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