First Man Up The Trail

The cattle drive to Montana that inspired Lonesome Dove.
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
3
The cattle drive to Montana that inspired Lonesome Dove.
Credit: Bozeman Daily Chronicle A photograph of Bozeman, Mont., from 1911.

Credit: Bozeman Daily Chronicle A photograph of Bozeman, Mont., from 1911.

Devotees of Lonesome Dove notwithstanding, the first major cattle drive from Texas to Montana by way of the Bozeman Trail was ramrodded, not by Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, but by an extraordinary man named Nelson Story. An Ohioan by birth, Story—after two years of college and a brief stint as a schoolteacher—traveled to the gold fields of Montana while still in his early 20s. By 1863, he had made a modest fortune. With some of his profits, the enterprising young man bought a herd of 1,000 Texas Longhorns at $10 a head, assembled a crew of drovers (which he armed with repeating rifles), and in the spring of 1866, pointed them north. 

Rather than take the conventional route to the markets of Missouri and Kansas, Story directed his herd toward Montana, where beef-starved gold miners would be only too happy to pay his prices. Looking to the future, he briefly stopped his outfit at Leavenworth, Kan., where he purchased 150 oxen and 15 wagons, and filled them with enough cloth, tools, and other items to stock a general store in the new territory.

Credit: Montana State University Nelson Story, the man who made the first major cattle drive from Texas to Montana.

Credit: Montana State University Nelson Story, the man who made the first major cattle drive from Texas to Montana.

It was a hellish trip. Before reaching his destination, Story and his cowboys fought off Sioux and Crow warriors, as well as Anglo cattle thieves. At one point, he defied an order from the U.S. Cavalry not to proceed, due to the Indian threat. But Story was, in the words of one chronicler, “a hard guy, a tough guy, living in tough times.” He and his cattle made it through by December 1866, when he finally reached what is now Livingston, Mont. He had lost only one man. 

Story settled his growing family in the new settlement of Bozeman—a town established just two years earlier by John Bozeman and his partners, whose main purpose, according to Bozeman, was “to swallow up all tenderfeet that would reach the territory from the east, with their golden fleeces to be taken care of.” 

Nelson Story was no tenderfoot. After selling his cattle for more than 10 times his cost, Story became the wealthiest man in town, and opened his planned-for general store on New Year’s Day, 1867. He soon invested in a number of other local businesses, including flour mills, banks, and real estate. Within a short time, he was Bozeman’s largest employer, with his flour mill complex—the largest in the territory—employing more workers than any other business for half a century. Acting as a one-man chamber of commerce, he donated the property that would become Montana State University, and generally oversaw the town’s growth and development. 

Story, who built a three-story mansion so impressive that it was often mistaken for the courthouse, later served as mayor of Bozeman, and lieutenant governor of Montana. Apparently, one historian was more than justified when he told Nelson’s grandson, “You know, the town is misnamed. It ought to be named Story, not Bozeman.”

Credit: Bozeman Daily Chronicle A drawing of Bozeman, Montana, from 1898.

Credit: Bozeman Daily Chronicle A drawing of Bozeman, Montana, from 1898.

Still, Nelson Story was not always an altruistic figure. In his business dealings, he was, according to a former Bozeman city historian, “both an admirable ‘captain of industry’ and a despicable ‘robber baron.’” In 1876, the Army accused him of defrauding the Crow nation by filling pork barrels with offal, double-counting single sacks of flour, passing off calves as fully-grown cattle, and attempting to bribe an officer. Story never stood trial, reportedly boasting about avoiding prosecution by bribing the grand jurors. He also had a terrible temper, which resulted in violence on more than one occasion. According to one reputable account, he was notorious for pistol- or cane-whipping those who incurred his wrath, and once threw a brick at his own son in anger. 

For all his strengths and weaknesses, Nelson Story was a larger-than-life figure, cut to fit a frontier mold. And unceasingly, for decades, and until his death, he worked for the betterment of Bozeman.