Montana Historical Society

Big Sky ~ Big History

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The Steamboat and Stagecoach Era in Montana and the Northern West

By Carlos A. Schwantes

Download and read the article in PDF format.


Railroads created a new regional landscape, while the proceeding forms of transportation struggled to adapt transportation technologies to the landscape as they found it.


1)    What was the purpose of the 230-man expedition from Fort Walla-Walla?

2)    What event took place in September 1883 that supercedes the Mullan Road as a western transportation route?

3)    What two "labels" does the author offer for the years before 1883? What explanation does he give as to why one name might be more suitable then the other?

4)    What mode of transportation does the author consider as "the quintessential icon of commercial transportation across the frontier West"? Why was this mode of transportation so important?

5)    What were some of the drawbacks of stagecoach travel?

6)    What reasons does the author give for long-distance steamboat travel being more comfortable then stage travel?

7)    What were some complaints given in passengers first hand accounts of steamboat travel?

8)    What significance did these two forms of transportation, steamboat and stagecoach, have to early Montana settlers?

9)    How did Reverend Gustavus Hines reach Oregon in 1840? Why did he have to opt for this form of transportation?

10)    Why was the transcontinental mail service so unpredictable during and before the 1840s?

11)    Why were western settlers so anxious for news from the East?

12)    What was the significance of the coming of the telegraph to communication and transportation to and from the West?

13)    What did residents of the northern Rocky Mountains do during the long snow-bound winters?

14)    What accounted for the scarcity of flour in Virginia City during the winter of 1865?

15)    What is the author referring to when he said that the railroad left a larger physical signature on the Western landscape then the stagecoach or steamboat?

16)    What were among the most "serious challenges" facing the steamboat lines?

17)    What were "wood hawks"?

18)    What effects did steamboating have on the Western environment and Native American life?


-    Write a fictitious diary for a passenger traveling up the Missouri River to Fort Benton by steamboat and then traveling overland on a stagecoach to the gold fields of Helena, Virginia City, or Bannack.

-    Write a one-page reflection on this quote: "We are indeed 'A bivouac rather than a nation, a grand army moving from Atlantic to Pacific, and pitching tents by the way.'"



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macadamized roads