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Patrick Springer, Published August 29 2012

Fort Abercrombie: On 150th anniversary, a look back at a bloody clash

FARGO - The first hint of trouble came to Fort Abercrombie on a tranquil summer day when word arrived that the Dakota Sioux in Minnesota were ripe for an uprising.

It was unwelcome news for a military post whose new commander had recently discovered was stocked with ammunition that was the wrong caliber for the soldiers’ muskets.

Also, since the fort wasn’t yet protected by a stockade or blockhouses, the soldiers scrambled to build defensive breastworks of earth and timber to surround the key buildings comprising the post.

Help was 227 miles away, at Fort Snelling, and the nearest community of any size was more than 150 miles away, in St. Cloud.

Unbeknownst to the soldiers at the remote post on the Red River, war had already erupted three days earlier. On Aug. 17, 1862, several young Dakota men killed five people on two farms near Acton, Minn. It was the start of what became known as the Dakota Conflict of 1862, a bloody clash that would claim the lives of more than 400 white settlers and probably hundreds of Dakota, whose frustration and starvation flared into violence.

The messenger’s warning marked the beginning of what would become the six-week siege of Fort Abercrombie, a tense standoff that included two battles with Dakota warriors.

Before rising up, the Dakota had agreed to a succession of land cessions in return for treaty promises of food and supplies, since they no longer had a land base to allow them to be self-sufficient.

Food deliveries repeatedly were late, and the situation turned desperate from a harsh winter and summer drought that killed crops.

The final spark of provocation came after a promised shipment of payments failed to arrive at Minnesota’s Upper Sioux Agency in Yellow Medicine, and the hungry Sioux heard a trader callously say, “Let them eat grass.”

The trader who spoke those words was one of the first to die, his mouth stuffed with grass.

Soon enough, on Aug. 30 – exactly 150 years ago today – trouble came to Fort Abercrombie.

Capt. John Vander Horck, the commander, and an orderly were inspecting the area outside the picket when a sentry, mistaking them for Indians, shot the captain in the arm.

As it turned out, the shot was fired just a few moments too soon.

The attack came as the flustered guard explained that he had seen warriors crawling in the grass the night before, and the fort surgeon bandaged Vander Horck’s wound.

An estimated 400 warriors stormed the south side of the fort, where the horses were kept in stables and a stockyard, which appeared to be the attackers’ main objective.

The Dakota raiders set fire to haystacks, but the fort’s defenders managed to repulse the attack after two hours of fighting. After pulling back, the Indians continued firing until midafternoon from dense cover along the riverbank.

One white defender was killed and one later died of his wounds, according to military reports. Two dead Indian warriors were found, but as many as four others might have died and been carried away.

The battle marked the beginning of a long standoff. If the warriors could not overrun the beleaguered fort, they could try to starve into submission the soldiers and settlers who had flocked there for protection.

Before the attack, the post’s commander had sent a messenger pleading for reinforcements and ammunition, but they had yet to arrive.

When the smoke cleared, the soldiers took inventory of their ammunition. They counted 350 rounds. It would have to last.

The fighting during the bloody siege of Fort Abercrombie wasn’t over yet, and it was just the first battle of the Minnesota conflict to spill over into Dakota Territory.

* * *

Although the soldiers at Fort Abercrombie were short of bullets, they had artillery at their disposal, three 12-pound Howitzer cannons.

The shells contained balls of lead that would disperse, much like a giant shotgun. In today’s military jargon, it would be called an “anti-personnel weapon.”

“That’s not a line you can break without taking huge casualties,” historian Tom Isern says, referring to the Dakota warriors’ dilemma. “Their only hope was a long siege and attrition.”

Surprisingly, little research into the siege of Fort Abercrombie has been done beyond gleaning what was written in official military reports, most written long after the event. (Details included in this story come from published histories of the siege, including those provided by the State Historical Society of North Dakota and the Friends of Fort Abercrombie.)

