Chain of Military Forts Now Complete

Soldiers Stand Guard across the Territory
Fargo, December 12, 1872

As the flow of white settlement and business has moved westward, Congress has systematically provided the army with forts and funding to protect those interests. With few exceptions, native people have resisted white encroachment and have only reluctantly, if at all, signed treaties and accepted reservations and white ways.

Unjustly treated, the Dakota fought the system in 1862. The Lakota, tied to their hunting ways, continue to resist white control and culture. The power of the army has become a necessity if white civilization is to be firmly planted on the northern Great Plains. The coming of whites to Dakota means the coming of the army to Dakota.

The chain of forts across northern Dakota is now complete with the building of Fort Seward on the James River near the new community of Jamestown. Fort Seward, which replaces Fort Ransom (established in 1867), will guard workers as they lay tracks for the Northern Pacific Railroad. It is the territory’s eighth military fort to be established.
Fort Abercrombie, near the Red River to the north of the settlement of Wahpeton, was the first, established by Congress in 1857 and built in 1858. Its mission has been to accompany wagon trains on their way to Montana. Since the Dakota attacked the fort during the 1862 “uprising,” Abercrombie soldiers have been on the alert to keep peace in their area.
Four military installations have been placed along the Missouri River. General Alfred Sully established Fort Rice in 1864 as a base of operations for the campaign against Indians who had taken part in the 1862 Minnesota “uprising.” In the very heart of Lakota country, the post protects Missouri navigation and tries to enforce government policy. Fort Abraham Lincoln, organized just this year three miles south of Edwinton (Bismarck) on the west bank of the Missouri River, is the largest with nine companies of cavalry and a large contingent of infantry. Its commander is Colonel George Armstrong Custer, the boy general of the Civil War. Soldiers will stand guard over the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad and make every effort to keep the Lakota on the reservation.
To the north on the Missouri are two forts: Fort Stevenson, which was built in 1867 near the mouth of the Knife River, and Fort Buford, which was garrisoned in 1866 and is located just below where the Yellowstone runs into the Missouri. Both posts patrol the Minnesota to Montana trail and traffic on the Missouri. The 31st Infantry at Stevenson also protects the Three Tribes at Fort Berthold’s agency from the Lakota.
Two military posts are located in the northeastern part of northern Dakota. In 1867 the army began to build Fort Totten on the south shore of Devils Lake as a first step toward setting up the nearby Indian reservation. Presently the post is at full complement and overlooks the reservation and accompanies travelers on the trail across the territory. Fort Pembina dates to 1870 and was established at the request of the Minnesota legislature because of unrest among Native People in that area. Positioned on the Red River near the mouth of the Pembina River, the soldiers also try to control illegal trade between the United States and Canada.
Although each post has its specific duties, they all share a common mission: to control the Native population, to enforce treaties, and to protect white travelers and railroad builders so that settlement will continue to develop in an orderly and safe way.

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

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

Related Media

  1. Fort Buford: Splendid Isolation Part 1

    An introduction to Fort Buford, located at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.

  2. Fort Buford: Splendid Isolation Part 2
    Video: An examination of the lives of women at Fort Buford.
  3. Fort Buford: Splendid Isolation Part 3

    What was it like to be a private at Fort Buford in the late 1800s?

  4. Fort Buford: Splendid Isolation Part 4

    Surgeons’ records at Fort Buford provide another perspective of life at the fort.

  5. Fort Buford: Splendid Isolation Part 5
    Video: Crime and punishment was part of life at Fort Buford.
  6. Fort Buford: Splendid Isolation Part 6
    Video: The fort traders complex was one of the most popular places of the fort.
  7. Fort Buford: Splendid Isolation Part 7
    Video: The letters from the commanders at Fort Buford reveal another side of life at the fort.
  8. Lewis and Clark Pathways: Fort Abraham Lincoln
    Video: Years ago General George Custer's 7th Cavalry resided at Fort Abraham Lincoln.
  9. Dakota Datebook: Fort Buford
    Audio: Fort Buford is located near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.
  10. Dakota Datebook: Fort Totten
    Audio: For nearly a century, Fort Totten served US Indian policy.