It is said that this area was first claimed by the Crow Nation about 1450 when they migrated from the Great Lakes area. For some four hundred years the Crow lived relatively peacefully - hunting buffalo and engaging in war 'parties’ with their neighbors the Blackfeet, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho.
A wave of European immigrants decided that they could put the lands of North America to better use than the Native Americans. The colonists had already decimated millions of Indians on the east coast, and soon after Beethoven died in Germany the United States passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 pushing tens of thousands of Indians out of the southeastern U.S. and into “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 assigned boundaries to the western lands held by various tribes – and now it’s time to get out your maps:
That first treaty “reserved” 38 million acres for the Crow, beginning at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River (in what is now Yellowstone Park), down the Yellowstone to the Powder River (out past the present Miles City), back up the Powder River to what is now about the Wyoming border, and across to Yellowstone Park. The land now held by Ellison Ranch is in the northwestern corner of this allotment, near where the Yellowstone crooks to the east toward Billings.
President Lincoln wasn’t so busy during the Civil War that he couldn’t attend to other business. He signed the Homestead Act in 1862, which allowed persons to claim a parcel of 160 acres. He also signed legislation granting land for three transcontinental railroads, including the Northern Pacific. The railroad was given alternating mile-square sections of land for 12 miles on either side of the tracks to finance the building of the railway.
While the Civil War was going on in the United States and President Lincoln was giving away land, William Elges was born in Hanover Germany. Remember this name. It was he who later came to America and filed a homestead claim that was located in what was still Crow Country at the time of his birth, and within the corridor of the railroad that was soon to be constructed. All of these play into the ranch legacy.
(Read more about the Crow Nation: opi.mt.gov/pdf/IndianEd/IEFA/CrowTimeline.pdf)
While William was a young man in Germany, Custer’s forces were wiped out at the Little Big Horn. While he was completing his required military service in Germany, the Northern Pacific reached the Yellowstone River. A Congressional Act further “diminished” Crow lands - offering some compensation to the tribes that was “to be used for homes and farming and ranching needs” – while giving formerly Crow lands to the Northern Pacific for right-of-way. (The Crow didn’t need so much land now anyway, as a smallpox epidemic had “diminished” the tribe from some 10,000 to about 2,000.)
William came to Montana from Germany in 1885, landing at Fort Benton and taking a job with a freighting company. The freighting business in the U.S. was largely displaced by the new transcontinental railroads, and William left for the arctic driving one of two 10-mule rigs pulling two wagon-loads each of trade goods to the Eskimos. When they could go no further with the wagons, they pushed on by packing the mules, finishing the trip with dog-sleds.
At the time William was working in the freighting business, he was looking the country over for a place to file a homestead, and the U.S. General Land Office was making the first survey of Montana.
It was in 1896 that William Elges found a place to his liking, and he filed a homestead claim on the West Boulder River