Fort Totten Tragedy
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
This week, we’re bringing you stories of North Dakota in December 1926. Today’s is a tragedy involving fire and heroism.
When Fort Totten was first constructed near what is now Devils Lake, Major Forbes was the first person to try to set up some sort of education program. In 1872, he persuaded two of his cousins, who were nuns in Montreal, to come to the fort to teach. The sisters set out to fulfill the mission in Dakota Territory, but they turned back when they began hearing of dangerous conditions here.
Two years later, Major Forbes secured funding from the Catholic Bureau to build a 14′ x 30′ school house 7 miles east of the fort. It was called St. Michael’s Mission and was constructed of bricks made from clay taken from Devils Lake. On October 27, 1874, Major Forbes, his wife, daughter, and two nieces, Father Bennin and six others, including four nuns, left St. Paul for Fort Totten by way of Jamestown.
The mission school burned down nine years later but was reestablished a half mile northwest of Fort Totten in 1885. Approximately 100 children attended the school, and three years later, they had to add on to the building.
When the military closed the post in December 1890, the Department of the Interior combined the Mission School with the Indian School to create the Indian Industrial School, which was housed in the abandoned fort. Children from both the Devils Lake Sioux and Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribes boarded at this school.
By 1926, the Gray Nuns were operating a mission boarding school in the nearby school that was constructed in 1885. Around midnight, on December 19th, a fire broke out. The Devils Lake World reported, “The fire is believed to have started from a defective chimney flue. The school is a total loss, while the Catholic Church, which stood nearby was also burned to the ground. The nearby home of Father Ambrose was saved,” the story read.
“One hundred Indian children of all ages set for other school children in the state a laudable example, when they marched in perfect order, half [dressed], into the snows outside with the temperature standing at 10 above zero, without a single hitch or injury. [The 16] Catholic nuns in charge of the school were not required to issue a single command or reprimand as the children followed out orders of preceding fire drills.”
The displaced children were sheltered in Father Ambrose’s home until they could be moved into the Ft. Totten Indian School dormitories, which were already occupied by some 325 students.
Unfortunately, the rest of the news was not so good. Sixty-four year-old Sister St. Alfred, the school superior, went back into the blazing building to make sure nobody was left behind. When she didn’t return, two other nuns went in and found her lying unconscious in the attic.
Sister St. Alfred recovered consciousness at the hospital, but physicians held out little hope for her recovery. She very quickly developed pneumonia and died the following day. Sister St. Alfred was originally from Montreal, where she was Margaret Hogan before she joined the sisterhood. Before coming to North Dakota, she had fulfilled assignments in a hospital in Toledo, Ohio, and among the Indian population at La Bret, Saskatchewan. She was assigned to the Fort Totten School four years before her death, at the age of 60.
History of Fort Totten. U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs, Turtle Mountain Consolidated Agency. Belcourt, ND. (No date given)
Bismarck Tribune. 21 Dec 1926.
Devils Lake World. 22 Dec 1926.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm