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Sod forts of the Bitterroot Valley
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Sod forts of the Bitterroot Valley

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In 1877, a controversial treaty with the United States government forced the Nez Perce people to give up their homeland in Eastern Oregon and North Central Idaho and move onto a nearby reservation. A portion of the tribe refuted the terms of the treaty and engaged with government troops, hastily leaving their native lands behind.

Led by Chief Joseph, they traveled across the Lolo Trail and entered the Bitterroot Valley in July of 1877. Pockets of white settlers in the largely unsettled valley feared being caught up in the dispute, and several make-shift forts sprang up to serve as temporary shelter. Settlers near Stevensville shored up Fort Owen, an earlier adobe trading post that had fallen into disrepair. A portion of the north wall had collapsed, and green sod was cut by the settlers to replace the fallen adobes. The fort was dubbed Fort Brave, because the people waiting out the siege there felt so secure behind the sturdy adobe walls.

Two smaller communities south of Stevensville were located on Willow Creek, where the town of Corvallis is located, and Skalkaho, where Hamilton is situated today. Having no fortifications nearby to rely upon, residents of these two fledgling communities decided to build temporary fortifications using sod from the surrounding fields.

At the site of Fort Skalkaho, a handful of early pioneers had already proved up on their property, and by 1871, had joined forces in order to build a continuous log fence that snaked around 1,100 acres of prime stock land. This enclosure was used primarily to keep everybody’s cattle from straying off, and it was known locally as the Big Corral. It occupied an area that now forms the entire south end, plus a large part of the east side, of Hamilton.

One of the partners in the Big Corral was John B. Catlin, a Civil War veteran who had accompanied Sherman on his famous March to the Sea. Catlin had the requisite military experience to supervise the construction of Fort Skalkaho when the threat of the Nez Perce conflict appeared imminent.

The three fortifications came to be known locally as Fort Brave, formerly Fort Owen, where reportedly 258 women and children were cooped up with ten or twelve well-armed men to protect them; Fort Skedaddle at Corvallis, where a trial shot with a 45-caliber rifle had managed to penetrate only 10 inches into the sod wall; and Fort Run at Skalkaho, where the settlers actually ran for the gates of the fort upon its completion. It was reported that as many people sought refuge in the two hastily built sod forts as the number hunkered down at Fort Owen. Both of the sod forts were built along similar specifications. Their dimensions were about 100 feet square, 12 feet high, with a base 3 feet thick, continuing up to the port holes about 4 feet, and from there gradually decreasing until they were only 18 inches at the top of the wall. Presumably, rough timbers and logs were framed up for the gate openings.

Fort Skedaddle was said to have gotten its name from the fact that it was occupied mainly by recent Missouri transplants, who had learned to get up and skedaddle at a moment’s notice during the Civil War. A well was dug inside the walls to provide water in case of a protracted siege, and a small creek ran through the middle of Fort Run, which, according to one report, is said to have featured a surrounding moat. One obvious drawback at Fort Run was the proximity of a large hill to the east, where the Nez Perce launched their arrows toward the sod walls just to impress the frightened settlers.

The sodbusters soon realized that the Indians could have just as easily cut off their water supply if they had really meant to do them any harm. Still, it should be kept in mind that General Custer had made his infamous Last Stand at the Little Big Horn just the year before, and there may have been a real sense of fear for those recent settlers who were unfamiliar with the plight of the Nez Perce.

A fourth fort should be mentioned here, though it was really nothing more than a scattering of rifle pits dug in behind log and earth embankments. Fort Fizzle was located in Lolo Canyon, where the military laid in wait for the Nez Perce as they fled from Idaho into Montana. Father Ravalli, who had reestablished the mission at Stevensville, had urged his friend Chief Charlo to encourage the Nez Perce to pass peacefully through the valley.

While the two sides negotiated a way out of a full-blown conflict, Chief Charlo, with 20 of his warriors, met and advised the Nez Perce chiefs that if they meant to wage war in the Bitter Root they would have to contend with the Salish, who would align themselves with the settlers.

The Nez Perce readily agreed to the terms of the truce and were granted permission to travel peaceably through the valley. Although these two tribes were on friendly terms, a time-tested protocol had determined that asking permission was still the polite thing to do. This cordial arrangement of free passage had been going on for many years between the various mountain tribes. Historically, the Bitterroot Valley had never been a homeland to the Nez Perce Indians; however, they often traded goods and hunted buffalo with the Salish, and a number of intermarriages had occurred between the two tribes throughout the generations.

