The Last Heir


The Last Heir

The Triumphs and Tragedies of Two Montana Families

Bill Vaughn

258 pages
7 photographs, 3 maps, 1 genealogy, 3 appendixes


March 2022


$19.95 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)

March 2022


$19.95 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)

March 2022


$19.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

The only thing the Herrins and the Burkes had in common was their Irish ancestry. Opposites in most ways, the families nevertheless personified two common threads in the history of the West. As the owner of an iconic Montana stock-raising operation—the famous Oxbow Ranch on the shores of Holter Lake—Holly Herrin ruled with frontier violence and legal action over an empire of cattle and sheep that covered thirty square miles. George Burke was a real estate agent, a sheriff, a game warden, and a civil engineer in a family of professionals—newspaper editors, lawyers, and politicians, including a U.S. senator.

The country-mouse Herrins voted Republican, the city-mouse Burkes Democratic. Both patriarchs, fighting with their fists and their lawyers, were active players in the far-reaching dramas and ludicrous comedies that shaped the politics and economy of modern Montana. In 1949 the clans joined their fortunes together when rancher Keith Herrin, Holly’s grandson, married George Burke’s daughter Molly, a wire service reporter. It was a union that produced five girls and one boy—an heir. Twenty years later, the marriage and the Herrin ranches were failing.

The story of the Burkes and Herrins has never been told before, and the history they made has been largely forgotten. The Last Heir recounts twelve decades of Burke and Herrin triumphs and tragedies: the story of Montana’s Missouri River heartland, a history seen through the eyes and daily lives of those who lived it.


Author Bio

Bill Vaughn is a former contributing editor for Outside Magazine. His is the author of Hawthorn: The Tree That Has Nourished, Healed, and Inspired through the Ages.


"Any book that opens with an epigraph from Shakespeare—Romeo and Juliet, no less—is bound to be dramatic, and Vaughn does not disappoint. The first chapter, 'Without a Trace,' plunges readers into the most mundane of domestic dramas—a father and husband abandoning his family 'to run off with a married woman'—in a deft and subtle way that foreshadows the major themes here: the power and resolve of women to endure in 'a man's world,' and the complicated politics of rural family life. . . . The upshot of this study is that appearances are deceiving, and each unhappy family is, as Tolstoy observed, 'unhappy in its own way.'"—Montana, The Magazine of Western History

"Vaughn's attention-grabbing writing style will engage a public audience, immediately drawing readers in with Yellowstone-like theatrics of shady Montana politics, nepotism, and 'friends' favoritism. Here is a historical drama of go-getters: daring individuals and families whose actions and motivations—including but not limited to pride, ambition, aggression, fighting, violence, and court cases—whether professional or agricultural—often mirrored one another."—Rebecca A. Buller, Journal of Family History

"By looking at the family he married into and following the tendrils out from Helena to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., and back home to Montana again, Vaughn did something new and unusual in the historical literature of Montana. That's something to be admired."—Thomas Plank, Missoulian

"Tracing the history of two Montana families through four generations and showing how they came together in the third generation through marriage, Missoula author Bill Vaughn provides a story as much about Montana, its dreams, myths, and deceptions."—Charles E. Rankin, Roundup Magazine

“A dishy, encyclopedic romp through twentieth-century Montana history. I was amazed that a book containing so many disparate nuggets could hew to a narrative structure that enticed me to read it so quickly.”—John Clayton, author of Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Maps
1. Without a Trace
2. First-Generation Americans
3. The Migrants
4. The Home Front
5. Girl Reporter
6. Lighting Out for the Territory
7. Wild and Wooly
8. A Man of Means
9. Wool Mania
10. The Water Below and the Air Above
11. In the Grease
12. Under the Swaying Palms
13. For the Love of the Game
14. No Longer the Lazy Crop
15. How to Prosper When Times Are Dark
16. Greener Pastures
17. An Heir Is Born
18. Dark Acres
19. Res Ipsa Loquitur
20. The Last Acre
Appendix 1: The Oxbow Ranch
Appendix 2: The Sons and Daughters of Montana Pioneers
Appendix 3: Baertsch v. Baertsch

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