Dakota Datebook

Fort Sauerkraut

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Dakota Territory Indian Wars primarily ended when Sitting Bull surrendered his people at Ft. Buford in 1875. Tribes were confined to reservations with poor land where wild game had been hunted to near extinction. The government promised them rations and supplies, but graft and corruption was so rampant in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that if these items actually made it to the reservations, they were poor-quality leftovers.

By 1890, nationwide starvation on reservations set the stage for a major Indian uprising. A Paiute named Wovoka proclaimed the People could find salvation in something called the Ghost Dance, and Indian delegates from Dakota Territory journeyed to learn more. The movement was primarily peaceful and promised a Messiah and a return of the buffalo through songs, dances and visions. Some, however, saw it as a call to overthrow all whites and take back their lands.

Journalists sounded an alarm when the Ghost Dance movement reached Standing Rock that fall. Standing Rock Agent James McLaughlin assured settlers that things were well under control, and told them the newspaper stories were based on rumors. Nonetheless, by November 15th, those rumors had Mandan residents in a widespread panic. Women and children fled across the river to Bismarck, and volunteer militias sprang up. As the news spread to surrounding towns, officials found themselves trying to protect friendly tribes from violence.

In The Indian Scare of 1890, Father Louis Pfaller wrote, “One of the most unique of the stories coming out of the scare was that of Hebron and its famous ‘Fort Sauerkraut.’ As soon as the telegraph warnings reached Hebron on November 17, young men jumped on their horses and rode madly over the prairie to warn the settlers. All night long,” Pfaller wrote, “wagons rattled over the rough terrain toward Hebron. One man was in such haste that he had gone several miles before he discovered that his family had bounced out of the wagon.”

Fort Sauerkraut was on a hilltop overlooking the town and was constructed almost entirely of sod. The Mandan Pioneer published an account of a Dr. Coe visiting the fort on this date, November 30th. It read, “(Dr. Coe) reports that the people there have showed a vast amount of pluck and energy in preparing against possible danger from an attack…”

Fort Sauerkraut’s first line of defense was a series of wires strung to trip enemies advancing under cover of darkness. Inside this was a five-strand barbed wire fence, followed by rifle pits, which connected to underground tunnels that led to the interior of the fort. The 7-foot sod walls surrounding the fort stretched several hundred feet across. Inside these walls was a sod house about 100 feet long and 8 feet deep; this was to house the women and children during an attack.

Father Pfaller wrote, “One day the scouts were aroused by an ominous cloud of dust which sent the people scurrying to the fort. Alarm grew when they could see the cloud raisers were Indians bedecked in feathers. Fortunately, Swen Swenson recognized them as friendly Indians from the Ft. Berthold reservation…probably Gros Ventres under Sitting Owl… The visiting Indians put the beleaguered settlers at ease by volunteering to help them fight the Sioux (and) mingled freely with the fort-builders.”

The rumored uprising never took place. The Ghost Dance movement was officially – and tragically – quelled at the Wounded Knee Massacre less than a month later.

Volunteers with the Hebron Business Club rebuilt Fort Sauerkraut in August 2004.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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