On a bright May morning in 1863 Bill Fairweather and his party found gold near Virginia City, Montana. They must have interpreted the find as a just reward after being spared by a group of Crow Indians a few days prior. The Crows let them go in order to keep other white folks out of their treaty-defined and legally-protected territory.
The release of the Fairweather party would prove prophetic for the Crows. With the gold strike came settlers, miners, and eventually John Bozeman, whose trail would become the catalyst for a series of events that would formulate national Indian policy and create the first Crow agency: Fort Parker.
John Bozeman began guiding folks along an old Indian passage which bypassed the Oregon Trail in Northern Wyoming and led to the Montana gold fields: The Bozeman Trail. White men traveling the trail lit the flame of Lakota ire. The Lakota Sioux were displaced from their hunting grounds in the Dakota Territory and to the west around the Powder River.
In an 1851 treaty signed at Fort Laramie, the Lakota were given the eastern side of the Powder River and the Crow were given the western side. The region was associated with the Crow Indians and known as Apsaàlooke, which was also the name the Crow called themselves.
The Crow Indians wanted the Powder River Territory back and the U.S. Government representatives who came to negotiate with the Crow made many promises along that line.The Lakota threat stopped traffic along the Bozeman Trail. Three forts were built to secure the road: Fort C. F. Smith, Fort Phil Kearney and Fort Reno. The forts created even more anger and animosity. The Lakota tried to recruit the Crows into their ranks against non-Indian encroachment but the Crows played it neutral while they determined which side would best serve their interest.
After many promises offering a return of the Powder River, many Crows decided to support the U. S. Government against their old rivals and enemies, the Lakota.Back in Washington, the Indian Bureau could no longer tolerate the violence in the west which culminated in 1867 with the murder of John Bozeman.
Bozeman was killed in a skirmish near the eventual Fort Parker site at present-day Mission Creek along his famous trail. Whether or not the skirmish was with Indians or his white traveling companion is still a mystery.The Indian Bureau formed the Peace Commission in order to placate the Indians who offered the greatest threat. Their mission was peace at almost any cost.
After a failed initial attempt at treaty-making with both the Lakota and the Crows in the fall of 1867, the Crows were brought to the table again in the spring of 1868. For an undetermined reason, the Crows arrived late to find that the Lakota had been given the Powder River with the Government promise to abandon the Bozeman Trail. The peaceful Crows, who had allied themselves with the U. S. Government, lost 70 million acres of their territory including the Powder River in a treaty in which they had little say.
In exchange, the Crow received from the Federal government an annual receipt of goods and an agency staffed to facilitate the Crow’s assimilation to a farming and harvesting rather than hunter and gathering civilization.The agency would be located 11 miles east of present-day Livingston along Mission Creek and the Yellowstone River, and come to be named Fort Parker after Eli S. Parker, the first Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Newly-elected President Ulysses S. Grant took office in 1869, the same year Fort Parker was built. As the atrocities of the west were becoming known in the east through pamphlets like the “Report of the Condition of the Indian Tribes” and Lydia Maria Child’s pamphlet “An Appeal for the Indians” which detailed the greed of Indian agents and the horrors of the Sand Creek Massacre, among others, Grant’s eastern constituents were demanding change in Indian policy. Grant reluctantly agreed and looked to religious organizations to deal with the Indian issue. The resulting “Peace Policy” evolved and played itself out at Fort Parker during the years 1869 through 1875.
Fort Parker was constructed under the authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the hand of Leander M. Black, a Bozeman businessman who gained the contract for construction. In May of 1869, Capt. E. M. Camp was assigned as Indian Agent for the Crows and in June left Washington D. C. to collect supplies on his way to the new Fort Parker. His journey was lengthened due to low water on the Missouri which caused his steamboat, the Fanny Baker, to lay aground for two weeks.
