Throughout the summer of 1864, travel in Northern Dakota Territory was not only slow but unsafe. In response to aggressive military expeditions the year before, Yanktonai and Lakota American Indians began a systematic attack on transportation routes; even the river ways were unsafe as stranded Steamboats on the Missouri River were a favorite target. The US Government, in an attempt to keep Dakota traffic lines open and facilitate settlement in the upper plains, sent General Alfred H. Sully, along with an army of 3,500 men, to confront the American Indians, secure the settlement routes and establish a string of forts to maintain the peace.
According to contemporary military opinion, the most important of these posts was Fort Rice. Fort Rice was established on this day, July 7, 1864 by General Sully as a field base for his summer expeditions. Located in present-day Morton County, thirty miles south of Mandan on the Missouri River, Fort Rice was built by the 30th Wisconsin Infantry using cottonwood logs cut from the banks of the nearby river and prairie sod for the buildings’ roofs. The Wisconsin infantry was eventually replaced by 1st US Volunteer Infantry, a group of soldiers comprised primarily of Confederate prisoners of war. Also known as “Galvanized Yankees,” they agreed to assist the U.S. Army in the western Frontier instead of languishing in a Union prison.
Life was tough at Fort Rice. The weather was often severe, the winters cold and disease was rampant. Of the 81 men who died in the post’s first year, only 7 died from hostile activity. Additionally, the sense of isolation could be overwhelming, as soldiers faced a vast distance between the Dakota Prairies and the comforts of home. However the soldiers found ways to pass their free time. They opened a theater and published the territory’s second newspaper, the Frontier Scout.
Although the soldiers’ recreational opportunities were somewhat limited, the work required at the frontier post was certainly ample. Throughout its short existence Fort Rice saw continued action. It served as base of operations for General Sully from 1864 to 1865, and from 1866 to 1868 it was home to important Indian councils, which lead to the Fort Laramie Treaty, the end of the Red Cloud War and the definition of the boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation in southern Dakota Territory.
On November 25, 1878, Fort Rice was abandoned after the military built its replacement, Fort Yates, on the Standing Rock Agency. Little is left of the original frontier post. In the 1940’s the Works Progress Administration marked many of Fort Rice’s original foundations, and today there are maps and additional markers at the site, providing visitors a better understanding of this part of North Dakota’s history.
Written By Lane Sunwall
Butts, Michèle T., "Trading Gray for Blue: Ex-Confederates Hold the Upper Missouri for the Union", The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2005/winter/galvanized.html (accessed June 19, 2008).
"Fort Rice", Fort Tour Systems, Inc. http://www.forttours.com/pages/fortrice.asp (accessed June 13, 2008).
"Frontier Scout", State Historical Society of North Dakota http://www.nd.gov/hist/frontierscout.htm (accessed June 13, 2008).
Snortland, J. Signe, ed. A Traveler's Companion to North Dakota State Historic Sites. Bismarck, ND: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1996.