29 April 2010
Fort Shaw Military Post
Group of Time-Worn Buildings Still Standing in the Sun River Valley at Point About Thirty Miles West of Great Falls, Mark Site of One of Most Important Military Posts in Northwest. Was Center of State’s Social Activities. General Gibbon in Charge.
By Mrs. M. E. Plassmann
. . . On the thirtieth of June, 1867, about thirty miles west of the present city of Great Falls, a fort was built to aid in the control of this northern country and for the protection of travel between Helena and the head of navigation on the Missouri, at Fort Benton, as it was situated nearly midway between these two points. At first it was known as Camp Reynolds, the name being changed in August of the same year to Fort Shaw, in honor of Col. Robert G. Shaw of the 5th Massachusetts Volunteers, who was killed at Fort Wagner four years previously. [Editor’s Note: Robert Gould Shaw (October 10, 1837 – July 18, 1863) was the colonel in command of the all-black 54th Regiment, which entered the American Civil War in 1863. He is the principal subject of the 1989 film Glory. He was killed in a failed attempt to capture Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina.—Wikepedia]
No lovelier site could have been chosen than that of the Sun or Medicine River valley, as it was named by Lewis and Clark. There was from it a fine mountain view of the Bird Tail divide to the south; of the Highwoods to the east; while the upper part of the valley was crossed by the main chain of the Rockies. This valley had been the favorite winter camp of the Piegans until the arrival of the soldiers.
Before Camp Reynolds became Fort Shaw, Major [William] Clinton [13th Infantry Regiment] was in command; but with its change of names came a new commandant in the person of Col. [I. V. D.] Reeves [13th Infantry Regt], who remained but a year when he was succeeded by Col. [George L.] Andrews [13th Infantry Regt.]. In 1869 Gen. P. R. de Trobriand, colonel of the 13th Infantry was in charge of the post. Like preceding commandants he stayed at Fort Shaw about a year, when Gen. John Gibbon, of the 7th Infantry, took his place [in August 1870].
General Gibbon had hardly become acquainted with his new surrounding before he undertook the improvement of the post. Water was brought to the fort through a ditch seven miles long; trees were planted, and a garden embracing forty acres was cultivated to the manifest advantage of all residing at the fort.
The First Garden. It was almost impossible, at that time, to purchase fresh vegetables at any price. The fort garden must have furnished a welcome addition to the regular fare of officer and private alike. The cultivation of this garden also demonstrated the fact that no richer land can be found in Montana than that of the Sun River valley.
[Editor’s Note: From March to October 1876 General Gibbon and his 7th Infantry Regiment formed the Montana Column to join General Terry in pursuit of the Sioux Indians and their allies. For this campaign see my blog: http://fortbenton.blogspot.com/2008/02/gallant-lieutenant-james-h-bradley-if.html]
General Gibbon, it will be remembered, was in command at the Battle of the Big Hole, where he attacked Chief Joseph’s following but was unable to prevent their escape. In this battle three officers were killed, one of them being Lieutenant Bradley, to whose journal we are indebted for the preservation of valuable information regarding the history of the Northwest. Gen. Gibbon and three other officers were wounded in this encounter. They returned to Helena where the other officers were entertained at Helena’s principal hotel, while General Gibbon, his wife and daughters, remained for a time at Hot Springs.
Military Popularity. The citizens of Helena vied with one another in showering attentions on these wounded men to such an extent that they must have been glad again to reach Fort Shaw where they could rest. General Gibbon cherished no such illusions regarding the superiority of white soldiers as that voiced in Collier’s by that none to veracious historian, George Creel. General Gibbon is quoted as having said Chief Joseph “Licked me like hell.” He also stated in effect that Joseph was one of the best soldiers and the most perfect gentleman he ever met. General Howard expressed the same opinion of Joseph, in slightly different language, and of the relative merits of red and white warriors we have testimony of General Eli Huggins, in November American Mercury, where he asserts: “The truth is that we have never seriously worsted the Indians in any conflict with equal numbers where they were all supplied with arms and ammunition. This is so, whether our forces were regular troops or hastily levied frontiersmen; we have always found them foemen worthy of our steel.” This is not the testimony of an eastern sentimentalist, but of a soldier who had campaigned in the West and knew the Indians. A brave man is always ready to give due credit to his opponent. Why not admit, and teach our children that the Indians outgeneraled the whites in the Battle of the Big Hole, and that of the Little Big Horn? Will it injure them now to learn the truth?
Back to Fort Shaw went the 7th Infantry to remain until it was relieved in the spring [of 1878] by that of the 3rd [Infantry Regiment], under the command of Col. John R Brooks. Ten years later a colored regiment, the 25th Infantry, Col. J. J. Van Horn commanding, was stationed at the Sun River post for two years, when the fort was abandoned, as a fort, to become an industrial school for the Indians, which was opened in 1892. I have heard it stated by one who is familiar with work among the Indians that it was a mistake on the part of the Interior department not to have continued this school, which is badly needed.
The Fort Shaw military reservation comprised 27,000 acres of land which, like that of the Assiniboine military reservation, was thrown open to settlement. This final event in the history of the fort took place in 1909. [Editorial Note; actually 1910]
Life at Fort Shaw. Only a person gifted with a vivid imagination together with some familiarity with pioneer military stations, can today picture Fort Shaw as it once was; but there are a number of pioneers living in the northeastern part of the state who knew it well. I am not of these, and my knowledge of the post is gathered from books and from hearsay.
In 1873, I was made painfully aware of its vicinity while making the stage journey from Helena to Fort Benton with Mrs. Sanders and her family when on our way east, via the Missouri. Somewhere near Sun River, in the early morning, my attention was attracted by a long file of men marching in single file, under charge of a mounted man. The gait of the men on foot struck me as being peculiar, and I could not account for it until their nearer approach revealed that they were connected by a chain, and I was told this was the chain gang from the fort being taken to work under the escort of a noncommissioned officer.
