Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Natural Fort Revisited with Photograph of Battle Marker

James Beckworth, Colorado Mountain Man 

On March 13, 2009, I wrote a post for Wild West History about one of my favorite historical places--The Natural Fort. The Natural Fort is a large rock formation made of sandstone, carved by centuries of wind and rain. My children and I spent many afternoons at this fort, which is near what is now the Terry Bison Ranch. We loved climbing over the rocks, hiding in the "cubbies," avoiding broken beer bottles and reading the graffiti, some so old that they also have local historical significance, dating as far back as 1866! Sometimes we made up stories about the great battle that took place at the fort, and many times we simply enjoyed the sun on our faces, and the protection from the fierce winds.

The Natural Fort is located near the Wyoming/Colorado border, an area with winds so strong they'll take the shirt right off your back. Through the years, those winds carved holes in the rock (we called them cubbies) just deep enough to fit a man, or a Blackfoot warrior. This is where our story begins, and ends, at The Natural Fort, with a few unlucky Blackfoot warriors who sought shelter in the rocks in 1831, and the Crow warriors who surrounded them, waiting for their enemies to die.

Three Blackfoot Chiefs photographed in 1916.

The year 1831 was a drought year, and the Apsaalooke Crow and Blackfoot warriors were both following the trail of the buffalo, searching for water and food for their families. These two tribes were generally found on opposite sides of Yellowstone, but the drought was severe and they traveled long and far past their territories to find sustenance for their families. Jim Beckwourth, the famed black mountain man, fur trader and explorer, claimed in his memoirs that he was Chief of the Apsaalooke Crow at this time and was married to the daughter of one of the former chiefs.

The exact day in 1831 that the following events occurred is unknown, but it is a day that changed the lives of many Blackfoot families forever. On that day, warriors from the two tribes were moving through a stream bed when they spied each other near The Natural Fort. The Blackfoot warriors were seriously outnumbered. They had 160 warriors in their hunting party, while the Apsaalooke Crow, traveling with Jim Beckwourth, had 600 men. Fighting began almost immediately, and the Blackfoot warriors had no choice but to seek shelter in the nearby rocks, The Natural Fort. 

Sketch of The Natural Fort from the memoirs of Jim Beckwourth: 
The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, 
and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians.

The Natural Fort is a fascinating structure created by nature. It has archways, doorways, hallways and rooms, like a mansion built of rock. There is a problem with this mansion, though--there is no source of water or food. When the Blackfoot chose the fort, they probably thought they were making a wise decision. What they did not realize was that Beckwourth and his 600 warriors would surround The Natural Fort and kill the Blackfoot, one by one, as the warriors starved to death or succumbed to dehydration and stood from their cubbies, wandering around the rocks in their delirium.

When my children and I first visited the fort we thought it was exciting, like a natural playground, but on the opposite side of the highway, the other section of the fort, we discovered an aging sign, a marker that has since disappeared. When we read about the battle that occurred at this place, it was no longer a place of fun and play. The Natural Fort was suddenly a place of great mystery, and death. 

We stood listening to the wind blowing through the gateways making a howling, haunting sound. We spoke in whispers of the Blackfoot warriors, how they must have felt as they sat in the wind-carved holes, staring down at their enemies, waiting to die. We spoke of their leaders, sitting on the sand floors of the rooms, making plans in the ground with sticks, plans that they knew could never happen as they were completely surrounded. 

Through the years the fort was stripped of all remains of the battle, including arrowheads and other artifacts. The January 2007 issue of The Senior Voice reprinted an article by Greeley, Colorado historian Hazel E. Johnson who explained the battle. Johnson’s father once homesteaded on the property where the natural fort still stands. She mentioned the marker, which my children and I saw that day. 

Then one of my readers, Eric Kurtz, spotted the story of The Natural Fort on this blog. Kurtz knew all about the sign that marked this place of battle. He had seen the marker in a collection of photos that belonged to his father, L. Glenn Kurtz. Eric Kurtz sent me a copy of the photograph and suddenly, those memories of warm summer days with my children and that moment in time when we read of the battle, the story that changed our understanding of the natural playground forever, came flooding back to me. I have posted the photograph of the marker below. 

Thank you for your kindness, Mr. Kurtz, from all of us--my children, me, all of the readers of this blog who understand the importance of history, and the Crow and Blackfoot warriors who fought and died at this place. This is a moment of history that will soon disappear. 

Interstate 25 was built in the 1960s, carving its way straight through the middle of The Natural Fort. It continues to attract teenagers and beer bottles, cigarette butts and graffiti, but it also attracts those of us who know, who remember, who have felt the haunting memories that remain in these rocks. It is sacred, a hallowed ground where dedicated family men surrounded their enemies and equally dedicated family men crouched in holes and found temporary shelter in cold, dark, stone rooms, listening to the screaming wind, waiting for the inevitable.


Joseph Greer said...

Interesting part of history...that can be easily overlooked. Thanks for letting people like myself aware of events like this.
I live near the Great Lakes...Lake Erie, and have been fascinated by tribes like the Erie(a peaceful people) who were attacked and conquered by more aggressive tribes like the Iroquios and Wyandots. If we only knew....

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Yes, it's true, these landmarks are quickly disappearing. I first wrote about this in 2009, but my family saw the marker in the 1980s. At some point, it was either removed or destroyed by vandals. I am currently trying to find out how to contact the appropriate historical preservation society in Colorado to see if they can protect this site better, not just because a war took place there, but also because it is discussed in the memoirs of Jim Beckwourth--this is all part of the American Old West, which is quickly disappearing and in my opinion, needs protection for future generations to understand our country's past. I know a little bit about the Great Lakes area--my ancestors are from that area. I suspect many important historical events occurred where you live that no one has reported. If you ever want to guest blog about an event you have uncovered, feel free to contact me at dsdollman@yahoo.com.

Joseph Greer said...

Thank-you Darla, and I will. Our family are always "combing" the shores of Lke Erie,picking up rocks,artifacts, and things that were on some of the ships that have sunk in Lake Erie. We also have friends who make a living with fishing trips and crossing the Erie etc....sometimes they tell of us of something they may have discovered...we grab our scuba gear and explore!
There is no doubt the Great Lakes have a story to tell! Joe

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...