Looted: Fort Ellis (Part 1)

By Hannah Ludlow

In October, 2015, the historical site of Fort Ellis was trespassed and looted, severely damaging the artifacts and sanctity of the site. The vandals left a gaping hole once full of artifacts that now out of context can no longer provide the historically significant data they once possessed. Looking back on the looting and the salvage archaeology that followed, it is more important than ever to understand and protect archaeological sites.

Fort Ellis, Montana in July 1871. Photo by William Henry Jackson – National Park Service Archives.

Fort Ellis was established in 1867 on the demand of Bozeman residents who felt threatened by American Indians, especially after John Bozeman was killed in Cady Coulee, 10 miles from present day Livingston (Schontzler 2016). Quickly erected, Fort Ellis circulated tens of thousands of dollars into the local economy. In addition, the soldiers, officers, and officers’ wives involved themselves in a range of businesses and activities such as libraries, baseball, and the red light district (Schontzler 2016). Fort Ellis would maintain this presence for nineteen years until the citizens petitioned for it to be transformed to farm land. In 1899, the governor of Montana gave the land to the Montana Agricultural College (Schontzler 2016). Today, the land is still used as an agricultural experiment station.

The site of historic Fort Ellis has a long history as the victim of treasure hunting. Interestingly, the looters claimed they did not know they were trespassing and did not know taking artifacts on the state owned land is, in fact, illegal under the Montana State Antiquities Act (Schontzler 2016). Most looted sites like Fort Ellis are the result of collector’s greed. More often than not, looters hope to strike it rich with an outstanding find to sell to a collector. In turn, a dangerous economy surrounds historically significant areas and items. The value of these looted artifacts exceeds any dollar amount as the historical data they could have provided is priceless. Even though the trespassers only took two bottles, the remaining artifacts and the property are disturbed beyond retribution. Though it is crime and tragedy to loot a site, no charges or arrests were made to those who looted Fort Ellis (French 2016).

It is a goal of Project Archaeology not only to teach others about the significance of archaeology and history, but also protect and preserve this history. Currently, staff and students of Montana State University’s anthropology department work to analyze the recovered data and artifacts from the site. In addition, the Site Stewardship fostered by Project Archaeology works to protect sites like Fort Ellis everywhere.

Do you want to get involved in site stewardship in Montana? Check out the Montana Site Stewardship Program or contact Crystal Alegria at calegria@montana.edu

References Cited:

French, Brett.

2016 “Destructive Dig: Illegal digging at historic Fort Ellis prompts archaeological concerns” Billings Gazette, February 8. Billings, Montana.

Schontzler, Gail.

2016 “Looting at Fort Ellis Alarms History Buffs” Bozeman Daily Chronicle, February 19. Bozeman, Montana.