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UM archaeologists unearth Buffalo Soldiers' artifacts at Fort Missoula
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UM archaeologists unearth Buffalo Soldiers' artifacts at Fort Missoula

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In the summer of 1888, four companies with the U.S. Army left their post in the Dakota Territory and headed west to Missoula.

The arrival of the 25th Infantry at Fort Missoula – itself established in 1877 during the Indian Wars – placed the soldiers far away from the South. It was an added bonus to military life given one basic fact: The unit’s 220 members were African-American.

More than 125 years later, a team of archaeologists and students from the University of Montana hunkered down in a mosquito-infested field near the decommissioned fort. Under the drum of summer heat, they scratched away soil revealing military trash from the late 19th century.

But one person’s trash has become an archaeological gold mine, and excitement at the dig is palpable. The items discovered thus far could help researchers better understand the life of black soldiers in the American West in the 1880s and ’90s.

“You can literally count the number of African-American archaeology projects in the West on two hands,” said Kelly Dixon, an associate professor of anthropology at UM. “This field is underrepresented in the region and this project represents the first known archaeological examination of daily life in the 25th Infantry.”

Former UM professor and archaeologist Carling Malouf conducted three test trenches in the area 31 years ago, turning up 19th century artifacts. Dixon and her students, including field supervisor and UM graduate student Ayme Swartz, have returned to the area, working across a three-meter grid centimeters at a time in hopes of revealing the past.

Swartz will incorporate the project into her master’s thesis once the work is done. A handful of artifacts uncovered during a test in 2013 have already shown promise, including a hair tonic bottle and a helmet spike matching the regalia worn by the 25th Infantry.

Work carried out this summer also has revealed surprises about life at the fort. Rotting shoes may help determine foot size and wear. A broken mustache cup suggests an atmosphere of sophistication and gentility.

Toy fragments found at the site also suggest that some of the men had wives and children at the fort. Fragments of old champagne bottles have turned up as well, along with stemware and elegant dinnerware, including fragments of decorative purple transfer-print vessels.

Swartz also noted the number of bones peeking from the soil. They are large, most likely bovine, though some members of the crew have compared them with bison. The bones are abundant, indicating a stable diet of fresh meat.

“It’s something that’s not happening at a lot of other military forts,” said Swartz. “At the other military forts in the West, they’re not eating this well. If we’re finding so many cow bones to the proportion of African-American men here, we can start to assume they were fed very well.”

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Swartz said the analysis won’t be completed until later this year, and the team is reluctant to draw conclusions before then. She plans to present the full story in her thesis, hoping to cut through questions of race and shed light on life at Fort Missoula.

The artifacts suggest that structural racism may not have had material consequences at the fort. But it may also be true that archaeological evidence won’t reveal evidence of race or cultural identity.

The questions are significant and the answers profound. Dixon described the work as one of the most important excavations in North America, given its focus on the 25th Infantry and its 220 “Buffalo Soldiers.”

“The artifacts we find help democratize the histories of people who have been marginalized in mainstream narratives of the American West,” Dixon said.

Aside from the artifacts turning up in the soil, other historical records point to an idyllic life at the fort during the unit’s stay. References to lush grounds where cattle graze and gardens grow are found in historical documents.

The wife of unit commander Col. Andrew Burt pined about the Virginia creeper on her porch. Burt himself referenced “this beautiful little post we live on” in military logs.

“The cleanliness, good order and arrangement of barracks is equal to the best I have seen in the Army,” Burt wrote in one dispatch back to Washington, D.C. “The floors, closets, cupboards, drawers, dining rooms, kitchens, dormitories, and earth closets are scrupulously clean in appearance.”

While that cleanliness is good for military life, it drives archaeologists mad. Aside from the dump and what it’s giving up, little else is known about life at the fort in 1890, or in the 25th Infantry for that matter.

Most records were sent back to the National Archives around 1947 when the fort was decommissioned. But Dixon believes the team is on to something big.

“The late-1880s- and 1890s-vintage artifacts coming out of this area are notable,” Dixon said, adding that the dump isn’t located on maps. “I believe we’re in the deposits that represent the meals and other activities associated with the 25th Infantry’s time here.

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An estimated 200,000 black soldiers served proudly in the Union Army during the Civil War. It helped lead to the passage of the Army Reorganization Act in 1866, allowing African-Americans to serve in the military during times of peace.

The act also led to the creation of the 25th Infantry in 1869. Events out West would bring them to Fort Missoula for 10 solid years beginning in 1888.

During their stay here, the Buffalo Soldiers made history thanks to an experiment led by 2nd Lt. James Moss, who believed that bicycles could be used in place of horses during times of war.

With the soldiers at his disposal, the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps was launched at the insistence of Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles. The men pedaled to what are now Glacier and Yellowstone national parks from their post at the fort, and eventually on to St. Louis.

In the end, the Army determined that bicycles weren’t suited for combat missions, and the soldiers were transported back to Missoula by rail.

The barracks where they slept at the fort, along with other structures relating to their stay, are gone. But Swartz’s analysis of historical maps and modern aerial photographs has helped identify their prior location, something the team plans to investigate further.

The Fort Missoula Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 29, 1987. But a boundary oversight left the dumping grounds off the list. It sits on university property and Dixon will recommend an addendum to the original nomination to include the dump as part of the larger district, saying it remains part of the fort’s historic landscape.

Campus police patrol the site and will write citations for trespassing to ensure the site’s protection, along with other research sites on the university’s Fort Missoula property.

“This is an important site to protect,” said Swartz. “It’s important to military history, to African-American history, and to Montanans who care about the state’s rich cultural heritage. It’s so important for the university to recognize the significance and importance of this site.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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