Isern, a professor of history at North Dakota State University, is involved in research to identify battle and action sites associated with the siege under a grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Preservation Program.

“We’re out to define where is this battlefield,” Isern says. Fort Abercrombie itself, which has been partly reconstructed, is a historic site maintained by the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

But much of the surrounding area has been cultivated for agriculture – long picked clean by landowners or artifact collectors.

Still, nobody has systematically cataloged what has been found, or interviewed landowners and collectors about what they have found around the fort. Isern and his fellow researchers will be doing that.

The work, which could take a couple of years, is a blend of historical research, archeology and military science.

One of the questions about the Fort Abercrombie left unanswered:

Did the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, whose nearby Lake Traverse Reservation is located mostly in South Dakota but partly in North Dakota, participate in the siege?

Stories passed down by the tribe’s oral tradition are not clear – some say a noted leader took part – but some of those defending the fort claimed to recognize Dakota warriors from the neighboring area.

Last summer, a search for artifacts along the river turned up some lead pellets, which Isern believes were from shotguns fired by fort defenders.

One of the project’s collaborators is Tamara St. John, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe and the archivist for its historical preservation office.

She will be on hand at Fort Abercrombie on Saturday to provide a Dakota perspective when people gather to observe the 150th anniversary of the siege.

“Our goal is to maintain control or take control of our cultural history by telling our stories,” she says.

Inevitably, the stories about the Dakota Conflict of 1862 are grim. If the death toll on the Indian side included those who died during that period from disease or starvation, she says, it would be much larger than the unrecorded number who died in the conflict’s battles.

Too often, she says, the focus is on the bare facts of the battles, with little attention given to the events that led up to the conflict – huge land cessations that ended self-sufficiency, broken treaties and people who were starving.

“It’s really important to look at why all of this was happening,” St. John says. “We’re still dealing with that 150-year anniversary. For us it was an event or a period of time where there was nothing to celebrate, so it’s more of a commemoration.”

* * *

The besieged soldiers made a welcome discovery when they found that the dozen cases of cannon canisters contained balls that matched the caliber of their rifles.

Also, the soldiers discovered that a wagon train of treaty goods that had been called back from its delivery site near Grand Forks because of the outbreak of hostilities contained a supply of black powder and muzzle-loading shotguns.

So the defenders of Fort Abercrombie turned out to be much better armed than they’d known before – good news given the periodic eruptions of gunfire from Dakota warriors hiding behind trees on the Minnesota side of the river.

Then, at daybreak on Sept. 6, the Indians made their most formidable assault on the fort, attacking from three sides.

Once again, the warriors concentrated on the stables, this time gaining entrance. But cannon fire helped to drive them back.

Some of the hottest fighting pitted 10 soldiers protected by the makeshift breastworks near the fort’s commissary who, greatly outnumbered, held off their attackers.

Two Dakota casualties fell near the fortified commissary. Scattered nearby, bloody rags and remnants of clothing were left on the field, suggesting heavy casualties. Two defenders were killed.

The battled ended after several hours, but the fighting continued sporadically, mostly sniper fire, as the days and weeks passed.

Finally, on the afternoon of Sept. 23, word arrived that a relief column of 350 soldiers was on its way. Those inside the beleaguered fort were jubilant. The siege was winding down.

But the long armed conflict between the Sioux and the army had just begun. In 1863 and 1864, the army mounted punitive campaigns in Dakota Territory, resulting in deadly confrontations at Killdeer Mountain and Whitestone Hill in what today is North Dakota.

More fighting came in 1868 and 1876, including the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The last armed conflict came in 1890 in what today is called the Wounded Knee Massacre.

If you go

What: 150th Commemoration of the Siege at Fort Abercrombie

When: Events Saturday start at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Fort tours featuring living history characters at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Where: Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site, 37 miles south of Fargo

Info: Call Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site at (701) 553-8513

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522