At 709 square miles, Griggs is North Dakota’s third smallest county. Yet the county probably contains more military sites than any comparable area in the state. State historical sites in Griggs County span the eras of exploration, westward expansion, the Indian wars, military trails and fortifications, the coming of the railroads and the Cold War – a time span of 180 years.
These sites are easily reached in a day trip from the cities of the Red River Valley. A car drive from Grand Forks to the middle of Griggs County takes only about an hour and a half. It’s the same distance from Fargo.
The historical record goes back to July 25, 1839, when Joseph Nicollet and his party camped on the south shore of Lake Jessie. In the next 30 years, “Seven important men crisscrossed these 10 square miles,” Lowell Helland writes in “The Legend of Lake Jessie/Explorers, Lakes and Ladies,” published last year.
Add nearby sites and the number of important figures grows.
One of the ladies in Helland’s title is Jessie Benton, daughter of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, an important politician of the pre-Civil War years. She became the wife of James C. Fremont, called “The Pathfinder,” who was the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate and an Army general in the Civil War.
Fremont, at the time a lieutenant assigned to the Topographical Bureau of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, accompanied Joseph Nicollet, a French geographer. Nicollet literally put Lake Jessie on the map, making it one of the first places in what became eastern North Dakota to be named by immigrant Americans. Nicollet’s own name is spread across the Upper Midwest, of course. His map of this area – still considered a monumental achievement in map making – was printed in 1843.
Wood, water, sustenance
Lake Jessie soon became a much-sought-after site, not surprisingly because the area offered water, wood, pasture for horses and buffalo for sport and sustenance.
Lake Jessie gained even greater prominence following the visit of Isaac Ingalls Stevens, another Army surveyor, who led the party looking for a route for a transcontinental railroad. The party reached Lake Jessie on July 10, 1853.
The Stevens expedition sparked my own interest in Lake Jessie; it was the subject of a talk I gave in the Grand Forks County Historical Society’s “Entertaining History” series. My sometime sidekick Erik Fritzell has an interest in the Stevens expedition, too, and I knew him to be good company in a pickup truck, so I inveigled him into an expedition of our own. Fritzell is a Griggs County landowner and a subscriber to the “Griggs County Courier,” and he had seen its coverage of Helland’s book.
The historical marker commemorating Stevens’ campsite is very nearly in Helland’s farmyard. He served as guide for our visit to the site and its surroundings.
John Mix Stanley, an artist with the Stevens’ expedition, made two paintings of the area, one of the lake itself, and one of an enormous herd of buffalo spread across the landscape. These were engraved and included in the official report of the expedition, published in 1863. Helland joined us in the pickup, and he showed us the likely point of Stanley’s painting, one of the first to depict the North American bison. It remains a fine piece of prairie.
Capt. James Fisk, often employed to guide goldseekers to Montana, made two stops at Lake Jessie, in 1862 and 1863. He named a nearby lake after his wife, Lydia. She’s the second of the ladies in Helland’s title. The lake has since been renamed “Lake Addie,” an injustice in Helland’s view, and one that his book attempts to correct.
His research suggests that Fremont had a hand in changing the name. “Addie,” he believes, is Adelaide Thomason-Talbot, a close friend of Jessie Fremont and the third of the ladies referred to in the book’s title.
Helland writes, “We believe that this couple, and possibly others, quite likely thought it would be nice for these two ladies to have their names on these two neighboring lakes in Dakota Territory. … Fisk had clearly named the lake Lydia, after his wife. It is apt to be a matter of Fremont pulling rank and displacing the name. … If that is true, the name should revert back to Lake Lydia since Fisk and his wife came first and they certainly had much more ‘skin in the game!’”
The Dakota War of 1863 brought Maj. Gen. Henry Hastings Sibley to what became Griggs County. His purpose was punitive. The first governor of Minnesota, Sibley was assigned to find and punish those responsible for the so-called “Sioux Uprising” that took place in the Minnesota River Valley in 1862. He brought nearly 5,000 soldiers, about a third of whom camped on a body of water now called Lake Sibley. This was a base camp; the bulk of the force continued westward.
Sibley broke camp on Aug. 12, 1863, leaving the graves of two soldiers.
Alfred H. Terry, another major-general, also camped at Lake Jessie. Best known as the man who buried Custer at Little Big Horn, Terry played an important role in North Dakota’s military history. He helped locate permanent forts and established trails between them. This work brought him to Lake Jessie in 1869. He turned the place into a semi-permanent settlement, building overnight shelters for teamsters making the trip between Fort Abercrombie on the Red River, to Fort Totten on the south shore of Devils Lake.
Helland led us to a portion of the trail. We found it by stumbling into the ruts crossing an overgrown grassland just north of Lake Jessie.
Another frontier military site, Lake Johnson, is south of Cooperstown about 15 miles from Lake Jessie – as the crow flies. It is named for a soldier who drowned there. He was with troops commanded by Gen. Alfred Sully in 1862. This party was surveying the country for potential military installations. After Fort Totten was built, the overland trial passed just west of Lake Johnson. Another historic site near Lake Jessie marks a dugout that was used as a depot along the trail.