In September, Alfred Sully, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Montana Territory, chose the site for the agency with a group of Crow Indians who had remained behind for the fall buffalo hunt. The treaty located the agency near Otter Creek, but Sully felt the ever-attacking Lakota were too close to this location and the Crow were not happy with the area. Ultimately a site was chosen about 40 miles from the military base at Fort Ellis putting it near enough to be under its protection. The location along Rock Creek would come to be known as Mission Creek and the agency would come to be known to the Crows as “The Mission.”
By November the fort was under construction and a ferry was established by William “Billy” Lee to bring provisions across the Yellowstone River. The ferry crossed about seven miles from the fort on a creek that would come to be known as Ferry Creek.
The first crops at the fort were planted in the spring of 1870. Seven acres were plowed and planted with cereal, grains and vegetables. Reports from around the region tell of the scarcity of buffalo and the starvation of tribes. As treaties were trading goods for land, the Indians became dependent on the government goods for survival. In August, Camp wrote his first report noting: “The wheat, barley, and oats turned out moderately well. Late frosts in the spring and a heavy frost the beginning of this month killed the corn and such vegetables as beans, tomatoes, melons, and squashes, all of which were thriving well until the extraordinary visit of a frost in early August killed them.”
He also recounted several violent encounters with the Lakota: “While the Sioux Indians act beyond the control of the Government, and make raids with impunity on Indians...peaceably disposed toward the whites, and are permitted to invade their reservation in such numbers as threaten to drive the Crows out of it, I think it but proper in this case that the Crow Indians should be armed to defend their own homes, not for the purpose of fostering war between the Sioux and the Crows, but for a reason of policy.”
Finally, he offered a clear description of Fort Parker: “This agency consists of the following buildings, all in good order and repair, viz: Warehouse, agency building, houses for physician, engineer, blacksmith, carpenter, farmer, and miller, and a building to be used as a school-room. The agency building or ‘mission-house’ is at present used as quarters for a sergeant and twelve men of Company A, Seventh United States Infantry, detailed as guard for protection of this post. There are two bastions on diagonal corners, in each of which is mounted a 12 pound howitzer.”
Camp’s first year as agent found a crop failure and continued Lakota violence. Both events continued to plague Fort Parker throughout its existence. Due to a change in Indian policy which disallowed military employees to be Indian agents, Camp was replaced by Fellowes D. Pease, former trader with the Crows at Fort Union. Pease arrived at Fort Parker in January of 1870, a year that would see Grant’s Indian policy end treaty-making with Indians. The beginning of this year also saw the death of Isaac Newton Parker, brother of Indian Commissioner Eli S. Parker, who had been appointed as the first teacher at Fort Parker. In the spring Pease contracted with Bozeman business man, Charles Hoffman, an old friend from his Fort Union trading days, to build 20 adobe houses for the Crow Indians who indicated a desire to farm.
Construction and inspection of the houses was concluded at the end of February. In August of 1870, Pease offered his first report. He detailed concerns about the annuity goods, requesting more blankets and less flannel and extended the Crow’s concerns for the lack of treaty-promised cows and oxen. He also expressed great concern over the amount of white miners coming into Crow territory, which was expressly forbidden in the treaty. Because of this, he requested a survey of the territory to establish clear boundaries.
Pease reported continued hostilities by the Lakota and complained of the poor state of the agency buildings: “None of these buildings are properly suited for the purposes for which they are used; all need repairing, all of them should be raised, and have a pine roof and pine shingles.”The new teacher, J. H. Aylesworth offered information concerning the school in his letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in August of 1871. He noted attendance grew to 34 students, though their seasonal lifestyle interfered greatly with the children’s education. He suggested boarding the children away from their parents under the care of a school mistress would render better results. He also requested an interpreter for the lessons.
The 1872 annuity distribution for the Crows took place in March. A fellow named “Slim Jim” gave a thorough description to the Bozeman Avant-Courier. He noted that Iron Bull, wearing a military uniform with epaulets, gave the opening oratory in Crow expounding the Indians to think of things spiritual and not temporal.
