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Visit To Old Fort Randall, SD


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My son and I took a short trip north to South Dakota today. We stopped at the location of the old Fort Randall. Here is info on the fort:

 

"The Fort Randall Military Post was named for Colonel Daniel Randall, who served as Deputy Paymaster General of the Army. The site was selected in 1856 by General William S. Harney, Commander of the Sioux Expedition.

Early in the summer of 1856, the post was laid out and construction began. The buildings at the fort were constructed by the troops themselves from cottonwood logs and materials scavenged from old Fort Pierre. Around the central parade ground, which contained the flagpole and a bandstand, were erected the quarters of the garrison, the commissary, and the quartermaster departments. These buildings were little more than one-story log cabins. A sutler’s store or Post Exchange was also constructed at the fort. Fort Randall even boasted a large post garden. After three years of construction, Fort Randall consisted of 24 log structures that housed six companies or about 500 men.

As the years wore on, the cottonwood logs shrunk and warped. Yawning cracks in the walls gave easy entrance to dust and snow, rats and insects. By 1871, a thorough renovation of the fort was needed, and was ordered by then-commander Lieutenant Colonel E. S. Otis, 22nd Infantry. The shabby log barracks were replaced by two-story frame structures. The commanding officer's house was remodeled and made into a two-story veranda building. All the quarters, buildings, and yards were surrounded by white picket fences. Eventually, a swimming pond, bathhouse, photographic gallery, and many private dwellings were added. By the end of 1871, Fort Randall was considered the best constructed military fort on the upper Missouri River. In the late 1800's, most of the Army's soldiers considered accommodations at Fort Randall to be a "lap of luxury."

Fort Randall was, in its day, an important military post. Its strategic location along the Missouri River made it a key fort in two lines of western frontier defense. It was the last link in a chain of forts protecting the overland route along the Platte River. It was also the first fort in the chain of forts on the upper Missouri River.

The men that found themselves stationed at Fort Randall during its 36-year existence handled a multitude of duties. They provided military protection to settlements up and down the Missouri. They provided escorts for the many wagon trains and survey parties that journeyed across the plains. They loaded and unloaded a never-ending string of Army supply wagons, as this post became the Army's central supply depot for the Missouri River Area. Constant squabbles between various Indian tribes, mostly the Ponca and the Teton Sioux, demanded their constant attention. And, of course, there were the constant and tedious "post duties" -- guard duty, kitchen duty, litter duty, firewood duty, etc.

The most important mission assigned to the soldiers of Fort Randall was to mount expeditions, which would discipline the many restive Indian tribes on the plains, primarily the Teton Sioux. Year after year, springtime found Fort Randall's "Blue Boys" riding and marching jauntily out of the post gates to the tunes of the Fort Randall Band. The years 1863 through 1865 brought the famous Sully Expeditions, three rather unsuccessful campaigns mounted by the dashing and determined General Sully. During the Indian Wars Period of the 1870's, these expeditions brought full military power to bear on the irreconcilable Sioux.

It was not only the Indians who required chastisement from the Fort Randall Garrison, but also many white men who illegally entered Indian lands. After discovery of gold in South Dakota's Black Hills by the 1874 Custer Expedition, hundreds of gold seekers poured into this Sioux Territory. Fort Randall's guard troops dwindled to a skeleton crew as every available soldier was sent into the field to track down these squatters. Many elaborate plots to elude the tenacious troops were foiled by the Fort Randall soldiers. Yet, the lust for gold kept the squatters coming, and Fort Randall reported an increasing number of men A.W.O.L.

For the majority of the soldiers, life at Fort Randall meant a tedious, monotonous military routine occasionally broken by an exciting foray into Indian Territory. Most of the troops came from the East Coast of the United States, and found it most difficult to adjust to the desolation of the Dakota Plains. For a single enlisted man, there were no women to court, no towns in which to make merry. This dull existence spread discontent, and desertion rates were high. The long winters were especially depressing. Nearly every month's official report listed half a dozen or more soldier's A.W.O.L.

A concerted effort was made by the Army to make life on a frontier post more enjoyable. The soldiers were encouraged to organize fraternal societies, and after 1871 Fort Randall had an active Odd Fellow's Lodge. There was also a thriving Lodge of Good Templars, a temperance society. The post boasted a championship baseball team which was called the "O'Reilly's." A stage connection to Yankton allowed many a rough-and-tumble baseball game between the O'Reilly's and the Yankton Coyote Ball Club. The men could also find diversion in reading, for Fort Randall had a Library which contained as many as 1,500 volumes.

