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Pre-1871: Early History

By | Last Modified: May 19, 2019
Fort Rice during the 1870s. Credit: State Historical Society of North Dakota (00670-058 & 00670-053).

Prior to formal organization by the United States Government, the region including and surrounding what is today Bismarck-Mandan was home to several dominant native tribes, most notably the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Sioux, and Chippewa. La Vérendrye was one of the first outside explorers to the area, around 1738.

Most of the land of present-day North Dakota was acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The famous explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent the winter of 1804-1805 at a camp established near present-day Washburn, located about 40 miles north of present-day Bismarck. During their stay in the region, Lewis and Clark were introduced to Sakakawea (also known as Sacagawea or Sacajawea, mostly outside of North Dakota), a Shoshone woman who acted as a translator and guide. Due to their iconic and historic relevance, Lewis, Clark, and Sakakawea are all celebrated figures in the region.

The region remained largely unsettled throughout most of the 19th century. Besides the native population, the sparse inhabitants of Dakota Territory largely consisted of fur traders. David Mitchell was one of the first fur traders to the area, who established a fort near present-day Bismarck for the American Fur Company. The first steamboats arrived in 1832.

Dakota Territory was organized in 1861, comprising of present-day North Dakota and South Dakota, in addition to parts of Montana and Wyoming.

General H.H. Sibley, former Governor of Minnesota, led an expedition of roughly 2,500 men into the territory seeking Native Americans in retaliation for conflicts in Minnesota. A skirmish known today as the Battle of Apple Creek broke out in July, causing several casualties.

That same year, the discovery of gold in present-day Montana brought the first mass occupancy by non-native populations, with many traveling the Missouri River en route. This discovery led to a massacre on August 10th of that year, in which up to sixty people were killed during a conflict between prospectors, carrying a reported $90,000 worth of gold, and the Dakota. The actual number varies by source, but all agree that casualties were heavy on both sides. All of the returning miners, including women and children, were killed, along with over thirty Dakota warriors. The “Battle of Burnt Creek,” as it is most commonly remembered, caused the area of the Missouri River near present-day Pioneer Park to “run red with blood.”

Commissioning of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1864, to build the northern transcontinental rail line between Minnesota and the Pacific Northwest, ultimately established permanent settlement.

General Alfred H. Sully established Fort Rice in 1864. It was the first significant modern development in the vicinity. He located it on the west side of the Missouri River, roughly 12 miles north of present-day Cannon Ball and 20 miles southeast of present-day Bismarck. Fort Rice was named for Brigadier General James Clay Rice of Massachusetts, who was killed during the Civil War.

The region’s first periodical newspaper, Frontier Scout, was first published from Fort Union on July 7, 1864. It ended publication on August 17th, but resumed on June 15, 1865 at Fort Rice.

Until its decommissioning in 1878, Fort Rice was instrumental in supporting government-sponsored expeditions and railroad development, which induced settlement and enterprising activities. It offered both defense and supplies.

Isolated from civilization and subject to severe winters, early inhabitants found life difficult. 81 people died at the fort during its first year of operation.

Joseph Dietrich was the first private citizen in what is now Bismarck, having arrived in 1868.

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