A North Star Dakotan Interview with Robert Charbonneau
Life around Fort Totten
Robert Charbonneau was born in 1861 at St. Joseph, the oldest son of Baptiste Charbonneau and Victoria Vondel. His family is located near Fort Totten where his father died in 1868. Robert says that he is Sakakawea’s grandson.
What did you do at Fort Totten?
When I was sixteen I went to work for Frank Palmer, owner of the store at Fort Totten. I worked for Palmer for thirty years, drove the mail stage from the Fort to Lake Belleau, fifty miles southwest of Fort Totten where I met the mail from Jamestown.
Driving stage in the summer was easy, but when winter came and the mail had to go, regardless of the weather, it was not so easy. I always changed teams or rather horses, (I drove four horses, one team latched to the stage, the other team in front of the pole team) at the Eli Prescott farm, where Palmer kept relay horses.
In the summer and nice weather I could make the trip to Lake Belleau and return, a distance of approximately one hundred miles, in from six to eight days, depending on how things went on the trip.
Were you ever at the military post?
When I was a boy I used to be around the soldiers’ quarters whenever I got the chance, and the bugler taught me to blow the different calls on the bugle, and a great many times I would blow the calls for the bugler. At times some of the soldiers would come for me to perform this duty when the bugler would be too drunk to do it himself. This is the nearest to belonging to the army that I ever came.
What was it like on the reservation?
One year there was a smallpox epidemic on the reservation. I think it was 1883. The people at the post, and there were many Indian families in the woods near the fort, were not allowed to leave the post for any purpose.
The Indians who had this disease knew it was what they called “black death,” and when a member of a family contracted the disease, they would leave home and go to a draw near Fort Totten, one and a half miles northeast of the fort.
Father Jerome [Hunt] worked night and day on the reservation vaccinating, caring for the ones who were down, carrying food to the homes that were afflicted, in fact doing everything for them, spiritually and physically; but in spite of all that could be done, the Indians died like flies. In this coulee, years afterwards, there were still skeletons of Indians to be found. It was during this epidemic that the Indians held what was the last Sun Dance and the soldiers allowed it because of the unrest on the reservation.
You mention unrest. Was there ever conflict on the reservation?
In 1884 or 1885 the soldiers and people at the fort decided to put on a Fourth of July celebration. The soldiers fixed up the parade grounds adjoining the square on the west. They planned a ball game, the soldiers against the civilians. The Indians were to put on a show battle.
Soon the Indians started coming to the fort. The men on their ponies, the ponies all decked out in bright blankets and fancy bridles and the men in their beaded clothes, head feathers, and war paint. The women and children came in carts or walking, all in their brightest colored clothing.
At eleven o’clock there was a parade; first the soldiers in companies, and after them came the Indians on their ponies. The fort band led the parade. After this some of the officers talked to the crowd on the progress the territory was making and the hope of soon becoming a state, on the friendly relations between the white man and his red brothers. The band played “America,” everyone singing. After this came the ball game, the soldiers winning.
At two o’clock the show battle started between the two groups of Indians. They looked very war-like. The battle was fought with guns loaded only with blank cartridges. When the battle had been going on for about thirty minutes, the spectators noticed a commotion on the field but were unable to make out what the trouble was about. I managed to worm my way pretty close to where the trouble was and found that one Indian had carried a loaded gun and, getting behind his enemy, had shot him. I made my way to Major McLaughlin to tell him what I had heard, but by the time I found him the soldiers had trained the cannons on the Indians. The soldiers were in the field disarming the Indians and ordering them back to the reservation. They arrested Iron Horse, who did the killing, putting him under armed guard in the guard house.
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