Fort Owen Monument State Park

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99 Fort Owen Ranch Road,Stevensville 59870,Southwest Montana

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Fort Owen State Park in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana is the site of many “firsts” in the state. Its history intertwines with that of Montana’s first Catholic church and is the site of the first permanent white settlement in Montana. The first sawmill, the first grist mill, the first agricultural development, the first water right, and the first school are all credited to the Fort Owen site.

Lewis and Clark passed the future site of Fort Owen on their way to the Pacific in 1805. Soon the entire Northwest was the new fur bonanza for Great Britain and the United States.

Christian Indians from the East brought Catholicism to the Bitterroot Valley. In 1841, Father Pierre Jean DeSmet came here to establish the first Christian Mission in what is now Montana.

The early years at St. Mary’s Mission were encouraging and productive. However, by the late 1840s, the missionaries were beleaguered by lack of funds, apostasy among the converts, and continual harassment from the Blackfeet Indians. In 1850, the Jesuits decided to close St. Mary’s temporarily. At this point, John Owen stepped into Montana history.

John Owen

John Owen was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 27, 1818. He came west as a licensed trader or sutler with a regiment of United States Mounted Riflemen, recruited to man military posts along the Oregon Trail. The regiment wintered near Fort Hall, Idaho, in 1849-1850. Near Fort Hall, Owen also met Nancy, a Shoshoni woman whom he formally married in 1858. Owen resigned his sutlership and by autumn of 1850, he arrived in the Bitterroot Valley to begin trading the Indians and the growing numbers of immigrants.

The Agency Years

In 1856, John Owen was appointed the acting agent to the Flathead Nation and in 1857 the position was confirmed. Fort Owen was the Flathead Agency Headquarters until 1860 when the reservation headquarters was moved north to the Jocko Valley.

As an agent, Owen had problems with governmental indifference and negligence. He frequently drew on his personal funds and supplies to relieve the bitter hardships for his charges. He was also plagued with pressures from illegal white squatters.

A weary and disgusted John Owen resigned as Flathead Agent in July of 1862.

Fort Owen Transitional Years

The decade of the 1860s brought many changes to the Bitterroot Valley. A trading establishment built by Frank H. Worden and C. P. Higgins at Hell Gate Ronde on the recently completed Mullan Road (west of the present-day Missoula) competed with Fort Owen. The gold camps provided an outlet for the agricultural produce from the Bitterroot, but Fort Owen was no longer the only “bastion of civilization.”

After Nancy’s death in 1868, Owen’s mental health began to deteriorate. Always a social drinker, he now drank heavily, and in 1871, diagnosed as suffering from “dementia,” Owen was committed to St. John’s Hospital in Helena. In 1874 Governor Benjamin Potts declared John Owen legally insane and deported him from Montana Territory. Owen’s old friend William Bass accompanied him to Philadelphia, where Owen remained with his family until his death on July 12, 1889.

After John Owen

The Fort Owen property was purchased by Washington J. McCormick at a sheriff's sale in 1872. Ironically, McCormick outlived Owen by only a few months.

In 1937, an acre of land enclosing the historic ruins of Fort Owen was donated by the McCormick heirs to the State of Montana to be administered by the State Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks as a State Monument. In 1971, the Monument was entered on the National Register of Historic Places.

East Barracks. Completed during the adobe reconstruction of 1860, the east barracks contains four separate rooms for distinct uses—Owen’s bedroom, his office, the guest room, and the dormitory room.

Root Cellar. The root cellar was completed in 1860 and used for food storage. The foundations are all that remain.

Wellhouse. The original 1860 wellhouse covered a stone-lined shaft from which water was drawn. The present wellhouse is a reconstruction based on old photographs and archaeological evidence.

Reprinted from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks article.

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