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Heart River Corral


General Alfred Sully and a large contingent of troops departed from the Heart River of western North Dakota on this date in 1864, leaving behind a few hundred emigrants and several hundred soldiers as protection. Sully’s troops headed north to confront a village of Sioux that scouts had reported in the Killdeer Mountains. The place the emigrants were left is known today as the Heart River Corral, a North Dakota State Historical Site fourteen miles southeast of Richardton.

Sully had been pursuing the Sioux across western Dakota since the Sioux Uprising of 1862. His campaign of retribution across Dakota punished both those involved in the Minnesota massacres, and some that were not.

An emigrant wagon-train had left from Sioux City, Iowa, in May as part of the ‘Tom Holmes Expedition.’ Headed for the gold fields of Idaho, they were placed under the protection of General Sully, who resented the order to protect the cumbersome group. The 123 wagons were filled with men, women, and children with little or no military experience or training, and were pulled by slow-moving oxen. The wagons were led by a ‘captain-general’ and six wagon-masters. With its own legal ‘court’ and hierarchy, clashes between Sully’s men and the emigrants were inevitable.

When word arrived that a Sioux encampment of 8,000 was only fifty miles to the north, Sully decided to leave the emigrants with a guard unit of soldiers, while he and his main force attacked the encampment. The emigrants, however, were terrified of an impending attack. They circled their wagons on the north side of the river and dug rifle pits along the outside of the wagon corral. For five days, they feared for their lives, believing that the Sioux were only diverting Sully’s troops in order to attack the wagons and supply train. The men spent an entire night in the rifle pits after a nervous guard reported seeing something in the dark. At one point, the pioneers even fashioned a home-made cannon out of a log, encasing it in iron bands; a test-firing proved it worked and gave the emigrants a sense of security. Meanwhile, Sully and his troops attacked and burned the Sioux encampment to the north, returning to the Heart River on July 31st, finding the emigrants safe and sound. On August 3rd, the group continued west to the Badlands.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme Job


Lounsberry, Clement Augustus. 1919 Early History of North Dakota: Essential Outlines of American History. Liberty Press: New York: p. 301.