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Fort Berthold’s Early Years


The early years of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation took a major toll on the lives of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people. The federal government created the reservation in 1870 and named it after a nearby frontier fort. The government forced assimilation into the Euro-American way of life, putting natives on allotments of land to farm wheat.

In a generation, the old ways of life were phasing out. Towns like Independence and Elbowoods went up, moving natives into more assimilated lifestyles. Some families managed to maintain their own gardens, but their traditions were taken away as missionaries sought to convert them and their rituals were prohibited.

Today in 1875, a letter report from Fort Berthold Indian Reservation was on its way to the Secretary of the Interior. William Courtenay was an early postmaster on the reservation who remarked in his report that the harvest that year would be good for corn and but bad for oats, as grasshoppers had destroyed the oat crop. Courtenay was not fond of the tribes and their traditions. He wrote that they should grow their own food without “gratuitous distribution.” He denounced their rituals and ceremonies as “tomfoolery” and once suggested they should accept government cattle for their horses or be left to starve.

Despite his contempt, Courtenay did write in his report that he believed the tribes could become self-supporting in their reservation lives. He also wrote small praise for the natives’ farming skills and work ethic.

J.W. Southworth reported on the health conditions on the reservation. He wrote that some consumption and scrofula cases were present but suggested the reservation life was responsible for their better health after epidemic years. He also suggested “stringent measures” to reduce venereal disease by banning contact – specifically, natives’ intercourse with military officers and whites.

Southworth closed his letter with a request for glass goggles to reduce snow blindness among the tribes. He also grumbled about native parents refusing to vaccinate their children.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


Engs, R.F. (1999). Educating the disenfranchised and disinherited. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN.

U.S. Government Printing Office. (1875). Annual report of the commissioner of Indian affairs to the secretary of the internior. U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.