Plains Folk

Fort Sauerkraut


Here’s a question of historical branding. Who decided, and when, to call the site on top of cemetery hill in Hebron “Fort Sauerkraut”? Obviously, this was not a historic name for the defenses erected there during the Indian scare of 1890. When was it that the descendants of German settlers of Hebron became comfortable enough with their immigrant identity to parody it by attaching the name “Fort Sauerkraut” to the site on the hill?


When you figure that out, consider the reconstruction of the settler fort that now stands overlooking the cemetery and town. It is an odd construction and an odd commemoration. There is, at least, some interesting historical fact behind it.


Hebron was founded alongside the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1885. Two early German immigrant pioneers, Charles Krauth and Ferdinand Leutz, working hand-in-hand with the railroad, selected a site and helped recruit German Evangelical Protestant settlers out of Chicago, where a colonization company had formed under clerical leadership. Hence the biblical name, Hebron, for the settlement. Pastor August Debus chose as the title of his first sermon, “I am fearful, but I do not despair.”


Which might have been the motto of his parishioners when they began to receive news reports of a so-called Indian breakout during the Ghost Dance episode of 1890. What whites commonly called the Ghost Dance was a millennial religious revival movement that spread to reservations across the West, including Standing Rock. It was misunderstood as a hostile movement, and so whites were alarmed when they received news reports that a group of Indians had walked away from Standing Rock Agency.


Fearful, but not despairing, the German settlers around Hebron came into town and joined in the task of building fortifications. They made some interesting choices as to design. They plowed and cut sod to wall up a hilltop enclosure about 100 feet long, with an opening only at the south end. The structure was overtopped with railroad ties covered with earth, making it fireproof.


All around the structure the defenders dug trenches and laid up sod fortifications. After that the builders, showing rather astute martial expertise, strung barbed wire on railroad ties around the compound to deter attackers and trip up their horses.


The impressive defenses were never tested. There was no Indian threat, just a lot of excitement, including Paul-Revere-like rides through the countryside and stalwart labors by the womenfolk to provision the defenses.


The historical information posted at the reconstruction site is intriguing; it comes from a manuscript by a Hebron attorney, Pete Jungers, writing sometime before 1933. Although Jungers has only rudimentary understanding of native cultures, he does express empathy for the people at Standing Rock and mourn the tragic events at Wounded Knee.


It remains unclear just what people thought about the 1890 settlement-defense episode after it transpired and over the years. Was it a matter of community solidarity and pride, or one of sheepishness or even embarrassment? By 2004 a reconstruction effort, prodded by Bob Spangelo, got underway, quickly completing the central structure, but not the surrounding fortifications. There the matter stands today.


I don’t know how much of a tourist draw Fort Sauerkraut is. There is the potential for some truly fine interpretation, based on the Jungers manuscript. I do think the name, Fort Sauerkraut, ought to give way to something with more historicity and gravitas.

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