By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Fort Assinniboine, a vital component in the history of north-central Montana, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.
The first soldiers arrived at the location, which now houses the Northern Agricultural Research Center, on May 9, 1879.
Gary Wilson, president of the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association, said the construction of the fort that would shape the future of north-central Montana can really be credited to one man - Chief Sitting Bull of the Sioux.
The fort was built at the tail end of the Indian Wars. Congress initially appropriated $100,000 for its construction in 1878, one year after the defeat of the Nez Perce at the Battle of the Bear Paws, and two years after the defeat of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The fort was built to establish a military presence to protect the region, including the perceived threat of Sioux warriors in Canada conducting raids across the border.
"Suddenly, out in the middle of nowhere, there was one of the largest forts built in the United States," Wilson said.
Wilson and the preservation association are working to increase the fort's impact on modern times, making it a tourism destination. They offer tours of the fort, and work to preserve the historic buildings, some of which house the research center.
Wilson said increasing tourism is difficult because experiment station activities make tours during work hours impractical, and because funds to promote tourism at the fort are limited. Tours are offered by appointment only on weeknights and weekends.
He hopes to eventually have a full-time visitors center open at the fort.
Forts Walsh and Battleford in Saskatchewan, which, like Assinniboine, are on the Old Forts Trail, are thriving tourist attractions. Both are national landmarks administered by Parks Canada.
Fort Walsh historic presentation specialist Royce Pettijohn said that fort has between 16,000 and 21,000 visitors a year, and provides four full-time jobs and up to 15 seasonal jobs.
"It helps position the region as a tourism destination," he said.
Fort Battleford site manager Glenn Ebert said that fort generally has about 10,000 visitors a year, but he hopes to see that jump to 12,000 or 13,000 next year, which is the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of Battleford and of the creation of the province of Saskatchewan.
The fort operation employs 20 people, he said, in addition to bringing tourist dollars to the region.
Fort Assinniboine and the Canadian forts were a part of the transition of the plains from the home of Indian tribes that followed the bison to provide their food to the time of homesteading, ranching, railroads and towns.
Wilson said the U.S. Army wanted to build a series of forts on both coasts of the United States and on its north and south borders. After the defeat of Custer, followed by the flight of the Nez Perce, the Army was able to justify building Fort Assinniboine to Congress.
The fort was built to be an offensive site. Eventually, the U.S. government spent more than $1 million constructing the fort, which had more than 100 buildings and a military reservation of almost 220,000 acres. It housed on average 600 officers, soldiers and civilians.
The fort operated for 32 years until it was abandoned in 1911.
The site of the fort, about 6 miles south of present-day Havre, was chosen for its strategic location, south of the Canadian border and north of the trading site at Fort Benton in a region where many traditional Native American trails crossed. It was primarily built to keep the peace on the trading trail from Fort Benton to the Canadian installations, Fort Walsh south of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, in the Cypress Hills, and Fort Battleford, northwest of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Pettijohn said the forts played a crucial part in the development of Montana and Saskatchewan.
"The history that's represented by Fort Assinniboine is very important history, not only important to the United States but also to Canada," he said.
Ebert said the forts also added to the economic development of the region. Aside from guarding trade routes from the United States into Canada, the forts themselves offered stores, jobs, and people who needed to buy things. Many of the stores in early Battleford had their origin at the fort, which housed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
"Businesses that existed in the late 1800s and into the '20s and '30s were operated by people who were police or ex-police, or they got their claim to fame supplying the police," he said.
Wilson said the same thing happened at Fort Assinniboine, with some people who later became familiar names in early Havre involved in the construction and early operation of the fort.
Charles Broadwater of Helena owned several businesses at the fort, including a trading post, hotel and restaurant.
"He had what I call the first mall in northern Montana," Wilson said.
Arthur Broadwater and his brother, Edward Broadwater, who were cousins of Charles, both worked at the Broadwater businesses at the fort, which Lawrence Devlin and Simon Pepin supplied beef to.
The Broadwaters and Devlin and Pepin later opened some of the first businesses in Havre, including a pharmacy, the Pioneer Meat Market, the Broadwater mercantile and a thriving hardware and furniture store.
One of the reasons the Army wanted to build forts in north-central Montana was to aid the building of transcontinental railroads, Wilson said.
When James J. Hill built the Great Northern Railway across northern Montana in 1887, businessmen who had operated at the fort had already set up operations at the location where Havre would grow. When Hill put his rail stop at the site, the confluence of Bullhook and the Milk River, the Broadwaters, Pepin, Devlin and others took advantage to start prosperous businesses.
The operations of the fort continued, including work to protect the settlers and towns in the area. The soldiers of Fort Assinniboine left no record of major battles during the fort's 32-year history, but they did fight many skirmishes. The troops also were kept busy with duties like preventing illegal liquor trade, escorting tribes coming into the United States from Canada and performing other escort duties, as well as preventing fighting between Indian tribes.
Some famous soldiers and companies were stationed at the fort. In 1892, two companies of the African American 10th Cavalry, the so-called Buffalo Soldiers who would later rise to fame in the Spanish-American war in 1898, were stationed at Fort Assinniboine.
A company commander of the 10th Cavalry who was stationed at the fort later rose to even greater fame.
John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing was stationed at the fort as a lieutenant. He rose to prominence during the Spanish-American War as a commander of the 10th Cavalry, and was rapidly promoted to general and was appointed the head of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. He was later appointed Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, and retired with a lifetime promotion to General of the Army. Pershing Hall on the Montana State University-Northern campus was named for the general.
By 1911, following the coming of the railroad, the region had settled considerably, with homesteaders and communities dotting the countryside. The fort - after its water tank burned to the ground for the third time - was abandoned.
Several ideas were raised for the use of the fort after the federal government abandoned it, including making it into an insane asylum and making it into a vocational school for American Indians.
The state of Montana purchased the fort, intending to make it into a college and an agricultural experiment station. The Northern Agricultural Research Center, which still operates at the site of the fort, was established in 1915.
The college idea went by the wayside, but the authorization for the institution was used to create Northern Montana College, now Montana State University-Northern, in Havre instead, 50 years after construction on the fort began in 1879.
The military reservation of the fort was also turned to new uses, including the creation of Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and Beaver Creek County Park.