By Gen Geda
The summer of 1879 proved to be sweltering, made hotter for those working by brick kilns, constantly firing the seemingly endless supply of brick spat from nearby molds. Soldiers, government laborers, and civilians in the tent city toiled against, not only scorching elements of the plains, but a maddening mosquito infestation, which would draw sympathy from the most hardened of Eastern Montanans to build a fortress, a home.
Construction of Fort Assinniboine began for various reasons spanning from assigning an “offensive fortress” for the protection of civilians and “landless” peoples caught between warring nations and economic growth primarily through trade routes on the Missouri River, to defending the border against the return of Native peoples that fled to Canada following the Custer battle.
In its completion Fort Assinniboine consisted of 104 buildings and rested a mere six miles southwest of the developing city of Havre (then Bullhook). Many notable Havre residents at the time, in fact, helped to develop and serve Fort Assiniboine as a mostly self-contained community; some of the men were L.K. Devlin, Simon Pepin, and Louie Shambo. In addition to the local population, the Fort housed military officers and their families, civilians, and volunteers of the area (including Native Americans), and cavalry and infantry soldiers, creating a melting-pot in the middle of nowhere. By the fall of 1879 officers’ quarters, as well as other housing units were complete and unbelievably modern for the time.
In Adventure Tales of Montana’s Last Frontier by Gary Wilson, a summary of diary compilations from a chaplains’ wife details the everyday life of what women may have experienced in the years following the erection of Fort Assinniboine, and it may be different than what one might think. As the Fort consisted of modernized structures, many homes, like Eliza’s, had bathrooms, running water, radiator heaters, and other amenities that any “modern woman” may need in her personal bailiwick. Accounts of day-to-day operations spanned from Bible studies and household chores to community efforts amongst the women, which helped in creating friendships in what was an area for many “a long way from home and civilization.” One can speculate that the parties and celebrations held at any possible turn were also a way for the military families of the Fort to alleviate home sickness and the feeling of isolation on the Montana flats, as well as a way to commemorate those who had gone before them, either from rotation of military assignments or untimely deaths (most of which were caused by disease, lack of prenatal care, and surgical complications).
Though the Fort was active for many years, it eventually was abandoned in 1911, due primarily to the reassignment and shortage of soldiers during the war against Spain. In years following its desertion, multiple proposals were made to set aside portions of acreage of Fort Assinniboine for the allotment of Native American use, which was finally granted in 1915 after bands of the Chippewa and Cree resided on the military reservation for more than a year, coming to approximately 55,000 acres. This area is now known as Rocky Boy Reservation. The Department of Agriculture commanded use of the Fort in 1913, currently known as the Fort Assinniboine Experiment Station, or the Northern Agricultural Research Center through the Montana State University system. Though several of the buildings on the Fort were torn down, some are still in use by the agricultural station, which utilizes almost 7,000 acres on the main Fort facility to grazing land in the Bear Paw Mountains which allows for grazing, and crop and livestock research.
The Northern Agricultural Research Center is located at 3710 Assinniboine Road in Havre. For more information, visit agresearch.montana.edu/narc/FortAssinniboine/index.html or call (406) 265-4383.