On August 13, 2017 the Sun River Valley Historical Society will host a celebration in honor of Fort Shaw’s lasting historical importance to the region. The day will kick off with a flag raising ceremony and short seminar, followed by a day of exploration. Guests will be able to tour the 150-year-old fort with guidance from interpreters. Reenactors will also be present to give visitors a sense of what the fort would have been like in its early days.
Built in 1867 to protect the newly constructed Mullan Road between Fort Benton and Helena, Fort Shaw served as the regional headquarters for the entire Montana Territory. It was highly active during the Indian Wars from 1867 to 1891, participating in three major frontier campaigns. In fact, Colonel Gibson led troops from Fort Shaw to the Battle of the Bighorn. They arrived four days before the battle to plan the attack but Custer attacked a day early (and it didn’t end well).
Fort Shaw served as a fort for 24 years before it was repurposed as an Indian industrial school. The school only lasted until 1910, but became famous when its girls basketball team won the World Basketball Championship at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904.
After the school was shut down, the Bureau of Reclamation took over the fort while getting an irrigation project established in the Sun River Valley.
During World War II, the fort became a POW camp. German prisoners were captured during a battle in Africa and delivered to Fort Shaw to work the beet fields.
Meanwhile, one of the fort’s buildings was being used as a high school. The school remained here from 1920 until 1943, when it was closed and high schoolers were transferred to Simms.
As time waned on, Fort Shaw began to fall into disrepair. The Sun River Valley Historical Society was formed in 1977 to prevent the loss of this historical treasure.
“We’re saving what we can,” says Burnette Batista, President of the Sun River Valley Historical Society.
For many decades the group has gathered donations and acquired grants to restore as much of Fort Shaw as possible. At one time, there were nearly 64 buildings. Today, there are only six that visitors can enter; however, progress is being made to rebuild the ruins (as historically accurate as possible).
“We can only do as much as money allows,” says Batista, which is why Fort Shaw’s 150th Anniversary isn’t just a celebration; it’s a fundraiser as well.
Along with the historical attractions that will be at Fort Shaw on August 13, the two books which the historical society has published about the fort will be available to purchase. Other souvenirs include t-shirts and commemorative coins, and vendors will be on site.
Visitors can also help rebuild a piece of the fort by purchasing a memory brick. These bricks are being used to restore a tower that has fallen apart. Saving this tower is a simple way to help preserve Fort Shaw’s history.
Fort Shaw is located half a mile northwest of Montana Highway 200 on Old Fort Shaw Road. For more information, call (406) 965-3025 or (406) 465-5961.