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Nuggets From Helena: Newspapers and politics have a long-standing relationship in Helena

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Women's history with Jeannette Rankin (mugshot)


The midterm elections are behind us. As the Montana Legislature convenes and we look forward to a productive session, we’ll keep up on the proceedings in Helena’s Independent Record. Among the many choices for following the news these days, newspapers and the reporters who write for them continue to be an important resource for bringing us unbiased accounts of what is happening in our community and world. From the first gazette that rolled off the press in Last Chance Gulch in 1866, newspapers have had colorful history in Montana, and Helena has often been in the center of attention.

Many say the newspapers are the first draft of our history. Every time a mining camp sprang up, no matter how remote, editors and presses soon followed. During the territorial days (1864-1889), topics of interest in Helena newspapers included post-Civil War tensions, African-American suffrage, capital location, railroad subsidies, printing, contracts and public appointments, all reported through a lens of partisan politics and vibrant Victorian prose. Political neutrality made dull copy, and Helena’s editors gave their journalism personality and helped define the growing community with highly opinionated articles. Prior to 1900, there were no fewer than 45 different newspapers printed in Helena, some lasting a single issue, some a few months, some several years. The youngest editor in the state, Lee Travis, started the Montana Daily News in Helena in 1875 at age 14.

In 1894, Helena found itself in the middle of a war over the location of the state capital, and the battles were fought in the newspapers. The names Marcus Daly and William Clark are well known in Montana history. As they rose to prominence in their rivalry for dominance in the copper industry, they took control of many of the newspapers in Montana as each competed for economic supremacy. In addition, their political aspirations, or those of the people they supported, dominated print as journalists who wrote for them advanced competing sides of the story. (The history of the copper wars is sordid and fascinating and can be researched in its own right.)

Helena had been Montana’s territorial capital since 1875, but statehood in 1889 initiated a battle for the location of a new state capital. A runoff election between Helena and Anaconda took place to determine the winner. Marcus Daly believed that the capital should be located in Anaconda, the home of his Anaconda Copper Mining Co. William Clark favored Helena, and they each poured their millions into buying up newspapers (and editors) across the state to advance their desires. Clark’s paper in Helena, The Helena Independent, wrote that Anaconda, as a small industrial town, lacked the sophistication and prospects for future growth necessary to be the capital. Daly’s writers portrayed Helena as “Montana’s swinish and elitist Hogolopolis, the domain of banks and politicians who profited unfairly from workers’ sweat.” Clark’s Helena Weekly Herald called Daly “Montana’s Would Be King,” and his paper “a copperhead snotrag.” Daly’s paper mocked Helena for its pretentiousness and distaste for Montana’s working class. There were certainly reasonable issues to discuss on the merits of each location, but what had become the newspaper wars “degenerated into contest of personalities, distorted history, social and ethnic stereotypes and accusations of corruption.”

Clark then brought in the influence of Montana’s tiny African-American population with The Colored Citizen, published in Helena from September until the vote in November of 1894. African-Americans were 1 percent of the state’s population, and as the paper stated in its first issue, “Montana has a right to feel proud of its 2,500 colored citizens.” In its final issue published just before the capital vote, the paper ran a full page advertisement endorsing Helena over Anaconda proclaiming in bold type “The Anaconda Mining Company Does Not Employ a Solitary Colored Man…Foreigners are Preferred over Native Colored Americans. Vote for HELENA for Capitol.” Considering that of the 52,000 votes cast, Helena won by less than 2,000, Montana’s black votes were essential.

The Colored Citizen closed after the capital vote in 1894. By 1906, Helena had the largest population of African-Americans in the state. The Montana Plaindealer (1906-1911) became the second newspaper for black citizens, promoting civil rights and highlighting the economic opportunity for African-Americans in Helena, with its editor advocating “the principles of peace, prosperity and union.”

Helena was the home to a number of newspapers that reflected the social and political views of its citizens during the volatile Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century. The Montana News (1904-1912) became the voice of the Montana Socialist Party, expressing concern over the deadly working conditions in the state’s forests, smelters and industrial copper mines. The Suffrage Daily News, published between September and November in 1914, helped the Montana Equal Suffrage Association appeal to organized labor and educators for the cause of the women’s suffrage amendment to the state constitution, which narrowly passed in November 1914. The Der Hermanns-Sohnin Montana, a German language newspaper published in Helena for the state’s considerable German population, thrived between 1909 and 1918, when it was driven out of business by strong anti-German sentiment during World War I. The Montana Stockman and Farmer (1894-1923) provided news for the rural community.

When the dust settled, Helena eventually had two dailies: The Helena Independent in the morning, and the Montana Record Herald (1916-1942) in the afternoon. The Helena Independent was founded in Deer Lodge in 1867, and moved to Helena in 1874. In 1894, the Independent backed William Clark’s bid to make Helena the state capital, but in 1913, it was sold to a group of investors with ties to Amalgamated Copper (formerly Anaconda). With the U.S. entry into WWI, Independent editorials advanced anti-German hysteria, and denounced the Industrial Workers of the World and striking copper miners in Butte during the war.

In 1943, the papers merged to become the Helena Independent Record. By this time, radio had emerged as a new communication medium. Corporate control of papers gradually subsided. Once the stranglehold of corporations eased, there was a move to professionalize newspapers, and press bureaus were charged with sifting facts from fiction. In 1959, Lee Enterprises bought most of the daily papers in Montana, including Helena’s, with the goal “to produce the best possible hometown newspapers that would prosper only if their communities did.”

With so many information sources available today, people get news from wherever is convenient. Some say printed editions of newspapers may be gone in 10 years in favor of digital versions. Yet the concept of newspapers and today’s analytical journalism, which helps us sort out what is actually happening, is vital. As citizens in a country that encourages and protects freedom of the press, we nonetheless each bear the responsibility of vetting the information that comes our way, regardless of the source.

Mary Jane Bradbury is an educator and historian who is a member of the Lewis and Clark Heritage Tourism Council, which provides the monthly Nuggets From Helena column in the Independent Record. For further information, the Montana Historical Society has extensive collection of newspapers, much of which is cataloged and accessible online. Librarians at the Research Library are exceeding helpful, so take advantage of this remarkable local resource. Resources for this article also include "Copper Chorus," by Dennis L. Swibold, and "Montana and the West," ed. by Rex C. Myers and Harry W. Fritz.


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