Dakota Datebook

Fort Abraham Lincoln

Monday, November 19, 2007

In June of 1872, the infantry post Fort McKeen was established on the west bank of the Missouri River for the purpose of protecting engineers and work parties of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Five months after the fort’s establishment, on this day, November 19, 1872, the infantry post was renamed Fort Abraham Lincoln.
More changes were in store for the newly re-named fort. In order to fulfill its mission to protect nearby railroad crews, it became evident that mounted troops were necessary to deal with attacks by Native Americans who easily eluded US foot soldiers of the infantry. In response, four months after the name change, the construction of a cavalry post was authorized by Congress. Thereafter, the name Fort Abraham Lincoln would designate both the infantry post and the cavalry post.
By Fall of 1873, the 7th Cavalry and the 17th Infantry joined the 6th Infantry, increasing the fort’s population from 137 men and officers to 655. To accommodate this increase, seven hundred carloads of supplies and materials were shipped to Dakota Territory to construct seven officers’ quarters, a granary, office and dispensary, guard house, commissary storehouse, quartermaster’s storehouse, three soldiers barracks with attached mess room and an ordinance depot.
A description of the region surrounding the new buildings of the garrison has been provided by Elizabeth Custer; resident and wife of Lt-Col. George Armstrong Custer. She wrote, ” Outside the garrison proper, near the river, were the stables for six hundreds horses. Still further beyond were the quarters for laundresses, easily traced by the swinging clothes-line in front, and dubbed for this reason ‘Suds Row’. Some distance on from there were the log-huts of the Indian scouts and their families, while on the same side also was the level plains used for parades and drill.”
Mrs. Custer continued, “On the left of the post was the sutler’s store, with a billard room attached. Soon after the general arrived he permitted a citizen to put up a barber shop, and afterwards another built a little cabin of cotton-wood, with canvas roof for a photographer’s establishment.”
Over the course of its history Fort Abraham Lincoln intersected with momentous historical episodes and characters including the 7th Cavalry, George Armstrong Custer, the Black Hills expedition of 1874 and the Battle of the Little Bighorn of 1876. But by 1890, extensive military protection of the frontier was a thing of the past. The railroad had been completed, North Dakota had achieved statehood, and the neighboring Native Americans had been confined to reservations. Only nineteen years after the fort was first established, on July 22, 1891, the final garrison left Fort Abraham Lincoln.
Written by Christina Sunwall
Goplen, Arnold O., “The Historical Significance of Fort Lincoln State Park.” North Dakota History, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Oct 1946): 176-214

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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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