Most of the officer's and some of the enlisted men were allowed to have their families with them at Fort Randall. The wives of the post formed a strong Women's association, and engineered many social events. Picnics were organized during the summer; skating parties in the winter. Military balls were held to celebrate gala occasions. The women triggered the organization of an amateur theatrical group during the winter of 1871. Dramatic presentations were given on holidays and included the very popular play, "Ten Nights in a Bar Room."

Important visitors to the post always caused a wave of excitement throughout Fort Randall. Buffalo Bill Cody stopped by on his way to the East with his "Wild West Show." Jim Bridger, the famous mountain man, appeared as a scout with a visiting survey crew. Renowned Civil War General Phillip Sheridan made an inspection of the fort in 1879. These little excitements did much to enliven the routine military life of a frontier post.

Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of Fort Randall was not a soldier at all, but a prisoner. Sitting Bull, the legendary Chief of the Dakota Sioux who is best known for his contribution toward the defeat of Colonel George Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, was imprisoned at Fort Randall in 1881. His band of 158 Hunkpapa Sioux camped south of the fort and were kept under loose surveillance. Hundreds of sightseers came to view the legendary chief, and handling their large numbers became quite a problem for the soldiers. For this reason, the Fort Randall troops were not sorry to see Sitting Bull removed to Fort Yates in 1883.

By 1880, things had calmed considerably on the Great Plains. Most of the Indian tribes had been placed on reservations. The Western Frontier had now passed by Fort Randall. During its last years as a military post, Fort Randall's soldiers were merely garrison troops, performing routine maintenance chores. Troops were kept busy with drilling, target practice, and repairing the roads leading from the post to Eastern Dakota and Nebraska.

On November 9, 1892, Lieutenant Samuel Leah marched his 21st Infantry out of Fort Randall and closed the gates behind him. Fort Randall was therefore officially abandoned. All government buildings and surplus equipment were later sold at a public auction."

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The grounds as they look today. The white poles a placed to show the location of buildings. There are about five of these spots that have the ground sunk in where the "basement / cellars" were.

 

Also a picture of the flag pole on the parade ground.

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After leaving the fort grounds we drove the mile south to the post burial site. Most of the graves of soldiers who died at the fort were removed after the fort closed and reburied at Fort Leavenworth, KS. The only original headstones left are for non-soldiers (family members / civilians). Here are some of the interesting ones that are there to represent those who died there. Most of the soldiers were out of Iowa.

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Neat photos. It looks like they did a great job in explaining the layout!

 

-Ski

In Memory Of......
Pte Harold Griffiths, 1805, 1/6th Manchester Regt, KIA June 4th, 1915 in Gallipoli
Cpl Isaac Judges, 40494, 6th East Yorkshire Regt, KIA October 3rd, 1917 in Ypres
May they rest in peace.....

MSgt - USAF Retired

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It is interesting to note that the "Hollywood" vision of the old west forts is all wrong. I remember growing up thinking the forts all had a palisade or log wall placed around them. However, the truth is that just was not the case. If the forts had a white picket fence around them, that was considered "up-town." Most forts of the west had nothing surrounding them. Natives were to smart to attempt an attack on a military outpost. The soldiers in those forts had alot of weapons!

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Looking at what is there today reminds me of Fort Kearney, Ne, with the markers of where buildings used to be. The general layout of these old forts followed the same pattern, officer's quarters on one side, enlisted across a parade ground on the other. You can see this at Ft. Laramie, Wy and, if memory serves, Ft. Sill, Ok. I would love to take a trip to the several cemeteries which served as reburial sites for these old forts. Forts Leavenworth and Sill come to mind as well as the Little Big Horn Battlefield. Thanks for sharing.

 

By the way, Harney Street in Omaha, Ne is named after General William S. Harney who also led the force which attacked an Indian camp in Western Nebraska in revenge for the Grattan Massacre in the late 1850's.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.

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Thanks for posting these photos of Fort Randall. Not many folks wander our there and it was the often overlooked center of military operations against the Indians during the Civil War.

