By Gary A. Wilson
While sufficient information exists on the battles of Black Butte and Milk River, little exists on the battles of Square Butte (Box Elder) or Centennial Mountain.
The only local information on the Square Butte battle between the Piegans of the Blackfoot nation, and "local" Plains Crees (and possibly Chippewas) comes from David Cowan, a then Box Elder merchant.
Cowan first established a general store at the "town" of Cypress, located on the trail north into the Cypress Hills, crossing both Big Sandy Creek and the Milk River. It had earlier been the site of a Powers' fur trading post from Fort Benton. Besides Cowan's store, there were 32 saloons, two houses of prostitution and a Chinese restaurant.
With the coming of the "Manitoba Road" railroad, Cowan moved his store to the new settlement of Box Elder, located on the wagon-stagecoach trail from Fort Benton, to Fort Assinniboine to the original Fort Belknap. Cowan developed a lucrative business in trading goods with the area Indian peoples. The buffalo had disappeared, but their bones remained, and Cowan traded goods for the bones, shipping them back East to utilize in the making of sugar, fertilizer, etc.
The battle the townspeople waited out was unusual because the Indian wars had largely ended by this time. However, the Piegan people from the Badger Creek agency were desperate for meat and riding horses, and considered their former lands still the best hunting and stealing grounds.
The Indian people who opposed their invasion were refugee Plains Crees, under Little Bear, who had escaped after the failure of the Metis-Indian North-West Rebellion against the Canadian government in 1885. They earned a living by cutting wood and hay for the military contractors of Fort Assinniboine, and gathering buffalo bones to trade at Cowan & Son's store. Their women did laundry and other services with the soldiers for money.
There was also abundant game to be had, and fur-bearing animal pelts to trade at the Cowan or Broadwater-McCulloh stores.
But all this temporary utopia was threatened by a Piegan force. The battle centered around MT Centennial, raging for several days. While no numbers are recorded, it was serious enough for the people of Box Elder to arm themselves, and prepare to come to assist the Crees if needed. This wasn't necessary though, and the Blackfoot-Piegans were repelled with only light casualties.
Now all the citizens had to worry about were the surrounding prairie grass fires the Indians set to find the buffalo bones.
Soon these ways of earning an income came to an end because of a large influx of white settlers, stricter timber-cutting laws, etc. The Indian people moved elsewhere to live in abject poverty until the Rocky Boy's Reservation became a reality in 1916.
The battle, or more correctly, the ambush at Box Elder Butte, has even sketchier details.
When the site for a new military fort was selected on Beaver Creek, south of the Milk River and east of Big Sandy Creek, the word spread rapidly throughout the Indian tribes - even to Sitting Bull and the Sioux (Teton-Lakota) in Canada. In fact, the Sioux leader issued a warning that he would destroy any such post built.
The 18th infantry left Atlanta, Georgia in railroad cars, switching to large steamboats at Bismark, Dakota Territory, and smaller ones at Fort Buford. They disembarked at Coal Banks Landing 31 days later without having shaved or bathed. There they were met by veteran units of the 2nd Cavalry from Fort Custer.
The trip north was uneventful until they broke camp under the Butte. Just as they started north, they were fired upon from above by a large party of "Crows." The soldiers returned the fire with their devastating 45-70 Springfield rifles, driving them off. They immediately headed for the Fort construction side.
There may also have been a brief skirmish with some Plains Crees on the future site before tents could be set up at the campsite on Beaver Creek. Later it was learned the "Crows" were also Cree.
The Bismark Tribune reported the battle in a September 1880 edition detailing a battle on the trail from Coal Banks landing to the post at the base of Square Butte in which several Indians were killed.
This ended any major Cree resistance to the troops arrival, and the Western Sioux took over as adversaries.