Montana historical overview
The history of Latinos in Montana begins even before Montana became the 41st state of the Union, in 1889. The Blackfeet Indians interacted with the first Spaniards (which they called Spaiyi or Spaiyu) coming through Montana for fur trapping in the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1808 Manuel Lisa, a
Spaniard born in New Orleans, established Fort Manuel Lisa, a trading and trapping center, near what is today Billings, Montana. Cattle drives brought the first vaqueros into Montana from Texas. The sheep industry also drew Spanishspeaking workers, including Basques. The railroad giant International-Great Northern formed in Texas in 1873, and a component of the Missouri Pacific line employed a large Spanish-speaking population as well. In the future, it would be the different economic traditions and necessities across the state that would determine the arrival, departure, and the settling of different Latino communities in the area.
Vaqueros; sheep herders and shearers; sugar beet workers (or betabeleros); cherry pickers; mine, railroad, and construction workers; and workers in the service industry have been largely responsible for the different histories of Latinos across the state. Because of these economic industries, Montana has both a longstanding history of Latinos as well as a relatively new Latino community emerging in the Gallatin Valley. In this respect, Montana can be considered both an emerging gateway state and a state with a 200-year-old Latino history.1 According to the Pew Hispanic Center (2005) and the Montana Department of Commerce’s Census and Economic Information Center, Montana experienced a growth in its Latino population of roughly 21.3 percent between 2000 and 2005 (the numbers of the two reports vary ever so slightly). In 2000 Montana had an estimated population of 18,227 Latinos, and it now has an estimated 23,818 Latinos, an increase of more than 5,000.
With a total state population of 944,632, and with an overall population increase of only 7,856 residents, Montana’s 21 percent growth is significant (U.S. Census Bureau 2006). Like in most western states, most of the Latino population in Montana is Mexican (11,735). The highest concentration of Latinos is found in Billings, but there are significant numbers in the Gallatin Valley which has experienced the most growth in the state overall as well as in Butte, Great Falls, Helena, and Kalispell. Latinos can be found to a lesser degree in smaller towns along the Yellowstone. Although Billings has enjoyed a large Mexican population since the turn of the nineteenth century, Latinos in Bozeman are presently attracting much of the attention in the state because of their visibility in the construction industry in the Gallatin Valley.