Naming Helena

by Tom Palmer

The Helena Herald now, for the second or third time, prints the record of the proceedings at a meeting held in Last Chance, which ought to effectively settle the matter.

—Helena Herald, February 13, 1892

Helena from above the Gulch | Rick and Susie Graetz
Excerpted from the book Helena: Capital Town by Rick and Susie Graetz

The matter of how Helena received its name was no less effectively settled then than it is now, but it is

certain that by the fall of 1864 there were some who showed up in camp itching to sell the first silk hats todusty-capped prospectors and the name “Last Chance City” just wouldn’t do. Some accounts insist that Helena was named after a miner’s Minnesota sweetheart. Another says it was originally “St. Helena,” after the island where Napoleon was exiled. A California man wrote to the Montana Historical Society in 1962 with the notion that the town was named for his grandmother. But the dynamics of early-day Helena suggest a finer calculation.

Once it became clear where Last Chance was situated-just a few miles from the Old North Trail used by all of the Northern Plains Indians to reach the buffalo country, those in the Territory with political and entrepreneurial aspirations saw Last Chance as a buried commercial and merchandising treasure waitingto be unearthed. The geography naturally offered north-to-south transit via the Missouri River and historical east-to-west passage through the Rocky Mountains made somewhat more inviting by the well-known Mullan Road, must have raised some speculative eyebrows. Chances are, an agricultural distribu-tion town would eventually have been established here or near here. But the logical geographic beauty of its location combined with the discovery of gold hastened and heighten political and commercial development.

By September 1864 there were five cabins in Helena. Bob Stanley and John Cowan built the first two.

Other cabins were built by members of a small party, less led than persuaded to the camp by the politically ambitious Captain George J. Wood from Illinois.

The camp wasn’t yet eight weeks old, but hundreds of prospectors already had staked empty claims in Last Chance and soon left for better diggings. Still, on October 1, 1864, 200 men were in Last Chance to  choose their representatives for the Montana Territorial Legislature. After the vote, a growing segment of the camp did not relish the idea of wintering in a place called “Last Chance.” It was simply too crass.

It is a sure bet that would-be merchants and political hopefuls could not live with the deadly ring of “Last Chance” when the territory’s leading town had a more alluring name in Virginia City. On October 30,1864, a group of at least seven men – some accounts maintain there were as many as 40, but considering the design of the tiny, low-ceilinged cabins, that is unlikely—met in Capt. Wood’s cabin. Wood had been stumping for the meeting for some time and made no secret that he was seeking a political position for himself and for his father-in-law.

Also, among the men was Cornelius Hedges, a Yale and Harvard graduate who later served Montana as

U.S. Attorney, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Probate Judge, Historical Society secretary and a loan

association president. Clearly, even at this early date, not everyone in Last Chance was interested in dirtying his hands with placer mining.

The meeting was called to name the town, elect commissioners and authorize the design and layout of the

streets. The latter two items on the agenda were handled easily, the naming was another matter. Many accounts indicate that. The gentlemen were discussing the merits of calling the town “Tomah,” in honor of an Indian chief who frequented the camp or as a shortened version of “tomahawk.” The name under discussion was more likely “Tonah,” a phonetic spelling of the Blackfeet word for their Helena area hunting grounds: “tona,” which meant game pocket.

Tonah, however, was getting the most reluctant support until John Summerville, described as a tall, angular, frank, intelligent and grizzled Scotsman, rose from his pine block and proposed to call the camp “HeLEENa.” The men in the room grumbled. When Summerville spelled the name—h-e-l-e-n-a—the Confederate loyalists could hardly be controlled. The Southerners pronounced the word HELena, as they did in Helena, Arkansas, the location, of a strategic port on the Mississippi River. “Do you propose this place in honor of that rebel city in Arkansas,” T.E. Cooper, the secretary of the meeting, shouted above the rebel yells.

Summerville, whom most everyone called Uncle John because of his years and his friendly manner, did not take kindly to the Confederate association. “Not by a damned sight, sir,” the old man boomed. When the room quieted he continued: “I propose to call it HeLEENa, in honor of HeLEENa in Scott County, Minnesota, the best county in the state and the best state in the Union, by God.”

And HeLEENa she became and stayed until 1882 and the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad. At that point, and no one is quite sure why, the people here began to accent the word on the first syllable and the pronunciation became the softer and more genteel: Helen-a.

In 1906, “Georgian” Bob Stanley, who was at that October 30,1864 meeting, wrote that he “was surpris-ed to find the accent changed to Helena when it was christened and pronounced Heleena.” It might comfort Stanley to know that town we call Helena will probably always be known as HeLEENa to much of the rest of the nation.