Who’s Accountable for Protecting Historic Artifacts?
BY PAT HILL
Livingston, Montana-based archaeologist Larry Lahren first heard about the looting at Fort Ellis in December, during morning coffee with some of his colleagues. The activity reportedly came to a head in October, and Lahren wondered what had been done in the wake of the illegal digging on this state land with a storied historical background.
“The general story I got was it has been going on for some time, but involved extensive digging this past October by four to five individuals with metal detectors,” Lahren recently told the Montana Pioneer. “Since it is state property managed by both Montana State University and the Department of State Lands, I asked if they were contacted [about the looting]. I also wondered how the looters gained access onto the property in the first place. MSU maintains a presence at Fort Ellis through its agricultural program, and I was advised that they had asked some of the workers at the MSU Ag Station ‘if they could hunt arrowheads.’”
The history of Fort Ellis is inherent to, and interwoven with, the history of Montana. The fort was established in 1867 in the impending wake of a successful campaign by Red Cloud and his Sioux warriors to close down the Bozeman Trail, which had been running through prime hunting lands in violation of an earlier treaty since the early 1860s. Hundreds of emigrants (seeking gold in Montana Territory) traveled this route before it was closed.
The 16,000-acre military reserve at Fort Ellis was founded to provide a strategic military presence near the divide separating the Gallatin Valley and the Yellowstone River. The aim was to provide protection from the Blackfeet Indians in the Missouri Headwaters region and to defend the Yellowstone country against Sioux raids.
Essentially eminent domain was declared during the construction of Fort Ellis, and land was commandeered from neighboring ranches to add to the military reserve’s acreage. Headquarters were located three miles east of Bozeman. Fort Ellis garrisoned about 400 soldiers from the 7th Infantry Regiment and the 2nd Cavalry in its heyday, a larger population than Bozeman at the time.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 brought an end to Red Cloud’s War. That treaty also established the Crow Indian Reservation in the Yellowstone Valley. Fort Ellis troops helped support that first Crow Reservation, whose headquarters were located at Fort Parker, near the confluence of Mission Creek and the Yellowstone River. Fort Ellis personnel also took part in the Indian Wars of 1876 culminating in the Custer battle, and the more infamous Baker, or Marias River, massacre. They also played key roles in the early exploration of Yellowstone National Park.
By the time the Northern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1883, Fort Ellis was already losing its strategic value. The Indian Wars were over and settlement was on the upswing. Fort Ellis was decommissioned by President Grover Cleveland in 1886. Much of the land was returned to its former owners, and property surrounding the Fort’s buildings was eventually transferred to Montana State College (now MSU). Land surrounding the remnants of the garrison became a State Agricultural Station by 1910, and the old officers’ quarters (restored and serving as part of the Ag Station) are the only remaining original structures left at Fort Ellis.
Lahren said that this type of looting of artifacts has taken place often at historical sites including Fort Ellis over the years.
“There’s a 45-70 shell casing advertised as being from Fort Ellis for sale on the Internet right now,” Lahren told the Pioneer in December. “But what’s gone on with this particular incident concerns me. A private citizen told a Bozeman archaeologist in October about the activity. These guys were digging in what had been a dump area at the Fort, and supposedly finding artifacts like stirrups, spurs, and buttons. They actually dug a hole there about 10 by 12 feet, and about four to five feet deep. That’s pretty serious.”
Another fact Lahren found pretty serious about the incident was the lack of information regarding it. Though Lahren learned that an incident report had been filed, he said access to the report could not be obtained. Though MSU and other government entities such as law enforcement were aware of the looting, Lahren did not know what had been done to ensure that such illegal activities had in fact ceased. This prompted the archaeologist to write an e-mail to MSU officials on Dec. 21.
“As a MSU grad (B.S. and M.S. and first archaeological research associate at the Museum of the Rockies—1967-71) and a professional archaeologist for some fifty years, I am concerned about the alleged illegal digging and destruction of the State of Montana-owned, historic Ft. Ellis site that is under your admini-strative supervision,” Lahren wrote. “As I understand the situation, this illegal, destructive activity was reported in October, 2015 and a university manager observed three people conducting these activities… Apparently an incident report has been filed. And it is my understanding that the Montana State Historic Preservation Officer has commented on the seriousness of this alleged criminal activity on State property. However, when I contacted the Montana State Archaeologist, he was unable to advise me about the status of the situation because he did not have any consistent information, namely, a comprehensive police incident and archaeological report.”
Lahren received a response later that day from Barry Jacobsen, Associate Director of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, who wrote that “since the initial report in October 15, individuals were apprehended and artifacts confiscated and placed with the Museum of the Rockies. In addition, the MSU police, Gallatin County Sheriff, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks wardens have been asked to patrol the area.” Jacobsen added that he “personally visited the site six-seven days a week in the late afternoon after work and can say there is no activity at the digging site from mid-October until Dec. 2.” He also noted that No Trespassing signs have been posted at the site, and that MSU Ag workers have also been advised to watch for illegal activity. The digging site also has been photographed and GPS-documented.
“The Ft. Ellis property is 640 acres all of which might have historical significance,” Jacobsen wrote. “We are doing the best we can with the resources available.” Jacobsen also enquired as to what Lahren could advise “relative to protecting this historical resource more than we have done?”
“Determine who gave the diggers ‘permission to hunt arrowheads’”, wrote Lahren. “Obtain a copy of the incident report. Have the proper legal authorities determine the names of the diggers, who gave them permission, and the location of all the historical material that the diggers have acquired. [And] have a qualified historical archaeologist, in conjunction with the State Archae-ologist and the Montana State Historic Preservation Officer, evaluate the site to determine the extent of the damage, develop [and implement] a mitigation plan, produce a report of findings, and ensure that the recovered materials are curated in a professional manner by a qualified institution.”
“It sounds like [the Ag Depart-ment at MSU] has a long-term protection plan to prevent future vandalism,” Lahren concluded. He told the Pioneer that he hopes that the University follows through with his recommendations, which he said would mirror those of the State Historic Preservation Officer.
“Theft from and damage to state property is serious,” Lahren told the Pioneer. “But the real loss is of historic and cultural information from the site. It’s an important site, a National Register site. [Fort Ellis] ranks pretty high in Montana in terms of importance, and for it to be pillaged, and have looted historic material sold on E-Bay…that just isn’t the way it’s supposed to be at a site like that.”