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Fort Ellis is under attack.

Nearly 150 years after the military fort was built to protect a tiny frontier town called Bozeman from Indians, the fort today faces no danger from native tribes fighting for their survival and way of life.

Danger now comes from modern treasure-hunters, digging for Wild West artifacts that can be sold to collectors.

An overflow crowd of about 75 people interested in the history of Fort Ellis — and concerned about protecting it from looters — packed the Gallatin History Museum on Wednesday night to hear its history and what’s being done to protect it.

The square-mile section of land where the fort once stood — four miles east of downtown, between the Frontage Road and Interstate 90 — is home to the Fort Ellis Research Farm. It’s owned by Montana State University’s Agricultural Experiment Station, which raises sheep and cattle for research on grazing and ranch practices.

Barry Jacobsen, Ag Experiment Station associate director, said he got a call from farm manager Bob Brekke about 4 p.m. on Oct. 22 last year, saying some people were trespassing and digging on Fort Ellis land.

MSU police and Gallatin County sheriff’s deputies were called. They found three guys, who had dug up two vintage beer bottles. The men claimed they’d never done it before.

“We chose not to press charges,” Jacobsen said, because Brekke felt the posted Ag Experiment Station signs that said, “No trespassing without written permission” were overgrown and not as clear as they should have been.

“It’s very, very clear right now,” Jacobsen said. “We will prosecute.”

Police and sheriff’s deputies, game wardens and farm workers have all been told that MSU wants anyone on Fort Ellis land without written permission to be arrested, he said. The station plans to put up some fence and install remote sensors, and farm workers have been trained on the importance of preventing unauthorized digging.

“We want to be good stewards,” Jacobsen said. “I do care. I don’t want to see it devastated. … It won’t happen again.”

Crystal Alegria, who works for Project Archeology and co-founded the Extreme History Project, said she did her master’s thesis research on Fort Ellis, so she felt dismayed and upset about the digging.

When amateurs or treasure-hunters start digging, she said, they can destroy information that professionals might have gleaned from the surroundings. That historic data then is lost to the public.

“It is illegal,” Alegria said.

Jacobsen urged the public to call MSU police if they see suspicious people or digging.

Some in the audience were skeptical. One man accused MSU of sweeping it under the rug, and letting looters go in with backhoes. Jacobsen said the three men had been digging by hand, and dug up an area about 5 by 6 feet and 4 feet deep. A wider, shallower area of digging may have been done by former Museum of the Rockies curator Ken Karsmizki. An old report by Karsmizki noted there has been extensive treasure-hunting at the site, going back decades.

Fort Ellis was vital to Bozeman’s survival, said Bill Jones, Gallatin History Museum executive director.

Founded in 1864, Bozeman was the first stop in 600 miles for people traveling the Bozeman Trail to the Virginia City gold digs. On April 18, 1867, the Gallatin Valley had only about 100 settlers when town namesake John Bozeman was killed 40 miles away, east of Livingston in Cady Coulee. Indians were blamed – though today many speculate that business leaders or jealous husbands might have been the real culprits.

Fearful Gallatin Valley residents clamored for military protection against hostile Indians. Fort Ellis opened near Rocky Creek on Aug. 27, with Capt. R.S. LaMotte and 195 soldiers. The fort, named for a Gettysburg hero, included a 32,160-acre reservation of grazing and timberland to support it.

When the federal government closed the Bozeman Trail in 1867, Jones said, the town would quite likely have failed without Fort Ellis, which pumped $30,000 a year into the economy.

Fort Ellis more than doubled in soldiers and spending over its 19-year existence. In 1870 Maj. Eugene Baker led its cavalry to a famous winter massacre of an innocent Piegan Indian band, detailed in Paul Wylie’s new book “Blood on the Marias.” In 1876, 400 Fort Ellis soldiers rode out to join Col. George Custer’s campaign against Indian tribes. They arrived two days after the Little Bighorn Battle, in time to bury Custer’s dead.

Fort Ellis grew to about 250 buildings, including officers’ and enlisted men’s quarters, parade grounds, stables, a dairy barn, laundry, guardhouse, hospital, cemetery, and several outhouses. Its soldiers played on baseball teams, joined clubs and supported Bozeman’s red light district. Officers and wives supported library and music groups.

By 1886, the Indian wars were ending, the frontier disappearing and local farmers wanted to buy the fort’s reservation land. Gallatin Valley residents petitioned to close Fort Ellis, which occurred on Aug. 2.

In 1891 Congress deeded the fort’s remaining section to the state of Montana for militia and other uses. In 1899, Montana’s governor gave custody of the property to the Montana Agricultural College.

Asked why MSU doesn’t have people living at the site for security, Jacobsen said the well water is too high in nitrates for humans to use. The Ag Experiment Stations aren’t rolling in money to dig new wells or renovate the old houses, he said.

Police have the names of the three alleged looters but they haven’t been released because no arrests were made.

The Gallatin History Museum has a display showing what the original stockaded fort looked like, as well as many artifacts, such as cavalry bits, buttons, locks, a tin cup, boot, rifle slugs, belt buckles, canteen and china shards.

Anyone interested in joining the Montana Site Stewardship Program to protect historic and archeological sites can contact Alegria at MSU, 994-6925, or calegria@montana.edu. A stewardship training is planned May 20 to 21 in Billings.

Today a piece of Fort Ellis land is used by a model airplane club. And, ironically, MSU Indian students have a sweat lodge on the land, once dedicated to their ancestors’ suppression.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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