Siege at Fort Abercrombie

Sep 17, 2018

Since 1858, Fort Abercrombie has been a famous landmark in North Dakota’s history, serving as a gateway to the West and a stopping place along the early trade route between St. Paul and Fort Garry in Canada.

A threat of war came to Fort Abercrombie when the Dakota Conflict began in Minnesota in August, 1862.  Dakota warriors attacked the village of Breckenridge, about August 22, killing four people. Fearful settlers fled to Fort Abercrombie for safety.

One who came to the fort was a man named Frank Kent. Born in Maine in 1831, Kent moved to Minnesota in his twenties and got a job in St. Cloud, hauling freight to Fort Garry and back. By 1862, Kent was using a wagon with four mules.

When the troubles broke out that August, Frank Kent was in Georgetown on the east side of the Red River. Seeking better protection for his mules, Kent headed to Fort Abercrombie on September 2, covering 55 miles in 7 hours, switching teams every few miles to keep the mules fresh.

To reach the fort, Mr. Kent had to cross the river on a ferryboat. Before he reached the ferryboat landing, he saw “fresh pony tracks, moccasin tracks, and other signs” that indicated the presence of a large number of Dakota warriors. The ferryman doubted Kent’s observations.

Nonetheless, Frank Kent warned the fort’s commander, Captain John Vander Horck, of imminent attack, informing him of the danger signs near the fort.

On September 3, the day after Kent’s warning, the Dakota tribesmen, 400 in number, attacked. Fort Abercrombie’s defenders consisted of 75 soldiers and 77 armed civilians, with four cannons. They fought from dawn to three in the afternoon to a standstill. A larger attack came two days later, but was held off, with the cannons giving the defenders the edge.

Captain Vander Horck, needing reinforcements and more ammunition, had sent two messengers to St. Paul on August 23. Fearing the couriers might not have made it, the captain sent Frank Kent and William Tarbell towards St. Paul on September 21, but just two days later, the reinforcements arrived, ending a six-week-long siege.

Thirty-six years later, on this date, in 1908, the Grand Forks Herald published the obituary of Frank Kent, who died at age 78 in Alexandria, Minnesota. Crediting him for the warning at Fort Abercrombie, the headline read: “Hero Is Dead.”

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSUM.

Sources:

“Hero is Dead,” Grand Forks Herald, September 17, 1908, p. 2; “Frank Kent is Dead,” Grand Forks Herald, September 17, 1908, p.4.

“Frank Kent, Pioneer, Dies,” Minneapolis Tribune, September 16, 1908, p. 6.

“He Saved the Fort,” St. Paul Globe, January 26, 1896, p. 8.

“Fort Abercrombie,” Wahpeton Times, February 6, 1908, p. 1.

“Abercrombie,” Wahpeton Times, April 2, 1891, p. 3.

State Historical Society of N.D., Friends of Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site, “The Siege of Fort Abercrombie,” http://www.ftabercrombie.org/the-siege-of-fort-abercrombie.html, accessed on August 16, 2018.

Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, 1861-1865 (St. Paul: Pioneer Press Co., 1893), p. 187-189.