The sight affected us unpleasantly. Involuntarily I rebelled at the though of men being punished in this manner, although we were assured by an officer’s wife that none but those soldiers guilty of the worst crimes were punished like this. If such was the case, criminals must have been plentiful at Fort Shaw that summer. Discipline is necessary in the army, undoubtedly; but it is possible the private views it in a different manner from the way it appears to the officer’s lady.
Many Buildings Still Stand. That the buildings of the fort are still in fairly good condition indicates their having been constructed of more lasting material than went to the making of some of our earlier forts. Like Fort Laramie, Fort Shaw was built of adobe, and the officers’ quarters and the barracks were more comfortable than those of the ordinary frontier post, and the ground ha been rendered attractive by the planting of trees, which were kept well watered by an irrigating ditch General Gibbon had brought to the fort, and which made possible the cultivation of a garden there. Cottonwoods are of rapid growth if plentifully supplied with water, and General Gibbon remained long enough in command of the post to see them casting a friendly shade over Officers’ Walk, where they constitute a living memorial to the foresight of him who had ordered their placing.
During the twenty-three years Fort Shaw was a military post, from 1867 to 1890, it saw some lively times both in a military and social way. From it were sent our expeditions like that which culminated in the Baker massacre; the one to remove the half breeds from Sioux lands to Fort Belknap, at Sitting Bull’s request; and the attempt of General Gibbon to prevent Chief Joseph’s march northward. While the companies were away there were dull times at the post, as I an testify from having seen Fort Douglas under similar conditions, following the Custer battle, when most of the soldiers were in pursuit of the Sioux, leaving hardly enough men for post duties.
Quiet different was it in the fall, says Mrs. Roe. “After the return of the companies from their hard and often dangerous summer campaign, and settle down for the winter . . . we feel that we can feast and dance, and it is then, too, that garrison life at a frontier post becomes so delightful.
At this season gaiety was at its height along Officers’ Row. Luncheons, dinners, dances and theatrical entertainments rapidly succeeded one another in these favored quarters, while we are assured that the soldiers were not forgotten. They could attend the theatricals, take part in the religious services; and besides this, were there not drills, and special target practice? “and of course there were inspections.” Mrs. Roe says these were thoughtfully provided, and what more could a reasonable private ask in the way of jolly recreation! And yet Fort Shaw had its deserters.
Thanks to Mrs. Roe, the luncheons, dinners, etc., are not left solely to our unfettered imaginations, for she has given us a full description of them. In the fall of 1879, after the return of the commanding officer and his wife from Missoula, where they had spent the winter, “those of us who were at Helena and Camp Baker, feel that we must entertain them in some way. Consequently, now that everyone is settled the dining and wining has begun.” I would add that this matter of getting settled was by no means a matter of little account, resulting, as it often did, in hard feelings, due to the rule that the officers’ quarters were assigned according to rank. The “wining” as a matter of course, in those pre-prohibition days, was a part of the “dining.” Mrs. Roe continues: “Almost every day there is a dinner or card party given in their honor, and several very delightful luncheons have been given. And then the members of the old garrison, according to army etiquette, have to entertain those who have just come, so altogether we are very gay. The dinners are usually quite elegant, formal affairs, beautifully served with dainty china and handsome silver. The officers appear at these in full-dress uniform, and that adds much to the brilliancy of things, but not much to the comfort of the officers, I imagine.”
A Ghost Fort. With the above in mind, one can readily, when visiting Fort Shaw, picture it, not as a ghost fort, but with all its former life resurrected. The Stars and Stripes again float above the parade ground, and the companies go through their customary evolutions, or are entertained (?) by inspections. The day’s duties ended, along the walk in front of the quarters are seen the officers and their ladies, the former in full-dress uniform, and the latter in dinner costume, on their way to the house where their host and hostess await them. Or, if it is a Sunday, officers and soldiers betake themselves to church, where the Rev. Mr. Clarke, of Helena, holds services twice a month.
If we also are church attendants, we shall be surprised to hear the fine singing accompanied by an orchestra composed of two violins, clarinet, cello, oboe, and bassoon, and a choir of three sergeants, a corporal, and the drum major, with a doctor as organist, who had played in Washington, D. C.
Life, it may be inferred, was by no means monotonous at Fort Shaw in those early days, and it is not strange that Mrs. Roe should write: “It is nice to be once more here at this dear old post, particularly under such very pleasant circumstances. The winter East was enjoyable and refreshing from first to last, but citizens and my people have so little in common, and this one feels after being with them a while, no mater how near the relationship may be. Why, one-half of them do not know the uniform, and could not distinguish and officer of the Army from a policeman.
An Amusing Incident. This regrettable ignorance concerning the uniform on the part of civilians was displayed when my brother came home from Akron, on his furlough from West Point. He was in all the glory of his cadet summer uniform, and, like the boy he was, felt duly conscious of his appearance.
One day he went to town—for Akron was then merely a town, with its center a mile from our residence. There was some kind of a celebration under way, and my brother stationed himself at a street corner to witness the parade. He must have been a very conspicuous figure in his neat gray coat and white trousers, and undoubtedly attracted considerable attention.
The town band had recently purchased new uniforms. They were to be in the parade, as were bands from neighboring towns. The procession was fairly started, when a small boy sidled up to the West Pointer, and in his shrill falsetto that carried for a long distance, solicitously inquired: “Say, Mister, when is your band going to play? Fortunately, my brother was endowed with a keen sense of humor that enabled him to carry off the situation successfully.
[Montana Newspaper Association Cut Bank Pioneer Press 7 Mar 1927]