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Colorful history surrounds Great Plains forts

As I reviewed North Dakota forts for a Canadian conference I attended last weekend, I found myself thinking again about the history of the tribes in the Dakota Territory, including my tribe, the Sahnish.

As I reviewed North Dakota forts for a Canadian conference I attended last weekend, I found myself thinking again about the history of the tribes in the Dakota Territory, including my tribe, the Sahnish.

I say the Sahnish because I was raised that way, but I have a great-grandfather, Little Sioux, who was Lakota. I also have a grandfather who was Dakota Sioux from the Mdewakanton in Minnesota, both on my mother's side. My father was full-blood Sahnish.

Forts in the Dakota Territory were built on rivers or streams. They were there for the protection of settlers who were passing through the Dakotas for Montana gold or land on the West Coast.

There were many forts. Some of those in our area were Park River Post, a North West Co. trading post on the Red River near Grand Forks; Fort Pembina (1870- 1895), built to watch the Sioux and the growing disturbances of the Red River settlements; Grand Forks Post, a North West Co. trading post founded by members of the Pembina settlement.

Fort Totten (1867-1890), now a historical site, first was a military post and then a school for children from Spirit Lake Dakota Sioux and Turtle Mountain Chippewa of Belcourt, N.D.


The old fort still is intact, probably because it was boarding school not too long ago. There are people who still live at Fort Totten who went to school there. I have toured the fort a couple of times. I always feel a deep sadness when I walk the grounds.

Several years ago, I stayed at a bed and breakfast in the military officers' quarters. A prisonlike fence surrounds the parking lot of the bed and breakfast. To me, it's a symbol of the distance between the Dakota and the people who maintain the fort.

Another fort on the eastern side of the state is Fort Abercrombie (1857-1878). This fort protected settlers from attacks by the Dakotas of Minnesota. It was twice attacked unsuccessfully by the Sioux in 1862. With the signing of a treaty with the Ojibwa and the Sioux in 1870, the threat from Indian tribes declined, and the fort was abandoned in 1877. Fort Abercrombie played a significant role in opening the Dakota Territory to settlement.

My grandfather was Dakota Mdewakanton and involved in the battles and skirmishes that took place during that time. The result of this uprising was the largest mass execution in American history. Thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged at Camp Lincoln near Mankato, Minn., after a trial that would have the hair of judges today stand straight up.

The men who went to their hanging were brave and sang their death songs as they walked. The Sioux wars continued, ending in the massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1890.

Fort Yates (1874-1903), one of the westernmost forts, sits as the headquarters for the Lakota, who took out Gen. George Custer in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Fort Yates was built to take the place of Fort Rice (1864-1879). Fort Abraham Lincoln , near Mandan (1872-1891) then was built to replace Fort Yates. The agency at Fort Yates still is there, but Fort Lincoln is a replica of the old fort and Custer's house.

As the Sahnish moved north and west, they occupied Fort Clark (1831-1869), which is north of Bismarck. After several years of skirmishes with the Sioux, they moved to Like-A-Fishhook village with the Mandan and Hidatsa.

I remember my grandmother telling us about the last old woman to leave Like-A-Fishhook village. She refused a frame house and stayed in her earth lodge. When she died, the village never was rebuilt.


Fort Berthold (1858-1874) sprung up around Like-A-Fishhook village. The fort protected the three tribes against warring Sioux in the area. It burned once and was rebuilt three times. Today, there is little left of what was the fort. The town that grew up around it was Elbowoods.

When Lake Sakakawea formed and covered the area, the three tribes were scattered to the upper benchlands around the slow-rising lake. The changes the tribes experienced during some 150 years is dramatic but probably inevitable.

That was true also of the forts: None were rebuilt; a few are tourist sites.

As life on the Plains settled into calm, the role of military as protectors of the settlers was over. Indian people stayed in the areas where they were placed and on the land reserved for them. I doubt if young people today realize that the place where they live was a fort at one time, and a stronghold for the military who protected the white settlers against our people.

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