If your Montana vacation dream includes learning history, plan some visits to these three old forts in Central Montana.
Fort Assinniboine sits tucked alongside US Hwy 87 about seven miles southwest of Havre. You can easily drive right past it, just noticing the compound of red brick buildings spread around rolling grasslands. A historic marker is at a highway pullout giving a brief history but the guided tour is the real gem.
Our tour guide was amazing – brimming with knowledge and yet letting us ask questions and choosing our route as we went from building to building.
The details – Fort Assinniboine Historic Site was built in 1879, and became the largest, most active military fort in the U.S. Within a 40 mile long by 15 mile wide area, 104 buildings were contained. Originally, the site spanned 700,000 acres, including the Bear Paw Mountains and extending as far as the Missouri River. We were amazed at how many of the original brick buildings were still standing since the fort closed in 1911.
The area became a state agricultural experiment station in 1913, and continues so today. As you drive the gravel road to the entrance, you’ll usually see sample crop plots growing and we saw a variety of corn.
The foremost mission of the Fort was to prevent attacks from Sitting Bull and about 5,000 Lakota Sioux. Fort Assinniboine is about 35 miles south of the US/Canada border and several tribes had positioned there after the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
One noted soldier at the Fort was John J. Pershing, assigned to the post in 1896 to command H Troop, the Black ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ of the 10th Cavalry.
A tour guide is on duty at Fort Assinniboine June – August seven days a week from 9am to 5pm. Meet your guide at the Fort Assinniboine Interpretive Center where you can view artifacts and other history.
Fort Shaw, originally named Camp Reynolds (but not for long), is located about 24 miles west of Great Falls on MT 200. This US Army fort was built in 1867 to help keep the nearby Mullan Road open and prevent more Native American attacks. Montana became a territory in 1864, that new label helped to attract fortune-seeking miners, fur trappers and farmers.
The parade grounds were built in a square shape and the four infantry barracks were U-shaped. Barracks walls were unfinished and the fort walls were built with adobe bricks. When you think of it, a small town was constructed because they also built the other essentials of the day – a commissary, storehouse, office, guardhouses (jails), hospital, commanding officer’s residence, chapel, school, bakery, library, weapons room and outhouses.
The fort served as a post office for locals with mail being delivered three times a week. And, for faster connections, there was a telegraph office.
Fort Shaw was abandoned in 1891 and a year later it was used as a boarding school for Native Americans until 1910. The US government’s goal was to take away the language and culture of Native American children, teach them English and then teach academics and vocational trades. Obviously, an incredibly sad time in our history.
When you enter the fort, you see a tribute to the Indian girls’ basketball team who “played for the world”. The team was sent to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904 and for five months they defeated every team they played. You can see memorabilia of the team at The History Museum in Great Falls.
Nearby, you can tour the cemetery used by the fort. Volunteers have worked to list all of the people buried there.
Fort Shaw is located near views of several buttes and an evening sunset setting over them is a feast for the senses. Square Butte and Crown Butte are easily recognizable and the front range of the Rocky Mountains looms directly west. Farm land surrounds the Fort which is about 20 miles upstream from the confluence of the Sun River and Missouri River.
Tours of Fort Shaw are given Friday afternoons in August.
Footings were dug in late fall of 1846 for Fort Benton. In the spring of 1847 another upstream fort, Fort Lewis, was dismantled and it’s logs were floated down the Missouri River to construct the new fort. Completed in 1847, the fur trading fort began operation.
The American Fur Company sold the fort in 1865 and by 1869 military were housed there. Nineteen years later, in 1891, the fort was abandoned. Weather soon began to take its toll of the structure. Portions of the fort were dismantled and re-used for other construction. One building remained – the Block House – and it was saved by the Daughters of the American Revolution and local businessman T. C. Powers.
Archeological digs have been done over the years and locations of the original walls and main gate were determined. The structure has been reconstructed and today’s visitor gets an accurate view of this multiple-use old fort.
Artifacts such as trade beads, coins and broken pottery have been found during the digs, along with remnants of bones.
Restored fort buildings devoted to skills of the day – carpentry and blacksmithing – have also been restored. The Agent’s House (referred to as the Bourgeois) houses an impressive collection of art. Karl Bodmer’s “Travels Into the Interior of North America” aquatint collection and Robert Scriver’s “No More Buffalo” collection are beautifully displayed. A replica of the living quarters of the Bourgeois house greets visitors as you enter the art gallery.
Fort Benton’s River and Plains Society has led the fort restoration efforts and continues to add displays telling the story of Old Fort Benton. Tours are offered during summer months. Visitors see displays documenting the fur trade era of the fort and a glimpse into how the Blackfeet Indians traded here.
Three historic forts in Central Montana that all offer tours. Enjoy a walk down history lane as you visit Central Montana.