Cowboys and Nurses Go To War: Montana and World War I

By Ken Robison | Arcadia Author

Ken Robison has made a lifetime out of preserving Montana’s historical heritage. This week, he dropped by to discuss his newest book, World War I Montana: The Treasure State Prepares, and the major influence that Montana had over the military and US during the Great War.

As we commemorate the end of the centennial of World War I, let’s reflect on the impact that the Great War had on the young state of Montana, less than three decades old when the United States entered its first European War. This conflict would have a profound effect at home and abroad. For Montana, this was a war of opportunity for many, trouble for some, and change for all. This is the story told in World War I Montana: The Treasure State Prepares.
 
It is hard today to comprehend how vitally important the Treasure State’s mining, smelting, and refining were to the national war effort. It has been said, with a lot of truth to it, that every bullet fired in World War I was encased in Butte, Montana copper, and that the world was “wired” by copper from Great Falls refineries. In addition, Montana’s amber waves of grain helped feed a starving world, and Montana’s cowboys, miners, foresters, farmers, nurses and other women went to war to win under the battle cry, “Powder River, Let ’Er Buck,” which would resonate on the battlefields in France. Through grievous census miscalculation, Montana men served in the Great War in a greater percentage than any other state.
 
Boy Scouts from Belt raising money for Liberty Loan. “If You can’t Go Across, Come Across – Buy Liberty Bonds.” Reprinted from World War I Montana: The Treasure State Prepares by Ken Robison, courtesy of the History Museum (pg. 136, The History Press, 2018).
Boy Scouts from Belt raising money for Liberty Loan. “If You can’t Go Across, Come Across – Buy Liberty Bonds.” Reprinted from World War I Montana: The Treasure State Prepares by Ken Robison, courtesy of The History Museum (pg. 136, The History Press, 2018).

As the nation began to raise a “million-man” army, later to become a 4-million-man army, and as every aspect of American society began to mobilize in support of the war effort, Montana strengths came into play: mineral wealth, grain production, and frontier hardened men and women.

The scale of manpower required for the war effort opened exceptional opportunities for women and minorities. Just as England had experienced earlier in the war, women became essential to join production lines and fill selective roles in the armed forces. Montana women found important roles at home and overseas as nurses, Navy yeomanettes, telephone operators, and in other non-military support organizations like the Red Cross. In total, more than 250 Montana women served in the military during the war. Their stories are presented in World War I Montana.
 
Montana of 1917 was a land of opportunity, with a floating population including many immigrants. Within this mobile population, determining who was a “Montanan” proves difficult. A young man might be born in Iowa, grow up in South Dakota, come west to work on a ranch near Miles City and enlist in the Montana Guard—or enlist outside Montana but still have a Montana military record. If he is born in Montana and registers for the draft in Montana but served from another state, is he a Montanan? If he lives in Montana but serves with the Canadian American Legion, is he a Montanan? The stories of all combinations lie within.

Louise Lafournaise, a World War I nurse from Montana. Author’s collection.
Louise Lafournaise, a World War I nurse from Montana. Author’s collection.

Montana’s population began to build dramatically in the early 1900s as the homestead era burst onto the scene, with thousands of prospective farmers joining the rush for free land in central and eastern Montana. Increased demand for workers in mining, smelting and forestry industries added to the growth, so that Montana’s population increased by 50 percent in the decade before the war.
 
Based on the homestead boom, the Census Bureau estimated that Montana population reached almost 1 million by 1917. Therein came the problem: the coming draft would be based on a census estimate that proved terribly wrong. Thus, Montana’s draft quota came from an estimate of just short of double Montana’s actual population at the time—about 505,000. Even then, Montana raised more than its inflated quota, with its grand total of 39,271 in the U.S. Army and 1,862 in the U.S. Navy, exceeding by 25 percent all other states in the Union.
 
What role did celebrities like Montana’s “cowboy artist,” Charlie Russell, play in the war? What did he have to say about the war, and what actions did he and his wife, Nancy, take? What role did the nation’s first Congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin, play nationally and in Montana as her antiwar inclination was supremely challenged?

Montana congresswoman Jeanette Rankin’s first appearance in Washington on April 2, 1917, shortly before she cast a vote against the declaration of war. Reprinted from World War I Montana: The Treasure State Prepares by Ken Robison, courtesy of the Montana Historical Society, no. 944-480 (pg. 22, The History Press, 2018).
Montana congresswoman Jeanette Rankin’s first appearance in Washington on April 2, 1917, shortly before she cast a vote against the declaration of war. Reprinted from World War I Montana: The Treasure State Prepares by Ken Robison, courtesy of the Montana Historical Society, no. 944-480 (pg. 22, The History Press, 2018).

The war brought trouble in many ways. As the nation mobilized, patriotic fervor rose and anti-German sentiment built, all in the midst of Montana’s large German and Austrian immigrant population. Many became obsessed with enemy spying and dangers within. With that came great pressure on freedom of speech, and led by Montana’s wartime governor and jingoistic editors like Will Campbell of the Helena Independent, the result was the most repressive legislation in the history of Montana.
 
Finally, the war and the times brought profound change to the nation and to Montana. The nation followed Montana’s lead in passing both women’s suffrage and prohibition. Change came to women with their right to vote, and their wide participation in essential wartime services both at home and abroad. The war would also lead belatedly to change for Native Americans, with citizenship on the horizon, after thousands served in the war.
 
World War I Montana is the story of a young and vibrant Montana, the Treasure State, and Montanans of all ethnicities and races as they mobilized and prepared for war on a grand scale during turbulent times.
 
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