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Fisk at Fort Union


Captain James Fisk’s last and largest western expedition reached Fort Union on this date in 1866. A week behind schedule, the party of five hundred was happy to have reached the Montana border without any major catastrophes. Fisk’s fourth expedition also proved his most successful. The previous three, sanctioned by the U.S. Army, had been marred with difficulty. The 1864 party had been attacked by Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa Sioux and had to be ‘rescued’ and escorted back to Fort Rice by General Sully.

Born in New York in 1835, Fisk had been a “raftsman, farmer, carriage-maker, and newspaperman” before gaining a fascination for the American frontier. Spurred on by stories of the western wilderness, he set out for Minnesota Territory in the 1850s. He took up the cause of western settlement and enlisted as a volunteer soldier in the Minnesota Infantry. With the help of Minnesota politicians who shared his cause, he was able to secure the position of Superintendent of Emigration, commissioned with the task of opening a route between Minnesota and the Montana goldfields. In 1862, he set out with his first group of 130 settlers, but the following year Fisk found only a handful of emigrants heading west, due to increasing reports of Indian attacks. The reports became a reality for Fisk in 1864, when his party was attacked by Sioux warriors west of Fort Rice, ultimately leading to Fisk’s military resignation. Two years later, however, the captain decided to launch a private venture, charging each emigrant $100 to be escorted to Montana from St Cloud, Minnesota, with 50 pounds of luggage and meals. With 160 wagons, the expedition left Minnesota in late May, and reached Fort Union on August 2nd. Only days before their arrival, a group of Sioux fired on traders just outside the fort and took their goods. Another expedition lost seventy men at a Yellowstone River ambush. Fisk’s group was one of the few western expeditions to avoid an Indian attack that year, with parties to the south reporting “fighting all the way” to Montana.

After reaching Helena in September, Fisk and his family set up the Helena Herald newspaper and remained in Montana.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme Job


Libby, Orin Grant (ed.). 1908Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Vol. 2. State Historical Society of North Dakota (Tribune State Printers and Binders): Bismarck, ND: p. 451-458.

Lounsberry, Clement Augustus. 1919 Early History of North Dakota: Essential Outlines of American History. Liberty Press: New York: p. 306.