Administrative History
NPS Logo



To appreciate fully the early political status of the area and the factors influencing early entry into it, one must know something of the peculiar geographical location of the park.

Sitting as it does astride the "Roof of the Continent" it is the one area in the United States that truly represents the dividing point between three major drainages—the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Hudson Bay. The early explorations into this part of the country also followed these same drainages, up the Mississippi-Missouri from American and French territories; up the Saskatchewan from British territory; and up the Columbia from British-American areas. As a result, the early ownership of the area now included in Glacier National Park was broken up into three divisions: that portion west of the Continental Divide, draining westward into the Columbia River; that east of the Divide, including the St. Mary, Belly River, and Waterton drainages, emptying into the Saskatchewan and Hudson Bay; and the remainder of the area, that laying south of St. Mary and east of the Divide, emptying into the the Missouri-Mississippi drainage.


The history of territorial ownership in early North America was one of claims and counter-claims, treaties and disputes, until such time as the claimants of some particular area could get together and agree upon definite boundaries and ownership. Such was the early history of Glacier National Park. In one respect the story was more complicated than most other disputed territories in the United States because it centered around the three major continental drainages, all of which were in different hands and were reached by different routes of travel. In the days when travel and exploration naturally followed the major watercourses, this constituted three natural geographical regions, each with its own peculiar political problems.

Hudson's Bay Company

The first records we have of definite territorial claim to any part of what is now the park are found in the Hudson's Bay Company Charter. "The charter of Hudson's Bay Company gave it title to all the land drained by waters flowing into Hudson's Bay and Hudson Strait. Thus, at a pen stroke by the dissolute Charles II, in 1670 the story of the Hudson's Bay Company is first distantly linked to the history of Glacier, for the northern streams of the Park flow into Hudson's Bay and are hence within the area granted to the company." [2]

"This company was formed for the purpose of exporting to England furs and skins from British North America. The charter describes the company as 'the governor and adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay,' and consisted of Prince Rupert and seventeen noblemen. It invested complete lordship, including executive, legislative, and judicial powers, as well as exclusive trading rights. Its territory was defined as all lands watered by streams flowing into Hudson's Bay. Thus by royal decree the territory northeast of Triple Divide Peak became the southwestern corner of the grant." [3]


The next claim to any part of the park area was in 1682, when LaSalle made his famous exploration down the Mississippi River. "At this time he laid claim in the name of France, to all the waters drained by the Mississippi River, not realizing at the time the vast territory that he was claiming." [4]

This area comprises the part of the park lying east of the Continental Divide and south of Hudson Bay Divide.

Spanish Ownership

This portion of the park, claimed by LaSalle remained in French hands until the Missouri-Mississippi territory was turned over to the Spanish, following the treaty of 1763 which ended the French and Indian War. This constitutes the second ownership of the southeastern corner of the park. However, this ownership did not remain long, for the land went back to France in 1800 at the secret treaty of San Ildefonso.

Louisiana Purchase

France did not retain her title to this territory very long, for on April 30, 1803, the Louisiana Purchase was consummated and the entire area west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains, with the exception of the State of Texas and parts of Oklahoma, came into the possession of the United States. The area involved equaled approximately seven times the area of Great Britain and Ireland combined. The period of change, for this region, was by no means over because the ownership was still to change hands several times within the claims of new territories and states of the United States.

Louisiana Territory

The year following the Louisiana Purchase the area was divided into two parts, that lying south of the 33rd parallel being called the "Territory of Orleans," and that north of the parallel became little more than a geographical expression, known as the "District of Louisiana." This northern portion had no direct government, as such, until 1805 when it was raised to the rank of "territory," and was known as "Louisiana Territory," with its capitol at St. Louis.

Territory of Missouri

"In the year of 1812, the name 'Louisiana' passed to the state that now bears the name and the 'Territory of Louisiana' became the 'Territory of Missouri.' [5] The new Missouri Territory included all the lands between the British possessions on the north and the 33rd parallel on the south, and from the Rocky Mountains on the west to the Mississippi River on the east. Thus the territory remained until pressure for state government caused a break-up of the territory and the formation of the State of Missouri in 1821. The remainder of the territory north and west of the new state once again became unorganized Indian country and was without government until 1854.

Territory of Nebraska

By this time there was rapid settlement of the west and Congress was receiving increased pressure for the formation of new states and closer seats of government. Indians were becoming more and more careless about whose hair they helped themselves to, and troops and forts were requested. In 1854, this uncontrolled land was divided into two territories, Nebraska and Dakota, "the former embracing all lands north of the 40th parallel up to the 49th parallel and from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains, including what is now eastern Montana. This it remained until 1861." [6]

Dakota Territory

"On March 2, 1861, that part of the Nebraska Territory lying north of the 43rd parallel was made part of the Dakota Territory, thereby throwing the park area into still another political division. It was a vast territory, embracing all the area from the Red River to the Rockies, and from the Canadian Border to a line about the present boundary of South Dakota." [7]

Oregon Country

Now, for the sake of unity, let us leave the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and find out what was happening across the mountains to the west. The treaty of 1818 between the United States and Canada established the International Boundary along the 49th parallel west to the summit of the Rocky Mountains. Until 1846, the so-called Oregon Country, embracing a vaguely defined area of the Pacific Northwest including what is now western Montana and the part of Glacier National Park west of the Continental Divide, was under the joint rule of the United States and Great Britain. In 1846, the division between United States and Canada was agreed upon at the 49th parallel, placing the Oregon Country under sole United States ownership. Then on August 14, 1848, Congress created the Oregon Territory, which included all of the area between the Rocky Mountains and the western sea, and between the 49th and 42nd parallels. Thus it remained until 1853 when this area was sub-divided, forming two territories, Oregon and Washington, the latter including the present states of Washington, northern Idaho, and most of western Montana.

Idaho Territory

Due to still further demand for closer government, Congress passed a bill on March 3, 1863, creating the "Idaho Territory." Both Washington and Dakota gave land to form this new territory, which included all of what is now Idaho and Montana, and most of Wyoming. "The first name suggested for this new territory was 'Montana,' meaning 'land of mountains,' but this was objected to and the name 'Idaho' was substituted." [8]

Montana Territory

The new Idaho Territory was short-lived, though, because the finding of minerals caused a demand for still further government, and Congress was petitioned to form a new territory out of the eastern portion of Idaho. On May 26, 1864, Congress formed the Territory of Montana, much as it is found today, leaving the remainder to Idaho. There was an attempt to include only that portion of Montana lying east of the Rocky Mountains, but the people in the Bitterroot Valley objected and through the efforts of Sidney Edgerton, who later became the first governor of the Montana Territory, the western portion was also included.

State of Montana

"On November 8, 1889, President Harrison signed the bill admitting the 'State of Montana' to the Union." [9] This brought to a close an interesting crazy-quilt pattern of ownership of this small patch of rocks and scenery in the northern Rocky Mountains. Only one more major change now remained, that of the setting aside of Glacier National Park.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004