The post was built of cottonwood logs in a classic quadrangular pattern by the First Battalion of the 13th regiment of Infantry under Major William Clinton. Log barracks for 1,000 men were built, with the use of much adobe in their construction. The fort was surrounded by a stockade and trenched and measured 500’ x 600’.
It was named in honor of Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke, who was in command of the Department of the Platte at the time. It was the first military post in Montana.
Its purpose was to control the area Indians, protect the steamboat traffic en route to Fort Benton, and emigrants crossing the extensive eastern Montana plains, to reach the goldfields. The post also served as a supply point for steamboat traffic, but this only occurred during the high-water months of May, June, and July.
Settlers and miners traveling to the Montana goldfields crossed territory that several Indian tribes considered theirs. These included the Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Crow tribes. Steamboat landings along the Missouri River resulted in a number of freight routes upon which emigrants traveled, driving off buffalo and other game on which the Indians depended. In reaction, the Indians retaliated by mounting small-scale, scattered, guerrilla-type attacks and raids on both steamboats and freight wagons.
As reports of Indians’ raiding, stealing livestock, and killing settlers reached Washinton D.C., Camp Cooke was authorized.
No sooner had the camp been established when a steamboat entrepreneur and trader named Thomas C. Power built a small trading post near the camp to supply goods and services to the soldiers. The trading post was called Fort Claggett, and Thomas Power also operated the commissary at Camp Cooke.
Though Montana citizens and the press had asked the government for protection, they were sharply critical of Camp Cooke’s location deep within the remote badlands, called the Missouri Breaks.
After being reinforced by 100 soldiers in 1867, the post had a strength of approximately 400 men. Once the fort was constructed, the garrison had little to do. Except for the high water months in the summer months, Missouri River steamboat traffic was limited. As a result, soldiers were dispatched from Camp Cooke to other more strategic locations in the Montana Territory. Detachments from Camp Cooke guarded major transportation routes in Southwestern Montana, including the roads between Fort Benton and Helena. They built Fort Shaw along that route in 1867 and Fort Ellis near Bozeman, the same year. However, for those troops left behind, there was little for the men to do, and the post saw no action.
Life at Camp Cooke differed from other military forts in the west. The soldiers at the post suffered from its location and isolation. It was so bad that some soldiers were unable to leave, even when their enlistments were up. On its east and south sides, dense groves of cottonwoods and heavy brush made excellent cover for marauding Indians, and the post was constantly harassed. The cottonwood logs used in the construction of the fort soon split, swelled, and cracked, and it was impossible to keep out the weather. When it rained, the buildings leaked, and in the winter, snow blew through the cracks. The fort was also infested with fleas, bedbugs, rattlesnakes, and rats. There were numerous desertions to the goldfields.
On May 17, 1868, Camp Cooke was attacked by Indians at a time that the post was shorthanded as 100 troops had left for a summer camp on the Musselshell River called Camp Reeve. With two companies under the command of Major William Clinton, the garrison held off the attack for six hours with the aid of several cannons. There was only one casualty among the troops, and that was caused by accident.
By 1869, the criticisms of Camp Cooke’s location were finally investigated by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel B. Holabird of the War Department, who reported:
“This unfortunate post is situated on the right bank of the River Missouri, at the mouth of the Judith, upon a sage bottom, saturated with alkali. It is entirely overrun with rats and may be said to be in the process of demolition by them. The storehouses are in ruins; they were wretchedly constructed in the first instance, and nothing since has been done to remedy their shortcomings. General neglect and indifference characterized the post. The small garrison merely holds on in spite of rats. The Indians have moved away and left it alone. Little idea can be formed of what it costs the government to occupy this post and feed these rats; it would build a new post every two years.”
The Helena Weekly Herald seized upon and enlarged upon this report so as to make sure of the abandonment of the camp, probably in the hope that the soldiers would be added to some of the settled communities of the state.
The first write-up announcing the intent to abandon the post appeared in the issue of April 1, 1869, of the newspaper, which stated:
“We never learned who was responsible for the unpardonable blunder of establishing a post at that miserable, outlandish, isolated, bleak, sterile, and worse than useless spot, but one thing now appears to us certain, that an all-merciful Providence, has visited this terrible plague of rats upon Camp Cooke, for the beneficent purpose of impelling the removal of a force of enlightened beings, naturally brave and efficient for their country’s service, to within the lines of civilization, where, instead of being themselves a sweet morsel for savages and ravenous vermin to prey upon, they may fill the grand object of their mission by protecting and encouraging the white settlers upon our borders, and at the same time open to occupation and usefulness the valley and mouth of the Musselshell, destined perhaps to be the head of navigation.”
In response to constant well-founded complaints that the location of the post was too remote, the troops were moved to Fort Benton, Montana in 1869, and Camp Cooke was abandoned on March 31, 1870, less than four years after it was built. The remnants of the fort were then bought by Thomas Powers, who owned the nearby Fort Claggett trading post. Powers established the large PN Ranch that continues to exist today.
Though the fort was seemingly a dismal failure, it did help to establish safe mail and stage routes, participated in building the more permanent posts, provided safety to steamboats traveling on the Missouri River, and began efforts of dealing with Indian tribes.
Today, there is nothing left of Camp Cooke, which was located at present-day Judith Landing on the Missouri River. The location is situated within the Missouri Breaks National Monument. The site of Camp Cooke is located at River Mile 86.8 Right.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated December 2020.