The first inhabitants of the Missoula, MT area were American Indians from the Salish tribe. They called the area “Nemissoolatakoo,” from which “Missoula” is derived.
The word translates roughly to “river of ambush/surprise,” a reflection of the inter-tribal fighting common to the area. The Indians’ first encounter with whites came in 1805 when the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the Missoula valley.
There were no permanent white settlements in the Missoula Valley until 1860 when C.P. Higgins and Francis Worden opened a trading post called the Hellgate Village on the Blackfoot River near the eastern edge of the valley. It was followed by a sawmill and a flour mill, which the settlers called “Missoula Mills.”
The completion of the Mullan Road connection Fort Benton, Montana with Walla Walla, Washington and passing through the Missoula Valley meant fast growth for the burgeoning city, buoyed by the U.S. Army’s establishment of Fort Missoula in 1877, and the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883.
With this Missoula became a trading center in earnest, distributing produce and grain grown in Missoula and in the agriculturally prosperous Bitterroot Valley. In fact, Missoula earned the nickname, the Garden City, because of its great soil and the multitude of gardens in the area. Missoula’s gardens helped to supply many of the mining towns and lumber towns in western Montana.
In the early 1880s, businessmen A.B. Hammond, E.L. Bonner, and R.A. Eddy established the Missoula Mercantile Company. The city continued to grow due to two other factors. First was the opening of the University of Montana in September 1895, which served as the center of public higher education for Western Montana.
Then, in 1908, Missoula became a regional headquarters for the U.S. Forest Service which began training smokejumpers in 1942, and the Aerial Fire Depot was built in 1954. “Big Industry” bolstered the economy in 1956 with the groundbreaking for the first pulp mill which became a major area employer.