The Great Seal of the State of Montana may look idyllic, but its history is anything but. Back in 1865 when Montana was still a territory, a legislative committee chaired by Francis M. Thompson tried to design a seal that would represent Montana’s natural attributes and economic potential. They decided that a shovel, a pick, and a plow could symbolize Montana’s agricultural and mineral wealth. They envisioned mountains, trees, buffalo, and other animals in the scene by the Great Falls of the Missouri River. They decided on a territorial motto of “Gold and Silver” in Spanish. As legislation passed, and as various designers and artisians became involved, strange things happened to Montana’s seal. The “Gold and Silver” motto got mistranslated at one point, and was corrected from “Oro el Plata” to Oro y Plata”. The abundant buffalos and other animals that were originally legislated dwindled to one lone buffalo. At another point, in 1876, the buffalo disappeared altogether. In 1887, mountains changed shape, the skies became cloudless, trees grew, and even the orientation of the sun c changed.
When Montana became a state in 1889, the design of the seal was debated again. In 1891, proposals included the addition of 41 stars to represent the states, and the addition of new symbols, including Indians, buffalo, settlers and their wagons, a train, a stage coach, horses, sheep, cattle, a miner, a mill, a schoolhouse, a stream, and an irrigated field. Hold it!… As lawmakers continued this symbol frenzy, it became obvious that a mural might be a better choice for all these ideas. So, instead, the legislation failed, and it was decided that a better solution would be to use the existing territorial seal, and change the word “Territory” to “State”. Whew!!
But, alas, it wasn’t going to be that easy after all. When the engraver, G.R. Metten, was commissioned to produce the seal, he took it upon himself to reverse the flow of Great Falls and the Missouri River, move some trees, and reshape mountains.
Today, Montana’s attractive and serene Great Seal belies the politics, mishaps, and artistic license of its history.