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Gateway to the West


Fort Abercrombie was known as the Gateway to the West. It was the first permanent United States military fort in what is now North Dakota. Established in 1858 by an act of Congress, it was named for the officer in charge, Lieutenant Colonel John J. Abercrombie. The fort’s initial purpose was to guard the oxcart trails used by fur traders. Those duties expanded with increasing traffic that included wagon trains, stagecoaches, and steamboats. As the railroad made its way west, the soldiers also protected railroad workers. The fort was instrumental in the non-native settlement of western Minnesota and the Dakota Territory.

Long before the Dakota Uprising of 1862, the Dakota were not happy with the establishment of the fort. They were sure the fort would bring more settlers and soldiers. In that they were correct, and Fort Abercrombie came under repeated attacks during the uprising. Settlers took shelter there, but it was not a very secure site. It did not look like the forts we see in movies. There were no blockhouses or palisades during the siege. Those defenses were built shortly after. Three howitzers were crucial in holding off the attacks.

The Sioux Chippewa Peace Conference was held at Fort Abercrombie in 1870. 900 Sioux and Chippewa representatives attended. It resulted in the cessation of hostilities in the area.

One notable unit that served at Fort Abercrombie was the 1st U.S. Volunteer Infantry. This unit was made up mainly of former Confederate soldiers who joined the Union Army. They enlisted in exchange for freedom from prison camps on the understanding that they wouldn’t have to serve against their former comrades. Another famed unit that spent time at Fort Abercrombie was Custer’s 7thCavalry. Major Marcus Reno, who had served with George Custer at Little Big Horn, was stationed for a time at Abercrombie.

On this date in 1877, Fort Abercrombie was officially abandoned. The buildings were sold and removed. During the Depression, a government historical project reconstructed three blockhouses and the stockade. The original guardhouse was found and returned to the site. Fort Abercrombie now includes a museum and gift shop. Historical programs are regularly presented over the summer.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Chakey, Doreen. Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and U.S. Soldiers on the Upper Missouri, 1854-68. Norman: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2012.

Clodfelter, Micheal. The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers: 1998.

Friends of Fort Abercrombie. "http://www.ftabercrombie.org/fort-history.html" http://www.ftabercrombie.org/fort-history.html Accessed 7/14/14.

State Historical Society of North Dakota. "http://www.history.nd.gov/historicsites/abercrombie/index.html%20Accessed%207/17/14" http://www.history.nd.gov/historicsites/abercrombie/index.html Accessed 7/17/14 .