Section 1: Introduction

Soldiering was one of the first occupations for Anglo-Americans in northern Dakota Territory. Soldiers of the U. S. Army occupied Fort Abercrombie, the first military post in northern Dakota Territory, in 1858. In 1864, General Alfred Sully built Fort Rice on the Missouri River and identified the locations of future forts Buford and Stevenson along the Missouri River. With the building of the forts, soldiering became a means of making a living for thousands of men who lived and worked in these Army posts over the next forty years.

Soldiers had the duty of guarding traffic on the Red River and the Missouri River. Soldiers also guarded the survey crews and construction crews of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Troops supported the federal agents who oversaw Indian reservations. When not actively on duty, soldiers trained for combat, worked on the fort buildings, grounds, and gardens, and engaged in various forms of recreation.

Army organization was established by law. Each regiment was led by a colonel. Under the colonel were a lieutenant colonel, a major, and several other officers who managed the business of the post. Each regiment was composed of 10 companies. Each company of 50 privates had a captain, two lieutenants, five sergeants, eight corporals, and two musicians.

Military rank was important in the Army. Privates held the lowest rank. Opportunities for advancement were limited. Most men spent their entire five-year enlistment as privates. Those who re-enlisted and considered the Army a career might rise to the rank of corporal or sergeant. Sergeants had the most direct contact with the enlisted men of a company. Sergeants supervised life in the barracks (where the soldiers lived) and presented officers’ orders to the soldiers.

Officers’ rank determined their place at the post. From lowest to highest the ranks were:  Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Colonel, and General. An officer who received a battlefield promotion was said to hold a brevet rank. For instance, George Armstrong Custer was promoted to Brevet General during the Civil War. He was demoted to a regular rank of Colonel after the war, but was usually addressed as General Custer out of respect for his brevet rank.

Officers’ wives were usually respected according to their husband’s rank. So Elizabeth Bacon Custer was usually addressed as Mrs. General Custer. She was expected to be a leader among the women of the post.

Laundresses did not hold rank and were not enlisted. However, they were enrolled in the Army so they could draw rations and live in post housing.

Nine Army posts dotted northern Dakota Territory before statehood. (See Document 1.) Five of them had been decommissioned (no longer used) by 1889 when the northern part of the territory became a state. Settlers often used the remaining wood and other materials from the posts to build their houses and barns. The posts and their dates are listed in this chart.

Name of Post

Date Constructed

Date Decommissioned

Fort Abercrombie



Fort Rice



Fort Yates (also called Cantonment Standing Rock)



Fort Stevenson



Fort Buford



Fort Ransom



Fort Totten



Fort Abraham Lincoln



Fort Seward



Document 1

A reporter for the Jamestown Weekly Alert newspaper described Fort Totten in an article dated April 10, 1879. Though the weather was quite cold during the trip to the post, the reporter stated that officers were happy in their assignment at this post. That might have been an exaggeration. This is an abbreviated version of the reporter’s description.

“Eighteen more miles brought us to the beautiful spot where is located, in full view of that splendid sheet of water, Minne-wa kan (Spirit Water) or as it is called in plain English, Devil’s Lake; the military post of Fort Totten, the agency buildings of the “Devil’s Lake Indian Agency”; the suttler store of Brenner and Terry; the agency store of J. W. Cramsie, and the buildings of Ed. R. Loknes, the mail carrier, and of the attachés of both the military and the Indian departments.

That the officers stationed here are loath to be transferred to any other post in the department, is not at all to be wondered at, as here they have commodious and comfortable brick quarters for themselves and their families, and their men; pure drinking water; and in the summer what is nearly the equivalent of sea bathing in the briny, and as it is claimed medicinal waters of Devil’s Lake; bathing in it having been said to have affected relief and been instrumental in curing in cases of rheumatism.

. . .

The buildings at the Fort enclosing a parade ground of about 400 feet square, are of brick, and for the most part two stories high. The stables are situated south of the post. A gymnasium and library, which is to be of logs 100 X 30, and on one end two stories high, is to be built this year to serve as before mentioned, also as a general hall for theatricals and other amusements, such as dancing, socials, and upstairs for a lodge room for such societies as may be formed at the post. There are at present a lodge of Good Templars, and a recently organized lodge of Odd Fellows, both in flourishing condition.