Fort Parker and the Bozeman Economy
The first Crow Indian Agency, or Fort Parker as it is commonly known, was established in 1869 to distribute the annuity goods promised to the Crow tribe in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Superintendent of Indians for Montana Territory, Alfred Sully, chose a site for the new agency just thirty four miles east of Bozeman for convenient supply freighting. Constructed in 1869, Fort Parker would offer a boost to the burgeoning Bozeman economy and along with Fort Ellis provide a steady economic resource until the railroad opened up eastern markets for Gallatin Valley crops. Without the support of Fort Parker, Bozeman would not be the thriving town it is today.
The founding of Bozeman has its origins with the entrepreneurial John Bozeman, who came to Montana Territory looking for gold. Bozeman quickly realized his wealth would not be found in gold but in other endeavors so he settled into the role of trail guide and began diverting miners and settlers from the Oregon Trail, bringing them to Virginia City on his own Bozeman Trail. The lush Gallatin Valley impressed Bozeman on his journeys through it and inspired him to build a town grounded in agriculture rather than the elusive gold.
Daniel Rouse and William Beall joined Bozeman and by 1864, Rouse and Beall were laying out plans for the new town while Bozeman directed settlers there. An early settler William Alderson who, arriving in 1864, describes his first impression of what would become Bozeman. “Not a fence pole or a log hewn was then in sight to designate the future city of Bozeman. After looking around, however, for a few moments, we noticed a small wedge tent constructed out of a wagon cover and after a little careful inspection we found a lonesome occupant in person of W.J. Beall.”
In a short time the town of Bozeman saw cabins, hotels, saloons, shops and a flour mill. Bozeman’s streets today bear the names of some of the early entrepreneurs who built the town including William and Rosa Beall, Leander and Mary Black, Lester and Emma Willson, John and Susan Mendenhall, Charles and Elizabeth Hoffman, and Nelson and Ellen Story.
With the influx of miners and settlers arriving in Montana Territory, there was an immediate and drastic displacement of American Indian people who had traditionally lived in the region. Such severe dislodgement was sure to cause a backlash. Such reprisal was felt immediately as John Bozeman led settlers directly through the heart of Indian Territory.
The citizens of Bozeman and surrounding communities pleaded with the U.S. government to provide them with protection. John Bozeman wrote to Acting Territorial Governor Thomas Francis Meagher on March 25, 1867. “We have reliable reports here that we are in imminent danger of hostile Indians, and if there is not something done to protect this valley soon, there will be but few men and no families left in the Gallatin Valley.”
Things came to a head in April of 1867 when John Bozeman was allegedly murdered by Blackfeet Indians. Acting Territorial Governor Meagher petitioned the federal government for funds to supply a volunteer militia to protect the area. Meagher organized the militia and lavished them with supplies, a large portion provided by Bozeman merchants who expected government reimbursement. The Sioux threat proved to be nothing as they never attacked. When Meagher and the Bozeman merchants requested $1 million in reimbursement, the government settled on $500,000.
The U.S. government sent Army Regiments to Montana Territory, relieving the need for the volunteer militia which was then disbanded by 1868. Fort Ellis was established in August of 1867, to provide military protection to the town. Three companies of the 13th U.S. Infantry, some 150 enlisted men and officers were stationed at the post and contracts were let to build structures and provide food and supplies. Local civilians were hired to support the post by providing duties as blacksmith, laundress, sutlers, and laborers. This was a much needed shot in the arm for Bozeman’s struggling economy.
One year after the establishment of Fort Ellis, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed at Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory, establishing Fort Parker. The new agency would not only require food and provisions for the agent and employees, but would also feed and supply on average three thousand Crow Indians, an exponential leap in government contracts from Fort Ellis.
Bozeman businessman Leander Black was contracted to build Fort Parker in 1869. Black was also the first temporary or special agent to the Crows while their official agent, General E. M. Camp was delayed on his journey west from Washington D.C. Once completed, Fort Parker included a warehouse and quarters for the agent and employees, a stable, corral, blacksmith shop and two corner bastions, each containing a howitzer canon.
Fort Parker’s warehouse stored the goods distributed to the Indians which included flour, sugar, beef, pork, rice, hominy, beans and much more. A school teacher provided the Crow and agency employee children with an “English Education.” The Indians were encouraged to learn farming by promises of money, housing and livestock.
As with Fort Ellis, Fort Parker created jobs and contracts for Bozeman merchants to fill. Bozeman was the closest community to Fort Parker so the Bozeman merchants were able to bid on the contracts, receiving a good number of them. The largest contracts went to several Bozeman businessmen including Nelson Story, Leander Black and Charles Hoffman. Bozeman resident John Aylesworth taught at the agency school. These men represent just a small portion of the Bozeman residents who were connected to Fort Parker.
By the time Fort Parker was built in 1869, Nelson Story was an established businessman already providing government contracts to Fort Ellis. Story saw the bonanza of contracts Fort Parker could provide and immediately established a relationship with the agent, operating a sutler store at Fort Parker, selling goods to the Crow and to those who stopped at the agency to trade. Story freighted beef, pork, flour, and many other supplies to Crow Agency for distribution to the Crow tribe.
Leander Black made a fortune transporting and selling wood, hay and grain to government soldiers during the Civil War. He brought that expertise to Montana Territory and continued to obtain contracts from the government. Black held contracts to provide flour, sugar, and coffee to the Crow. An estimated two-thirds of the flour produced in the Gallatin Valley between 1869 and 1872 eventually wound up in Black’s warehouse at the Crow Agency. Black was a successful businessman in Bozeman, he opened the first bank, the First National Bank of Bozeman. He was one of the wealthiest men in Montana Territory, due in a large part to the many contracts he received from the Crow Agency.
Charles Wheeler Hoffman was another prominent citizen of Bozeman who benefited economically from Fort Parker. He secured the contract to build 25 adobe houses at the Agency. The Agent was hopeful the Crow would start farming and live in the adobe houses, this never happened. The houses were occupied almost exclusively by agency employees. Hoffman went on to become a Senator to the first Montana State Legislature.
John Aylesworth, first came to Virginia City to find his fortune in gold. Aylesworth opened an assay office in Virginia City and also taught school in the gold rush town. In 1871 Aylesworth moved to Fort Parker and taught school there for three years. While Aylesworth was at Fort Parker the post burned to the ground and he lost many items he used in teaching, along with many personal items. Some of the items he lost included a Webster Dictionary, algebra book, chemistry book, bridles, dishes, and even a six shooter. After leaving Fort Parker, he moved to Bozeman and operated a lumber mill.
We’ve mentioned only a few of the many men who lived in Bozeman and were involved in filling contracts for Fort Parker or were on the government payroll as employees at the agency. The money these men received from the U.S. government came back into the Bozeman community and was integral in the development of Bozeman. This money helped to build much of the historic downtown that we enjoy today along with houses, farms, ranches, businesses, libraries, and churches. Without Fort Ellis and Fort Parker and entrepreneurial businessmen like Nelson Story, Leander Black, Charles Hoffman, and many more, Bozeman would not be what it is today. In fact, it probably would be just another one of Montana’s many ghost towns.
Marsha Fulton and Crystal Alegria are Co-Directors of the Extreme History Project. Extreme History Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing history to the public in engaging ways. The Extreme History website is www.extremehistoryproject.org and the Fort Parker website is www.fortparkerhistory.org