Section 2: Rothhammer’s Report

Document 1: Rothhammer's Report



The physical conditions and natural productions

of that part of Dakota Territory

which was passed over

by the

North Western Indian Expedition



Brevet Major General Alfred Sully

during the summer of



S.  M. Rothhammer








 [SHSND 10386]

Page 1                                                                                   Dubuque, Iowa  November 1865



            In obedience to your orders I have the honor to present this Report as the result of my observations while acting as naturalist to the North Western Indian Expedition under your command.

            Taking a general view of the country passed over this year I am unable to change my opinion expressed in my last year’s report of that portion of Dakota Territory seen by me.  Although more rain has fallen this year than the two previous seasons combined the high prairies between Yankton & Cannon Ball River preserved the same drear and uninviting appearance while the bottoms were luxuriant with the coarser grasses and the pools of the little streams contain more and generally better water than last season.  Beyond that river to Devils Lake the prairies were stocked with fine grass and that of a more cheerful color though in some places the grasshoppers had striped [stripped] large tracts entirely of it gnawing the blades close to the root and letting them lay in little heaps.  From Devils Lake to Mouse River they [the prairies] were sandy and frequently traversed by sand ridges which were timbered with Quaking Aspen and Cottonwood trees while the high points were mostly gravel knolls and mammillaries [bumps on the landscape], which had not been seen since we left the vicinity of the Missouri river made again their appearance.  From thence to Ft. Berthold the Prairies are rolling and as we approach the Missouri river the different species of opuntia [prickly pear cactus] reappear. 

Page 2

            From Fort Berthold to Fort Rice we found the country very rolling and much broken as we were seldom a great distance from the Missouri River.  The grass was generally good and we saw daily more or less of the outcropping Lignite Strata.

            The valleys presented the appearance of fertility were full of grass and the sides of their streams more or less clothed with timber.  The valley of the Mouse River is one of the best I have seen in Dakota and if it possessed the fine Oak timber of the Cannon Ball River Valley I should say “the best” for it has the advantage of pure cold spring brooks over any other I have seen in that territory and I think an equally fertile soil. 

            Much of the country between Fort Rice and Devils Lake had at no very remote period [not long ago] been covered with Lakes which judging from their now dry basins have been mostly connected.  Many of these though now containing no water, are filled with soft mud, some yet have from one to two inches of  water over the mud , while others are entirely dried up but not yet firm enough to travel over them.  Most of the dry ones are covered with a rank growth of vegetation not infrequently of a saline character.  A few are yet fine sheets of . . . water and mostly brackish at least during the summer season. By far the largest share of them are saline and tinctured with sulphates.   Devils Lake by far the largest sheet of water in Dakota is brackish and its water though drinkable have a bad effect on Bowels and Kidneys.  It must be well stocked with fish for its shores had plenty of their skeletons scattered around on them and some fine Pike and Pickerel were caught out of it by the men.            Near the Missouri where the broken condition of the country exposes  

Page 3

plainly the stratification of the different mineral deposits on the denuded and sometimes perpendicular hillsides.   I found Lignite cropping out as far as I have been up the river generaly associated with vegetable marles [crumbly, alkali soil] and ascertained that the strata are thicker and the quality of the Lignite better as we travel north.  Some of the strata have lost much of their original thickness near their outcropping surfaces by spontaneous combustion but from what I have observed in several hills examined over near Ft. Berthold I am of the opinion that this combustion does not generaly extend throughout a whole stratum but only as far as it is exposed to infiltration of water.  While at Fort Berthold I saw several strata of it [lignite] in a state of combustion and examination of some which have long since ceased to burn showed that some distance from the edges of the Hills combustion had ceased probably owing to the want of sufficient amount of moisture necessary to the decomposition of the prismatic Iron Pirites [pyrite crystals] disseminated through the Lignite.  On the banks of the Missouri river near Ft. Berthold resting on the soft blueish sand rock some eight feet above the original water level  Dr. Haynes,  Ass’t Surg[eon], 6th Iowa Cav[alry] found Gold in a flaky form, but not in sufficient quantities to warrant its working.  While traveling in the great Lignite Basin through the more broken country from the Missouri river  I was struck with rank growth of grass and other plants on the steep hillsides as well as with its deep rich green color compared with that of the plains.  On closer examination I found that it was due to the vegetable marls which having been acted on by frost and moisture on its out cropping surface had crumbled and rolled down the sloping sides of these hills and thus supplied with an increced amount of fertility.  

            At Fort Berthold the Indians and traders raise corn beans peas and potatoes.  All these crops looked well and I see no reason why  

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with proper culture and a judicious selection of seeds men who are partial to a high Northern country and climate could not carry on agricultural pursuits successfully in the Lignite Basin of Dakota especially near Devils Lake and such valleys as those of the Mouse and Cannon Ball rivers and others where good water and a sufficient quantity of timber can be found.  For Stock [domestic animals] and especially sheep such localities would be found excellent.  Still as long as we have an abundance of first class farming lands in localities much easier of access and in more genial climate I would not recommend this country to the notice of white settlers but consider it an excellent locality to settle Indians disposed to be friendly and by sending amongst them true, religious  and philanthropic Priests of the Catholic persuasion whose imposing religious ceremonies would reach the marvel loving  intellects of these Indians much better than the plainer services of other denominations.  The Government could both Christianize and semi-civilize these people after which they could take care of themselves.   This might be accomplished at a much less expense than the maintainance of a larger, military force among them and would confer a lasting benefit on the Indians as well as our nation.  As a proof that such an undertaking is practicable the Indians of Canada must be cited.

