The first inhabitants of what is now Helena, Montana were native Americans who inhabited the valley some 12,000 years ago. Though not permanent residents, members of the Salish, Crow, Bannock and Blackfeet tribes regularly crossed through the valley. In 1805 the Lewis and Clark expedition brought the first white visitors to the valley. William Clark reportedly had to stop and remove seventeen cactus spines from his feet, leading him to name the nearby creek and valley “Prickly Pear.” Trappers who came to the valley in the early nineteenth century were pushed aside by white settlers.
This history of Helena Montana is inextricably linked to gold mining. It was accidentally founded by four ex-Confederate soldiers from the state of Georgia, known as ‘The Four Georgians.” On July 14, 1864, after looking fruitlessly for gold elsewhere in the state, they found gold in a creek in what is now Helena; that creek is appropriately named “Last Chance Gulch.” This discovery led to a gold rush and, within a few years, Helena was the home to hundreds of businesses and some 3,000 residents. Some of these settlers migrated to Helena from other parts of the state, when the mines they were working there played out. Over the next two decades, 3.5 billion dollars in gold would be discovered; by 1888 Helena was the home to more millionaires per capita than any place in the world. This was followed, in the late 1870s, by the discovery of silver and lead deposits.
Initially Helena was known as Crabtown, named after one the “The Four Georgian” founders. Then various names were tossed around, including Pumpkinville and Squashtown. Because a number of the new residents had migrated from a similar mining town in Minnesota called Saint Helena, that’s the name that stuck; it was eventually shortened to Helena.
In 1864 Helena became a territory of the United States. While the first state capitol was Virginia City, in 1875 the capitol moved to Helena, leaving Virginia City to become a ghost town and initiating a boom in Helena. For a number of years there was a rivalry between Helena and Anaconda to be the state capitol, but Helena prevailed.
In 1883 the Northern Pacific Railway arrived, bringing many more new settlers to the town. When the gold began to run out, the railway allowed Helena to become a transportation hub for outlying gold towns and the booming resource extraction industries. Also, agriculture began to develop in the valley, providing yet another source of income for workers and support for the burgeoning community. Between 1880 and 1890, the population of Helena grew from 3,106 to 13,834. By 1890 many citizens of Helena had built impressive mansions, a mixture of Italianate, baroque, and Gothic style buildings, festering cupolas, turrets, and hand-carved trim. They had also built a streetcar and got around town in it, as well as in coaches and electric cars.
Then, in 1893, the price of silver fell and many of the nouveau rich moved away. Over the next few decades Helena was subject to several boom-or-bust cycles. Growth of the city continued, despite several major fires and a major earthquake in 1935. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, federal projects employed many residents in restoring the State Capitol and the county courthouse and creating a city park.
During the 1960s and 1970s urban renewal brought a face lift to the city, building a pedestrian mall to attract tourists. In 1992, the state House of Representatives voted to protect one and a half million acres of the state from development, including some areas near Helene. In 2005 Montana was named one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.