Still another Army man, William J. Twinning, camped between Lake Jessie and Lake Addie on July 18, 1869. His assignment was to survey the land with a view to settlement, which wasn’t far behind.
The overland trail to Fort Totten remained in use until 1872, when the Northern Pacific Railroad – the line that was anticipated by the Stevens Expedition – reached Jamestown. A more direct route from the railhead to Fort Totten was soon established, bypassing Lake Jessie and ending its role in Griggs County’s military history.
Settlement began about 1877, but the towns of Binford and Jessie remained isolated until 1899, when a branch of the NPRR was built across northern Griggs County.
The story of Lake Jessie involves another prominent frontier character. Although not a military man, Pierre Bottineau played an important role in several of the events in the area. Born near the forks of the Red and Red Lake rivers, Bottineau spoke several languages and became an interpreter and guide. He was with Stevens and Sibley, and steered them both to Lake Jessie – a place he probably knew from childhood as a kind of oasis on the plains. His contribution went well beyond guiding military expeditions. Bottineau fathered 21 children, plotted routes for the ox cart trails connecting the Red River and St. Paul, and founded a number of towns in northern Minnesota.
Lake Jessie is the first of Griggs County’s military sites, and it was used repeatedly (though not continuously) for more than 30 years – a longer stretch than the most recent of the county’s military sites, the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Historic Site. The site, known in military parlance as Oscar Zero, was active for 25 years, ending with the ratification of the START treaty in 1991.
Mike Brown came to North Dakota as a missileer, and on a July weekend, he and two of his buddies invited the writer to join them in a visit to the site. Brown is now mayor of Grand Forks, but he spent much of his military career in a blast-hardened “tube” 50 feet below ground. Oscar Zero was a launch control site responsible for 10 Minuteman missiles. Initially, each of these was armed with a single nuclear warhead; in the early 1970s, the missiles were armed with three warheads, called by the military “multiple independent re-entry vehicles,” or MIRVs.
Brown explained that crews of two spent 72 hours at the launch control site, rotating into the hardened bunker every eight hours. Later shifts were extended to 24 hours. Each of the two missileers had separate keys and codes; no missile could be launched without each of the airmen entering the correct key and code.
It was, Brown conceded, a boring job. The food wasn’t so good either. He used the time to study for a master’s degree, one that led to his role as a pediatric doctor – the “Baby Doc” of Grand Forks. He plans to retire this year.
The reunion of Air Force personnel produced a lot of banter about how time was spent – in some ways, the occasion seemed like a fraternity reunion.
The Reagan site – named for President Ronald Reagan, who negotiated START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – is one of only a few intact launch control sites. Another is at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota. A Soviet site is preserved in Ukraine.
Another U.S. Cold War site, in military parlance called November 33, is an actual launch silo, though it was controlled by a facility other than Oscar Zero.
The Cold War didn’t result in any battlefield fatalities; no missile was ever launched at an enemy target.
Nor were their battlefield casualties in the earlier military incursions in Griggs County, although there are several military graves. Private Johnson, the drowning victim, is buried at Lake Johnson. Two members of Sibley’s expedition died at Camp Atkinson and are buried nearby. There’s mystery about the exact cause of death. Dana Wright, an early member of the State Historical Society board of directors and a keen student of military history, interviewed surviving members of the regiment and concluded that the deaths were accidental. Certainly, they were not combat related.
Taken together, the Grigg County sites offer a unique opportunity to imagine the experience of military people stationed here, and to appreciate their importance to regional and national history – as well as to learn the back stories and enliven local history.
The Griggs County Museum in Cooperstown has exhibits about the Cold War and its impact locally. A replica of a bomb shelter, fully stocked, is included, and so is a model classroom with stuffed dolls assuming the “tuck and hide” position taught to schoolchildren in the Cold War Era. The museum also has a memorial to the county’s veterans. Helland’s comprehensive history of Lake Jessie is available at the Griggs County Museum.
The Reagan site offers a range of books about the Cold War and its impact on the Plains. Among these are “The Life and Times of the Atomic Bomb,” by Al Berger, retired from UND’s history faculty, and “The Missile Next Door,” which deals mostly with the Minuteman field around Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.
Sites mentioned (unstaffed and without accommodations except as noted):
Camp Atkinson: Immediately off N.D. Highway 1 about two miles south of its intersection with N.D. Highway 65 near Binford.
Fort Abercrombie trail dugout: Just off Highway 65 about just over a mile east of its junction with Highway 1 near Binford.
Griggs County Museum: In Cooperstown. From N.D. Highway 200 near the east edge of town, go north on 12th Street two blocks to Rollins Avenue. Open Sundays through Labor Day 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Staffed. Admission charge.
Lake Jessie: Access from Highway 65 about two miles northwest of Jessie or four miles east of Binford, then south and west on gravel about three fourths mile. The route is well marked and well maintained.
Lake Johnson: From Highway 200 at the southeast corner of Cooperstown, south six miles then one mile west.
November 33 missile silo: From Cooperstown east 2.75 miles east on Highway 200.
Oscar Zero (Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site): Four miles north of Cooperstown on N.D. Highway 45, or two miles south of its junction with Highway 65. Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. until September 15. Call for tours off-season times. Staffed. Admission charge.