John Bozeman: The Frontier Entrepreneur Who Forged a Path to Montana

John Bozeman took two bullets to the chest and died in 1867 at age 32. One can only imagine what he would have achieved with another 32 years.

One of the most interesting exports from Georgia to Montana was the namesake for the latter state’s fourth largest city. His name was John Bozeman. His short life is a tale of risk-taking enterprise in the wilds of America’s western frontier.

Born in 1835 in Pickens County in north Georgia, John Merin Bozeman headed west, first to Colorado and then on to Montana. It was 1860 and he was 25. His objective was gold, but Bozeman proved to be a very unlucky prospector.

After failing to find the yellow metal, Bozeman decided to “mine the miners” by selling them provisions and building wagon trails to the gold fields. The famous Bozeman Trail, running northwest from Fort Laramie through the hunting grounds of the Sioux, Crow, and Northern Cheyenne Indians, was his creation. He saw it as a money-making venture, but fate had other things in mind. Harassment from the natives effectively closed it after a brief and bloody period.

In the half dozen years he lived in Montana, John Bozeman helped start the town that bears his name. According to Don Spritzer in Roadside History of Montana, “he was elected a probate judge, established a farm, and helped build the town’s first hotel.”

Being a frontier entrepreneur in the Old West of the 1860s was more than a little risky. Good fortune was punctuated by failures and even tragedies along the way. Bozeman dealt with hostile natives, bad weather, customers who didn’t always pay their bills on time, and a host of other troubles. But such are the pitfalls of every new venture. The best entrepreneurs don’t give up the first time they run into an obstacle; instead, they learn something from every experience and press on.

In a country whose international success owes much to remarkable men and women who stuck their necks out to build things, we Americans surely underappreciate how important entrepreneurs are.

A society without them is a society of stagnation and decline, of monotony and impoverishment, of bureaucrats and paperwork. Why? Because entrepreneurs are consummate change agents. In places like Cuba and North Korea where they are regularly vilified and stifled, you get little change and little improvement. You just get marching orders from those in political power.

There’s nothing routine about entrepreneurship. Imagination and courage are prerequisites. Starting a new enterprise is always an adventure into the unknown. Headaches and long hours are par for the course.

Despite college courses on the subject, it’s by no means clear that one can be “taught” entrepreneurship. I think it’s a mysterious inner spark. It isn’t so much activated by formal instruction so much as it is drawn out, encouraged, inspired, given room to grow. You don’t get it by absorbing a large body of facts and figures; it’s more like a set of attitudes and character traits.

If a business is a campfire, then management and accounting are the sticks. The entrepreneurship is the initial, indispensable strike of the match. The entrepreneur is the visionary of the operation.

Entrepreneurship can be rewarded, but it can also be de-spirited and crushed. In their place, you get pencil-pushers who sit at desks, fill out forms and do the same thing day in and day out. North Korea and Cuba are loaded with managers and accountants, but few entrepreneurs. The socialist systems there communicate a powerful disincentive message: “If you build it, we will come after your profits and maybe you too. We’ll take your stuff, demonize you, and declare that you didn’t build it anyway.” (To paraphrase Barack Obama’s callous words.)

John Bozeman took two bullets to the chest and died in 1867 at age 32. The circumstances are still murky, but it’s likely that an associate named Tom Cover did the dirty deed and blamed the Indians for it.

What a shame. Now we can only imagine what this Georgia transplant might have gone on to create and build if he had had another 32 years!

Written by Lawrence W. Reed for the Foundation for Economic Education – May 2, 2023

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