 

This historical brief downplays the Civil War years, which is also typical for Indian wars histories. They often gloss over the Civil War years and the Sully Expeditions which resulted in the largest US Army vs. the Sioux engagements on the continent. Fort Randall was posted by the 41st Iowa Infantry in 1861 which became the 3rd Battalion, 7th Iowa volunteer Cavalry, Lt Col John Pattee commanding. Along with the 6th Iowa Volunteer Cavalry, they served in the Dacotas from 1862 to 1866 as a major component of the Northwest Indian Expedition, General Alfred Sully commanding. These units were engaged for three years against the Indians in several skirmishes and the Battles at Whitestone Hill, Killdeer Mountain, the Badlands, Fort Rice and the Fisk expedition. Fort Randall was their primary wintering over post. My Gr Gr Grandfather was the Hospital Steward of the 6th Iowa Cavalry and also served on the NWIE staff as the Collector of the Smithsonian Institution. His battalion of the 6th Iowa first arrived at Fort Randall in May 1862 as reinforcements until the entire command could be assembled there. They also constructed Fort Rice (posted by 'Galvanized Yankees' under John Pattee after their CO Col Dimon was dismissed) and Fort Sully I during the 1864 & 1865 campaigns. When the Civil War ended, they remained in the Missouri River posts strung from Fort Randall to Fort Berthold until relieved by regulars long after the CSA surrendered.

 

Most histories of the Plains Indian wars stop at the Minnesota massacre and jump ahead to 1866, overlooking the 6th & 7th Iowa Cavalry. The 7th was also posted in Nebraska & Kansas (Eugene Fitch Ware, etc.) while the regulars were engaged against the rebels.

 

Alfred Sully

 

John Pattee

 

Eugene Fitch Ware

 

Whitestone Hill

 

Killdeer Mountain

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Rufus and Salvage: Thanks for the additional comments. When I first started my teaching career in western NE, I lived about an hour from the site of the "Bluewater Massacre" led by General Harney as well as the site of "Massacre Canyon" where a band of Sioux wiped out a large group of Pawnee (I believe the largest and bloodiest of Native on Native battles).

 

"Forts of the Northern Plains" by Jeff Barnes does a good job of discussing the location and current remains of the forts "out West."

 

One of the best preserved forts in Nebraska is Fort Hartsuff located by Burwell, NE. Fort Robinson is also a well preserved fort to visit.

 

I served as the curator for Fort Sidney (Sidney, NE) years ago. There are only three structures left of that fort today (Post Commanders Home, one of the Officers Quarters that housed two families, and the post magazine or powder house). Still today I will hear about someone finding artifacts or pieces of the old fort buildings that were sold as surplus and scattered all over kingdom come.

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Massacre Canyon: Growing up I often visited relatives in McCook, Ne, just east of this battle site. Note: readers not familiar with Nebraska geography may want to consult an atlas or Google Maps. The monument was, as I recall, a WPA product. This monument is just off US Highway 34. The actual battlefield is further south. I would love to see a motion picture made of this incident, if for no other reason to see how Hollywood, being political correct, would portray the army. In the actual battle the army saved the Pawnee from the Sioux. I'm not holding my breath waiting for this to be made into a film. Anyone interested in learning how desolate these forts were should visit Fort Fetterman, Wy. There is nothing there but a visitor's center. Nothing. Except for a "hog farm", which existed near most of the western forts to provide "services" which were not government issue just outside the post boundary, it hasn't changed since the late 1800's. No wonder the desertion rate was so high. I now have another book to add to my B&N wish list and several more places to visit. Thanks for posting.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.

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Thanks for bringing this topic up. Its very interesting touring the posts of the frontier. They are sites very few from the east or west coasts ever get a chance to see. I became interested in them while stationed at F.E. Warren AFB once known as Fort D.A. Russell. For those travelling across I80 and looking for something to do taking a few side trips and visiting these old installations is a must see.

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GOD Bless Texas And All That Serve Her

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I was at Hastings 2 years ago and probably walked right past him. Rats! I also, in addition to collecting insignia, like to add to my western history library. Would love to hear him lecture. Finally, one of my last tasks before I retired was supervising a computer on-line instruction program. The lesson I tried out to get a feel for the program was Native American History. Very politically correct. The gist seemed to be that the Native Americans were not really savages, just misunderstood. Sometime later I listened to a TV program on the John Wayne movie The Searchers. The person being interviewed stated that the plot of the movie, while based on an historical event, was not correct. I had just finished reading The Indian War of 1864 which went into graphic detail of what 2 Nebraska girls went through before being rescued. I think that The Searchers was accurate and would love to hear Barnes' opinion. I would also enjoy his take on the Fetterman Massacre. I hope you are able to teach some western US history.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.

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I have to correct myself. The book I was referring to is Massacre Along The Medicine Road: A Social History Of The Indian War Of 1864 In Nebraska Territory by Ronald Becher. The book referred to by Salvage Sailor is, I believe, available online. Both give excellent insight into the other civil war on the American plains during the mid 1860's.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.

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