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Fort Totten State Historic Site


Fifty years ago, the National Historic Preservation Act was created to help preserve the diverse archaeological and architectural treasures of America. Fort Totten State Historic site is one of the best preserved military posts from the Indian Wars west of the Mississippi River. It was one of a series of posts established in the 1860s to protect routes from Minnesota to the gold fields in Montana. The original structure was composed of logs and surrounded by an 18 foot high log stockade.

On April 6, 1869, Congress authorized the construction of a permanent post, and it was constructed from brick made just across the bay. By the early 1870s, Fort Totten boasted of officer’s quarters, a hospital, barracks, a bakery, and a commissary positioned around a square parade grounds. Outside those buildings were the mess halls, storehouses, stables and the heavily-used guardhouse. Construction costs were over one hundred thousand dollars. Originally, Fort Totten was an infantry post, but by 1873 units of the 7th Cavalry were included. Troop strength usually numbered around 100 men with a civilian population of 150 to 250.

With the passage of the frontier by the end of the 1880s, Fort Totten had out-grown it usefulness, and in October of 1890, orders arrived to abandon the post. Its buildings were to be turned over to the Secretary of the Interior as an industrial training school for Indian youth. On January 1st, 1890, Fort Totten assumed this new role, which would continue until 1959.

The Grey Nuns, who had operated a school in the first military quarters, were retained for the boarding school. Boarding schools were seen as the crucial instrument in the transformation of the Indian people through vocational education until 1930, when community schools were considered a more appropriate method of education. The system was based on a military structure, including uniforms and strict discipline. Students were required to live at the school. In 1937, the role of the school changed, becoming a preventorium for tuberculosis patients but, after five years, it again resumed life as a community school.

In 1959, Fort Totten was turned over to the State of North Dakota as an historic site. Most of the original military buildings around the parade grounds remained, although they had been heavily modified inside for use as a school. Most of the peripheral buildings were gone. On this date in 1971, the fort was placed on the National Register of Historic Places for the preservation of its unique history, including its role through in the nation’s changing Indian policy.

Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis


Fort Totten, Military Post and Indian School 1867-1959, State Historical Society of North Dakota 1986