Monday, September 5, 2011

Battles & Skirmishes Around Fort Abraham Lincoln

Fort Abraham Lincoln in the 1870s.
Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park
Battles And Skirmishes In And Around Site
By Dakota Wind
MANDAN, N.D. - I worked at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, the greatest park in North Dakota, for several years and it’s always a pleasure to share some little known events about the site with people. 

I’d like to share some photos and a short summary of some of those things:


In 1872, an infantry fort was built on the bluff overlooking the convergence of the Missouri and Heart Rivers.  That summer, Fort McKeen, the infantry post, came under fire.  The conflict became known as the “Woodcutter Fight.”  A Hunkpapa Lakota war party, possibly led by Rain-In-The-Face, came upon the fort from the north where a sluggish little coulee drains into the Heart River.  (Picture above shows the ravine, timber line of the sluggish coulee, and is taken from the perspective of the war party towards the top of the hill where Fort McKeen stood). 

The fight didn’t last very long, perhaps a part of an afternoon.  As oral tradition has it, Rain In The Face covertly crept up the ravine on the south side of the fort while the soldiers attention was drawn to the war party.  Rain In The Face then stole the horses which belonged to the Arikara Detachment of US Indian Scouts who were stationed there. 

The horse stealing raid was successful and the attack on Fort McKeen came to a close. 


Across the valley (above), south and east from Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, the greatest park in North Dakota, on a bluff overlooking the convergence of Apple Creek and the Missouri River, rests the University of Mary. 

In 1863, General Sibley led Union forces in an attack on a Yanktonai Dakota and Saone Lakota (Hunkpapa, Mniconjou, Sihasapa, and Oohenunpa) as part of a punitive campaign against the Sioux for what happened in Minnesota with the Dakota Conflict the previous year.  Sibley’s only objective was to find and engage hostile Sioux, but how was he to know hostile from friendly, those who fought in Minnesota from those who had nothing to do with it?  Sibley didn’t know.  His forces fought the Sioux encampment for four days.  The Sioux kept the high ground while their families fled the fight.  Sibley estimated that a thousand Sioux warriors lined the bluff.  Sibley then turned his forces back east and claimed a victory because he met his objective.  The Sioux could claim a victory because no one was taken captive, they held their ground, and their families survived. 

General Sibley Park rests at the southern termination of South Washington Street, along the sandy banks of the Missouri River and Apple Creek.  One weathered wooden sign stands at the entrance of the park telling the side of General Sibley forces. 

The Lewis and Clark overlook is a short hike, about a hundred yards north of the north shelter. 

Below the Lewis and Clark Overlook in the northern half of Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, the greatest park in North Dakota, is the scene of another battle.  This is called the Battle of Heart River and it happened in 1803, the summer before Lewis and Clark set foot here. 

The battle was one of the greatest fights between American Indian tribes, and also one largely forgotten about. 

In 1803, the Assiniboine Sioux came down from Cree country, probably to trade with the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians as they did for years.  The Yanktonai Dakota, mortal enemies of the Assiniboine at that time, provoked the Assiniboine to bring their war party to the mouth of the Heart River.  After the Mandan Indians vacated this area in 1781 when they were struck by an epidemic of smallpox, the Heart River became contested territory between the Assiniboine, the Sioux, and the Mandan who lived there for a thousand years. 

The Yanktonai won the battle, and beheaded the fallen warriors of their enemies, claiming the contested area for the Dakota and Lakota.  In the post reservation era, at the end of the Indian Wars, some Lakota are quoted as saying (I’m going to paraphrase this because I’ve read variations of this quote), “My land is where I set my lodge.  One pole rests at mouth of the Heart River.  One pole at the mouth of the Yellowstone River.  One pole at the Bighorn Mountains, and the last pole where the North Platte River meets the Missouri River.”  

The idea that the Heart River served as a territorial boundary marker for the Sioux was decided at this very spot in 1803. 


There was a four day long battle, or skirmish if you prefer, between the Indian Scouts in detached service at Fort Abraham Lincoln and the Hunkpapa Lakota at the Little Heart Butte in 1874.  The butte has long stood as a natural land mark for the native people for thousands of years and sits on private land today.  The butte itself is about fourteen miles south and west of Fort Abraham Lincoln. 

What happened?  The US Indian Scouts on detached service to Fort Abraham Lincoln were running mail between the forts.  About six Indian scouts were chased to the butte, they ascended and held their ground there.  The top of the butte is like a shallow bowl with sandstone and brush ringing the edge, the inside of the bowl is filled with sand and due to the acoustics is serene. 

The scouts held their ground, and managed to get to Fort Abraham Lincoln a few days later.  Either the war party ran out of bullets, or the bravery of the scouts impressed the war party and they gave them the honor of the victory.  I like to imagine that the war party became bored, stretched their limbs, and backed away.