Missoula History

The first inhabitants of the Missoula area were Native Americans from the Salish tribe.  They called the area “Nemissoolatakoo,” which translates roughly to “river of ambush,” and eventually gave rise to the word Missoula. The tribe’s first encounter with whites came in 1805 when the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the valley.

The first permanent white settlement in the Missoula Valley was a trading post called the Hellgate Village. Established in 1860 by C.P. Higgins and Francis Worden, it was situated near the eastern edge of the valley on the Blackfoot River. A sawmill and a flour mill were founded not long afterwards, and settlers called the area “Missoula Mills.”

The Missoula Valley grew rapidly with the completion of the Mullan Road that ran from Fort Benton, Montana onto Walla Walla, Washington, and passed through the booming little town of Missoula along the way.

Compounded with the opening of Saint Patrick Hospital in 1873, the establishment of Fort Missoula in 1877, and the introduction of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883, Missoula soon became a hub for Western Montana. Missoula’s gardens and granaries helped supply many of the mining towns and lumber towns in western Montana.

Next came the founding of two of Missoula’s most important and influential industries: The University of Montana, which enrolled its first students in 1895, and the U.S Forest Service’s regional headquarters which opened in 1908.

Missoula grew to become somewhat of a lumber town. Adding to the numerous lumber mills that dotted the local landsacpe, the pulp mill broke ground in 1956 bringing big industry to the area and becoming a major employer.

By the mid-1990s, many of the area’s lumber yards had shut down and in 2009 the pulp mill also closed its doors. Fortunately, Missoula’s economy has diversified significantly and Missoula has grown to become a major regional hub for health care, education, government, business services, retail, and tourism.