Plains Folk

Better History


Last Saturday more than 1000 people turned out to observe the 150th anniversary of the Siege of Fort Abercrombie. That’s about twice as many people as were directly involved with the siege on both sides. Besides that, it’s about twice as many as there are people south of Sioux City who would know what the heck you’re talking about if you mention the Siege of Abercrombie, 1862, or even the Dakota War of 1862-64.

During the 1860s Indian-white conflict erupted the whole length of the Great Plains. The Comanche and their allies, the Kiowa, reasserted their dominion over the southern plains, rolling back the Texas frontier while Texans were otherwise occupied. On the central plains the effect of the Colorado gold rush was to spill conflict eastward in a general war the most infamous episode of which was the Sand Creek Massacre.

While to the north, the Dakota War begun in Minnesota pushed west onto the plains, culminating in the bloody engagements of Whitestone Hill in 1863 and Killdeer Mountain in 1864.

It is not surprising that people know little of the conflicts that took place in other parts of the plains, because each of them was, in fact, its own war in its own situation. It is only in retrospect that historical writers put them together into some sort of general scenario.

The turnout at Fort Abercrombie, though, indicates how powerful is the local interest in these historic events. Archeologist and historian Richard Rothaus, likewise Dakota archivist and historian Tamara St. John, spoke to audiences that sprawled out from under the tent set up for presentations. Interpreters and re-enactors were having a great time, telling stories the whole day.

Meanwhile, I was tramping around the grounds with some of my students, doing history through imagination. We’ve been engaged by the National Park Service to conduct detailed research on what happened at Fort Abercrombie in 1862 and define the key features on the field of battle. Rothaus then will check our historical conclusions with archeological investigations.

This calls for attention to detail. Just what kind of ordnance did a 12-pound mountain howitzer fire, anyway? What was the effective range of a .69 caliber smoothbore musket? More to the point, just who were the people bearing arms? We have rosters of the white defenders, but as for the Dakotas laying siege, no one claims them. To figure this out will require help, and likely some deduction.

Even the whites in the fort are a mystery, since about 40% of the uniformed troops were German, about 40% were Francophone, and only about 20% were Anglo-Celtic. It will be the task of my students to define who these folk were.

The imaginative part of the research kicks in when you bring the evidence to bear on the physical terrain. In major battles decisions about strategy and tactics are made by trained officers. Here we have no trained officers. The only trained fighters involved were the Dakota, schooled in warfare from boyhood, and some of the Germans, who learned how to handle artillery in the old country. I’ve already concluded that it was the Dakota who injected strategy into the engagement. They had plans, and they executed them. We have to try to think like they did.

Generally we get our history of Indian-white conflict in broad strokes with not much subtlety to the story. What if, instead, all over the plains, we constructed a history of detail and nuance, really paying attention to what happened on the ground—the way Bill Chalfant did for the Battle of Solomon Fork, or we’re doing for the Siege of Fort Abercrombie. This would be a better, more human history.


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