Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Minnesota Historical Sites ~ The Dakota War Sites Part 2

Continuing our look at Minnesota Historical Sites, today we're taking a look at more sites related to the Dakota War of 1862. (To catch up on the previous installment of this series, click HERE.

In 1862, while the United States was embroiled in the Civil War that would determine whether they would stay United, Southwestern Minnesota exploded in its own Civil War. The Dakota, confined to a narrow strip of land bordering the Minnesota River and given many promises from the Federal Government, the State Government, and inept Indian Agents, and also being the victims of a massive swindle by traders and creditors, had finally had enough and rebelled, going on a rampage that would kill several hundred white settlers and banish the Dakota from Minnesota for decades.

The Minnesota Historical Society maintains several sites important to preserving the history of this war. In the my post from last month, we looked at The Redwood Agency, the epicenter of the early part of the war.

There were actually two agencies on the Dakota reservation. The Lower or Redwood Agency and the Upper or Yellow Medicine Agency. The Yellow Medicine Agency was destroyed during the war, and its white inhabitants were forced to flee, walking fifty miles through dangerous territory to reach the comparative safety of Fort Ridgely.

Standing on the north side of the fort, looking southwest to the Headquarters
Building. The stones in the foreground are the foundations of the two
multi-story stone barracks that housed the refugees and non-combatants
during the attacks on the fort. (Author's photo)

Fort Ridgely was established in 1853 as little more than a police station in order to keep the white settlers flooding into Minnesota from encroaching upon the reservation land. Contrary to many a Hollywood film, forts in the American west were not stockaded. They were open, with the buildings all facing inward toward the parade ground and flagpole. (With the exception of the trade buildings like the blacksmith and bakery. Those were  run by civilians and not worthy to look out on the parade ground.) You can see from the photos how open the prairie is, but up to this point, the US Army thought their very presence enough to prevent an attack by hostiles, so they saw no need for earthen, stone, or wooden fortifications.

Fort Ridgely had several stone buildings, the barracks, the officers' houses, storehouses, stables, and armory. Several artillery pieces were there, but the fort had a minimal staff at this time, since most of Minnesota's fighting men were deployed in the Army of the West and the Army of the Potomac at this time.

When the Dakota attacked the fort, several design flaws came to light. One, there were long ravines that led right to the fort's perimeter, where the enemy could advance under cover quite close to the fort, and two, the powder magazine had been placed nearly 200 yards OUTSIDE the fort's perimeter...

Monument at Fort Ridgely to commemorate
the battle, the defenders, and those who
died during the war.

Originally, this was for safety reasons. If the powder magazine, containing all the extra ammunition for both rifle and cannon were to explode accidentally, it would be best if that happened away from the fort to minimize casualties and damage. No one ever envisioned the fort being under attack, running out of bullets, and needing to make a daring daylight raid on their own ammunition store.

Fort Ridgely survived several attacks over a period of days, thanks to the bravery of one Ordnance Sergeant Jones, who took charge of the fort because the 19 year old Lieutenant, Timothy Sheehan, who had been left in charge was confined to his bed, desperately ill. 

During the battle, that spanned three days (both sides took a break on day two because of torrential rain) most of the wooden buildings of Fort Ridgely were ordered burned, because they provided too much cover for advancing Indians. The refugees and families of the soldiers were confined to one of the stone barracks. Also during the battle, Sergeant Jones's wife gave birth to their child!

The soldiers held the fort, thanks in part to the arrival of a militia force led by Henry Sibley, who had been sent by Governor Ramsey to render aid. 

Best-selling, award-winning author Erica Vetsch loves Jesus, history, romance, and sports. She’s a transplanted Kansan now living in Minnesota, and she married her total opposite and soul mate! When she’s not writing fiction, she’s planning her next trip to a history museum and cheering on her Kansas Jayhawks and New Zealand All Blacks. You can connect with her at her website, www.ericavetsch.comwhere you can read about her books and sign up for her newsletter, and you can find her online at https://www.facebook.com/EricaVetschAuthor/ where she spends way too much time!


  1. Interesting! Especially the fact that when these forts were built they weren't designed for protection per se. And that baby had a great birth story to tell! I wonder what the parents named it! Great post, thanks!

    1. Connie, I bet that baby could top any other birth story out there! :) I was surprised to learn that most frontier forts were considered enough of a deterrent on their own to not need a wall or other fortifications.

  2. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post. I hope to visit Minnesota one day.

    1. Melanie, I hope you get a chance to come to Minnesota...though not this weekend, we're having a blizzard...again...

  3. Sounds like a very scary time in this country, so much war and violence.

    1. Kim, I agree. I hope we never see its like again.

  4. I remember standing on the site of Fort Ridgely and trying to envision what it was lack in 1862. Thank you for this reminder.

    1. I did the same, Stephanie! Slowly turning in a circle, trying to envision the attacks, the cannon placements, the smoke and noise and fear.

      Great to run into you at the author event last night!

  5. Thanks for a great post and the history of the Fort.