Ft. Missoula
Living Historic Museum

Missoula, MT

August 2nd, 2006

As we drove through Montana one early morning, we passed through Missoula.  We had been here before and were not intending to look further for something interesting to write about.  Laura, however had found something that was of interest.  Old Fort Missoula, just out of town to the southwest.  We decided to ride out that way and see if there was anything there that we could make a story about.  I'm glad we did.  We found that the Fort area has had a distinguished and varied history, ending with its takeover by the Historical Museum of Missoula in 1975.  We parked in front of the Quartermaster's store, which now serves as the Museum entrance and store.  We decided to take the self-guided tour.  From a large sign at the front of the store we learned that the first troops arrived on June 25, 1877. A  month later, troops and civilian volunteers failed to delay Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce in his passage North. Shortly thereafter, the first action seen was under Col. Gibbon at the battle of the Big Hole where 13 were killed and 14 wounded.  That ended, for the most part, all combat seen in or around the Fort.  The Fort went on as a defensive quarterstone for Western Montana, building roads, erecting telegraph lines and escorting Indians.  In 1888 the Fort saw the arrival of a new kind of soldier.  The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps arrived.  It stayed for 10 years but the bicycle was found to be less than effective under war conditions and the experiment was ended.  The Fort went on to see use as an Alien detention camp, and for a while a POW camp for Italian prisoners.  It still sees an occasional professional soldier on its parade field.  Both the Montana Reserve and the Montana National Guard use the land.  The static displays inside the small museum told the story of early Montana.  Back in 1803, Thomas Jefferson, then President, and visionary, saw the U.S. being hemmed in by other countries.  He was determined to expand the U.S. territories as far west as he could.  Jefferson secured approval for an expedition westward to map and claim as much land as possible.  He chose a man named Meriwether Lewis to head up the expedition.  Jefferson felt strongly that the mission was so important, that he made sure that Lewis was trained to undertake scientific investigations, and that he had the best equipment for measurements and the latest maps, along with the necessary references books.  Jefferson sent Lewis to Philadelphia to receive instructions from five scholars who would round out his knowledge in mapping methods. During this time Lewis learned how to use a chronometer, and how to take observations with it.  This required Lewis to adapt standard methods of measurements for use in the wilderness, including the making of an artificial horizon when the sun was not available. Lewis asked William Clark, an old frontiersman and Indian fighter to join him and the Lewis and Clark Expedition was created.  One of the most remembered people on the trip was Sacagawea, a 17 year old Shoshone girl who's husband, a French fur trapper named Charbonneau, served as a translator.  She joined the group at Fort Mandan, near present day Washburn, North Dakota. After the expedition, she was invited by Lewis to live in Saint Louis where she stayed until she died of the fever in 1825.  A likeness of her can be found on the U.S. gold dollar by the same name.  There were many other things of interest in the museum but the day was passing and it was time to see the outside.  There are three original buildings on the property.  One that was of interest to me was the old St. Michael's church. According to the handout provided by the museum store, the church served the area's settlers. In 1873 a government survey disclosed that the Jesuits and a local farmer both claimed the same 40 acres of land, so the church was moved by wagon to Missoula. It stood on the grounds of St. Patrick Hospital for many years before it was returned to the site of old Hell Gate in 1962. The Friends of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula moved the church to the museum grounds.  Further out to the east, we arrived at the barracks used for Italian POWs during WWII. The handout advised that Alien Detention Center Barracks, which were built in 1941, were moved to the museum grounds in 1995. The wooden barracks we were looking at was one of several wooden barracks constructed by Italian internees, detained at Fort Missoula between 1941 and 1944. This turned out to be one of the more unusual incarcerations of the war.  In 1941 at the onset of the War, Roosevelt, using a 1917 sabotage act seized commercial ships flying Italian and German flags.  The crews were left aboard but became bored and began damaging the ships. To prevent this the crews were removed and offered to be returned to their respective countries.  Most resisted this idea and were offered incarceration for the duration of the war.  As they had fought deportation, they were considered very low security risk, and were given great liberties in the camps where they stayed.  At the end of the War they were simply sent home, with many of them turning right around and returning back to the US to become citizens.  The plight of the Japanese Americans was not so easy.  Those living on the west coast were considered dangerous and were rounded up for their own protection and placed in similar camps.  An interesting side note to this was a small sign which stated that the Japanese, both American and Nationals who were living in Hawaii were not incarcerated.  It seems that when making the decision,  the local government realized that if the Japanese were removed from the work force, it would hurt the war effort so no Japanese were picked up in Hawaii.  Go figure.