What is the history of Montana state flag?

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The Montana State flag is easily identifiable by the large gold letters spelling out “Montana” centered at the top. The state seal in the center displays some of the states beautiful scenery and reflects some of our states pioneer activities, including mining and farming. A brilliant sun rises over mountains, forests, and the Great Falls of the Missouri. The state motto at the bottom of the seal in Spanish means “gold and silver.”

The history of the Montana state flag begins with Colonel Kessler, who headed the First Montana Infantry, a group of volunteers mustered in for the war against Spain. Units organized in several Montana communities converged on Fort William Henry Harrison, west of Helena, during the spring of 1898. Under Kessler’s guidance, the recruits were whipped into fighting shape and provided, courtesy of Helena’s ladies, with a fine 45-star U.S. flag to carry as their Regimental Colors.

Something special was needed, however, in Colonel Kessler’s view, a flag or banner to distinguish Montana Volunteers from other units. On his own initiative, the Commander commissioned a unique Montana flag. The handmade silk flag (60 by 44 inches) had a dark field on which was sewn an embroidered replica of the State seal, although the unknown seamstress was free to use whatever colors she wanted. “Colonel Kessler’s Flag” embarked for the “Philippine Insurrection” with the First Montana Infantry in the fall of 1898 and served as the unit’s chief insignia during its tour of duty.

Montana State Flag

By the time the volunteers returned to a grand State welcome in October of 1899, the Colonel’s private flag had grown in acceptance and stature. Montana newspapers looked upon the blue banner as an unofficial state flag. Upon reaching Helena, Kessler turned the flag over to the Governor who, in turn, offered it for display throughout the state. Ultimately, the worn flag became part of the Montana Historical Society collection, preserved for future generations.

The idea of an official state flag appealed to many. The Ninth Legislative Assembly reflected that support in 1905 and proclaimed Colonel Kessler’s flag official, omitting only the words “1st Montana Infantry, U.S.V. “which appeared above the seal. Flag makers had difficulty reproducing the handmade, weather-worn patterns and colors, but from this beginning, the state seal acquired color and Montana obtained a flag.

Since 1905 there have been just two modifications of the State Flag:

The 1981 Legislature passed a bill requiring the state flag to bear the word “Montana” in Roman letters above the seal. Rep. Mel Williams of Laurel and his wife Eugenia presented the idea, pointing out that without the letters, the old flag looked too much like those of other states. That same year Secretary of State Jim Waltermire laid down the first specifications for the exact colors of the state seal on the state flag. They ranged from a gold sky with white clouds and white sunrays to blue and white waterfalls.

Then in 1985, Legislators passed another bill requiring the word “Montana” above the great seal of the state on the flag to be in Helvetica bold letter, a specific kind of Roman letters. This eliminated a variety of letter styles being used on the flag. Mel and Eugenia Williams’s 1981 model flag with the gold letters sewn on joined Colonel Kessler’s Montana flag in the Montana Historical Society’s permanent collection.

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