Fort Ridgely

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Background

Constructed in the 1850s, Fort Ridgely was designed as a police station to keep peace as settlers poured into former Dakota lands after the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in1851, in which the Eastern Dakota ceded 24 million acres to the U.S. government. The treaties left the Dakota confined to a small reservation along the Minnesota River, stretching from just north of New Ulm to today’s South Dakota border, in return for annual payments of gold and goods and help in building schools and farms on the reservation.

Nine years later, broken promises by the U.S. government, unscrupulous practices by fur traders and crop failure all helped create tensions that erupted into the U.S.-Dakota war in August 1862. The Dakota attacked the fort twice – on Aug. 20 and Aug. 22. The 280 military personnel and civilians who sought refuge at the fort were relieved on Aug. 26 when Col. Henry Sibley and 1,400 soldiers arrived from Fort Snelling in St. Paul. Their superior numbers prevailed and the siege was ended on Aug. 27.

In 1865, fire demolished some of the buildings including the headquarters and surgeon's quarters. Two years later, volunteers had replaced regular troops withdrawn to fight in the Civil War, leaving just Ordnance Sgt. William Howard in charge of the unused buildings. Howard himself was withdrawn in 1871 by the Army, which could not justify the fort's existence after the removal of the Dakota from Minnesota after the war. Nearby homesteaders occupied the remaining buildings and later dismantled other structures for building materials for homes and farms.

In 1880, the U.S. Congress officially opened the Fort Ridgely military reservation for settlement. Six years later, the state of Minnesota purchased five acres of the area with the intention of developing the old fort buildings as a historic site, and in 1911 the legislature established Fort Ridgely Memorial State Park. An archaeological excavation of the site in 1936, under the direction of the Minnesota Historical Society and assisted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, found that only a log powder magazine and the stone commissary, in partial ruins, remained. Further excavation located the foundations of eight buildings and work began on the restoration of the commissary. The site was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. The Minnesota Historical Society assumed stewardship of the fort's grounds and commissary from the Department of Natural Resources in 1969. Today, the restored fort’s commissary is home to interpretive exhibits and a gift shop. The stone foundations of the buildings remain and interpretive markers on the grounds tell the fort’s story. The historic site, within Fort Ridgely State Park, is managed by the Nicollet County Historical Society.

For more information about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, visit www.usdakotawar.org.

Causes Leading to the U.S.-Dakota War

The Dakota were coerced into signing treaties in 1851 that gave the U.S. government control of almost all of what is now the state of Minnesota. New settlers wanted more space and the Dakota were left a small strip of land on which to live in return for annual payments of gold and goods, and help in building schools and farms on the reservation.

In 1861, the Dakota had not received the food and money the government had promised, a bad summer harvest meant that they had little food to see them through the winter and the Indian Agency traders stopped giving them credit, leading to near starvation. A Dakota leader named Little Crow knew that there were supplies in government warehouses on the reservation that could be used to feed his people. He also knew that many Minnesota soldiers had been called to fight in the Civil War.

Many Dakota were calling for war to drive out the settlers in the spring and early summer of 1862. Little Crow and his troops first attacked on Aug. 18, 1862 and the fighting continued until Sept. 26, 1862, when the Dakota released their captives.

After the war, the Dakota were expelled from the state and most were sent to Crow Creek, S.D., where many were killed by disease and starvation. Others were captured and put on trial for their crimes, beginning on Oct. 25, 1862. A commission was appointed to hear cases, and, on many occasions, heard as many as 40 cases per day. Some captives were heard and sentenced in less than five minutes. More than 300 Dakota were sentenced to death and 16 others were given prison terms.

President Lincoln ordered the executions postponed and the papers on each convict sent to Washington, D.C., for study by authorized deputies, making it clear that no man was to be hanged because he had fought for his tribe. On Dec. 6, President Lincoln approved the death sentence for 39 of the original 307. One man was given a last-minute reprieve. On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 men were hung in the largest mass execution ever to take place in the United States. The execution took place in front of what is now the Minnesota Valley Regional Library in Mankato, where today, a monument stands in memorial to the thirty-eight killed that day.

Timeline

July 12, 1852 Minnesota Territory Congressional Representative Henry Sibley recommends the establishment of a fort on the Minnesota River.

Dec. 7, 1852 A board selects the site of Rock Point for the construction of the fort.

1853-55 Fort Ridgely is constructed.

Aug. 20, 1862 The fort is attacked by approximately 400 Dakota soldiers, led by Little Crow, during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. After a five-hour fight, the forces retreat to the Lower Agency.

Aug. 22, 1862 An estimated 800 Dakota attack and are defeated by cannon fire after hours of fighting. Three soldiers and up to 100 Dakota are killed in the two days of fighting.

1865 Fire demolishes the headquarters/surgeon's quarters building.

1867 Volunteers who had replaced Civil War troops are withdrawn, leaving Ordnance Sergeant William Howard in charge of the unused buildings.

1871 Howard is withdrawn by the Army, leaving the fort unprotected from nearby homesteaders who were in need of building materials for homes and farms. The fort's existence could not be justified after the removal of the Dakota from southern Minnesota following the U.S-Dakota War.

1880 Congress opens the Fort Ridgely military reservation for settlement.

1896 The state of Minnesota shows interest in developing the fort as a historic site and purchases five acres of the area.

1911 Legislature establishes Fort Ridgely Memorial State Park.

1936 An archeological excavation of the site is led by G. Hubert Smith under the direction of the Minnesota Historical Society, assisted by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Only a log powder magazine and the stone commissary - then in partial ruins - remained in the vicinity. When the excavation is completed, the foundations of eight buildings had been identified. Once the excavations are complete, work begins on the restoration of the commissary.

1986 The Minnesota Historical Society assumes stewardship of the fort's grounds and commissary from the Department of Natural Resources.

Images

Fort Ridgely Images

Fort Ridgely Images

Fort Ridgely

Fort Ridgely

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U.S. Ninth Infantry at Fort Ridgely, 1912

U.S. Ninth Infantry at Fort Ridgely, 1912

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