By Lawrence Reed

 “His name was John Bozeman. His short life is a tale of frontier entrepreneurship.”

One of the most interesting exports from the state of Georgia to Montana was the namesake for the Treasure State’s fourth largest city. His name was John Bozeman. His short life is a tale of frontier entrepreneurship.

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. I can understand. My home is an hour southwest of Atlanta, but I head to Montana every chance I get. His objective, however, was not trout. It was gold, but Bozeman proved to be a very unlucky prospector.

After failing to strike gold, Bozeman decided to, as one observer put it, “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, as John Bozeman would attest. Good fortune was punctuated by failures and even tragedies along the way. He dealt with hostile natives (perhaps not always fairly), 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 one; instead, they learn something from every experience.

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 or mundane 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’m of the school of thought that believes it’s a mysterious inner spark. It isn’t so much activated by formal instruction in the nuts and bolts of organizational administration 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. Much depends on the incentives and disincentives in society. 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” as Barack Obama callously put it.

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. Who knows what this Georgia transplant might have gone on to create and build if he had had another 32 years!


Lawrence W. Reed writes a monthly column for the Frontier Institute in Helena, on whose board he serves. He is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education and blogs at www. lawrencew reed. com.


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