The Warrior Trail of U.S. Highway 212

IMG_5457U.S. Highway 212, as it heads west out of the high prairies of southeast Montana, becomes known as the Warriors Trail, an appropriate description because the road provides various access points to some of the most important battlefields associated with the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877.  At Busby, immediately south of the highway, stands a monument and grave of one of the most prominent Northern Cheyenne warriors, Two Moons (1847-1917),

IMG_5472who fought in all three major battles (Rosebud, Little Big Horn, and Wolf Mountains) of the campaign in southeast Montana .  After surrendering at Fort Keogh in Miles City in April 1877, Two Moons joined the U.S. Army as a scout.  He later became a recognized reservation leader and made Busby his home; his monument along the highway became a landmark.  Since my last visit to the grave, a new security fence had been installed around the monument and nearby too were numerous other Cheyenne warriors, followers of Dull

Rosebud Co Busby Too Moons Grave 1 - Version 3Knife, who died in 1879 trying to escape confinement at Fort Robinson, Nebraska.  Their remains were kept in a museum until they were interred here in 1993, a result of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

Rosebud Battlefield 015South of Busby is the Rosebud Battlefield State Park, a place barely on anyone’s radar (except for the Northern Cheyenne) when I carried out the 1984 fieldwork.  A local rancher had preserved the battlefield and donated some of its land to the state, and a basic park,

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Interpretive markers in 2007 at Rosebud Battlefield.

with basic public interpretation, had been installed.  In the last ten years, however, due to threats from energy development in the area and the leadership of local ranchers, concerned Native Americans, tribal preservation officers, non-profit groups such as the Montana Preservation Alliance, land conservation groups, and the American Battlefield

Rosebud Battlefield 028Protection Program, and state parks, this important battlefield has been enhanced with new interpretation and a new commitment to protect the battlefield’s view sheds.  The battlefield commemorates the June 17, 1876 fight between U.S. Gen. George Crook and his Crow and Shoshoni Indian allies who were advancing up Rosebud Creek as part of a

Rosebud Battlefield 026pincher movement to find and defeat a combined Lakota-Cheyenne force led by Crazy Horse.  The Lakota and Cheyenne carried the day and would have surprised Crook’s troops if not for their Native American allies.  Crook claimed victory but returned to his base near Sheridan, Wyoming Territory, for weeks.  He was nowhere near when the Lakota and Cheyenne crushed the 7th cavalry of George A. Custer just days later.  The Battle of Rosebud Creek is the army’s name for the fight; the Cheyenne call it the Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.  The last battle of the Great Sioux War in Montana took place in early 1877 at Wolf Mountains, in the Tongue River Valley, south of the village of Birney.  Like Rosebud, the battlefield is designated a National Historic Landmark but is largely on a private ranch.

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The Tongue River near Ashland, Montana.

Shifting Meanings in the Big Horn Landscape

IMG_5494When I first arrived in Montana in 1981 the first place that I stopped at was Little Bighorn Battlefield, then known as Custer Battlefield National Monument.  As a southerner new to the west, here was a place that “everyone” knew about, an iconic western battlefield where Gen. George A. Custer and the 7th Calvary suffered a devastating defeat from a combined Sioux-Cheyenne force.  Everything then was focused on “Last Stand Hill” where

Custer Battlefield, Crow Agency (43-30)

Little Big Horn Battlefield, 1984

Custer and his troops had stood for almost 100 years.  As a veteran visitor to southern Civil War battlefields, it struck me how what you saw and experienced was all about the federal side–similar to what you found back then at southern Civil War memorial parks, where valiant Confederates fought what seemed to be a foe with no name outside of enemy.

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This quotation from Theodore O’Hara’s “Bivouac of the Dead” is found in many Civil War era national cemeteries.

IMG_1364Over the decades I have returned to the battlefield numerous times, even once (by accident I hadn’t even thought that the day would be an anniversary) when re-enactors posed by the famous obelisk monument, creating a very odd juxtaposition between past and present. (I don’t think Custer and his men were smiling on that hill in 1876).

IMG_1383By this time, meaning at the battlefield had shifted to a larger, more inclusive narrative, beginning with the actual name of the park, now Little Bighorn Battlefield.  Public interpretation, fueled not only by the changing times but an intensive archaeological investigation of the park in the late 1980s, suddenly located Native Americans within the battle landscape.  There was a growing feeling that yes this was a battle between enemies, but enemies with names, motivations, and their own sense of what it all meant.

IMG_1377Last Chance Hill was still a focal point in 2015 but now its narrative of unity and sacrifice was countered by a new monument, built to consider the story of Little Bighorn from the perspective of the Native American warriors who fought here.

IMG_5520The monument compels reflection—the metal profiles of Native American warriors blend into the actual battlefield landscape as if ghosts of warriors past were again upon the field.  Text and images add additional layers of interpretation and meaning to the battlefield, from a decided Native American perspective.

IMG_5514Then new tombstones, in a brownish stone, distinguished fallen Cheyenne warriors from the marble tombstones for soldiers from the 7th Calvary.  The place has been ennobled, transformed as a both a park and a place of reflection on what the Indian Wars of the 1870s have meant to the nation and to the peoples who fought in them.

