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Fort Rice Engineering Expedition


In President Abraham Lincoln’s third state of the union address, he emphasized the importance of America’s railroads in bringing the expansive country together, stating that the railroads “…when completed, will so largely multiply the facilities for reaching our distant possessions.” The year was 1863 and, at the time, Dakota Territory was considered by most Americans to be one of these “distant possessions.” In fact, until the Northern Pacific Railroad entered northern Dakota Territory in 1871, settlements in the state were few and far between, and most were set up as temporary trading posts or military installations. Railroads were necessary for bringing the great number of settlers and homesteaders that would come to build towns and farms across the state.

In 1864, Lincoln signed a charter creating the Northern Pacific Railroad. The track was to run from Duluth, Minnesota, to the Pacific Ocean. Seven years later, the Northern Pacific reached the Dakota border, but in order to continue building west, land surveys and maps would be needed to plan the best route. Much of western Dakota was considered hostile territory at the time, and it was clear that protection would be needed.

A full-scale engineering expedition was planned by the Department of Dakota and the railroad; Colonel David Stanley, commander at Fort Rice, was assigned the task of organizing the expedition. Stanley took his assignment very seriously, believing the future of the railroad, and therefore the territory, depended on the expedition’s success.

On September 6th, Northern Pacific engineers arrived at Fort Rice under military escort, and three days later, the expedition set out with “…500 [soldiers]…two Gatling guns, fifty mounted Indian scouts…and a train of 100 wagons.” The engineers spent most days of the expedition surveying the countryside, while several cartographers worked on creating maps based on their data. They surveyed the entire route from the Little Heart River near present-day Mandan to the Yellowstone River.

Finally, on this date in 1871, the first couriers from the expedition returned to Fort Rice, announcing that the entire expedition had been a great success. When the rest of the party reached the fort on October 17th, they were welcomed by the fort’s band of musicians. That evening, the ladies of the fort threw a grand military ball to celebrate the success.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job


Lounsberry, Clement Augustus. 1913 Early History of North Dakota: Essential Outlines of American History: pp. 337-338. Liberty Press: Washington, DC.