THE BORDERS OF PARK COUNTY: How, why and when did they get there?

Dwight Harriman
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment in a multi-part series about the borders of Park County.

How did Park County get its borders? How do we know where they are? Why does the county have a boot toe sticking out on its southeast side? And who decided all this stuff anyway?

The creation of Park County’s boundaries really has two parts: a historical one, and a technical, or mathematical, one. Because you can’t create county lines without both.

To learn how Park County got its borders, you have to go way back — way, way, back, before Montana was a state, even before it was a territory. In fact, clear back to President Thomas Jefferson.

Back in Jefferson’s day, the country had no taxes, and thus no revenue — but it had a lot of land, explained George Bornemann, a professional land surveyor with CTA Architects Engineers in Livingston who does contract work for Park County. So Jefferson proposed funding the government by selling land to settlers.

Part of the idea was to also give land to Revolutionary War soldiers in recognition of their service, according to Wikipedia.

But before land was sold, Jefferson wanted it surveyed, and thus he came up with the hallmark Public Lands Survey System, Bornemann said. 

The system called for dividing land into 1-mile squares called sections — a word that will sound familiar to Park Countians acquainted with the checkerboard pattern of land here — with 36 sections forming a township. Each section has 640 acres, every quarter section has 160, and every quarter-quarter section has 40 acres and on down. 

By the way, that’s where the expression “The North 40” — as in “I’m going to plow the North 40” — came from.

But what does that have to do with Park County’s borders?

Hold that thought. First, let’s delve into some history.


Border history

Back in 1864, when Montana became a territory, there were no counties. 

When the first Montana Territorial Assembly of 1865 convened, representatives wanted a map of Montana. 

“Of course, nothing had been surveyed at all,” Jerry Brekke, a Park County historical consultant, said. 

The representatives also divided what is present-day Montana into nine counties: Missoula, occupying about one-sixth of the territory in the west/northwest; then Deer Lodge, Beaverhead, Madison, Jefferson and Edgerton counties occupying the west-central portion; Choteau and Gallatin the entire middle of the territory; and a monster county, Big Horn, taking up nearly the whole eastern half of the state.

The boundaries for these counties were essentially just lines drawn on a map.

The creation of Park County has everything to do with Gallatin County, which Park County was originally a part of. According to online diagrams by the Newberry Library, at one point, from 1867 to 1869 Gallatin County — before the creation of Park County — was a huge, roughly square county stretching from about Manhattan to Laurel and the Wyoming border to Melville. 

By 1883, something was happening: People in the eastern half of Gallatin County were unhappy with being part of Gallatin and having to cross the Bozeman Pass to take care of legal matters in Bozeman at the county seat. Residents on the east side of the pass began thinking of themselves as “east Gallatiners” and those on west side as “west Gallatiners,” Brekke said.

He pointed out that a social and economic phenomenon was taking place as east Gallatiners began discovering their own identity: They had their own very nice and growing central city with Livingston, founded and platted by the Northern Pacific Railroad; they had an economic engine with the NPR repair shops; a growing livestock industry; and a strong tax base with corporate-owned gold mines in the southern part of what is today Park County. Why did they need to be part of Gallatin County?

The agitation grew into serious friction between the two sides, resulting in the easterners making a series of legislative efforts to be delivered from “the hands of the Philistines,” as an 1882 Livingston Gazette story described the westerners.

A strong drive for the creation of Park County, led by Samuel L. Holliday, whom Brekke calls “the father of Park County,” finally bore fruit on Feb. 23, 1887 when, after passage by the Montana Territorial Assembly, the measure was signed into law by Gov. Preston H. Leslie.

According to Albert Babcock’s “1907 Illustrated History of the Yellowstone Valley,” days before, when it was apparent the bill was going to pass, there was rejoicing in Livingston, as described by the Feb. 19, 1887 Livingston Enterprise: “The news was hailed with great delight, cheer upon cheer of gladness resounding from every quarter of town, and there was much noise and commotion on the streets …”

The shape of the new county bore only a slight resemblance to today’s borders. In 1887 it looked like a large, fat letter “C,” the Newberry Library diagrams show, with the western and southern boundaries roughly where they are today but with the top of the C stretching eastward roughly to Columbus. The middle portion of the C shape resulted from the county wrapping around what was then a part of the Crow Reservation. The county lines back then also took in part of today’s Stillwater and Carbon counties.

In 1889, Montana officially became a state and meanwhile, subsequent revisions to Park County’s borders were made. By 1895 the Sweet Grass-area portion of the “C” was gone, with Sweet Grass having formed its own county. 

By 1913, Park County’s borders looked like they do today.


Tomorrow: Just how the borders of Park County were created and how they are connected to a unique Montana feature: the principal meridian.


Dwight Harriman may be reached at