IMG_5504Nearby within Crow Agency is a further addition to the public interpretation of the region’s military history: the exemplary Apsaalooke Veterans Park, an installation that celebrates veterans past and present.  IMG_5530At the I-90 exit for U.S. 212 at Crow Agency, a new landscape has emerged through spaces such as the park, the new Apsaalooke casino, and especially the modernist styled medical center, located near the fairgrounds for the annual Crow fair.

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The sparking bright lights of casino sign stand in stark contrast to the old mission church, now The Father’s House place of worship.

IMG_5524In the middle of the Crow Indian Reservation is another landscape of change, one not so visited by tourists.  St. Xavier was an important Catholic mission among the Crow Indians, established along the Big Horn River in 1887-1888 by Father Peter Prando.  The understated Gothic-styled church was a building documented in my A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History book in 1986 and the survey included both the church and small gable-front residence built for the priests.

St. Xavier Mission Chapel, Crow Reservation (45-2)    

Those same buildings remain today, as does the nearby Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy, representing community continuity and the Catholic commitment to the reservation.  But

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IMG_5961the mid-20th century St. Xavier town site has not weathered the decades so well.  Businesses have largely disappeared and the Art Deco-styled St. Xavier public school, a Public Works Administration project from the New Deal designed by Billings architect J.G. Link in 1938 is now abandoned and decaying.

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IMG_5953Across the road from the school is St. John’s Lutheran Church, a weather- and time-worn, a 20th century log building speaking more to the past than the present. And running

IMG_5958nearby is one of many irrigation ditches that promised the transformation of the Big Horn Valley for 20th century homesteaders but as the forgotten ranches surrounding St. Xavier remind us, the irrigated empire of eastern Montana did not bring riches to everyone.

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IMG_6003Transformations and shifting meanings of the past from the perspective of the present make the Big Horn a fascinating place to explore.

Two Forts on the Bighorn

IMG_6010The Big Horn River is among Montana’s most famous as it winds its way out of the high mountains and empties into the Yellowstone River near the village of Custer.  In the southern end of Big Horn County are two forts, one barely noticeable today while the other speaks to the radically different history of the Big Horn over the last 50-plus years.

Fort smith mapThe oldest is Fort C. F. Smith, established by the U.S. Army in 1866-1868 as part of its system of defensive installations to protect travelers along the Bozeman Trail.  Named for Civil War general Charles Ferguson Smith, the post stood near the trail, as seen above, and also near a major Big Horn ferry, a location deemed almost 100 years later as perfect for a major federal dam and reservoir project.  A peace treaty between the federal government and Sioux and Cheyenne Indians who had opposed the trail and the forts led to the abode constructed fort’s abandonment in 1868.  Today, the site is marked–the Big Horn County chapter of the Federation of Montana Woman’s Clubs did so in 1933–but on private property.    It has become a forgotten place within the state’s historic landscape.

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Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service and its website on the Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area.

The second Fort Smith is the name given to the government-planned town developed by the Bureau of Reclamation as part of its Yellowtail Dam project of the early 1960s.  The project was part of the massive federal reordering of the plains landscape through the Pick-Sloan Missouri River Basin Program, an attempt to coordinate efforts between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers.  The Yellowtail Dam project received Congressional funding in 1961.  The contractors included Morrison-Knudsen Company from Boise; Kaiser Company from Oakland, CA; Perini Corporation from Massachusetts, the Walsh Construction Company of Iowa, and the S Contracting Company from Butte.  The contractors received almost $40 million for the project.

IMG_5985Built from 1961 to 1966, Yellowtail Dam, named for Crow Indian Robert Yellowtail and standing at 525 feet in height, instantly dominated the surrounding landscape and turned the Big Horn Canyon into a huge lake some 72 miles along, that is managed as the Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area.

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Access to the dam and its power plant was significantly curtailed after 9/11/2001.

The dam was part of an entirely new engineered landscape that defined this part of Big Horn Canyon and the Crow Indian reservation, with new ditches, the spillway, and a planned town for government employees.

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IMG_5997The town of Fort Smith was an obvious nod to the earlier army installation.  But this was not a rectangle of adobe quarters; it was a typical 1960s suburban development dropped into the middle of the Crow Reservation.  The streets are wide and circular, a concession to suburban models of planning but also taking advantage of the surrounding landscape.IMG_5980

In keeping with other suburbs of the early 1960s, the houses mixed “contemporary” styles such as split-levels and the long, horizontal Ranch house.  There were set-aside open

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spaces for recreation and parks as well as a separate commercial area.

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At the heart of the community was not a agency headquarters but a modernist styled public school–recognizing that children and their needs would help to define community among the different federal officials.

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The second Fort Smith is a fascinating landscape documenting the federal impact on the Big Horn River in the middle decades of the 20th century–a basic reordering of nature that created new impetus for recreation in the county and impacted the county seat of Hardin with its own new wave of modernist styling.  A suburb in the middle of nowhere–Fort Smith is among the state’s most distinctive places.