While the U.S. military was considering its options in Lolo Canyon, the wily Nez Perce stoked up their campfires to make a good showing, while the women and children quietly circumnavigated the soldiers in the middle of the night, secretly entering the canyon below Fort Fizzle. In the morning the Nez Perce warriors took to a ridge and passed by uncontested. After being outflanked by the Nez Perce at Fort Fizzle, the troops returned to Fort Missoula, leaving the scrappy Bitterroot residents unprotected and fending for themselves.

For years, many of the longtime settlers of the valley had dealt with the Nez Perce and other tribes passing through the region on their way to and from their buffalo hunts, and were on friendly terms with them. Most of these people chose to remain on their properties and went unharmed and unmolested throughout the conflict.

The Nez Perce made their first camp about 8 miles south of Lolo near the ranch of J. P. McClain, without incident. The next day, they moved further south and a little west of Stevensville, making their second camp near the home of Chief Charlo. Chief Looking Glass and some of his warriors visited Charlo to show their good intentions and to ask where they could set up their camp. Charlo pointed out a suitable location situated nearby, and the Nez Perce stayed in the vicinity of Stevensville for two days, where the local merchants kept their stores open and enjoyed a thriving business with the roving Indians.

As the Nez Perce traversed the lower portion of the Bitterroot Valley, they stayed mainly on the unpopulated west side of the river; however, Chief Joseph, with a band of about 50 warriors, came to Corvallis and visited Fort Skedaddle. They showed a considerable amount of curiosity about the sod fort but demonstrated no disposition whatsoever to molest any person or property. Even so, they were not allowed to inspect the interior of the fort.

Reportedly, when the Indians asked if any of the local merchants might be willing to trade for ammunition, their request was firmly denied. Other reports seem to contradict this, relating that as the Nez Perce passed the sod and log stockades that had been built to protect women and children; they called at the homes of several settlers, and traded freely at the local stores. Fort Skedaddle at Corvallis had been built in just 10 days, beginning on the 9th of July. Twelve married men with their teams, and 6 single men, selected a site on the property of Charles Hawley. The sod was obtained in the fields of Mr. Hawley, Elijah Chaffin, Jack Slack and Joseph Hull. A single opening was made on the east side of the fort, and it was closed in with a door that was made of heavy planks 6 inches thick.

More than a dozen Corvallis families lived in tents or built wooden shanties for temporary housing, with others sleeping under their wagons. Another dozen or so well-armed single men joined the settlers and served as lookouts and guards. The settlers stayed in the fort with no sickness or complaints for a full week after the Battle of the Big Hole, which occurred on August 9th.

An account in a diary written by Edward P. Hardin, who was a member of General Gibbon’s command, states that on August 5th, they “Nooned at Corvallis for three hours 11 to 2. Had a nice sod fort at Corvallis. Passed a very nice earthwork about 10 miles from Corvallis.” The hastily built sod fortifications that Hardin is speaking about were, of course, Skedaddle and Run.

Fort Skedaddle at Corvallis stood until the early 1890s, when it was finally torn down. The site is located on the East Side Highway, just north of town, in the old Ravalli Electric Co-op parking lot. Reportedly, when the fields of Fort Run at Skalkaho were plowed up in 1909, a good number of arrowheads and horseshoes were uncovered at the site. Unfortunately they were all given away as souvenirs of the battle that never actually occurred.

The fort sat in an open pasture near the east corner of Kurtz Lane and Golf Course Road. All of the sites mentioned here are represented with interpretive signs or commemorative plaques today. Fort Fizzle is a Forest Service site located on U. S. Highway 12, with interesting and informative interpretations. Fort Owen is a state park with the main barracks fully restored. So far, I have been unable to find a single photo of the sod forts as they stood. Both sites are commemorated with solid slabs of local granite, each with a bronze plaque attached, proudly signifying their proper place in the local lore of Bitterroot Valley history.

The Ravalli Republic is teaming up with Ravalli County Museum to bring you a series of local history and photo features. If you would like more information on today’s subject please contact the Ravalli County Museum at www.ravallimuseum.org. You can also find them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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