Town At The Trail’s End

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T. Byron was the son of Nelson Story, a fabled figure in town who in 1866 drove the first herd of longhorn cattle from Texas to Montana, ending up in the valley near Bozeman. Story is the closest historical counterpart to Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae, the ex-Texas Rangers who make the first cattle drive to Montana in Lonesome Dove , but whereas those two heroes of fiction and miniseries were cowboy loners wandering ever farther to avoid the onrush of civilization, the real Story became not only a major cattle and horse rancher but also a real estate baron, banker, merchant, foundry owner, government contractor, and ultimately philanthropist. He donated the money that bought the land for the college.

His son Byron lived in the mansion at number 811 for only a dozen years before selling it to a college fraternity in 1922. The fraternity still inhabits the house, and on the warm August day when I visited, two shirtless men were up on scaffolding in front of it, preparing to install a new roof. People were out at number 415 too, working on their lovely brick Georgian Revival house, which the brochure says was designed by Fred Willson in 1912 for the doctor who ran the Bozeman Sanitarium. Passing by a pink house at 521, I read that it was the home of Byron Story’s son Malcolm. In fact, he still lives there. The grandson of the man who made the first drive of Texas longhorns across the prairie and through the mountains to Montana still lives in the town that lay at the end of the trail. This placid place is the dream of pioneers.

Towns like this were the real goal of all our national westering, and Bozeman grew up so thoroughly so fast and so recently you can almost feel it.

Over the next few days I drove through golden hills to Virginia City, a ghost mining town sixty-five miles away that has become one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions. I went up to Three Forks, at the far end of the valley, where Lewis and Clark discovered the headwaters of the Missouri River, and I saw the Madison Buffalo Jump, a butte where for millennia Indians herded bison over the cliff to slaughter. Then I headed south, irresistibly, into Yellowstone. And I kept thinking, if those places are mementos of an old West of cowboys and Indians and miners and trappers and rugged nature, then so is Bozeman, just as essentially. Bozeman is what most of the adventure was actually about. The real goal of all our national westering, after all, was tree-lined streets with handsome houses and prosperous families and community values and good public schools and libraries. Nobody ever had any doubt of that in Bozeman. They civilized the frontier there so thoroughly so fast and so recently that you can almost feel it.

John Bozeman didn’t live to feel it. In 1867, just three years after he founded his town, he went off to sell flour to a fort on the Bighorn River and was killed by Indians along the way. That’s the official history. More likely, according to one of the state’s leading historians, he was murdered by the man he was traveling with, whom he had cuckolded and who made up the massacre as an alibi. Already, it seems, the town’s gravest concerns were domestic ones.

—Frederick Allen TO PLAN A TRIP