150 years! In Montana history that’s pretty significant.
First, some background on the history of this 150 year old Fort. In the late 1860s there was a lot of conflict between Native Americans and the white settlers who came to the area. Fort Shaw was constructed and opened June 30, 1867 to protect the settlers traveling on what was called the Mullan Road.
Construction of the fort was primarily adobe bricks and when you look at the remaining buildings, the exterior walls are 18 inches thick. Trees were fairly scarce in this area with many used for fuel and some construction, but workers could definitely make adobe bricks. The parade grounds of Fort Shaw were laid out in a square formation and the Fort covered over 30 acres. It’s difficult to imagine building this fort from the ground up.
Fort Shaw remained a military fort until July 1891 when it was abandoned by the military. The next phase of the fort is a sad chapter in US history. An Indian boarding school was opened at the fort in 1892 and remained until 1910. The purpose was to teach white culture and language to Indian youth and ultimately assimilate them by losing their culture. Indian children were taken from their homes and placed in the boarding school.
One bright spot in the life of the Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School was the girls basketball team. Formed in 1902, the team played other teams around the area and won most of their games. In 1904 the girls basketball team went to the St. Louis World’s Fair and over five months they defeated every team they played. In between games they would dress in their native ceremonial dress.
I have a great book titled “They Played for the World” that chronicles the girls basketball team from the Indian Boarding School and it is an excellent read. At the entrance to the Fort there is a monument honoring the team.
Now, back to the 150th anniversary celebration!
An amazing crowd turned out today to see the restored portions of the fort and learn some history. Civil War reenactors were at the fort, you could take a horse-drawn buggy ride from the fort to the historic cemetery, and members of the Lewis & Clark Honor Guard were demonstrating everything from weapons to medicine to skinning animals. Some vintage automobiles managed to make their way in to the day’s activities along with several unique vendors selling everything from trade beads to cotton candy.
The Sun River Valley Historical Society orchestrated the anniversary celebration and they were responsible for the recent restoration work done at Fort Shaw – many volunteers doing a lot of hard work! With old buildings there is always a need for restoration and they have accomplished a lot. Their work will be ongoing.
I drove over to the historic cemetery which is one mile from the Fort. I had been there a few years ago but it needed some work. Most of the graves now had markers, grass had been mowed and wrought iron gates marked the entrance.
It was a day of celebration, also a day of reflecting on the history of Fort Shaw. I’m glad I went.