The exact location of the earliest Euro-American settlement in Montana has been a mystery for more than 100 years, but some Billings folks think they could have found clues to a new place worthy of archaeological exploration.
There won’t be much left of the settlement, which was abandoned 200 years ago, in the spring of 1813. That means employing the latest gadgets to search out clues to soil disturbance or differences in magnetic resistance to locate the site.
What searchers would be looking for is evidence of Fort Raymond, built in 1807 and occupied for only six years. It was in the spring of 1807 that St. Louis entrepreneur Manuel Lisa and 50 to 60 hardy men set off from the river city in keelboats traveling 2,000 miles up the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers by poling, sailing and pulling.
Lisa was a pioneer in establishing Indian trading posts to secure beaver and other furs, a coveted commodity at the time. He was hoping to strike it rich after hearing stories of the bountiful beaver country in what would become Montana. The tales were brought back to the city by explorers Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their crew, who had just returned in 1806 from a two-and-a-half year expedition up the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast and back.
It wasn’t until November 1807 that Lisa and his men arrived near the mouth of the Bighorn River where it enters the Yellowstone River. It was somewhere on the south side of this juncture that they constructed “temporary shelters” on a “wooded point” as they worked to build the fort, according to a biography of Lisa written by Richard Edward Oglesby.
The fort has been called many names over the years: Fort Lisa, Fort Raymond (supposedly after Lisa’s son), Fort Ramon and Manuel’s Fort. Whatever the name, the exact location of the temporary settlement has been lost, despite hand-drawn maps and a few historical references. One fear is that any sign of the fort may have been swept away by the surging spring runoff of the Yellowstone River.
It’s the kind of history mystery that some folks love – including Billings residents Ralph Saunders and Ross and Ginny Waples. They’re not alone in their search. Cleve Kimmel, a Billings amateur historian and tireless researcher, has also been intrigued by the subject and has developed some theories as to the fort’s whereabouts.
In 2009, the National Park Service’s Heritage Partnerships Program completed a survey of 300 acres of land near the junction of the rivers in hopes of finding the site of the fort. Although several artifacts were recovered, mostly from the early 1900s, no physical evidence of the fort was found.
“We must, therefore, err on the side of caution: the location of Manuel’s Fort still remains elusive. Even so, it is possible that it could be discovered via other remote sensing techniques,” the report concluded.
That makes sense to the Billings folks because they believe that the Park Service was looking in the wrong area. Their theory is that the fort was closer to the river, rather than near the base of nearby bluffs, or higher ground that is similar to where other forts were built. After their survey, the Park Service seems to be in agreement. Its report concludes that nearby Government Island may be the location. The Wapleses, Saunders and Kimmel agree.
The Wapleses and Saunders believe they’ve found written evidence for their theory in an old account that Ginny, a librarian, has highlighted.
A two-part story titled “The Five Scalps” was written by Capt. Rueben Holmes and published in the St. Louis Reville in 1848. Five Scalps was a nickname for Edward Rose, one of the members of the original Lisa expedition. In the tale, Rose and Lisa got into a fight in the spring of 1808 when Rose returned from wintering with the Crow Indians having given away all of his trade goods with nothing to show in return.
Rose returned just as Lisa was preparing to float downriver with one of the keelboats loaded with $9,000 in beaver pelts and a crew of men. Rose didn’t take kindly to Lisa’s criticism, and “Rose sprang, like a tiger, upon his disputant, and overpowering him before he had noticed such an intention, would probably have killed him …” The fight took place in the “counting room of the establishment.”
Lisa was rescued by one of his crew and leapt onto his boat as it began floating downstream. Rose was so mad that he lit the fuse on an already loaded swivel gun, a small mounted canon filled with musket balls, and fired at the boat.
“Every ball went through the cargo box of the boat, and almost in a raking line.” Because all the men were sitting down, the story said, no one was hurt.
What the Wapleses and Saunders take from the tale is that the fort was very close to the river, since the range of swivel guns firing musket balls is fairly limited.
The other evidence compelling the locals to look to Government Island are Clark’s mapping of the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers on his trip in 1806, and how the Yellowstone River channel has migrated south since then. Back in Clark and Lisa's era, Government Island may have been still attached to the mainland with the river not yet cutting it off.
An 1808 map was hand-drawn by Clark in consultation with George Drouillard, who had accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition as well as Lisa on his first trip. On the map are two rectangular features that sit close to the banks of the Yellowstone River. The question is: Do the rectangles mark the site of the fort?
John Bradbury’s book, “Travels in the Interior of North America in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1811,” contains a description of Lisa’s Fort Mandan on the Knife River, which may give some insight into what Fort Raymond looked like.
“The fort consisted of a square blockhouse, the lower part of which was a room for furs: the upper part was inhabited by Mr. [Reuben] Lewis and some of the hunters belonging to the establishment. There were some small outhouses, and the whole was surrounded by a pallisade, or piquet, about fifteen feet high. I found attached to it a very pretty garden.”
Another of Lisa’s forts, Fort Manuel on the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota, was excavated before being destroyed by Lake Oahe. That post had a rectangular stockade of upright posts set in a shallow trench and reinforced by circular bastions in the corners, according to a South Dakota Archaeological Society report.
The Wapleses and Saunders believe that, because Lisa and his crew arrived at the fort site so late in the year – it was already November -- they didn’t have time to stray too far from their boats to build a winter encampment. They wouldn’t have wanted a fort too far from the boats, since they would have to protect the craft to haul goods downstream. What’s more, the river would have provided ample drinking water, unlike the dry highlands. At the time, the Yellowstone held much clearer water than the Bighorn River, which was often clouded with mud.
The Billings trio also note that Oglesby’s book refers to the location of the fort being on a wooded point between the two rivers. “That statement implies the location was in the timber and not on high lands barren of trees,” Saunders wrote in his argument for the fort’s location on Government Island.
A photogrammetist by trade, Saunders also studied a number of aerial photographs of Government Island looking for any clues. In one, he found an “unnatural linear feature” on the island close to where he had mapped the rectangular features from the 1808 map. Could the feature be the long-buried edge of the fort wall or building?
A couple of weeks ago, the party boated out to Government Island and did a ground search in hopes of finding the linear feature. Accompanying them were Tom Rust, an MSU Billings history professor, and Patty Hooker, a Stillwater County history buff and author. Based on the evidence the Wapleses and Saunders have gathered, Rust believes it would be worthwhile to survey a portion of the cottonwood and Russian-olive choked island in hopes of finding clues to the old fort. The only holdup is finding the money, personnel and transportation to do the work.
Considering the number of men that occupied the fort – an estimated 170 to 195 men made the trip upriver in the spring of 1809 -- Rust said, “I can’t believe that if we can’t get into reasonable proximity that we won’t find something.”
There were two possible good omens for the group sighted on the island. One was that the island was riddled with beaver sign, everything from huge cottonwood trees toppled or in the process of being chopped down, to numerous dwellings tunneled into the riverbank – one of which contained a large beaver. The other was a pair of bald eagles, the national bird, circling overhead and landing in nearby trees.