Gray skies and a light rain provided a melancholy backdrop for a tour of the Absaroka Agency Saturday, home to the Crow people during a tumultuous time in their history.
The tour was part of a day that detailed the history of the second Crow Agency and talked about the archaeological work that has been done on the site just a few miles south of Absarokee. It drew more than 100 people.
The event was sponsored by the Absaroka Agency Preservation Committee. A bus picked up members of the tribe, including elders, in Crow Agency and Pryor to attend the event, and many local residents also took part.
It kicked off an effort by a consortium of organizations to raise money to buy the land that housed the Absaroka Agency. The groups include the Museum of the Beartooths in Columbus, the Absarokee Community Foundation, Our Montana Inc. and Humanities Montana.
The groups hope to raise $1 million to buy the land and do work necessary to preserve it. Backers say they believe the historical significance of the land warrants a designation as a national landmark.
“Let’s spread the word and try to find someone or some organization to purchase that property so that we can save it and interpret it and have future digs out there,” said archaeologist Steve Aaberg, who kicked off the morning with a talk at the Cobblestone School in Absarokee.
The Crow Tribe’s first reservation, established in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, stretched across more than 35 million acres from Gardiner to Hysham, dipping down into Wyoming. In 1869, Fort Parker, the reservation’s headquarters, was built northeast of Livingston, along Mission Creek.
As miners and settlers encroached, the reservation was drastically reduced to 8 million acres and in 1875, the agency moved to the spot just south of Absarokee, along the Rosebud River. That’s where the Absaroka Agency Fort was built and where the Crow people set down roots for nine years.
In 1876, Gen. John Gibbon recruited Crow warriors as scouts during the Sioux Indian Wars. Some of them served with Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
From 1877 to 1879, a serious outbreak of scarlet fever claimed numerous Crow lives. Equally significant, in 1880, a council meeting called by the U.S. government was held at the agency.
“The government wanted to discuss ceding the western part of the reservation,” Aaberg said. “The Crow wanted to talk about how difficult it was to continue with their traditional hunting lifestyle.”
Bison, on which the Crow heavily depended, were growing scarce.
“For the first time in history, as far as we can tell, the Crow Nation, the Crow men agreed to take up farming,” he said.
The Crow were willing to leave their nomadic existence behind and live within designated boundaries, which was hugely significant, he said. Following that council meeting, Aaberg said, a number of Crow requested cabins, took up allotments and began farming.
That same year, six Crow leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the “Great Father,” he said. They were forced to agree to terms of a new treaty which required they cede more of their lands.
Aaberg shared a series of quotes from the leaders at that meeting, including one by revered leader Plenty Coups.
“I have a heart and thought I had a mind, but the white men think for me,” the Crow leader said.
In the spring and early summer of 1884, the Crow began moving to the new and final Crow Agency on the Little Bighorn River, where they remain today.
In 1891, many of the Absaroka Agency buildings were destroyed by fire, although remnants were visible in the early 20th century.
A small monument on the west side of Highway 78 marks the site. The highway now divides what used to be the Absaroka Agency.
Around 2000, the Montana Department of Transportation, looking to do a road project in the area, asked Aaberg’s firm to survey the land along the road. His crew did small-scale testing using shovel probes, which revealed enough artifacts to warrant further testing.
In the summer of 2006, in cooperation with MDT, Aaberg did a magnetometer survey, which measures the magnetic signature of objects in the soil. From that, a map revealed a triangle that, when overlaid on an 1878 map, matched almost perfectly the size of the Absaroka Agency’s main compound, on land east of the highway.
A full-fledged archaeological excavation in the spring and summer of 2011 revealed the foundation of that building. And further exploration of both sides of the highway revealed other buildings from the agency and many artifacts.
In his research, with the help of historical photographs, Aaberg believes he has also pinpointed a burial ground in the same area as the agency.
To be able to further study the site would provide invaluable information, he said. And it would preserve an area that marks a significant turning point in the history of the Crow people.
Duke Goes Ahead, a member of the Crow Legislature, said after the talk that he has ancestors buried near the Absaroka Agency. He’s also heard the oral stories of his tribe’s history.
“I used to tell my kids when they were growing up, never lose your identity because you are Crow,” he said. “Never lose your identity of where you came from, to be proud that you have a heritage and know your heritage.”
Goes Ahead said in 2011, when tribal elders visited the site for the first time, they had an immediate reaction.
“They said there was an emotion that overwhelmed them and they began to cry,” he said. “To me that was a sadness. But how do we take care of that sadness? By reconciliation, I believe. By forgiveness.”