Montana Historical Society

Big Sky ~ Big History

Museum and research center closed for renovations. For more info, call (406) 444-2694.



At the hub of five mountain valleys, Missoula was established within a natural historic travel corridor for Native Americans from the Pacific Slope, the Columbia Plateau and the intertwined mountain ranges of western Montana and Idaho. While the Salish occupied the Bitterroot Valley to the south, they used the corridor together with the Nez Perce, Flathead, Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille, Shoshone, Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and others.  These groups often conflicted with the Blackfeet and their allies the Gros Ventres. 

The first non-Indians in the valley were Lewis and Clark, and later Hudson’s Bay trappers, Jesuit missionaries (1841), and military road builders traveled and settled in the area.  Worden and Higgins built a trading post at the east end of the valley by 1860.  The U.S. military erected Fort Missoula in 1877, and the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1883 further established the city as a trade center. 

Among Missoula’ first African American residents were members of the 25th Infantry stationed at Fort Missoula beginning in 1888.  When the 25th was ordered overseas to fight in the Spanish American War in 1898, a number of African Americans had already made the Missoula their home and had established a small community. Various African American club buildings hosted boxing matches and fundraising dances as well as housed travelers and provided libations.  By 1910 a large percentage of Missoula’s 137 African American residents worked as porters or general laborers; however, there were a several people working in professional fields, including nursing, carpentry, and managerial positions.  Several families rented or purchased homes in Missoula’s north side neighborhood.

While other Montana communities witnessed an exodus of African American residents by 1930, Missoula’ black community remained relatively strong at 116 members.  By mid-century, however, the community began to fray.  A few houses associated with African American families remain standing in Missoula including the Dorsey House, and the William and Gertrude Johnson Residence.

Missoula Historic Properties

817 Wolf Avenue
Dorsey House
817 Wolf Avenue

1801 South 5th Street West
William and GertrudeJohnson Residence

1801 South 5th Street West