Despite the pivotal role Nelson Story’s played in the history of Bozeman and southwest Montana, it took almost 100 years after his death for a full-length autobiography to be written about him.
That has finally changed with the publication of a 350-page book by local historian John Russell, who has wondered for the past 40 years why such a work did not previously exist about the life of the man for whom so many area landmarks are named. Russell says his fascination with Story began when he first moved to Bozeman in the mid-1970s, but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that he was able to begin his research in earnest.
A press release promoting “Treasure State Tycoon: Nelson Story and the Making of Montana,” promises a thorough look at the life of Nelson Story, “a complex and colorful figure whose influence on Montana’s development was profound.”
Much of the family history has long been well-known locally, but Russell has spent years delving more deeply into Nelson Story’s complex life. By poring through historic court records, newspapers and magazines, as well as Story family documents, Russell said he was able to “get a pretty good look at the guy” in more depth.
As a result of his research, he believes he discovered the reasons that a lot of people were not eager to write about Story in the past.
Russell’s initial interest in Story was sparked by a conversation with Malcolm Story, Nelson’s grandson, shortly after Russell moved to Bozeman decades ago. Upon hearing that Nelson had worked in the mines in Virginia City and was part of the Vigilantes, that he had driven the first herd of Longhorn cattle from Texas to Montana, and that his diversified business dealings ranged from banking to real estate to flour milling, Russell wanted to know more
His research, which Russell says began as a “part-time fascination” in the mid-’90s became more serious about 10 years ago.
“The main thing is that Nelson Story was really one of the more important capitalists in the territory and later in the state of Montana,” Russell says. “The thing that was important about him was he had a good head for business and he diversified.”
But like all interesting characters, Nelson Story had a darker side that Russell’s biography does not gloss over.
“There are things about him to admire, but also things about him to despise,” Russell says.
Nelson Story was born into a farming family in Iowa in 1838. He decided to go West and seek his fortune, starting as a manual laborer and Teamster in Kansas. He was part of the gold rush in Colorado, then Bannack, and then Virginia City, where he struck it rich at Alder Gulch. He came away with $30,000, which was the nest egg he used to grow his fortune, Russell says.
Unlike the majority of those who struck gold and headed back home, Story stayed in the area and influenced the development of the region and of Bozeman.
“He’s responsible in many, many ways for helping young Bozeman grow, Russell says. “His success kind of trickled down and really did help the early community.”
“He was a very industrious and ambitious man, very brave and determined,” Russell says. “But even with friends and family, he was exacting and demanding.”
The paradox played out through his business dealings. Story had contracts with the United States government to supply the Crow Reservation, but routinely engaged in short-changing to boost his profits. Any employees who questioned him would be fired.
“He was stealing, basically, and he was able through intimidation and bribery to get away with it,” Russell says.
In the 1870s, Story sometimes solicited the help of the Army commanders at Fort Ellis to combat cattle raids by the Sioux. Russell says that Story took it upon himself to order the troops around, and it was said that the men described his conduct as “ungentlemanly.”
Story’s experience with other area pioneers was mixed. Russell says Story had several “knock-down, drag-out fights with Joe Lindley,” but he was friends with Lester Willson, William W. Alderson and Frank Benepe.
In his personal life, Story also sometimes exercised ruthlessness, Russell says.
“He could be extremely verbally abusive and physically abusive, including with his own family.”
Despite his faults, promotional materials for “Treasure State Tycoon” point out that Story’s significance to Montana territorial history is indisputable. “Story had a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness ... but he was also a generous philanthropist, supporting local churches, schools, and other civic improvements. He tirelessly promoted the upstart community of Bozeman, playing a central role in the establishment of the Montana College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts – today’s Montana State University.”
Russell says his goal when he began his research was to find out as much as possible about the legendary Nelson Story, and to make his book as accurate as possible. His work began as a “part-time fascination” in the mid-’90s, and became more serious about 10 years ago.
The result, described by Michael D. Wise, an associate professor of history at the University of North Texas, is an “engaging book, based on careful and meticulous research … (that) traces Story’s influence far beyond Bozeman and beyond his death. This is a tale vital to Montana history as well as the story of the American West.”
“Treasure State Tycoon” will be available in local bookstores beginning July 5. The Extreme History Project will host a book signing at the Museum of the Rockies on Tuesday, July 9, beginning at 5:30 p.m.