Imagine a time well before iPhones, Google and Facebook.
PHOTO BY BRYCE MARTIN | PIONEER
Fort Dilts rests today in a sparsely occupied area north of Rhame, drawing the occasional visitors as they pass through the area. But, what most people don’t know, is the bloody history surrounding the site and how much of an impact it made during the Civil War era.
By BRYCE MARTIN
A time where nothing existed in North Dakota except for rolling prairies. A time when bloody confrontations with Native Americans was a real threat.
The story of Fort Dilts, Bowman County’s local historical site, transcends that storied era of race-related indignation and simple frontier lifestyle. It shows just how hair-triggered the relationship was between the native Sioux and the “White Man” that traipsed their territory.
A three-day battle ensued across southeastern Montana and southwestern North Dakota as a wagon train attempted to head west in September 1864. At the same time, the Sioux had been subverted in an attack between soldiers navigating the Killdeer Mountains – another bloody battle that further degraded relations between the land’s original habitants and Caucasian pioneers.
Historians and local speakers will revisit and expand on that time in history during this weekend’s 150th Anniversary celebration of Fort Dilts.
Dean Pearson, chairman of the board of directors at the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum in Bowman, said he felt many people weren’t aware of the true story about Fort Dilts, nor the historical significance the area played. He shed light on the area’s ambiguity in his nonfiction book, “Fort Dilts: The Story Behind the Story.”
Pearson will join several notable guests Sept. 6 at the Four Seasons Pavilion in Bowman as they discuss the area and its related societal impact for the two-day celebration. Two interpretive bus tours, departing from the museum on Sept. 7, will then follow the same route traversed back in 1864 and illustrate its encountered perils.
The bloody origins of Fort Dilts
Fort Dilts had its origin in September 1864, when it was created to protect a wagon train led by James Liberty Fisk of White Bear Lake, Minn.
Fisk had led wagon trains in the years 1862 and 1863; 1864 marked his third year battling the elements to lead these wagons.
In early 1864, Fisk decided he would cut down his usual journey from Minnesota, out to the gold fields of Montana, to just a westerly jaunt following across the present-day North and South Dakota border.
Fisk traveled to Washington, D.C. later that year to meet with Minnesota senators and President Abraham Lincoln, where it was decided a bill would be introduced to allow for the building of a series of forts, to accept Fisk’s newly remapped route and to install Fisk as the person in charge of deciding where the forts would be built.
In March, however, those decisions were reversed and all funding for the fort projects was revoked to focus efforts on the ongoing Civil War, which occurred from 1861 to 1865.
The government instead awarded Fisk $10,000 to stay on the same route he had navigated the previous year. He was also provided with an escort, which was to be furnished by Gen. Alfred Sully.
Upon his arrival in what is now present-day Bismarck, Fisk discovered that his competitor, Thomas Holmes, had organized a wagon train that left earlier in the year and would ultimately beat Fisk to the west. He also was told that Sully had left with Holmes as his escort.
Col. Daniel Dill, who was left in charge of building Fort Rice, then authorized 40 members that were left in the camp that were unfit to travel with Sully, whether they were sick or unfit.
A chance meeting leads to bloodshed
Fisk then headed out to the west, following Sully’s trail, to where Sully had stopped to let his wagon train rest near present-day Richardton. Sully left to attack the Native Americans camped at the Killdeer Mountains. He then returned, picked up the wagon train, and headed west through the Medora area, eventually working up to the Yellowstone River, close to where present-day Sidney, Mont. is located, according to Pearson.
Because Sully, in Fisk’s mind, had conquered any threat from the Native Americans while fighting in Killdeer, Fisk continued on the trail he originally proposed, but was told not to travel.
Fisk followed straight west along the Cannonball River, coming into Bowman and Slope counties. When they reached present-day Deep Creek, they had a wagon overturn, so another wagon stayed behind to help. A rear guard of nine men stayed behind, as well.
“When the Native Americans saw this group left behind, it would be an opportune chance for them to attack,” Pearson explained.
The reason they attacked was by chance, Pearson said.
When Sully destroyed their village in the Killdeer Mountains, the Native Americans lost any winter supplies they had gathered. They then chose to head south where they had relatives and friends to help them following the wiping-out of their supplies.
It was by chance that, as the Native Americans were heading south, they came across the Fisk wagon train.
The attack occurred at Deep Creek. The rear guard was killed or mortally wounded.
Jefferson Dilts rode back into the foray as was mortally wounded.
Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota holy man who led his people as tribal chief during years of resistance to United States government policies, was part of the attack and was one of the leaders of the group that attacked the wagon train. Amidst the fighting, Sitting Bull was wounded.
The group of Native Americans continued to harass the wagon train over the next two days, Pearson said. On the third day, the train decided to stop at the high spot before they entered the Badlands and created a fortification to protect the wagon train.
That location is now known as Fort Dilts.
They stayed there for about 18 days before a large group of American workers and soldiers came to their rescue.
What Fort Dilts looks like today
At the existing site of Fort Dilts, north of Rhame, lay tombstones placed there by the State Historical Society in 1932, which honor the military personnel that perished during the attack at Deep Creek.
Three stones mark the site where people were mortally wounded and three that are buried in the grass walls of the fort, including Jefferson Dilts, Marmaduke Betts and Thomas Williamson.
Notably absent are any monuments of the three civilians that lost their lives or for the group of Native Americans that perished, Pearson indicated. Up to 60 Native Americans could have died during the battle, he said, but nobody knows because the information was reliant upon oral history now hundreds of years old.
“We’re looking at a significant loss of life that, today, would be national news,” he said.
An important piece to the Fort Dilts history was what has been labeled as the “Strychnine Affair,” an event that was expunged from historical records until 1963.
It was the only time during the Great Indian Wars in the late 1800s when a poison, specifically a toxic chemical called strychnine that is used as a bird and rodent pesticide and causes convulsions and death by asphyxia, was used against Native Americans.
A trap was intentionally left at the Fort Dilts campsite in the form of a box of crackers laced with strychnine. Hungry tribe members discovered the leftover food and “pounced” on them. Those that ingested the poisonous ruse subsequently died. Anywhere from 30 to 60 were recorded, through third-party accounts, to have lost their lives because of this “bad bread,” according to Pearson.
Fisk included the poisoning when he wrote his official report to Washington, D.C., which was so appalled that it was stricken from the records for 100 years, at which time it waas released by the National Archives in 1963.