Section 2: Army Forts in Dakota Territory

The first U.S. Army post built in northern Dakota Territory was Fort Abercrombie on the Red River. (See Map 1) The fort was built in 1858 at the crossroads of the Red River and the oxcart trails heading north to Fort Garry in Canada. Wagon trails led through that point to the gold fields in Canada, Montana, and Idaho. In 1860, the post was re-built on high ground on the west bank of the Red River.

Forts of Dakota Territory
Map 1: Forts of Dakota Territory
Image 1: Fort Stevenson was built near the old fur trade post known as Fort Berthold. The Army occupied Fort Berthold for a year or two before Fort Stevenson was completed. Fort Stevenson was located just east of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. SHSND B0773.
Image 2: Fort Buford was an isolated post. It was not near the railroad or any major towns. The residents of the post depended on supplies brought up the river between May and October. Supplies included food and clothing. Mail moved up and down the river, but was carried overland during the winter. Among the last regiments to serve at Fort Buford were the 10th Cavalry and the 25th Infantry. Both units enlisted African American soldiers who became known as the Buffalo Soldiers. SHSND 0474-008.
Image 3: Ft. Buford was built on the east (or north) side of the Missouri River near the confluence with the Yellowstone River. Like most other posts it depended on the river for its water source. Officers’ quarters included rooms for officers’ families. The enlisted men lived in barracks. Laundresses’ quarters were closer to the river. Laundresses worked for both officers and enlisted men. The post had all the necessities of a small village including the first Mason’s Hall (a private men’s organization) in northern Dakota Territory. SHSND 0474-07.
Image 4: Fort Abraham Lincoln was built on the west bank of the Missouri River. Very nearby was the infantry post, Fort McKean. Fort Abraham Lincoln was commanded by Colonel George Armstrong Custer until his death in battle in June, 1876. Custer led important expeditions to support the Northern Pacific Railroad survey and to the Black Hills from Fort A. Lincoln. Fort Lincoln did not have a stockade fence around it. SHSND 0260-01.
Image 5: Soldiers stand with the Gatling guns at Fort Abraham Lincoln. The Gatling gun was a rapid-fire weapon that could be drawn by horses wherever the Army went. The cylinders were turned by a crank operated by a soldier. Gatling guns were first used in the Civil War. They were a formidable new weapon in battle against the Dakotas. SHSND 0119-027.

When war began between the Santee Dakotas of southern Minnesota and the U.S. government (1862), the soldiers at Fort Abercrombie quickly began to build fortifications out of the large barrels used to store pork, beef, and flour. Dirt was packed around the barrels. Cannons were placed on three corners.

Several times in the next several weeks, Dakotas attacked the post, but were repelled by the soldiers. On September 23, reinforcements arrived and the Dakotas left the area. Fort Abercrombie remained an active Army post until 1877. The railroad and the establishment of reservations for the Dakotas had taken over the role of the post.

A series of important Army posts were established along the Missouri River following the U.S.-Dakota War. General Alfred Sully located these posts during his trips up the Missouri River in 1864 and 1865. The first was Fort Rice, just north of the mouth of the Cannonball River. Fort Rice was occupied from 1864 to 1878. Fort Berthold was built on the site of a fur-trading post. Two years later, the military function of Fort Berthold was abandoned and the military operations moved to the new Fort Stevenson a few miles away. (See Image 1)

Fort Buford was built at about the same time as Fort Stevenson. (See Image 2) Both were built under the leadership of General Regis de Trobriand. General de Trobriand was born in France, but had come to the United States for the purpose of becoming an Army officer. (See Image 3)

In 1872, Fort Abraham Lincoln, a cavalry post, was built on the Missouri River near the mouth of the Heart River. (See Image 4)  George Armstrong Custer commanded the post the first three years. (See Image 5) Fort Abraham Lincoln was associated with Fort McKean, a nearby infantry post.

These Army posts along the Missouri River had two purposes. The first purpose was to contain and control the Teton Dakotas. The eastern boundary of the treaty lands of the Dakota tribes was the Missouri River. The second purpose was to protect railroad workers and settlers who were very slowly moving into the region.

Several other Army posts were located in northern Dakota Territory. Many of these had a very short existence. Before the Northern Pacific railroad was built, the soldiers at these forts helped to move the U.S. mail across the territory.  The posts also served as stopping places for freight wagons and travelers. This chart offers more details on the other Army posts.


Name of Post


Dates of Operation


Fort Abercrombie

Red River near present- day Wahpeton


Protect commerce on trails

Fort A. Lincoln

Missouri River at mouth of Heart River


Protect Northern Pacific Railroad;  contain Sioux

Fort Berthold

Missouri River near mouth of Little Missouri River


Protect commerce on Missouri River; contain Sioux

Fort Buford

Confluence of Missouri River and Yellowstone River


Protect commerce on Missouri River; contain Sioux

Fort Pembina

Red River at the mouth of the Pembina River

1863-1864, 1870-1895

Protect the International Border; contain Sioux

Fort Ransom

Sheyenne River near present day Fort Ransom 


Protect overland travelers and settlers

Fort Rice

Missouri River near mouth of Cannonball River


Protect commerce on Missouri River; contain Sioux

Fort Seward

James River north of present day Jamestown


Protect Northern Pacific Railroad construction crews

Fort Stevenson

Missouri River between the Knife River and the Little Missouri River


Protect commerce on Missouri River; support agency at Fort Berthold Indian Reservation

Fort Totten

South of Devils Lake


Support agency at Fort Totten Indian Reservation

Fort Yates

Missouri River south of Cannonball River


Support agency at Standing Rock Indian Reservation



Image 6: Fort Yates was built on the Standing Rock Reservation to maintain order among the Dakota residents. When the post was built, many of the Dakotas (known today as Lakotas) had not committed to reservation life. After the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Dakotas slowly came to the reservation. Sitting Bull’s group returned from Canada in 1881 and moved onto the Standing Rock Reservation. SHSND 1952-5989.

Why is this important? Military occupation of Dakota Territory brought about a major shift in the population of the northern Great Plains. The region had been homeland and hunting land for the Arikaras, Mandans, Hidatsas, Chippewas, Western Dakotas, Eastern Dakotas, and Middle Dakotas for centuries. (See Image 6) In addition, other tribes such as the Crows and Assiniboines traveled into the area to hunt and trade. With the exception of fur traders and soldiers, non-Indians did not take an interest in the area until the railroad was built. The railroad could not be built until the Army had established a strong presence in the area.