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The History of Wild Horse Island

History of Wild Horse Island

As one of Montana’s largest state parks, Wild Horse Island is as vast as it is beautiful. However, there is much more to Wild Horse Island than its expansive beauty. In fact, this island has quite the story to tell! Here’s what you should know about the island’s history before you visit:

Where did Wild Horse Island get its name?

Legend has it that the Kootenai Tribs used to pasture horses on the island, known back then as “big island.” The 2,000 acre island was the perfect spot to hide horses from other tribes who might be tempted to steal them. Years later, when explorer John Mullan found himself on the island, a band of horses caught his attention. Thus the namesake “Wild Horse” Island was born! 

Did Native Americans live on Wild Horse Island?

It is believed that members of the Salish, Pend d’ Oreille and Kootenai tribes lived along the west shores of Wild Horse Island. As part of the 1855 Hellgate Treaty the island also officially became part of the Flathead Indian Reservation. 

Was Wild Horse Island ever homesteaded?

In the early 1900s the federal government opened up Wild Horse Island to non-Native homesteaders via a lottery system. While the parcels were open to tribal members before homesteaders were given permission to inhabit the island’s lands, neither the natives nor the homesteaders took much interest in the island. Ultimately, only a few people chose to build on its lands.

Are any of the original homes built on White Horse Island still standing?

Yes, one of the first built homes on Wild Horse Island is still standing! Rather ironically, the home only took 11 days to build but is still standing over 100 years later. You can view the home, built by the Johnson family in December 1910, hiking up the Skeeko trail. Additionally, you’ll see many of the fruit trees originally planted by homesteaders still alive and well on the island!

Was Wild Horse Island ever privately owned?

The federal government decided to put Wild Horse Island up for sale when many of the homesteading parcels remained unclaimed. Rev. Robert Edington and his wife Clara bought a portion of the island’s land to create a dude ranch. By 1931, they had opened the Hiawatha Lodge and a variety of other cabins for visitors. However, the only remnant of the dude ranch around today is the stone fireplace.  

When were bighorn sheep introduced to Wild Horse Island?

The jury is out on who originally brought Bighorn Sheep to Wild Horse Island. One theory is that Kootenai tribal members captured the lambs in British Columbia and released them onto Wild Horse Island. Another theory is that when Helena attorney Lewis Penwell bought the island and turned it into a game refuge, he also introduced the first bighorn sheep to the area. 

When did Wild Horse Island become publicly owned?

In the 1970s, the MacDonald family owned Wild Horse Island. They decided to donate/sell the lands to the state for preservation purposes. While this was not the first attempt to sell the lands to the state, this was the first time a deal was successfully made. Today, only 50 acres of Wild Horse Island is privately owned. 

How can I learn more about Wild Horse Island?

The best way to learn about Wild Horse Island is to take a trip out there for yourself! Go Sail Flathead Lake offers sailing charters as well as kayak and SUP rentals to get the island. Additionally, if you choose to charter a sailboat to the island, your captain would be happy to provide you with more information about Wild Horse Island during your trip!