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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The First View of Fort Keogh in Montana Territory Built Two Years After Custer’s Last Stand

Hermann Stieffel (1826-1886)
Fort Keoeg, Montana T.
Watercolor on paper
Paper size: 13 7/8” x 21 7/8”
Signed and dated l.r.: ‘H. Stieffel, 5th US Inf. 1878’

This beautifully detailed watercolor of Fort Keogh was rendered by the hand of a soldier who called the fort home when the Indian Wars in the US were raging out of control. The fort was established shortly after the defeat of General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, the most famous action of the Indian Wars. In an effort to bring the Indians in the region under control and onto reservations, the Army sent General Nelson A. Miles to the plains of Eastern Montana to establish Fort Keogh following the battle. The order for the development of the fort was signed on August 28, 1876, and building soon commenced.

The original site of the fort had actually been scouted in 1873 by Colonel D.S. Stanley while he led an expedition though the area. He felt that the location was good to supply troops throughout the region. However it wasn't until Custer's Last Stand that the Army took action to build an encampment. As plans were made to bring the Great Northern Railway to the region, the army went out to survey the land and develop maps. The troops came into contact with two tribes of Indians, the Sioux and the Crow. The Sioux had pushed the Crow out west of their lands as civilization moved west. The Crow proved to be great allies of the Army.

General Miles established the Cantonment Tongue River at the confluence of the north flowing Tongue River (Montana) and the east flowing Yellowstone River. The selection of this site would provide easy access to the boats that would bring supplies up the Yellowstone to the fort. The original cantonment was referred to by several names during the first two years of existence. It wasn't until November 8, 1878 that the government officially named the fort Keogh. The arrival of the Army brought the need for business. Soldiers needed to dine, relax and sometimes have a wild time. Named after the fort's leader, Milestown was developed, in a very nondescript way, to meet those needs.

General Miles was a well respected leader not only within his troops, but with the Indians as well. With the promise of fair treatment and a better life, General Miles was able to bring Indian nations to the reservations, though not all of those nations immediately surrendered. General Miles was in battle right beside his troops, even in the extreme cold of winter. With the Indians moving throughout the wide-open spaces of the Montana Territory, battles often took the troops hundreds of miles from the fort.

German-born soldier Herman Stieffel’s rendering of the fort appears to be done earlier in the year as the land still appears verdent and lush. Although Stieffel’s style is somewhat primitive, and he misspells the name of the fort as he titles his work “Fort Keoeg” the amount of detail (down to the gophers peering out of their holes), is impressive. A very similar view of Fort Keogh by Stieffel can be found in the National Archives.


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