Montana State University in Bozeman Montana State University - Home Montana State University Library - Home

Collection 1177 - Walter Aitken Water Rights Casebook, 1909

Creator: Aitken, Walter

Provenance Note: An original record book created by Walter Aitken was donated to Special Collections by his son-in-law, Don Anderson of Madison, Wisconsin, on May 13, 1976.

Historical Note: Walter Aitken was born in Streetsville, Ontario, Canada on June 17, 1869, the son of William and Janet MacGregor Aitken. He attended common schools and moved to New York City in 1886 where he learned the printer's trade. Aitken traveled to Montana in 1888 and sought work as a cowboy in the Shields River valley until resuming he resumed his newspaper career for the Livingston Post in 1893. He went on to establish newspapers of his own in Columbus, Big Timer, and Kalispell before becoming editor of the Livingston Post in 1904. All while working as a newspaperman, Aitken had been studying law and was admitted to the bar in 1906. He served as the city attorney for the towns of Belgrade and Bozeman, and stayed interested in civic affairs throughout his life. In February, 1909, Aitken represented a number of landowners on the West Gallatin River in an important Montana water rights case. Aitken married Florence N. Reese on May 22, 1898 and the couple had two children. Walter Aitken died on June 7, 1948.

In February, 1909, Aitken and fellow attorney John T. Smith represented a number of landowners on the West Gallatin River in their suit to establish their right to use water from the river. Since territorial days water rights in Montana had been based on the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation, which gave water use privileges to the earliest settlers on record. Problems consistently arose in establishing who the first settlers were, especially in local county records, and proving up a landowner's allocation to surface water was an expensive proposition. John M. Robinson, a Gallatin County farmer who had successfully introduced a bill in 1885 to establish Montana water law, became a plaintiff with dozens of other Gallatin County landowners who hired Aitken to press their claims in court. In this suit, 144 canals carrying water to 83,600 acres of land were involved, and one historian has estimated the legal fees may have been as high as 60,000 dollars.

Content Description Note: The Walter Aitken casebook is a bound ledger with trial notations, witness statements, and plaintiff questionnaires pertaining to the West Gallatin River water rights suit of 1909. Included is a copy of a form letter sent to all of the plaintiffs giving the schedule of the court to receive their individual testimonies. Much of the information is indexed by witness or plaintiff name. Many of the questionnaires have penciled notations referring to citations in official record books maintained by the county.

Updated: 10/14/09