Sibley Historic Sites
The State Historical Society administers a good number of historic military sites throughout the state, many of which are small out-of-the-way spots that come with small brown road signs that point the way.
Recently, our Dakota Datebook writer came upon one of these beside ND Hwy 1 near Binford. “I spotted it and asked my husband to pull over!” she said. A marker explained that it was the site of Camp Atchison, a field-base used for more than a month in 1863 by the Sibley Expedition.
“It was so quiet,” Helm said. “It was like discovering a nesting pheasant, because beside the marker stood the grave of a soldier who had died there. His headstone was of white marble that looked like it had just been carved. It was unsettling.”
A string of historic markers identify the 1863 route through North Dakota. Along with one led by General Sully, General Sibley’s expedition was here for one specific purpose – to find and kill Little Crow and his men, who they’d been fighting in Minnesota for almost a year. While Sully’s men were the worst offenders, neither expedition discriminated; if Native Americans were spotted, they were considered enemies and fired upon – men, women or children, it didn’t matter.
Termed the Sioux Uprising, a long progression of bloody battles had begun with a relatively innocent event the previous summer. On a Sunday morning in August, four young braves were passing the farm of Robinson Jones, when one of them took some eggs from one of the farmer’s hens. One of the boys said it was a bad idea and was quickly branded a coward, which he claimed wasn’t true. One thing led to the next, ending with the murder of 5 white settlers. The back and forth reprisals that were set off by that event didn’t end until 28 years later when revenge for the Little Bighorn culminated in the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
Sibley and Sully had followed Little Crow into Dakota Territory, with Sibley entering near Big Stone Lake on June 24th. The first major camp established by Sibley’s expedition was at Fort Atchison, where about 1,000 of the 3,330 soldiers were left, including many who had become ill. Other sites used by Sibley’s men in July include Camp Weiser near Kathryn, Camp Buell near Milnor, Camp Corning near Dazey, Camp Hayes near Lisbon, Camp Grant near Woodworth,
Camp Kimball southwest of Carrington, and Camp Sheardown southeast of Valley City.
On July 26th, Sibley and his men engaged in their first major exchange with the Dakotas. That site is called the Big Mound Battlefield, which is near Tappen.
Nine miles north of Tappen is the approximate location of the Camp Whitney, the campsite used by the expedition following the battle. There is a grave marker at Camp Whitney.
Sites used in August include Camp Banks near Driscoll and Camp Arnold four miles north of Oriska. Two headstones honor the memory of two soldiers buried at the Pickett Lake campsite, and a site at Lake Johnson honors George T. Johnson, who drowned there.
Many of these sites are neglected now. A chokecherry bush drapes over the stone marker at Camp Atchison, and tall grass has grown up around everything. A flagpole stands with no flag. Helm said, “The expedition was far from noble; it was about revenge, and innocent people died. Still, I felt sad for the soldier buried there – he died because he got sick, and he was left behind in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t help but wonder what that was like for his family.”
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm