Grass students tour sites of Fort C.F. Smith and Grapevine Creek
SMITH In a pasture past a white mobile home with three bent
satellite dishes drooping like faded gray sunflowers, a gravestone-sized
marker has been erected in the fenced-off field.
in 1933, the stone and metal marker denotes the middle of what was
once Fort C.F. Smith, an isolated outpost built by the U.S. Army
to protect travelers on the Bozeman Trail to the gold camps of Virginia
City. Now, only humps in the dandelion-spotted terrain mark the
outer walls of the post, built on a bluff overlooking the Bighorn
really interesting that anywhere else in America, this would be
a really big site," said Col. Berris Samples, leader of the Lodge
Grass Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, on Tuesday.
brought his Crow students to the site as part of a daylong trip
looking at two different historical sites Fort C.F. Smith
and the Grapevine Creek battle between Crow and Blackfeet Indians.
Both are on the Crow Reservation. Working in concert with the Junior
ROTC group, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area's staff
was able to access and interpret the sites for the students. Many
parts of the reservation are closed to nonmembers of the tribe.
is the first interpretive program ever given at the site of Fort
C.F. Smith," said Chris Wilkinson, chief of interpretation for the
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, a job he began just six
months ago. He is also the first person to hold the job at the recreation
area in at least 10 years.
of the recreation area's staff are hoping Tuesday's events are the
beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship between the tribe
and the National Park Service, although the details are still being
an opportunity for the Crow Tribe, if they want," Samples said.
talk to his young audience was short, covering the history of Fort
fort was established along the Bozeman Trail to protect wagon trains
as they moved to Virginia City. Before it was built in 1864, an
estimated 1,500 emigrants used the route. It was favored for making
the trip to the gold mining town 450 miles shorter. But the Sioux
saw the fort as an intrusion into their treasured hunting grounds.
By 1866, raids on emigrant wagon trains by the Sioux as well as
the Cheyenne had shut the trail down.
protect the emigrants, the U.S. Army decided to build forts along
the route. Wilkinson called Fort C.F. Smith "the most remote and
isolated of the three posts along the trail."
the structure was only manned from 1866 to 1868, during those two
years it was a flash point of conflict between the Sioux and the
Army. But it also marked one of the first cooperative efforts between
the Army and members of the Crow Tribe.
ancestors, the Crow Nation, were stuck in the middle of this," Wilkinson
told the JROTC students.
the help of Crow Indians acting as scouts, mail carriers and providing
food to starving soldiers in the winter of 1867, Fort C.F. Smith
might not have lasted two years.
do not believe there is any greater example of hospitality to the
U.S. Army," Wilkinson said.
do I tell you this today?" he asked rhetorically. "By celebrating
your legacy, you are following in your ancestors' footsteps and
extending hospitality. We thank you for allowing us to visit your
students then loaded onto their bus, went back to the Park Service's
contact station where they presented a diorama they had created
of the Grapevine Creek battle to recreation area Supervisor Jerry
Case. Then the entourage caravanned northwest into a remote field,
site of the battle.
Lee Stops, driving his red Dodge pickup pulling a faded green horse
trailer, led the way. With three horses inside, the trailer gouged
chunks of black dirt out of rises in the two-track road. Atop the
trailer, aged lodgepole pine trees rattled where they were tied
at the battle site, Ashton Old Elk, Dustin Kruger and Ferlin Blacksmith
put bridles on the horses, jumped on bareback and tore across the
wide pastures, working the horses into a lather.
a steady wind out of the north bowed the dry stalks of last year's
prairie grass and meadowlarks trilled in the distance, Tim Spotted
Horse went methodically and quietly about setting up the Crow canvas
tepee in keeping with centuries-old traditions.
behind him, on a small rise rimmed on three sides by white limestone
speckled with orange lichen, his ancestors 160 years ago nearly
wiped out a rival band of about 35 Blackfeet warriors. The incident,
about 10 miles north of Bighorn Canyon on the Crow Reservation,
is now known as the Grapevine Creek battle.
and far from home, the Blackfeet had constructed 23 rock breastworks
a few feet high to protect themselves as they fought off the more
numerous Crow warriors. In the end, the rocks weren't protection
enough. The Blackfeet managed to turn back the first few assaults,
but in they end they were overrun. All but one or two of the Blackfeet
were killed. The day's successful combat was due in large part to
the bravery of Stump Horn, a Crow medicine man, according to the
tribe's oral history.
The breastworks, some large enough to contain two or three men,
are rare physical evidence of a battle fought between American Indian
tribes. Park Ranger Dave Elwood told the students about the battle,
noting that the Blackfeet braves traveled about 450 miles in about
18 days from their homeland along the Rocky Mountain Front in northwestern
Montana in hopes of stealing horses from the Crow. But a hunting
party of Crow spotted the warriors before they could make their
horse raid. In retreat, the Blackfeet ran to the small bluff, erected
their small defenses and waited.
Service archaeologist Chris Finley then talked to the JROTC students
about how the area had been a migration route for humans for at
least 10,000 years. Bison had long roamed these foothills, he said,
providing food for tribal people.
the Crow people, this was the heart of their home," he said.
female JROTC students wearing ceremonial elk-tooth dresses then
emerged from the school's bus. Together with the now-shirtless horseback
riders Old Elk, Blacksmith and Deallen Little Light
wearing leather pants and headdresses, the students posed in front
of the tepee for photographs. Some wore green Army dress uniforms
with shiny black dress shoes.
away from the hubbub, Theo Hugs smiled. She worked for the Bighorn
Canyon NRA for 38 years, retiring just last year. She said the interaction
between the tribe and the National Park Service is long overdue.
think the kids need to know their heritage," she said.