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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published March 07 2010

Eriksmoen: Northrup operated behind enemy lines in war

One of the first white settlers in what is now southeastern North Dakota spent much of his time in the Civil War operating behind enemy lines gathering important information for the Union Army.

George W. Northrup had been a guide, hunter, trapper, trader, mail carrier and steamboat operator along the Red River before the Civil War. After the war, he was part of Gen. Alfred Sully’s expedition to try to subdue defiant Sioux warriors in western Dakota Territory and was killed in the Battle of the Killdeer Mountains.

When Northrup went to work for Russell Blakeley and the Minnesota Stage Co. in 1858, he had been a veteran hunter and guide of northeastern Dakota Territory for five years, yet he was still only 21 years old. He could speak the language of the Chippewa and Sioux and was familiar with their culture.

In 1860, a group of scientists and historians journeyed to Georgetown 20 miles north of Fargo on the Minnesota side of the Red River. They expected to have a clear view of a total eclipse of the sun. One of the people making the trip was Edward Eggleston, a novelist and historian. Eggleston was well aware of Northrup and was surprised to find him on the riverboat. Because of both men’s dedication to the study of history, they became close friends and regularly corresponded until Northrup died in 1864. Eggleston later wrote a biographical tribute about Northrup that was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1894.

Later, in the summer of 1860, a hunting expedition led by British baron Francis Sykes arrived in Georgetown on its way to western Dakota to hunt buffalo. The expedition was informed that Northrup was hired as the party’s guide. Most of the hunting was done in the Devils Lake region. Sykes was so impressed, he gave Northrup a pair of ponies, a hunting coat and a rifle.

The next summer, upon Sykes’ recommendation, another British aristocrat arrived asking for Northrup to serve as his guide on a hunting expedition. The hunting party consisted of four other men, including one of Northrup’s cousins. The group had traveled about 300 miles west when it encountered a party of Teton Sioux. Northrup convinced the Indians to let the expedition continue on. However, the Indians decided that Northrup, as the leader of the hunting party, “must die.” He was placed in a lodge while the Indians voted on his fate.

The Tetons were soon joined by a group of Yankton Sioux. All of the Indians except one voted to execute Northrup. The one who voted to spare his life was a Yankton who had hoped to have Northrup as his brother-in-law. Six years earlier, the Yankton’s father had offered Northrup one of his daughters in marriage, but was turned down because Northrup believed he was too young. Since the vote was not unanimous, Northrup’s life was spared.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Northrup enlisted on Nov. 2, 1861, with a Minnesota battalion under the command of Alfred B. Brackett. He was appointed fourth sergeant but, after three months, rose to the rank of first sergeant of Company K. Brackett’s Battalion was a cavalry unit and assigned to Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, guarding the approaches to Nashville, Tenn.

As Northrup’s reputation as a scout grew, he was contacted by Gen. George Crook to go behind enemy lines and spy on Confederate operations. The southern command soon learned about Northrup and the valuable information he was providing to Crook and Gen. George Henry Thomas. A bounty of $10,000 was put on Northrup’s head.

Northrup re-enlisted on Jan. 26, 1864, and was transferred with the rest of Brackett’s Battalion to the frontier. The battalion’s biggest assignment was to assist Sully in a 2,500-man assault on the defiant Sioux in western Dakota Territory.

In early July 1864, Sully’s forces came up the Missouri River by steamboat and built Fort Rice. Later that month, they found a Sioux camp in the Killdeer Mountains. The order was given to attack on July 28, and Northrup led his unit up the hills as gunshots and arrows filled the air. Northrup fell, with 10 bullets and arrows piercing his body. He and another soldier, Horatio Austin, who was also killed, were buried on the battlefield in a concealed spot.

In 1913, Captain L.C. Ives, who had been a member of the burial party, found the two grave sites and placed burial stones at that location. On July 28, 1914, the North Dakota Historical Society paid homage to the two fallen soldiers at a ceremony in the Killdeer Mountains.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.