Six soldiers of the 31st Infantry and two civil scouts stopped at a spring in southwest Benson County today in 1868 while escorting a mail wagon from Fort Totten to Fort Stevenson. While the soldiers made their noon camp, one of the civil scouts, Frank Palmer, was about to lead his horse to the spring. A soldier teamster named Snyder was going to accompany Palmer, and as Palmer gathered up his gun and cartridges, he advised Snyder to do the same. The other soldiers scoffed at Palmer and Snyder. “So you think Indians are going to attack,” they said. “You a man of caution?” The men settled down in the shade of the unhitched wagon for their noon rest as Palmer left. Their rifles remained rolled up in blankets in the back of the wagon, and their horses wandered freely.
Meanwhile, three Yankton and three Blackfeet Indians snuck up on the resting party from south of the springs. They crawled within twenty paces of the unaware soldiers before opening fire. The attackers killed two of the privates and as the sergeant in charge, James Devon went for his rifle, one of the attackers shot him through the heart. The horses fled, but the remaining soldiers were able to escape. The Indians then jumped upon the unhitched mules to make their own escape from the scene.
The “cautious” Palmer and Snyder, however, were able to fire on the attackers from a bluff above the spring as they fled. Aside from remaining armed, Palmer was also careful to keep hold of his horse’s reins. As the only man with a horse, Palmer rode the forty miles to Fort Totten to give the alarm. The remaining soldiers hid the wagon and surplus arms, and followed Palmer on foot. A relief expedition of thirty men and three wagons was ordered the next day, and the mail wagon and arms were recovered. The bodies were taken back and buried in Fort Totten, and the springs where the skirmish took place became known as Palmer Springs.
This cautious scout, Frank Palmer, was born in Eaton, Ohio on May 1, 1847. He enlisted with the Union Army in 1862. At only fourteen and a half years of age, Palmer was argued to be the youngest soldier to take part in the Civil War. He served the war to the end, and later went to Fort Peck, Montana before coming to Fort Totten in April 1968 to become a mail carrier for a government contractor.
Palmer remained at Fort Totten as an Indian trader until 1907. He then homesteaded in the Devil’s Lake area. Palmer had learned during the Civil War that horses were the first and most important lines of defense. He found that this continued to ring true in the wild Dakota Territory, especially after his experience as a mail carrier. The task of securing oats for horses, however, proved tedious and this lead Palmer to experiment with farming his own grain. He became the first person to break sod in the area and planted seed he had shipped from St. Louis, Missouri. This first crop on the Devil’s Lake plains was a success, and the news of it began the immigration trend to central North Dakota. Palmer remained active in North Dakota’s affairs and from 1891-1895 he served as the State Senator for Benson County. Palmer’s adventures ended on May 11, 1921 when he passed away.
Dakota Datebook written by Tessa Sandstrom
Centennial Heritage Book Committee. Ramsey County, 1883-1983. Lake Region: 1982.
Minnewaukan History Book Committee. Pioneers and Progress. Minnewaukan, ND: 1983.
State Historical Society of North Dakota’s General Reference Files, Frank Palmer.