This week’s focus takes us to 25 minutes south of Missoula, Montana, and into Stevensville, Montana to Fort Owen State Park. Here you will find the remains of the oldest pioneer settlement in the State of Montana. Fort Owen State Park is open year-round and offers us a glimpse into the history of early Montana where many “firsts” occurred: – first sawmill, first grist mill, first agricultural development, first water right, and first land transaction. Fort Owen State Park is supported by the Friends of Fort Owen. Be sure to check out local events that they sponsor throughout the year.
Just south of Missoula near Stevensville, you will find the remains of one of the most historically important sites in Montana, Fort Owen State Park. Originally home to the first Catholic Church in Montana, founded by Father DeSmet in 1841, Fort Owen has a rich history and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places – NPS.
In 1850, Major John Owen arrived in the Bitterroot Valley Montana, and purchased the (about to be abandoned) mission and transformed it into a trading post which he named Fort Owen. Owen began trading with Native Americans and a growing number of early settlers in the area, making Fort Owen an important trading hub for Western Montana.
With tall, whitewashed walls, the fort stood out from the surrounding landscape like a beacon to those looking for supplies. Fort Owen was the heart of this early community, where John Owen and his beloved Shoshone wife Nancy, not only sold supplies but provided a place of warmth and hospitality to all those who visited.
Things to do:
✅ Check out the museum!
✅ Enjoy a picnic!
✅ Capture the historical significance through photography!
✅ Visit nearby Stevensville and the St. Mary’s Mission.
✅ Plus so many more!
Fort Owen served as an important trading hub for Western Montana for over 20 years. However, when the Mullan Road was built in 1863, connecting Fort Benton, Montana to Walla Walla, Washington, it became the main transportation route and bypassed Fort Owen, going north through Missoula instead.
Fort Owen became less regionally important as Missoula became the focus of trade in Western
Montana. When Nancy Owen died in 1868, John Owen’s mental health began to decline along with his financial success.
Eventually, John’s deteriorating mental health lead to the financial collapse of the trading post. In 1872, Washington McCormick purchased the buildings and grist mill at a Sheriff’s sale. Diagnosed with dementia, John Owen was moved back to the East Coast to live out the rest of his life with his relatives where he passed away in 1889. Oddly, while repairing a roof at Fort Owen, Washington McCormick was killed that same year after the roof he was repairing was blown off in a violent summer storm.
After this the property and buildings of the fort passed through many hands, one acre surrounding the remains of the fort was given to the Fort Owen Historical Association in 1937. In 1956 they conveyed it to the state of Montana for one dollar.
Did you know that prior to becoming Fort Owen, the buildings and farm fields purchased by
John Owen, had been developed by Catholic Missionaries who established the community of Stevensville to minister to the Salish Indians in their homeland of the Bitterroot Valley?
In addition to its many firsts, it also was the first recorded land transaction in Montana and contains the oldest constructed buildings in the State of Montana.
Today you can tour one of the barracks that served as John Owen’s home and library, see the outline of the fort’s walls, a reconstructed root cellar, the well’s house, and a historic cabin. The rooms in the east barracks feature period furnishings and artifacts and visitors will find interpretive signs and exhibits which detail the region’s history.
When visiting, be aware that the property surrounding Fort Owen State Park is privately owned, please respect these property owners and stay within the park boundaries. Due to limited parking and turnaround space, vehicle towing trailers are not recommended.
While Fort Owen is open year-round, the staff are only there on occasion so be prepared for a self-guided experience!
Fort Owen State Park
From 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM
99 Fort Owen Ranch Rd
Stevensville, MT 59870
How Does the Foundation Help State Parks Like Fort Owen State Park?
As Montana State Parks’ only statewide fundraising partner, the Foundation helps to raise awareness, education, and most importantly support boots-on-the-ground improvement projects for users and supporters like you.
As an agency faced with a $22 million maintenance deficit, our work and collaboration help to ensure continued access and solutions currently inside our state park system.
Because in the end, we envision state parks that reflect Montana’s renowned outdoor recreation and heritage for all… forever.