Commerce & Conflict

The U.S. Dakota Wars shattered the commerce and relations of the Northern Plains by exacerbating intertribal conflict, by the U.S. Government’s use of military force, and by the establishment of military forts expressly to punish and subdue the Native population in the region.

The U.S. Dakota Wars began with the 1862 outbreak of war between the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute Dakota and European-American settlers along the Minnesota River Valley. In 1863 the Dakota who fled west were pursued by General Henry Hastings Sibley, whose column engaged Lakota forces at what is now General Sibley Park near the mouth of Apple Creek in the City of Bismarck. General Alfred Sully, in an attempt to entrap the Northern Plains tribes, led a column up the Missouri River keeping close to its banks and supplied by two steamboats.

Increasingly, the purpose of the U.S. military campaigns was to provide protection from Indian attacks for pioneers and settlers steadily moving westward under the American banner of Manifest Destiny. Military posts were built to protect arriving homesteaders, railroad laborers, and even miners traveling through the Dakota Territory headed to gold and silver claims in Montana.

In the summer of 1864 General Sully’s troops built Fort Rice on the western bank of the Missouri River about 30 miles south of what is now the City of Mandan. Fort Rice today remains a fascinating state historic site. Tragically, many of the Indians the generals engaged in battle were not the hostile ones from the 1862 actions along the Minnesota River Valley. To the southeast of the NPNHA, the infamous Whitestone Hill engagement took place in September 1863. Sully’s troops followed a large band of Indian families preparing to hunt buffalo at Whitestone Hill, located in present day Dickey County, ND and then opened fire on their encampment.

Many men, women, and children were killed, many more taken captive. Sully’s men then destroyed the tipis, food supplies, and other belongings left behind by the fleeing survivors. Therefore, although Sibley and Sully were sent to punish the Dakota, their attacks on all Indians they encountered whether enemies or not generated ill-will and heightened hostilities. Indians attacked a boat full of gold miners descending the Missouri River, for example, at a spot just north of where the Lewis & Clark riverboat docks today. Nearby Burnt Boat Road memorializes the approximate location of this fight.

In 1872, Fort McKeen was constructed on the bluff overlooking the abandoned Mandan village On-a-Slant to protect the mail routes from Fort Rice and the residents in the new town of Edwinton. When railroad crews in the Dakota Territory faced harassment by the Lakota and Dakota, Fort McKeen was reconstructed in 1872 as a larger fort, and renamed Fort Abraham Lincoln in honor of the assassinated president.

Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry took up residence the next year to protect the railroad survey crews. Custer and the Cavalry rode out many times from this fort to skirmish with Chiefs Sitting Bull, Gall, Rain-in-the-Face, and Inkpaduta. Custer launched his 1875 Black Hills expedition from Fort Abraham Lincoln, a foray that ignited another gold rush and escalated conflict with the Lakota tribes. Back from a contentious meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant the following year, Custer took command in his fateful 1876 battle with Sitting Bull at Bighorn/Greasy Grass in Montana. His last living quarters are in present-day Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.

Sites relating to this period in Northern Plains history