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Fort Assinniboine, Montana

Fort Assinniboine was the largest military post ever built in Montana’s frontier days and is located 6 miles south of Havre. This impressive historic outpost was constructed in 1879 and served a variety of purposes for more than 30 years in all.

The military fort had over 100 buildings, and it was built following Custer’s disastrous stand at Little Bighorn.

It was primarily for the purpose of fending off potential Indian attacks—many of which were at the behest of famous Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, and included exiled tribes who had escaped to Canada after the defeat and capture of Chief Joseph in 1877.

The Fort was designed to house ten companies of infantry and cavalry charged with the task of monitoring Indian activity in the region and providing protection from invasions across the border.

Just a few years after its initial construction, the fort had developed into something akin to a stately compound, with brick, stone, and wood-built quarters surrounding the main parade ground.

When Montana’s frontier days were coming to an end in the early 20th century and homesteads had started to appear around the fort, the post was eventually closed in 1911, later becoming the site of an agricultural experiment by Montana State University.

Today much of the original fort has disappeared but what is left stands as a historic testament to Montana’s frontier heritage.

The History of Fort Assinniboine

history of fort assinniboine
Image: Unknown author

Construction of Fort Assinniboine was mostly completed by 1881, and in many ways, it broke new ground by becoming the most elaborate post the United States had ever seen.

It was different from other earlier constructs in that it was largely an offensive fortress without a perimeter wall as such. The post was eventually home to 104 buildings constructed mainly from brick. The inhabitants of the fort built it themselves with the bricks being manufactured on the spot by one of the colonels.

Construction progressed at a seemingly lightning pace, causing the Indians to state that the Fort literally “rose out of the ground”. At its peak, Fort Assinniboine housed around 40 officers and close to 500 non-commissioned officers and enlisted soldiers. 

By 1885 the rebellion of the Indians was still causing issues via the Cree Tribe, who had already made their escape into Canada. Now they were crossing the border and expanding back out into Montana, so the fort’s troops were charged with rounding them up and sending them back across the border.

In 1911, after the hostilities had all but come to an end, the fort’s hot water tower was destroyed by fire, and this was one of the factors that led to the eventual closing of Fort Assinniboine by the military.

The entire area had been re-assigned as an Agricultural Research Station by 1915.

Life at Fort Assinniboine

Like many of Montana’s early forts and trading posts, Fort Assinniboine became something akin to a small, self-contained town at one point.

The post was actually able to accommodate close to 800 men although typically there wouldn’t be many more than 700.

The compound included a bakery, a barbershop, a laundry facility, a blacksmith, a saddlery, a general store, a post office, a hotel, and a restaurant—pretty much everything civilized life might require.

In addition, there was regular recreation in the form of band concerts, as well as physical and sporting pursuits such as baseball and boxing.

Some of the more cerebral activities included a library and various games like cards and checkers, as well as an amusement center in the barracks of the regimental band. The lifestyle was routine, and the men on this fort were largely spared any battle action.

Just east of the post one civilian family known as the Herrons even managed to set up a dairy, and other civilian companies tended to things like mail delivery and meat supplies for the post.  

The Inhabitants of Fort Assinniboine

In 1892 two companies of African-American military—the 10th Cavalry—were assigned to Fort Assinniboine. 

The whole regiment was reassigned there after Fort Custer’s demise, and other companies also comprising mainly African-American men were later assigned to the fort as well.

The regiment was given the name ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ by the Cheyennes, who respected the infantrymen’s fighting abilities and thus compared their strength to that of the sacred and courageous buffalo.

This was in light of the fact that these men were largely given the worst mounts in the entire cavalry and had little to no chance of ascending the ranks.

Fort Assinniboine eventually had more of a multi-racial force that even included Native Americans as well as the Afro-Americans and the Western men.

During its time various esteemed military men served at the fort including generals Ruger, Brooke, and Otis.  Colonel J.K. Mizner, the 10th Calvary’s Commanding Officer, had been a highly decorated American Civil War hero, and in 1895 John Pershing arrived at the fort.

This famous Montana military man eventually ascended the ranks to the point where he achieved the highest level in US history—that of a six-star general.

The first Afro-American to ever take command of a military post came by way of William T. Anderson in 1898. Anderson was in fact a chaplain who filled for a couple of months until Major J.M. Jelly took over.  

The highest number of troops ever to inhabit the fort was close to 850 in 1902, while at one point only 19 servicemen remained, after the start of the next war.  

Throughout the fort’s existence much expansion, remodeling, and rebuilding occurred including barracks and other facilities.

Fort Assinniboine Interpretive Center and Tours

As the facility is now part of the agricultural study work of the university, only guided tours of the fort are available.

The Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association conducts regular guided tours throughout the summer months, and the Fort Interpretive Center and Museum open on the first day of June every year.

The facility hosts a gift shop including items like books, postcards, and even small remnants of what was once the fort building like the enhanced slate roof tiles that covered one of the buildings at one point.

In addition to the Interpretive Center, the Officer’s Amusement Hall and the Guard House can be viewed, which is something of a recently added feature.  The center is open 4 days a week from 10 am to 4 pm in the summer months.

Fort Assinniboine and the Old Forts Trail

The state historic trail commemorates what was the primary supply and transportation route that existed for a couple of decades in the late 1800s.

The trail starts out at Fort Benton, then moves on to Fort Assinniboine. Both Fort Assinniboine and Fort Benton are located in the Russell Country region of Montana, a rugged and vast area with mountain ranges and valleys that date back to the prehistoric age, not to mention the fact that the Missouri River runs through it.

From Fort Benton, the trail leads into Canada’s Saskatchewan and Fort Battleford in the northern regions along the historic North Saskatchewan River.

Fort Walsh is in the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park that stretches along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

Wood Mountain Post is another former fort on the trail in Canada located in the midst of ranch land and wild prairie grasslands now designated a provincial historic park.

Fort Assinniboine – Conclusion

Fort Assinniboine, along with many of Montana’s other military and trading posts, undoubtedly played an integral role in the development of the state.

It serves as a reminder of both the expansion and conflict that was a regular part of daily life for many in the region throughout the frontier period.

Today we can marvel at some of the country’s past military achievements—as well as the grave errors undertaken and committed—and be grateful that we have hindsight and reflection as well as the pride and celebration exhibited by places such as Fort Assinniboine.

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