Powder River County is located southeastern Montana, approximately 150 miles east of Billings and 100 miles north of Gillette, Wyoming. Powder River County was formed in 1919 from part of Custer County.
The county is 3,297 square miles in area. Sixty-five percent of the land in the county is privately owned, one percent is covered with water and the remaining land is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service or the state of Montana. According to the 2010 United States Census, the population of Powder River County is 1743. The county seat and largest community is Broadus, with a population of approximately 470.
The county also has several unincorporated communities, including Belle Creek, Biddle, Olive, Otter, Powderville and Sonnette. The county is named for the Powder River, a tributary of the Yellowstone River that flows from southwest to northeast through its center.
The original Native American residents of what is now Powder River County included the Crow, Sioux, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribal groups. Powder River County was part of the territory that was transferred from French to American ownership with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The area was briefly part of the Dakota Territory and the Idaho Territory in the early 1860s.
The Montana Territory was organized from part of the Idaho Territory along the currently used state boundaries in 1864. In the mid-1800s, the United States government began attempting to open western acreage to European settlers by limiting Native American land use and consolidating the tribes onto reservations.
A battle between Native Americans and the United States military was fought near the town of Broadus in 1876. Europeans began settling the Powder River area in the late 1800s, claiming farms and ranches made available by the Homestead Act of 1862.
The economy of Powder River County has historically been based on agriculture. That is still the case today, although in recent years smaller family farms have been replaced by larger, more consolidated farming operations. The majority of farmland is used for ranching and grazing. Like many places in the American West, Powder River County experienced an oil boom in the 1970s.
The local economy expanded rapidly and many improvements were made to county infrastructure. The collapse of oil prices in the 1980s led to loss of population and an economic slow-down for Powder River County and the surrounding areas. Local government entities are currently the largest employers in the county. Broadus and the several unincorporated communities also contain a number of restaurants, stores and service businesses. Attempts have been made in recent years to increase tourism, with the area’s natural beauty and historical significance as the major attractions.