Sunday, April 6, 2014

I didn't post yesterday... I've been working on three big articles for Wikipedia. Well, two smallish ones and one that is hellaciously huge.

The Fort Shaw article is the big one.

When I was growing up in Great Falls, Montana, everyone was aware of a smattering of tiny, dying communities around the city. Great Falls had 65,000 people living in it at the time (although today it's 55,000 and barely holding on). Ulm, Vaughn, Fort Shaw -- these were names that didn't mean anything to anyone growing up. They were wide spots in the road, usually a massive and decript grain elevator on a spur of rusting railroad track with a general store/gas station, bar, and four or five wooden homes needing serious repair stuck among the high weeds. As you drove through town, you could see sullen men in flannel shirts and dirty, blue or brown polyester down vests, greasy baseball cap advertising some truck stop, jammed on their heads, would get out of their mud-splattered trucks and go into the bar or the grocery store. They'd give you cautious looks, making sure you didn't stop. Occasionally you'd see a long-haired teenage boy, broad-shouldered, strong, long legs. Dirty jacket and denim jeans, head down, eyes angry, driving around these towns. They were the local boys, going to local high schools, bitter about their working-class, isolated lot in life.

And why would you? The interstate had long ago passed these towns by. Once, Montana Highway 200 ran right through the center of them on its way to Rogers Pass and the Rocky Mountains. Now, this road is nothing more than a frontage road, crumbling at its edges. Dissolute, like the people living along it.

My family had a cabin near Lincoln, Montana. That was 90 miles west of Great Falls on Highway 200. In the summer, we went up there all the time. So, every week, we'd drive through these sad, dying little towns on our way to Lincoln.

Once you got out of the Missouri River valley, the highway travelled along the Sun River. Once a clear, blue shallow river running over a stony bed, by the 1930s the Fort Shaw Irrigation Project had turned it into a muddy, milky environmental diaster. Agricultural runoff destroyed the Sun River.

The same irrigation project turned the valley of the Sun River into a lush green paradise. Vast fields of alfalfa and wheat bobbed in the wind. We'd pass the small town of Fort Shaw, and then begin the climb into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

I must have passed the town of Fort Shaw a hundred times. I never gave it a thought.

But Forst Shaw has a history. Founded in 1867, it was one of the most beautiful U.S. Army forts in the American West. Montana's Native American tribes were slowly being forced into reservations. At the time, these were huge: The Piegan Blackfeet reservation covered everything from the Canadian border south to the Missouri River, and from the west border of Glacier National Park east to Glasgow. But gold was discovered in southwest Montana (Butte and Helena) in the 1850s, and white settlers flooded the area. Native American culture was founded on rites of passage for adult males that emphasized acts of bravery. The theft of horses or goods, the wounding or touching of an enemy in battle, and retaliation for the same were fundamental aspects of Plains Indian cultures. Moreover, white claims to Indian land deeply angered Native Americans, who saw the land as something to be shared by all people. Forced off traditional hunting, pasturing, and gathering grounds onto increasingly marginal land left many bitter and enraged. Native attacks on whites -- and unprovoked white attacks, motivated by racism, greed, and hate, on Native Americans -- increased.

A line of forts was constructed by the U.S. Army to discourage Indians from leaving their lands. These included Fort Ellis near Bozeman, the mining camp at Helena, Fort Shaw on the Sun River, and Fort Benton 30 miles northeast of Great Falls. They largely protected the Mullan Road -- a path through the plans, mountains, and forests built from 1859 to 1860. It extended along what is now U.S. Highway 87 from Fort Benton to Great Falls, and then Interstate 15, U.S. Highway 89, and U.S. Highway 200 to U.S. Highway 287. It followed U.S. 287 and I-15 south to Helena, and then west from Helena via U.S. 12 and I-90 to Missoula and Mullan, Idaho; southwesterly past Lake Coeur d'Alene; through the country and scablands of eastern Washington; through Benge, Washington; and then along Washington Route 26 over the Snake River to Fort Walla Walla near Walla Walla, Washington.

Fort Shaw was the headquarters for the Military District of Montana. Troops from Fort Shaw fought in the Marias Massacre of 1870, in which U.S Army troops -- engaged in a reprisal against raiding Blackfeet -- attacked a peaceful Blackfeet band and wiped out 175 people (mostly women and children). They formed the Montana Column, which marched to the Little Bighorn River in 1876 in support of Col. George Armstrong Custer's attack on a Sioux-led encampment. These troops arrived two days after Custer's Last Stand. The following year, troops from Fort Shaw were bested by Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce at the Battle of the Clearwater as they fled from their destitute reservation in Idaho toward the Canadian border. In 1888, the 25th Infantry -- the Buffalo Soldiers -- a racially segregated unit of African American soldiers, was stationed at Fort Shaw.

Fort Shaw was abandoned by the military in 1892. Native American attacks largely ended in the state in 1878, and Fort Asssinniboine (near Havre) replaced it. The fort was turned over to the Department of the Interior, which used it as an Indian boarding school. In 1903, the girls' basketball team at Fort Shaw was the undisputed champion of Montana high school basketball. In 1904, they traveled to the St. Louis World's Fair, where for five solid months they defeated all challengers and were proclaimed "World Champions".

The boarding school closed in 1910 due to low attendance, and the fort's building were used as a public school for white students at the nearby community of Fort Shaw.

Fort Shaw was declared a National Historic District in 1985. Although only a few building remain, they are well-preserved. So is the nearby Fort Shaw Military Cemetery.

I knew none of this when I lived there. But I know about it now.


  1. I just purchased a Colt Frontier Six Shooter and inside the grip is Lloyd Love Fort Shaw Montana. Gun was Made in 1927. I Found a Lloyd Love on Ancestry living there in !920 and was born in 1906.
    Dave Stephens