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1872 fight near Billings captivates local historians
LARRY MAYER/Gazette staffJohn “Jack” Hawkins stands at the site of the Baker Battle northeast of Billings in spring of 2000. Archaeological work by Hawkins and Dave Eckroth is included in a new report on the battlefield, which is on private land.Eckroth, left and, at right, a closeup of the artifact Hawkins is holding.

Stories By LORNA THACKERAY Photos By LARRY MAYER Of The Gazette Staff

Even in the dead of winter, local historian Dave Eckroth can feel the August heat at Baker Battlefield.

Only a few miles northeast of Billings, 365 soldiers and 20 surveyors and engineers scouting a corridor for the Northern Pacific Railway, fought a combined force of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho early on the morning of Aug. 14, 1872.

"When I get down on the field, my imagination goes wild," Eckroth said. "It's almost as if I can see the fighting going on."

Near the Yellowstone River, where Maj. E.M. Baker is camped in an oxbow, troopers scramble in the dark to form skirmish lines. Warriors who have stolen into camp and infiltrated the livestock herds, retreat to the bluffs as a shot rings out. It probably was fired by a startled wolfer awakened in time to prevent the theft of his gun.

When the sun rises, J.W. Barlow, major of engineering, can see that "every point upon the bluffs in our front for a mile in extent was occupied by them."

Warriors, believing that powerful medicine made them bulletproof, charge in circles on "daring lines" drawing ever closer to the troops until some meet their end in a bloody hail of well-aimed rifle fire.

Sitting Bull, in a show of bravery that could only elevate his growing status among the confederation of tribes, calmly sits down within enemy range and smokes a pipe. Dirt flies as bullets puncture the ground around him.

Crazy Horse, making a final gesture of defiance, mounts his pony and rides one last circle. A bullet drops his horse and leaves the emerging war leader precariously close to enemy lines. Another bold warrior charges down from the bluffs, swoops Crazy Horse onto his own pony and rides to safety.

Eckroth can see the smoke and smell the dust. He can hear bullets whizzing by and feel the heat of battle.

After years of study and with the assistance of volunteers, a variety of professionals and firearms experts, Eckroth knows where the soldiers fixed their lines and where warriors hunkered down to open fire.

He and fellow local historian Harold Hagen have just completed a 2-inch-thick report in fulfillment of a $36,000 grant from the National Park Service's American Battlefield Protection Program. They hope it will be the springboard for other historians, especially those of the Sioux tribes, to add to the story of those years of transition on the Northern Plains.

Eckroth said he plans to write his own book, but it may be delayed a few years. His National Guard Unit is expected to be activated soon, and he anticipates leaving Billings in April - probably for at least a year.

The report includes information gleaned from Hagen's 25 years investigating the battle, as well as archaeological work at the site by Eckroth and John "Jack" Hawkins. With the help of another local historian, Howard Boggess, the two convinced the Frontier Heritage Alliance to apply for a grant to pay for the expertise they needed to produce a definitive study.

They put together a team of archaeologists, photographers, surveyors, professional historical researchers and a large group of volunteers. Fortunately, many of the professionals became so engrossed in the project, they didn't charge for big chunks of their work, Eckroth said.

Archaeologist Doug Scott of Lincoln, Neb., who has a long association with the National Park Service and Little Bighorn Battlefield, practically gave away long hours spent examining bullets and shell casings, Eckroth said. Scott was able to identify 80 different Indian weapons and follow them as their owners moved across the battlefield.

Eckroth said he hopes that some day firing-pin evidence can be compared with evidence uncovered at Little Bighorn Battlefield, where the Seventh Cavalry encountered many of the same warriors four years later.

LARRY MAYER/Gazette staff Bullets that hit the terrain near the Indian positions and spent shell casings were found at the battle site. Sorting which artifacts belonged to the 1872 battle wasn't always easy because the camp had been used over and over by groups traveling down the Yellowstone, Eckroth said. The Montana column heading from Fort Ellis near Bozeman toward the Little Bighorn Horn in the spring campaign of 1876 stopped there.

The 1872 skirmish lines were salted with shell casing that came from weapons the cavalry had been issued for the 1876 campaign.

Eckroth speculated that some of the same soldiers at Baker's battle were still in the Army four years later. They were probably telling the story of the earlier battle to their comrades and showing them where they had stood during the fight.

When the Baker Battlefield report was finished, it contained Hagen and Eckroth's narrative of the fight, analysis of the archaeology, an inventory of the artifacts and conclusions about the battle's place in history. It's replete with photographs of the site, maps of the terrain and maps showing where artifacts were found.

Hagen and Eckroth also made recommendations for the future of the site, which is located entirely on private property now used for agriculture. They recommend that it be included on the National Register of Historic Places and be designated a National Landmark Battlefield.

The owner of a property on the bluffs above the battlefield has been approached by the Frontier Heritage Alliance about purchase or donation of about five acres that could be used as an interpretive site to the battlefield below, said alliance member Mike Penfold. The long-term goal is establishment of a visitor center.

Eckroth doesn't know yet what will happen to the artifacts, but would like to see some association with the Peter Yegen Jr. Yellowstone County Museum near the Billings airport. The cabin housing the museum belonged to early-day Montana entrepreneur Paul McCormick. McCormick was the wagon master on Baker's campaign.

Eckroth would know that.

Lorna Thackeray can be reached 657-1314 or at lthackeray@billingsgazette.com.

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