November 8: North Dakota Forts

Posted 11/30/22 (Wed)

On this date in 1930, the Bismarck Tribune reported on a meeting of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The speaker for the occasion was Russell Reid of the State Historical Society. Mr. Reid’s topic was North Dakota’s forts.

The most famous fort is Fort Abraham Lincoln. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was appointed the first commander of the fort in 1873. In 1876, Custer led the 7th Cavalry out of the fort in a campaign that ended at the Little Big Horn. Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is seven miles south of Mandan, and several of the fort’s buildings have been re-created and offer historical exhibits.

Fort Abercrombie was perched on the banks of the Red River and was known as the Gateway to Dakota. It was first fort in what is now North Dakota. The town of Abercrombie was named after the fort. During the US-Dakota War of 1862, the fort was under siege for six weeks. Troops at the fort were tasked with guarding oxcart trails, stagecoach routes, wagon trains, and the steamboat traffic on the Red River. Its best-known commander was Major Marcus Reno, who survived the battle at the Little Big Horn. The fort was decommissioned in 1877 and today is a state historic site.

Fort Totten is the best-preserved frontier fort in the state. Built in 1867, it was used as a military post until 1890. It became a boarding school for Indian children and served in that capacity until 1959. For a short time it was a tuberculosis clinic. After that it was a community center and day school for the Spirit Lake Reservation. It became a North Dakota State Historic site in 1960 and was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1971.

During the winter of 1804-05, the Lewis and Clark Expedition built a shelter that they named Fort Mandan in honor of a local Indian tribe. As they overwintered there they met people who became important to their exploration including Sakakawea, Toussaint Charbonneau, and Sheheke-Shote. Today it is a state historical site offering guided tours and programs by the interpretive staff.

Other North Dakota forts include Seward, Stevenson, Ransom, Buford, and Union. They are cared for by the State Historical Society. These sites help to educate visitors about the state’s fascinating history.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher