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Northern Pacific Railroad Expedition


The first Yellowstone Expedition left Fort Rice under military escort on this date in 1871. The expedition team consisted of surveyors and engineers of the Northern Pacific Railroad, who hoped to chart a course for the railroad across the northern plains and Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast.

The planning and building of a great northern rail route had become a matter of national importance in the second half of the 19th century. In 1864, the U.S. Congress passed an act granting the Northern Pacific right of way through the “Indian country” of the western United States … to aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from Lake Superior to Puget Sound.” By 1871, Northern Pacific engineers were ready to begin moving west through Dakota Territory.

Colonel David Stanley, the commanding officer of Fort Rice, received orders from Washington to assemble a team of soldiers to accompany the engineers on an expedition west to the Yellowstone River. Fort Rice itself, located thirty miles south of present-day Mandan, was originally built by General Sully in 1864 to guard northern transportation routes and American settlers from attack by Native Americans, and its soldiers were all too familiar with the constant threat posed by Sioux warriors. These warriors targeted transport routes, with some even going so far as to attack steamboats on the Upper Missouri. With this in mind, Colonel Stanley sent orders to neighboring troops and began concentrating soldiers at the fort in preparation for the expedition.

On September 6th, the team of surveyors and engineers arrived from Fort Abercrombie with a small military escort. After resting at the fort for a few days, the expedition set out on the morning of the 9th with an escort of 500 men, 50 Indian scouts, 100 wagons, an artillery detachment, and two Gatling guns. For the next five weeks, the expedition team mapped and charted their way to the Yellowstone River, finally returning to Fort Rice on October 15th.

The expedition was considered a great success, void of any attacks or injuries. In celebration, the ladies of Fort Rice gave a grand military ball before wishing their civilian and military guests farewell. For the next two years, the fort remained busy with similar expeditions, both large and small, until the entire length of the Northern Pacific was charted through the northern plains.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job

Lounsberry, Clement A. 1919 Early History of North Dakota: Essential Outlines of American History: pp. 337-8. Liberty Press: Washington, D.C