150 years of history: Fort Rice among the ruins
By Dustin White
Mandan News, editor
The fort never became as well known as Fort Abraham Lincoln; however, its importance can not be overlooked. Records don’t seem to agree with when the fort was first established, with some placing the date on July 7, while others, including the marker which stands on the now ruins of the site, place it on July 11. What they do agree with though is that the fort was established in 1864, by General Alfred H. Sully. Today, while it only stands as a shell of its former glory, Fort Rice has marked 150 years.
Initially, the purpose of the fort was to protect northern plains transportation routes. As the United States government was pushing forward on the western lands, to the point of encouraging settlers to move out west, increasing hostility was being experienced.
It was not the only fort in the area, but was the first of a series that was meant to maintain the protection of Euro-American settlers. Over the decade and a half in which it was operating, it would become one of the most important of these forts.
In the initial year that it was established, Dakota Territory saw great apprehension and anger among the Native American population. There was great unrest as military expeditions during the previous year had severely injured Dakota, Lakota and Yanktonai bands of Sioux tribes in the area. In response, attacks were increasing by Native Americans on transportation routes in the territory.
The United States struck back, with Sully taking 3,500 men to punish the Sioux by forcing them onto reservations, while at the same time, building a chain of forts to maintain peace.
Fort Rice first saw its beginning as a field base during Sully’s 1864 expedition. While the intention was to protect northern plains transportations routes, it would later expand when additional needs were apparent.
Sully later returned to Fort Rice, and in September of 1864, and later in January 1867, fort was formally established by Executive Orders.
The buildings that would appear in the fort were composed of cottonwood logs, which were cut from the banks of the Missouri River, while the roofs were made from sod. Many of the structures would start to be rebuilt substantially in 1867, as the fort would soon expand in 1868. Guarding the northeast and southwest corners of the camping were log blockhouses.
Initially, the fort was staffed by the Wisconsin infantry, but in the autumn of 1864, they were replaced by the 1st U.S. Volunteer infantry. The majority of these soldiers had been Confederate prisoners of war, known as “Galvanized Yankees.” Instead of spending time in Union prisons, these soldiers had pledged their allegiance to the United States, and agreed to assist in western expansion.
Many of the soldiers were not prepared for the harsh winters seen in the Dakota Territory. During the first year alone, eighty-one men died, with only seven being victims of hostile attacks. The primary cause of death for the other individuals was scurvy.
In 1865, the fort received reinforcements from the 4th U.S. Volunteer Infantry, which was also composed of Galvanized Yankees. Later, these troops would be replaced by Union volunteer troops, and then the “regular” army.
However, there were also some forms of leisure on the fort as well. During the first winter, in order to help time pass, the soldiers opened a theater. Fort Rice would also take on the publication of the Frontier Scout, which was the first newspaper published in the northern Dakota Territory (having first been issued at Fort Union in 1864).
While the fort has first served as the headquarters for Sully’s First and Second Northwestern Expeditions, Fort Rice would take on additional importance through the years of 1866-1868. Through these years, Fort Rice would serve as the location of important Native American councils. The most famous, and important of which was the Great Council in July of 1868.
Sitting Bull, being a key leader of the Lakota, had refused to take part, but was convinced by Father Pierre Jean De Smet to send his chief lieutenant, Gall.
The result of this council was that area Sioux tribes would go on to sign the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which would end the Red Cloud War, as well as define the boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation.
Fort Rice’s roll in the Fort Laramie Treaty has long gone under appreciated though. While a portion of the treaty was signed at Fort Laramie, in present day Wyoming, a portion was also signed at Fort Rice. As a number of Lakota/Dakota representatives choose not to head out to Fort Laramie, the commission decided to bring the treaty to Fort Rice instead. Yet, Fort Rice is often left unmentioned.
Throughout the 1870s, troops stationed at Fort Rice would participate in a number of expeditions. With troops having accompanied Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer on his Black Hills expedition in 1874, others would go on to fight in the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
However, the fort would soon find that it was no longer needed. After the establishment of Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Agency, Fort Rice would be abandoned on Nov. 25, 1878. Over the next few months, a small detachment remained. Their duty was to dismantle the fort and dispose of public property.
Fort Rice would sit still for around 45 years until the State of North Dakota would acquire the fort. Then in the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration set to improving the site by creating a number of markers labeling the building locations. The WPA also built replicas of the two blockhouses that once stood on the land, but over the years, they have ceased to exist.
Today, the site is in ruins. While depressions, foundation lines and the WPA markers can still be seen by visitors, little else remains. The impact that the fort made though continues to be felt. It played an important part in the local history, one that is often overlooked.