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Bozeman, Fort Ellis, and the Little Big Horn Connection



By Frederick Gientke
Monday, June 26, 1876
Lt. James Bradley eased his weary horse to the edge of
the deep, rushing Big Horn River. The horse balked
and would not proceed into the dangerous current.
Across the river, three of Bradley’s Crow scouts had
just returned from a survey upriver. They were weeping
and chanting a death song, and through an interpreter,
they explained there had been a great massacre
of army troopers a dozen miles upriver.
In this manner, Lt. Bradley became the first non-Indian
to learn of the Little Big Horn battle. Three months
earlier, in March of 1876, Bradley had departed with
his regiment from Fort Ellis, east of Bozeman in
Montana Territory. From that location, the troopers
began the arduous 200-mile journey toward the Little
Big Horn region. Their orders directed them to locate,
fight and capture the fierce Sioux and Cheyenne who
were thought to be summer camping in this area.
Two other columns were also moving toward the same
destination, but were under the commands of General
Crook, heading north from central Wyoming, and the
Terry/Custer brigade, heading west from near Bismarck,
Dakota Territory. But General Crook’s column
was cleverly ambushed on June 17, 1876, and his men
limped back to a field camp near Sheridan, Wyoming,
leaving Custer’s force short-handed.
When the angry and vengeful Sioux and Cheyenne
spotted Custer, they attacked his regiment on June 25,
annihilating them. In this attack, the Indians temporarily
regained some of the prestige and power they’d lost
to the encroaching settlers, miners and soldiers.
Lt. Bradley was killed a year later, in 1877, when he
carelessly attacked a Nez Perce camp along the Big
Hole River in Southwest Montana.

Lt. Bradley, 7th U.S. Infantry:
[dcs_img width=”300″ height=”270″ thumb=”true”][/dcs_img]

Fort Ellis was established in 1867 to protect settlers
and miners from local tribes that resented the white
man’s presence and intrusion into their hunting
grounds. During other years, soldiers from the fort
also fought against the Nez Perce and Piegan tribes in
other regions of Montana, in addition to the Sioux War
battle described above.
Although classified as a fort, Fort Ellis did not have
a stockade and was primarily a collection of exposed
buildings to house, feed and equip soldiers. After
1877, the fort itself became a staging point for Yellowstone
Park explorations, and was also an economic
stimulus to business in Bozeman. Because local farmers
wanted the land, the fort was ultimately decommissioned
and abandoned by the U.S. Army in 1886.
Today, Montana State University’s Agricultural Experiment
Station occupies the Fort Ellis site, just west
of Bozeman Pass. The two-story building that survives
was the commanding officer’s residence. A commemorative
monument is located just off I-90 about three
miles east of Bozeman. The fort itself was named after
Colonel August Ellis, who was killed in 1863 at the
Battle of Gettysburg.
Frederick Gientke is a retired Civil Engineer specializing
in western water projects and is currently writing a book
titled Custer Abandoned.

Adjacent to the Fort Ellis site is another historical monument worth visiting: the Bozeman Trail. Miners used this shortcut through Indian hunting grounds to access
the Montana gold fields to the west. The trail has been blamed for igniting the
1876 Sioux War and the death of hundreds. Although the government abandoned it
under a surrender treaty with the Sioux in 1868, trespassers, especially miners heading
to the Black Hills gold field, ignored the treaty and continued to harass and disturb
the game within the Indian’s hunting grounds.

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