Plains Folk

Military Life in Dakota


He’s not an easy guy to like, I’m thinking as I read his memoir. Major General Philippe Regis de Trobriand, author of Military Life in Dakota, was commander of Fort Stevenson, Dakota Territory, 1867-69. Fort Stevenson is now under more than a hundred feet of water behind Garrison Dam. Trobriand is remembered for his writings and paintings of life on the military frontier. He was equally talented with the pen or the brush.

But as I say, he is hard to like. He pontificates about how it should be easy for his men to stand off Lakota raiders by standing firm and showing a bold front, while he rests safe in quarters. When blizzards enwrap his log residence, he has his meals carried in, while squads of men labor to clear the snow and ice from his doors and windows. Continually he remarks about the importance not only of rank but also of social class; he is an aristocrat.

Coming from a royalist family in France, Trobriand’s attitudes may be explicable, but when he came to America, he had to marry wealth, in the person of a New York heiress, in order to maintain the lifestyle befitting his familial antecedents. During his distinguished service in the Civil War, he commanded a Franco-American unit, which might have insulated him from the democratizing influences of that total war of mass armies.

Trobriand’s book, however, is on anyone’s list of North Dakota classics, and for good reason. His descriptive powers are formidable. In a rare piece of architectural portraiture, for instance, he describes the earthen construction of Fort Stevenson. “All the walls will be adobe,” he writes. “These are big Mexican bricks. . . They are made by a kind of masonry, half clay, half sand, held together by chopped up hay. These bricks . . . are then dried and baked in the sun to make them harder. The same mixture of earth is also used to cement them together, and the combination makes good buildings, solid and durable summer and winter.” The adobe brick walls are clearly depicted in a painting by Trobriand now owned by the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

As befit a member of the leisure class, Trobriand spent quite a bit of his time in Dakota out hunting, for sport and also to provide variety on his own table. The prairie chicken was a culinary blessing; “But outside of getting food,” the general writes, “this hunting is not very engrossing. It is too easy and plentiful to offer much sport.” The chubby grouse fed on berries in the river bottom, then roosted in flocks in the trees. By shooting the lowest-perched birds first, Trobriand could kill multiple chickens from one tree before the flock took flight. Even easier shooting for the pot, one winter day he killed twenty-two blackbirds with one shot, and pronounced them, as prepared by his chef, excellent fare.

On a cold, still morning, Trobriand writes: “Today the pale and cold sun of Dakota gave us a very strange sight. . . . it presented us with three suns at the same time, itself and its double reflection at equal distances away, one in the east and the other in the west. It is the phenomenon that astronomers call parhelion.” And which we today call a sundog.

We should be thankful, I suppose, that Trobriand did not preoccupy himself with the alcoholic and quarrelsome behaviors that characterized his fellow officers on the Dakota frontier, and instead looked around himself with a discerning eye. The open plains of Dakota, he muses, impose “an impression of immensity, or open space, and of an individual left to his own resources in the midst of nature where nothing belongs to anyone and everything belongs to everyone.”

I don’t think I would want to be an enlisted man serving under Trobriand. But I wouldn’t mind taking him along on a grouse hunt.

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