-open prairie lands were ideal for cattle grazing, and a number of large ranches grew up around the town. During the early twentieth century, families of settlers known as "homesteaders" arrived in the area, taking advantage of the offer of free land. Typically, a family and all its possessions would arrive in one freight car and receive a 40-acre plot of land. Conditions were difficult, but many families struggled through their first years and eventually developed successful farms.
Irrigation had been introduced in the Yellowstone Valley in 1879. Sugar beet growing was thus made possible, and a sugar refinery was built in 1906. Immigrant laborers came to work the fields—first Japanese, then Russo-Germans, and finally Mexicans. The Russo-German workers were unusually industrious; soon they bought their own land at the Huntley Irrigation project outside Billings, where they constituted a third of the population by 1940.
Billings grew steadily during the 1900s, spurred on by the development of vast natural resources such as minerals, coal, natural gas, and oil. At one time Billings was the largest inland wool shipping point in the United States. In 1933 pulp-drying equipment was installed at the sugar refinery; a thriving livestock industry developed around animals fed on beet pulp. By 1938 more than 600,000 acres of land around Billings was irrigated.
A true hub city and gateway to the West, Billings has become the commercial, health care, and cultural capital of the "Midland Empire," a vast area of agricultural, mountainous, wilderness, and sometimes forbidding terrain that includes eastern Montana, the western Dakotas, and Northern Wyoming. It is also an important refining and shipping center for agricultural and energy products.
Historical Information: Montana State University-Billings Library, 1500 North Thirtieth Street, Billings, MT 59101-0298; telephone (406)657-1662