Jean Schwieder


Good morning! I’m sitting at the kitchen table overlooking the lake at our condo in Big Sky Montana. It is snowing this morning and what a peaceful setting this is! We love going out on our deck and feeding the ducks bread, watching people in canoes on the lake, and sometimes seeing moose or deer. This a beautiful spot and one we have come to for about 20 years and it’s worth looking forward to and backwards at the other 51 weeks of the year.

As I contemplated all the new buildings as we traveled to Big Sky, my mind wandered to when this was all wilderness. The wild animals are still here and sometimes emerge to be seen by the interloping humans, but the wild animal domain is shrinking. We, the humans, are infringing on their homes, their livelihood, their peace and their quiet. Do we feel guilty? I don’t think the majority of people who come here even consider that.

I love history and thought I would share some of what I’ve found.

The first visitors to this area now called Big Sky were Indians. Shoshone, Bannock, Nez Perce, Crow and others traveled through and camped on the Gallatin River and other rivers and streams in the area for hundreds of years. Mountain men trapped fur-bearing animals along the river and its tributaries in the early 1800. Later a few prospectors visited the canyon to search of valuable minerals.

In 1806 Lewis and Clark explored close to this area where three rivers, the Madison, Jefferson and the Gallatin, merge to form the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark named the eastern river after Albert Gallatin the Secretary of the Treasury who managed the funding for their expedition.

The first roads along the Gallatin River were built to enable logging of pine trees for railroad ties. The coming of the railroads to the Bozeman area was in the 1880s thus enabling the opening of the Gallatin Canyon. By the 1880s ranchers began moving herds of sheep cattle and horses up the Gallatin Canyon logging road in the summer months. By the late 1890s under the provisions of the Homestead Act and the Land Revision Act, a few ranchers began staking out homesteads and building cabins in what is now the Big Sky area.

One of those homesteaders was Augustus Franklin Crail. In 1801 he bought a homestead of 160 acres and in 1902 the family started spending the summers in a small cabin there. The Crail family turned their small homestead into a productive ranch by annexing additional parcels of land. They built a larger home, large hay barns, a forge, a sawmill and other ranch buildings.

August worked the ranch until 1924 when his son, Emmett took over until 1950 when the ranch was sold.

My husband, Boyd, and I visited the Crail Ranch house, which has been preserved as a homestead museum. There we learned more about the first settlers and especially the Crail family. Being ranchers ourselves, we understand a lot of what their lives were like: the hard work; the loneliness; the appreciation for the area.

I picture those early cattle ranchers, saddling their horses and going out into the mountains to check on their cows. Did they fence? I don’t know that they did. I think they let the cows loose during the spring after calving and rode the horses out to keep an eye on them during the summer and early fall. There was always the problem of predators preying on the cows, so the cowboys rode with a rifle, shotgun, or both when they rode out to check the cows. They would have a roundup in the fall to get all of the cows and calves back close to the barns, hay, and shelter for winter time. That would probably take a couple of weeks and maybe an entire month. The calves would need to be branded and weaned. The cows themselves would start down as the first snows came, and those snows come many times in September in the Montana mountains.

The thing that made this area good for a cattle ranch, was the lower elevation along the Gallatin River where the grass would green up early in the spring. Then the cattle could move on up the mountain and find green grass all summer and fall.

If you’ve never been to Big Sky, it’s worth the ride just to enjoy the scenery. And you can visit the Crail Ranch Museum, which is a delight!

Reach Jean Schwieder at 208-522-8098 or