Story by Ellen Thompson
Montana State University-Bozeman has preserved a piece of Hill County history, adding to its collections all of the telegrams received by Fort Assinniboine in 1881, the year of Sitting Bull's surrender.
Purchased in April and posted on the Internet in July, the telegrams are now available for anyone to access without fear of damaging them, MSU special collection archivist Kim Allen Scott said.
They contain more information about daily life at Fort Assinniboine than was previously known, Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association president Gary Wilson said.
The telegrams also detail the movements of Sitting Bull and his party, as well as the U.S. military's pursuit, Scott said.
The telegrams were purchased by Merrill G. Burlingame Special Collections at Bozeman from Jeanne Minugh Irving of Olympia Wash., who inherited them from her grandfather, Louden Minugh. Minugh was stationed at Assinniboine from 1879 to 1884 before moving to Harlem.
The documents purchased by the library are not the original telegrams, but the orders used by the telegrapher to tap out the message. After the telegram was sent by wire, the orders, called "true copies," would follow by mail. Once the copy arrived, the first message would be destroyed and this one kept, Scott explained.
In the case of telegrams, the true copy is considered the more official document, he added.
Records from military posts in Montana are held in national archives in Washington, D.C. "For some reason, the Fort Assinniboine records didn't make it there," Scott said. Most of Assinniboine's records are held by the Helena Historical Society, he added.
"The information contained in (the orders) is duplicated elsewhere," Scott said. "The advantage here is that you have a tight window of time, a single year, where you have every message that that post got, without having to go to the various record groups that sent them messages," he added.
Local historians are excited about the collection.
"The mundane, day-to-day life, for people like us at the Fort Assinniboine group, that's very interesting," Wilson said.
Wilson's favorite is a telegram that calls for the transfer of pickles from one fort to another.
"Maybe it was about needing salt (in the soldiers' diet). Probably there is an important reason for doing that," Wilson said. But for Wilson, he likes it because it's both amusing as well as an aspect of fort life not known before.
"We haven't had much of a peek at the daily life," Wilson said.
The telegrams also revealed to Wilson how unprepared the military was for dealing with Sitting Bull during the winter.
"Here we are in January, and Fort Assinniboine is shut down for the winter. They can't find one scout, there are not enough coats and they are scrambling for horses, mules and supplies. Here is a military totally unprepared for this kind of action.
"The Indians were still in quarters in Canada. The army moves into hibernation and then, ah-hah! Sitting Bull crosses the line and there is just a scramble. You can imagine the sheer panic going on at Fort Assinniboine and here is the colonel in Helena asking them what's going on," Wilson said, flipping through a pile of papers, copies of the telegrams printed off the Internet.
"The tragic part is that 90 percent of his people have abandoned Sitting Bull. They've gone on to Fort Buford and to the Standing Rock reservation. He is stubborn to the end. He has a few followers and makes one more attempt at getting food," Wilson said.
The Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association is thrilled to have access to the telegrams via the Internet.
"It adds something to your tour," Wilson said. He leads an hour-long tour at the fort every day. "Now I have enough material for a four-hour tour."
The fort association hopes to do something with the telegrams, both to supplement the tour, and perhaps in a new display, Wilson said.
"Right now, 90 percent of our time has to go to maintaining the health of the buildings and doing the tours. There just isn't enough time to do research," he said.
Wilson is working on another plan to bring more visitors to Fort Assinniboine.
Right now travelers who arrive in Havre at night get a motel room and then go to Havre Beneath the Streets the following morning, Wilson said. There is only one tour at the fort, and that is not until 5 p.m., too late to catch the tourists.
Wilson's plan is to lead an additional tour at 10:30 a.m. to catch the tourists leaving Havre Beneath the Streets.
Wilson was also happy to report a turnout of 100 visitors to the site during last Sunday's open house, held in celebration of the fort's 125th anniversary, and coinciding with Festival Days.
"We're just out of town, and here's all these Havre people, wide-eyed," Wilson said.
Excerpts from telegrams received at Fort Assinniboine in January 1881 from Montana Headquarters in Helena.
" ... move down the Milk River for the purpose of getting in rear of and attacking the party of hostiles under Sitting Bull, supposed to embrace about one hundred forty (140) warriors, now believed to be at or near the mouth of Milk River." - Jan. 22, 1881
"Major Ilges ... has captured, by a sudden and skilful movement, the hostile Sioux who had gathered about the Agency and has sent his prisoners, three hundred (300) in number to Fort Buford. Sitting Bull with the remnant of his people, including about one hundred forty (140) warriors, is encamped at the mouth of Milk River. ... Should these negotiations fail, Ilges will start with all speed for and will attack the Indian camp. Ilges suggests if a suitable force should move down the Milk River from Fort Assinniboine so as to get into Sitting Bull's rear, his capture will be rendered certain. Acting Assistant Adjunct General" - Jan. 15, 1881.
"As it appears from the dispatch from the Department Commander just sent you, that Sitting Bull's people are probably scattered about hunting, it will be necessary for Captain Morris to have an eye to his ox train as he gets down the Milk River." - Jan. 18, 1881.
"As Morris proceeds down Milk River he should take every precaution to prevent news of his movements being carried to Sitting Bull ... he will, if practicable, first put his troops in position, and then demand a surrender; of course, the last degree of force must be used if it becomes necessary. ... The terms upon which Captain Morris will receive surrender of the Indians, are the same as heretofore announced to them, namely; to give up their arms and ponies, and to go themselves to Fort Buford, where they will be rationed and taken care of and ultimately go to an agency; the ponies surrendered to be sold, and proceeds invested in cattle, which will be given to the Indians. By Command of Gen'l Terry"
- Jan. 18, 1881