When the warehouse doors swung open, the writer described the large amount of goods offered to the Crows: “Bolts of calico, sheeting and ticking, piles of tobacco, sacks of sugar, coffee and four kegs of powder, and other things.” The Indians presented Major Bowen, who was acting agent while Pease was away, Charlie Hoffman (Sutler) and a Mr. Ferris with a “shower” of robes, followed by music and dancing by the Indians. A group of Crow warriors on stolen Sioux horses rode in a circle singing of their exploits among the Lakota. At the close of this event, the crowd piled out of the Fort for an Indian horse race. “Slim Jim’s” description of the distribution indicates a great appreciation of the Crow goods.
Thomas Laforge, a white Fort Parker employee adopted by the tribe, offered a different view. Laforge noted, “The ‘annuity’ clothing which a benevolent Indian bureau at Washington sent out to the supposed naked and freezing savages on the Yellowstone was equivalent to seed sown upon bare ground.
“During the summer seasons, neither the Indian men nor their white-men companions in the hunting camps wore any clothing but the ever-present breech-cloth. When winter came they preferred the skin clothing, or merely wrapped themselves in buffalo-robes or blankets. As the wild animals began distinctly to decrease in numbers, the government apparel came gradually into use, with its ludicrous misfits. But in the earlier days, when Nature was bountiful, a pair of trousers or a pair of shoes could be bought from an Indian for twenty-five cents.”
In June 1872, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Montana Territory Viall requests Pease talked with the Crows about moving the agency to a better location. Indications had been that the poor farming and high winds at Fort Parker made it difficult for the Crows to farm. With another year’s crops destroyed by flooding and grasshoppers, clearly the site at Mission Creek was not going to obtain the intended results. In August, a Northern Pacific Railroad survey team with 400 troops from Fort Ellis was attacked on the Yellowstone River by a group of 400 to 500 Indians.
The survey party retreated to Fort Parker to regroup. There they met another military escort from Fort Ellis which enabled them to continue their work surveying a route for the coming Northern Pacific Railroad. The planned route would take the railroad directly through Fort Parker and the Crow Reservation and was another motivation to move the agency. In his second report in September of 1872, Pease noted that the coming railroad and the continued encroachment by whites on their reservation had unsettled the Indians. Furthermore, he found that several key requisites of the treaty had yet to be fulfilled including the promised oxen and cattle as well as farming supplies and equipment. He indicated that the Head Men of the Crows were willing and anxious to relocate the agency and wished to meet the President in Washington, D. C., a trip which had been frequently promised in the past but had failed to materialize.
Pease also indicated though the annuity distribution took place in February, the tobacco didn’t arrive until June and as the annuities were to be distributed in September, these goods were considerably late. With requests for needed supplies ignored as well as escalating threats by the Lakota, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne, Pease revealed his frustrations in the final statement of his report: “I have abstained from making many suggestions in regard to changes or future operations at this place, for the reason that my suggestions in last year’s report have received little or no attention.”
Federal Indian Policy
In Washington, President Grant’s new Indian policy evolved as he asked religious leaders to appoint a Board of Indian Commissioners whose uncompensated task would be to oversee the Indian agents and the distribution of annuities. Endorsed by Congress as part of the Indian Appropriation Act of 1870, the Board of Commissioners would hold authority over all expenditures for the Indians and advise and consult with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs as to all Indian-related concerns. The President of the Commission was Felix R. Brunot, a lay Episcopalian, whose perspective on Indian affairs appeared to be more of “civilization” than warfare.
Brunot made a trip to Fort Parker in July of 1872 to meet and talk with the Crows about moving the agency to a new location. However, the Crows were unable to return to the agency for the meeting with Brunot due to a skirmish with another group of Indians. Brunot would return a year later to negotiate the final details of the agency re-location.
Details of Brunot’s visit with the Crow and escalating Lakota hostilities resulting in the deaths of several Fort Parker employees will continue in the next installment of “The World of Fort Parker” to be published March 2012 in the Livingston Current.
For more information about Fort Parker and the Extreme History Project, visit extremehistory.wordpress.com or 222-2991.