A North Star Dakota Interview with Philippe Régis De Trobriand
The following interview is excerpted from Lucile M. Kane, trans. and ed., Military Life in Dakota: The Journal of Philippe Régis de Trobriand, 1867-1869, 1951.
Life at Fort Stevenson
Colonel De Trobriand is a world traveler, novelist, journalist, artist, and soldier. A descendant of a long line of French soldiers, he became an American citizen in 1861 and fought for the Union during the Civil War. In 1867 he was appointed commander of the Middle District in the Department of Dakota. His new assignment: oversee the establishment of Fort Stevenson. He has been here at Fort Stevenson since August 19, 1867. Tomorrow he leaves for a new assignment in Montana at Fort Shaw.
What were conditions like during the first month that you were here?
I had here two hundred and fifty men camped in open country without any kind of fortification, entrenchment, or defense. A few tree trunks forming a crude palisade had been driven behind the tents where the officers’ wives live to convince them that they were safe from Indian arrows—and that’s all. The provisions, stacked up under a temporary shelter by the wharf a few hundred yards from camp, had no protection other than the rifles of three or four sentinels night or day. The cattle grazed on the plains all day under the guard of three men and a corporal, and spent the night in a weak enclosure some distance from here. The front of our sawmill was not protected by the guardpost. Our buildings being constructed were five or six hundred yards out on the wide open plain, where a band of Indians would meet no more opposition than the wind. Near there the sutler and ten civilians had their tents and were building their double cabin of logs. Finally, my two companies worked by day and slept by night in their tents without protection.
What do you think about this part of the country?
More than anything else, it is an impression of immensity, of open space, and of an individual left to his own resources in the midst of nature where nothing belongs to anyone and everything belongs to everyone. Nothing here suggests limitation or division of the common land. It belongs to whoever crosses it, the white man as well as the red man, the buffalo, the wolf, the bear. Against personal dangers, the protection of government is a myth; the only real protection is in a steady heart and a good carbine. But although these badlands have a bad reputation because of the facilities they provide for an Indian ambush, the danger is but an uncertain eventuality and does not change at all the feeling of freedom under the sky that almost always exults one.
Do you have any observations about the native people you have encountered?
The race of American Indian seems to have had its day and to have fulfilled its fleeting mission in the march of humanity. Its resistance to any assimilation with the whites is a seed of destruction which the race carries in itself and which grows with great rapidity. The American aborigine, no longer protected as the African race has been up to the present by the vastness of impenetrable deserts, will be the first to disappear from the great human family. It will die out in the age of man just as so many created beings have died out in the ages preceding this one, even after having been dominant on the face of the earth. And to take its place in the chain of eternal progress, some other race will rise in a future time, as superior to the Caucasian of today as that race was to the American which is now dying out.
Here in the wilderness how do your men entertain themselves? For example, the Fourth of July?
With us, the celebration of the national holiday consisted of the usual program at a frontier post. The military band played national airs at reveille. After the mounting of the guard, target practice by company (three bullets per man). To the best shot of each company, a prize of $10. Then the three winners competed with each other for another prize of $10, with five shots each, counting the total run of the five shots. At noon, an artillery salute of thirty-seven guns. At four o’clock in the afternoon, a two hundred yard foot race. First prize $10, second $5. Then a sack race, also for $10. This last one amused everyone so much that the officers immediately made up a new purse to start a second race with two prizes, one of $10, the other $4. But the part of the program which evidently pleased the soldiers the most was the last two months’ pay which was given to them, since the paymaster was here.
You have been quoted as one who has no respect for Indian agents. Could you give us an example?
It seems that the Indians at Berthold finally gave in to the strong temptation that the sub-agent has constantly kept before them since the beginning of winter. Reaching the end of patience and forbearance, half dead with hunger and misery, one of them killed a young veal that had been left to wander on the banks of the river with the rest of the herd. Upon this, Mr. Marsh, the agent, writes to me to ask me to take charge of the guilty one and to keep him prisoner in the guardhouse. Refused. This post is not a penitentiary for delinquent redskins, especially in this case where I consider the agent more guilty than the poor devil who killed the calf. If the greater part of the supplies sent to our Indians by the government were not stolen by the agents in connivance with the traders, they would not be reduced to this horrible misery and would not kill a calf to eat.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council