Fort played little-known role in state history

By JORDAN SPARR/Montana State News

Fort Ellis stands a small distance east of Bozeman, Montana. Built to protect mining operations and new-coming settlers in the region, the fort played a large part in the development of Bozeman and military operations of the era.

Deeply involved in the conflicts arising at the time with Native Americans and the boundary wars that resulted from the confrontation, the history of Fort Ellis provides an invaluable insight into early Montana history and the way of life in the American West.

Established in 1867, it largely stood as a countermeasure to a Sioux warrior campaign aimed at shutting down any operation of the Bozeman Trail by pioneers attempting to reach the region.

According to “Military and Trading Posts of Montana” by Don Miller and Stan Cohen, Major Eugene M. Baker used infantry stationed at Fort Ellis to take military action against the Piegan tribe. This ended with the Marias Massacre, which killed many unarmed and unready Native Americans within the tribe while many were away to hunt.

Fort Ellis was also where Colonel John Gibbon took 400 troops during the Great Sioux War, including the Battle of the Little Bighorn. According to “A Terrible Glory” by James Donovan, after the first war ended with the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868, Fort Ellis became an important part in the first expeditions into what was to become Yellowstone National Park, and afterwards helped the settling the newly formed Crow Reservation to the east.

The Northern Pacific Railroad was conducting massive scale surveying campaigns throughout Montana until the completion of its railway in 1883. According to Miller, these expeditions gave way to the first scientific ventures into the Yellowstone National Park region.

Thomas Rust recounts in “Lost Fort Ellis: Frontier History of Bozeman” that a combination of conflicts between the town of Bozeman and the fort as well as the completion of the railroad were what began the process of decommission for the military installation.

Infantrymen from Fort Ellis were known to burn down establishments of Bozeman residents supplying alcohol to soldiers at the camp. While the fort did act as an important protective measure to the people of Bozeman, the advent of the Northern Pacific Railroad convinced the people of the area that the fort was no longer necessary, and as such became dismantled in 1886.

Now, the plot of land where Fort Ellis stood has little to nothing left in terms of structures, and where barracks, stables, and the other buildings which functioned to make the fort a small community used to stand is nothing more than a plot of dirt with a rich history.

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