            The vast Lignite deposites of Dakota deserve attention and might be not only made a remunerative article of trade but also become a source of revenue to the country.  Moreover its use would save much timber to Dakota of which it has at best but a scanty supply.

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            The usual small quantity of rain falling during the summer is undoubtedly owing in a great measure to the scarcity of timber and the very small number of running streams in the Territory.  Much of the former is annualy killed by fire and the Beavers by daming up the streams convert them into a series of disconnected pools. 

            Repeted observations of the effect of the vegetable marls [crumbly, alkali soil] in the great Lignite Basin of the North West on the growth of vegetation warrant me in again calling attention to the same as a fertilizer both on account of its abundance and ready access.

            A  perennial species of flax growing in large quantities near the Sheyenne river might be deserving of a trial for its fibre as its cultivation if found useful would abjurate [avoid] much now necessary labor in flax culture. 

            The buffalo berry bush so abundant in Dakota would in my estimation prove a valuable acquisition as a hedge plant for North Western Prairies.  It is perfectly hardy, of bush habbit, rather thorny, and exempt from the attacks of insects.  Stock will not browse on it and from what I have seen I should not consider it very particular to select soil or locality.  Its berries resemble in taste and size a common red currant and are plentifuly distributed over the bush. A well kept hedge of this plant would be both useful and ornamental besides being perfectly hardy.  For the meterological student this region is one   replete with interest especialy during the months of July, August, and September.  Seldom have I witnessed so fine a display of the Aurora Borealis, meteoric showers or thunder storms as during my travels in these regions in the past summer.  Much information and useful knowledge might be obtained from a meteorological station in the Lignite Basin of the North West if the observations were conducted by a competent scientific meteorologist.

Here the report includes copies of Rothhammer’s diary entries.  The diaries are the notes from which he wrote his report.  Eugene Marsall copied Rothhammer’s notes for the report, but failed to include any of Rothhammer’s comments about Indians he met.  The editor has selected one for inclusion.


Page 16

Aug 10 – Had the pleasure to be present at a Council held by General Sully with the principal Chiefs of the Rees [Arikaras], Mandans & Gros Ventres [Hidatsas] who live near Ft. Berthold in comfortable roomy and substantialy built earth Lodges.  The council was held in the Medicine Lodge the largest structure in the village and situated near its centre.  It differs from the other Lodges in external appearance only in size.


The whole of this Gorgeously attired assembly were seated on mats placed on the ground which had also been prepared for the General and his party. General Sully opened the conference by speaking his readiness to hear them. Napoleon [an otherwise unidentified chief] then spoke at some length with more force than grace . . . followed by a chief of the Rees with much dignity and calmness after which the council ended. . . .

Very Respectfully

Your Obed Servant

Legismond M. Rothhammer

Hospital Steward 6th Iowa Cavalry

Act’g Naturalist,Expedition



Pg. 28

From Marshall's comments:  [Rothhammer ignored a] peculiarity of Dakota which distinguishes it from all other regions of this country... It is a region unlike any other in the North West... This coteau is the great central plateau of the North American continent.It is the summit level from whence flow the waters which flow into the Gulf of Mexico on the South and the Arctic Ocean on the North & a continuation of it to the east of the Red River of the North makes it the western Boundary of the Great Lake Basin...

Pg. 30

[While Rothhammer described the small ponds of the coteau as being the result of beaver dams, the presence of small water pools] appears to be in reality due to the parched condition of the soil & its great capacity to absorb moisture.

[The few streams that enter the Missouri River on the east and north] extend but a few miles back from the river.Beyond them the whole country is a succession of interior basins possessed of no drainage in any direction...

All of these lakes appear to hold some salts in solution which gives them each its peculiar character of nastiness dependent on the various contingencies of Area drained, depth of water relative & absolute.

Pg. 31.

The extent of this peculiar country is rather uncertain and authorities differ somewhat but assuming the maps in common use to be correct, a traveler may start from the mouth of James river & keeping a northerly direction so as to avoid the western bend of Mouse river he may travel a thousand miles across no running water while in the lakes of the coteau he would find a never failing supply [of water] but usually of poor quality, many of them being both unpalatable & unwholesome & hardly one in a thousand perfectly fresh & pure.

p. 33.

The country is sparsely covered with the short cripse [crisp] buffalo grass which is almost the only valuable vegetable product of the country.This grass always preserves a light gray color. . . . Spring summer Autumn Winter it is always the same in appearance, always the same in its nutrient qualities.All kinds of animals eat it greedily and thrive on it most surprisingly at all season of the year.

p. 39

Dakota seems to be possessed of the finest natural pasturage to be found in this or any proximate [nearby] latitude. The grass of the plains whenever not actualy covered with snow is always possessed of its nutrient qualities. Summer or Winter it is the same, always capable of sustaining immense numbers of animals. The buffalo is found on the plains far to the north at all seasons always feeding upon the short grass of the high prairies except in season of the deepest snows when they are found amongst the taller grass of the low bottoms but so long as he is capable of reaching the short grass through the snow with the strong black muzzle which is admirably adapted to such a purpose, he remains upon the plains.

The numbers of these vast herds may be judged from the fact that Our expedition met a train of one thousand [Red River carts] upon the plains each cart capable of carrying the meat of from eight to ten buffalo and the half Breeds [Métis] to whom they belonged expected the whole train to be loaded and back to Red River in three months from the time it started out...