The Military Frontier: Overview

The United States Army moved westward across the continent with the expansion of the nation. White settlers and traders who moved west demanded protection from the Indians. The military presence in the West largely took the shape of small installations—mostly log palisades with blockhouses at the corners. More permanent posts, such as Fort Totten and Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota, were imposing garrisons of brick and lath-and-plaster clapboard structures. The forts were not often attacked. Their significance lay in the presence of soldiers who represented American authority. The forts were bases of operations in campaigns against the Indians when that became necessary.
Fort Snelling, strategically located on high ground near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, was established in 1820 as the only fort between present-day Minneapolis and the Pacific Coast. Referred to as “the anchor post of the Northwest,” Snelling kept the uneasy peace the Chippewa (Ojibwa) and the Dakota (Sioux). The fort was the only evidence of United States sovereignty in the vast hinterland that included what would become Dakota Territory. It was not until 1857 that the army established Fort Abercrombie, just north of present-day Wahpeton, as the white frontier moved west.
The military frontier crept slowly up the Missouri River Valley as traders and trappers followed that course. Not long after the War of 1812, President James Madison urged the construction of a Missouri Valley fort to see to it that the English stayed off American soil. In 1821 Fort Atkinson began operations just north of present-day Omaha. The only action that its soldiers saw came in 1823 in a campaign against the Arikara who had been interfering with American fur companies. In the 1850s the army moved upstream to Fort Randall and Fort Sully in present-day South Dakota with instructions to keep safe traffic on the river, to make peace among the Indian tribes, and to protect what white people might settle in their areas.

In 1864 the chain of forts came to northern Dakota with the establishment of Fort Rice, not far from the present South Dakota–North Dakota border. From this post General Alfred Sully waged his war against what he believed to be Dakota Indians who had rebelled against the government and white Minnesota settlers in 1862.  Fort Abercrombie and Fort Rice were the first of the several forts established in North Dakota between 1864 and 1870.

Colonel Henry Leavenworth has just returned from the Upper Missouri country where he and his 275 men were sent to punish the Arikara.  On June 2 the Arikara, who usually have dealt in friendly terms with the fur traders, had attacked William Ashley’s party of about 80 or 90 men.  Fourteen of Ashley’s men were killed in the skirmish.

The Arikara were seeking revenge for the death of their chief, Ankedoucharo, who had died in Washington, D.C.  He was one of several chiefs who went east to confer with government officials.  President Thomas Jefferson explained: “Everything we could do to help him was done, but it pleased the Great Spirit to take him from us.  We buried him among our deceased friends and relations.  We shed many tears over his grave.”  The explanation was not enough; the Arikara were angry.

Ashley and Joshua Pilcher, who had had some difficulty with the Arikara the previous spring, demanded that the army protect fur company interests and punish the Arikara. 

En route to the Arikara village, Colonel Leavenworth was joined by as many as 750 mounted Lakota who seemed eager to join in an attack on their old Arikara enemies.  Several Lakota-Arikara battles left people dead on both sides.
On August 9 the army reached the Arikara village.  When the Lakota lost interest in the attack on the fortified and palisaded village, Colonel Leavenworth launched a half-hearted offensive, lobbing shells in the general direction of the village.  Most did no damage, but Chief Gray Eyes was killed.

The Arikara made overtures of peace, and Colonel Leavenworth eagerly entered into talks with the village leaders.  When the negotiations got nowhere, Colonel Leavenworth decided to attack the village once more on the morning of August 12.  The army’s shells, however, fell on an empty village.  According to Arikara accounts, during the night a sacred dog had led the people under the river to safety.  Thus ended the army’s campaign to punish the Arikara.

Fur traders are angry that Leavenworth and his troops did not punish the Arikara.  Pilcher wrote a letter to Leavenworth in which he calls the military leader’s action “imbecility” and charges that the refusal to press an attack “created and left impassable barriers.”  Pilcher plans to give up trade in the area.

Fur traders had hoped that Fort Atkinson would make the Missouri River Valley a safe place for hunters and trappers.  They were disappointed that the army did not use its powder power against the Arikara as an example to other native people.  After all, they ask, had not Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun placed the army in the west to protect American business and citizens?

Calhoun had convinced a reluctant Congress to establish three western forts to keep an eye on native people, open the way for the fur trade, and restrain British interests.  Fort Smith on the Arkansas Rivers, Fort Snelling where the Minnesota flows into the Mississippi and Fort Atkinson on the Missouri near the Platte River were built between 1817 and 1819. Calhoun recommended a fort near the Mandan and Hidatsa villages, but Congress forced the abandonment of that idea.

However, the government remains committed to military action if necessary to secure trade and United States policy in the area.

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