By Ron VandenBoom
A shared and common history prompted 17 employees of the Fort Walsh National Historic Site to visit Fort Assinniboine Wednesday to bone-up on the American/Canadian historic connection.
"In order for our staff to effectively communicate to the public the significance of Fort Walsh, they need to have an understanding of the historical significance of northern Montana and how their historical sites are related to ours," said Roice Pettyjohn, senior heritage communicator for Fort Walsh Historic Site.
Pettyjohn and David Rohatensky, site manager at Fort Walsh, brought the employees to Fort Assinniboine as part of a two day tour that also included stops in Fort Benton and the Bear's Paw Battlefield south of Chinook.
"So much of the history of Fort Benton north to Fort Walsh and along the Hi-Line is intertwined," Pettyjohn said.
The connection between the United States and Canada in the Montana, Saskatchewan, Alberta region began with the establishment of Fort Benton in 1846. Fort Benton would grow to become the economic and commercial hub in the northwestern United States and Canada.
This connection grew with the establishment of Fort Walsh in 1875 and the construction of Fort Assinniboine in 1879.
Pettyjohn said the significance of Fort Walsh and Fort Assinniboine grew even greater after the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 and the move into Canada of Sitting Bull an event known in Canada as "the Lakota Crisis."
This is the first visit to the American sites by Pettyjohn and Rohatensky.
"It's only in the last couple of years and it's through the Old Forts Trail that we really started recognizing the importance of the shared history and the importance of sharing the responsibility of communicating it," Pettyjohn said.
Gary Wilson, president of the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association conducted the tour of the fort also stressing the importance of the north/south connection.
"All supplies into Canada had to travel through Fort Benton and north into Canada," he said. "There was no such thing as east/west traffic in those days. Canadian forts like Fort Walsh, Fort Battleford, Fort McCloud had to receive supplies through Fort Benton."
Edmonton, Calgary, and leftbridge also have connections to Fort Benton and the I.G. Baker Company, Pettyjohn said.
Rohatensky noted that the Old Forts Trail has given the two countries a chance to develop a dimension of tourism they had lacked prior to establishing the Old Forts Trail.
"Tourism is a gradual process," Rohatensky said. "We're looking at building partnerships and demonstrating the benefit in being part of a heritage tourism group that promotes common themes."
Rohatensky acknowledges building increased tourism takes time, but he believes the two county's shared history and Wilson's tireless work to establish the Old Forts Trail have paved the way for future success.
"The trail is built on partnerships and active participation," he said, adding that he is very impressed with the way Montana's tourism districts have jumped on this trail and promoted it in their publications.
Work on preserving Fort Assinniboine and up-grading its facilities is continuing and Wilson expects the number of Canadian and American visitors eventually touring the fort to reach 25,000 a year.