Montana Place Names Evoke Scenes from the Past
Some Obvious, Some Obscure
BY CHARLES DOWNEY
The reason places or geographical features have the names they do is often obvious, or at least discernible through investigation. Bozeman takes its name from John Bozeman, a well-known historical figure. The crags of the Beartooth Mountains resemble the jagged teeth of a bear. The Bridger Mountains take their name from mountain man Jim Bridger. The Crazy Mountains, we are informed, were once the Crazy Woman Mountains, referencing a woman who lost her mind after her family was massacred by Indians.
Names of most places derive from circumstances, historical associations, or were deliberately but aptly given their names. The names of some western states were contrived, sometimes with relevance to Native American associations, the Dakota’s for example. Others have no etymological history and were artificially coined the way streets are in new subdivisions. These are the least interesting because they have no history, no roots, no colorful stories behind them.
So, how did the Wineglass Mountain south of Livingston get its name? In that mountains are often named after the images they conjure up, like faces in the clouds, some people imagine that the mountain itself resembles the shape of a wineglass (this is not the case). Grand Teton means large breast in French—leave it to a lonely french trapper to make a Freudian association of those prominent crags. The Sleeping Giant, a series of mountain ridges east of Livingston, resembles the profile of a man lying on his back.
Another place name with a story that comes to mind is the Paradise Valley’s Chico Hot Springs, named after a Mexican prospector during the days of the Gold Rush. Such stories lead to questions though, about the many local place names we use without considering whence the names derive. Tell me, someone, why the Spanish Peaks are called the Spanish Peaks. Whatever the explanation (email us), the name is not unique to Montana. Spanish Peaks also dot the skylines of New Mexico and Colorado. Then what about Helena, Hell Roaring, and Havre. —And those are just the Hs.
The town of Livingston was named after the director of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Johnston Livingston. Bringing the railroad beyond Clark City, a frontier town known for its numerous saloons, outlaws and prostitutes, the railroad essen-tially founded the town.
Yellowstone derives from a translation of a Native American term that describes the tall, yellowish cliffs along the banks of the river in the northern area of the present day park.
Just south of Livingston one encoun-ters the Wineglass Mountain. One hundred years ago, you would have noticed a distinct shape on the treed mountainside, the result of a clear cut performed in the 1890s. The cut out resembled a wineglass, quite obviously, the stem being the shoot over which timber was delivered down the mountain. The term wineglass stuck. End of story.
But what about Helena, Hell Roaring, and Havre, Malta, Miles City and Missoula, and then Spanish Peaks, Sydney, and Stillwater? Each one has its own story, real life events woven through the fabric of time, the telltale signs of which we give voice to in the present day.
Research by Doris Whithorn and Rick Watts contributed to this story.