Fort Ellis: A short chapter in Bozeman’s history

By BAY STEPHENS/Montana State News

Fort Ellis holds onto history by a brief existence, its birth brought about by the fear of native tribes. It’s demise came by the relegation of these tribes to reservations.

According to Rachel Phillips, research coordinator of the Gallatin History Museum, Fort Ellis’ story begins with a group of frontiersman whose names remain in the city of Bozeman: Daniel Rouse, William Beall and of course, John Bozeman.

In the 1850s, Beall and Rouse busied themselves with building log cabins for the wagon caravan of settlers that Bozeman was bringing west to start a Montana settlement.

He guided them along what would later become the Bozeman Trail. At the time, it was an illegal route that passed through lands held through treaty by Native American tribes, Phillips said.

In 1867, accompanied by a man named Tom Cover, Bozeman travelled along the Bozeman Trail trying to secure beef and flour contracts with Army posts along the way. However, only Cover returned to the young settlement.

The story goes that the two were camped along the Yellowstone River outside of Livingston when a small party of Blackfeet came through their camp and killed him.

“A lot of people are highly suspicious of that story,” Phillips said. “Most people think that Tom Cover killed John Bozeman.”

Either way, Bozeman’s death galvanized the settlers into petitioning the government for protection. The government responded in the same year, building a fort and naming it after Augustus Van Horne Ellis, a general killed at the battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

“[The fort] ended up being good thing economically for the town, of course, because there were a lot of farms and ranches in this valley and they got to supply their grain and beef … to the fort,” Phillips said.

Most of the fort’s working life, according to Thomas C. Rust in his book “Lost Fort Ellis,” consists of exaggerated and sensationalized reports of natives attacking settlers.

A conflict arose between the soldiers and settlers when the former came to town to drink and gamble.

The fort was shut down and its buildings sold to the highest bidder in 1886. By then, most tribes in Montana had been confined to reservations, no longer posing a threat to settlers. “So it only lasted about 20 years,” Phillips said, “there was no need to keep it around.”

The stripped remains of Fort Ellis came under Montana State University’s care when it was founded in 1893. Today, the university’s Agricultural Experiment Station shares the land.

Though it may appear there is not much left, the site has been excavated throughout the years by archeology and anthropology students from MSU.

In October, looters dug a 4-foot-deep hole in the middle of the site. According to Emily Schabacker of Montana State News, the illegal dig afforded students working with Dr. Jack Fisher, an MSU anthropology professor, the opportunity to work on the site, digging up artifacts of the past.

Though Fort Ellis’ story is a short one, it was enough to stamp history in its own little way.

– edited by Tim Stover

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