Fort Owen State Park (photo log)

Fort Owen’s history begins in 1841, Jesuit missionaries, led by Pierre-Jean DeSmet, established St. Mary’s Mission among the Flathead Indians (also known as the Bitterroot Salish) in present-day Stevensville, Montana. The mission was established at the request of Flatheads who had heard of the power of the Blackrobes (the Indian term for Jesuits) from Iroquois trappers sent to the area by Canadian fur companies.

What is now Stevensville was known as the Wide Cottonwoods to the Bitterroot Salish.

By 1846 there was much unrest among the Bitterroot Salish due to ongoing battles with the Blackfoot who often ventured from their home country east of the Rocky Mountains to capture Salish horses, which were considered very desirable. DeSmet, not understanding Indian customs, traveled to the Blackfoot to bring them Christianity. From the Salish point of view, it was a form of betrayal. The Salish believed that the spiritual power of the Blackrobes helped them defeat the Blackfoot in battle. Giving this power to their traditional enemies was a cultural betrayal.

By 1847 it was apparent to the Jesuits that this fervor which the Bitterroot Salish had once shown for Christianity was gone. Father Ravalli, in his report to Rome, indicated that the Indians now gave the missionaries a “cold” welcome. Ravalli notes that following DeSmet’s journey to convert the Blackfoot:

“…they had indulged in their old war dances of savage obscenity and shameless excesses of the flesh.”

Unaware of Salish culture, history, and language, Ravalli made no connection between DeSmet’s betrayal and Salish apostasy. He writes in Rome:

“We knew we weren’t responsible for such a change and we mourned it all the more when we saw that they kept getting worse.”

In 1850, the Jesuits closed St. Mary’s Mission and sold the property to John Owen, a licensed US Army trader, who turned it into a trading post. In the land of the fur trade, the men who ran the trading posts were given the title of “major”. Major Owen and his wife Shoshone Nancy were newcomers to the Bitterroot Valley.

Major Owen is pictured above.

According to one of the displays:

“A man of many talents, Owen was also an agent for the Flathead Nation from 1856 to 1862, and for a time the fort was the headquarters of the agency. Owen and his Shoshoni wife, Nancy, created a refined and comfortable haven in the vast forest, providing gracious hospitality to Indians, traders, trappers, missionaries, settlers and travelers.

For twenty years Fort Owen prospered as Major Owen developed his farm, ranch, trading hall and gristmill. The original log structures were replaced with adobe buildings.

According to one of the displays:

“The ease of access to goods and services offered at Fort Owen has attracted large encampments of regional tribes and encouraged the settlement of non-natives in the vicinity.”

In 1868 Nancy died and in 1871 or 1872 Major Owen had a mental health crisis and left the Bitterroot. The Fort Owen property was later sold to Washington J. McCormick. In 1937, the Fort Owen site was donated to the State of Montana. The Salish Culture Committee guides Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in planning projects at the fort.

Above, a 1912 Bitterroot Salish camp near Fort Owen.
The fort is pictured above.
Above is a model of the fort on display in the East Barracks.
Another view of the model.
Another view of the model.
The southern entrance to the model.
The northern entrance to the model.
Above is Peter Tofft’s 1865 painting of Fort Owen looking north.
Above is an old, undated photograph of the fort.
Looking south from the fort.
North-west view from the fort. Modern farm buildings are not part of the park.
Above is the root cellar which was completed in 1860 during the last phase of the fort’s adobe construction. It was covered with earth and served as a food reserve. Today, only the stone foundations remain.
Above, the southeast bastion.
Above, the southwest bastion.

According to the display:

“Although equipped with loopholes for rifles, the bastions were never necessary for defense. One bastion served as a granary and the other for storage, medical supplies and a doctor’s office.

Above, the barracks is the only remaining adobe structure.
Above is the outline of where the West Barracks once stood. It was the first completed adobe building and contained the fort’s kitchen, dining hall and trading hall. In 1889, the roof of the barracks blew off in a violent windstorm, killing Washington J. McCormick, the fort’s owner. A few years later, the walls were demolished.
Above is the Wellhouse, completed during the final phase of adobe construction in 1860. It covered a stone-lined shaft well. The current building is a reconstruction based on historical photographs and archaeological data.
The dependency is shown above.
The Farm Cabin exhibit was not part of the original fort.
Above, a millstone.

Jack C. Nugent