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School at Fort Totten


Named after Brevet Major General Joseph Gilbert Totten, former chief engineer of the Army, Fort Totten was established on this day, July 17, 1867. A large fort for its time, Totten originally comprised of 32 buildings, housing both infantry and cavalry units. The U.S. Government felt such a large post was necessary to secure American interests in the region as the United States and Great Britain were still squabbling over the final boundary of Canada. Furthermore, Fort Totten housed the peacekeeping forces that protected the mail routes to the new gold fields in Montana, and acted as a regional stabilizer, facilitating settlement to the surrounding farmland. Although an important Army post for over two decades, Fort Totten eventually outlived its military usefulness.

International boundary disputes settled and the threat of American Indian unrest subsided, the U.S. military decided to remove its final troops stationed at the fort and in December of 1890, detachments from the 3rd Infantry left the post for the final time.

After the completion of its military duties, Fort Totten was selected for use as a boarding school for children from the Devils Lake Sioux Indian Reservation and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Tribes. In January of 1891 the Fort Totten School was opened with seventeen workers and a contingent of nuns who acted as preparatory teachers and nurses. At this time the U.S. Government had undergone a shift in its relationship with American Indians. As an alternative to continual warfare, the government sought to assimilate Native Americans through education. With this in mind, the boarding school maintained three goals; to instruct the students in the English language, to provide the students with practical job skills, especially in agriculture, and finally to instruct the students in U.S. democracy. In addition to their schoolwork students participated in a wide variety of extra-curricular activities, including plays, track and basketball, even winning the state basketball championship in 1931. The school’s band was highly sought after for public performances and in 1893 the band performed at the World’s Fair in Chicago.

Although the school was originally established to separate American Indian children from their cultural heritage, the government eventually reconsidered its plan and closed the school in 1935. Five years later, Fort Totten was once again opened as a school, but this time as the Fort Totten Community School, a day school for local elementary and high school students.

After nineteen additional years instructing American Indian youth, Fort Totten permanently ended its days as a school house and was acquired by the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1960 as a State Historic Site.

Written by Lane Sunwall


Krayk, Barbara, Diane Knodel, Vance Nelson, and Jack Mattson. Fort Totten, Dakota Territory, 1878: Fort Totten State Historic Site Foundation, 2004.

"Totten Trail Historic Inn: History", Friends of Fort Totten http://www.tottentrailinn.com/history.htm (accessed June 20, 2008).