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Friluftsliv: Fort Dilts: A troubled time and a bad decision

Posted 10/10/23 (Tue)

As a volunteer for the State Historical Society of North Dakota for the last seventeen years and as a former president of the North Dakota Archaeological Association, I have had many opportunities to research and write articles about the history and archaeology of Dakota Territory and North Dakota. One of my projects examined an attempted cross-country emigration of settlers and merchants from Minnesota to the gold fields of Montana and Idaho. A combination of bad timing, head-strong leaders and disgruntled Native Americans would lead to its failure.

The year of 1864 was an unsettled time in Dakota Territory and the rest of the nation. The American Civil War, in its fourth year, was still raging in the East. Homesteaders were slowly and reluctantly returning to the state of Minnesota and the territory of Dakota after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. President Abraham Lincoln was shuffling military troops in an attempt to bolster his Union fighting forces and, at the same time, address the unrest in the Midwest. Demands were being made to assure safe passage to the gold fields of Montana and Idaho. Westward expansion was being encouraged and with it, hopefully, the nation’s gold reserves would be replenished to pay for the ongoing war.

Major General John Pope at “Headquarters, Department of the Northwest” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had issued ordered to build four forts in Dakota Territory. Their purpose was to address the Native American unrest and establish a safe route to the western gold fields.

General Alfred Sully was the “boots on the ground” guy tasked with both objectives: establishment of a fort and safe passage for emigrants to the gold fields. On July 7, 1864, he established the location of Fort Rice eight miles above the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers. It would eventually be manned by former Confederate prisoners-of-war.

After establishing the location of the fort and detailing troops to build it, Sully and the rest of his command continued north to what would eventually be called the “Battle of Killdeer Mountain” and the “Battle of the Badlands.” One of the “successes” of the campaign was the destruction of the winter food supply of the Native Americans at Killdeer Mountain.

All in all, it was a bad time to attempt a cross country road trip. Yet, that is exactly what James L. Fisk proposed to do. He was a former private in the Third Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. He had earned the reputation of being “undisciplined” and now he was going to attempt a more direct, uncharted route across Dakota Territory. The objective was to shave several hundred miles off the more established trail to the gold fields. Fisk had been successful in his 1862 and 1863 expeditions from Minnesota to Montana following the more established route. His luck would not hold in 1864.

Fisk and his caravan of 97 covered wagons and 200 men, women and children left Fort Ridgely, Minnesota, and traveled overland to the newly established Fort Rice on the Missouri River. His hopes and plans were to join up with General Sully and his troops for the protection they would afford his small band of travelers. Unfortunately, General Sully had already left for his battles to the north. Not to be deterred, Fisk left Fort Rice on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 1864, under an escort of convalescent soldiers and worn out horses.

On Friday, Sept. 2, the wagon train was attacked by Hunkpapas under the leadership of Sitting Bull. The Native American band was headed south to their traditional hunting grounds in hopes of replenishing their food supplies destroyed at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. A wagon train loaded with supplies seemed to be one answer to their hunger problems. A running skirmish ensued until the Fisk expedition was forced to circle the wagons on Sept. 4, build a six-foot tall earthen wall around the wagons and hunker down until General Sully’s troops came to their rescue on Sept. 20.

One of the troops who was killed during the siege was Corporal Jefferson Dilts, signal scout for the expedition. Their earthen cantonment and home for sixteen long days and nights was named Fort Dilts in honor of Corporal Dilts who was buried on the perimeter of the defensive enclosure.

You can visit the Fort Dilts State Historic Site, eight miles northwest of Rhame (GPS 46.279121, -103.776424). A very easy four-mile drive north of paved Highway 12, west of Rhame, will transport you to a site that looks very much as it did 159 years ago. Try to imagine what it would have been like to spend sixteen days on a hilltop surrounded by angry, starving Native Americans, the howling of ravenous wolves, the moaning of the wounded, and the conflicting agendas of expedition leaders.

Doug Wurtz grew up near Ryder and graduated from Minot State University. His retirement activities include nature photography as well as serving as a Certified Interpretive Guide for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. He is past president of the North Dakota Archaeological Association. Doug and his wife, Linda, live in Bismarck.