Located on the Fort Totten
Indian Reservation, this
North Dakota State
Historic Site got its start in 1867 when soldiers built a log structure
that in no time was enlarged and expanded to include dozens of buildings.
Situated on the southeastern shore of Devil’s Lake, its purpose was to
protect the Totten Trail, an overland route which extended across Dakota
Territory from southern Minnesota to the goldfields of western Montana,
and later, to control and protect the Totten Indian Reservation.
Fort Totten was just
one of a number of posts built to protect the overland route – others
included Forts Abercrombie, Ransom, Stevenson, and Buford, as well as
Fort Benton in Montana.
Early in the summer
of 1867, with a considerable force, General A. H. Terry advanced into
Devils Lake Region, where work began on the fort, which was named for
Brevet Major General Joseph Gilbert Totten, late chief Engineer of the
United States Army.
Fort Totten in the mid 19th Century. This image available for photographic
prints and downloads
The following year, the soldiers began to rebuild
and enlarge the fort. When the fort was first established, there were
no Indians in the immediate vicinity. However, the following winter,
the fort invited the Sioux for a visit. After the Indians determined
that the invitation was made in good faith, many of them began to
gradually come to the fort, some settling permanently. This was
probably due to their starving condition, as the fort’s commander
found it necessary to issue large quantities of rations to these
Indians during the first winter to prevent their dying of hunger.
In 1870, J. W.
Daniels, the Indian Agent on the Sisseton Indian Agency,
Territory, recommended that an Indian Agent be appointed for the
natives living around Fort Totten. The old log quarters were then
allocated for the use of the Indian Department and the first Indian
Agent arrived in May, 1871. In September of that same year, the
Indians were estimated to have numbered more than 700, surviving not
only on government rations, but also had planted over 100 acres in
corn, potatoes, turnips, wheat, oats, and hay.
Though the Fort
Totten Indian Reservation had been provided for in a February, 1867
treaty and 360 square miles set aside by an Executive Order in
January, 1870, the reservation wasn’t formally established until 1878.
In the meantime, the
fort continued to expand in the1870’s, including a sawmill, a granary,
officers’ quarters, barracks, a hospital, bakery, commissary, a
school, and more; most of the structures built of brick.
A Catholic School was to be established at the
Agency and by 1875; the agency had grown to five buildings. Finally,
in 1878, the surrounding reservation was formally established for the
Cut Head, Wahpeton, and Sisseton Sioux in 1878 in accordance with an
Though the fort
continued to serve as a military post, its functions were primarily
spent on Indian affairs
over the next decade. In 1890, Fort Totten was decommissioned and
the next year, it became the property of the Bureau of Indian
For more the next half century, the buildings were then used as an
Indian boarding school, health care facility, and a reservation
school, which continued to operate until 1959. The next year, the
Bureau of Indian Affairs transferred the bulk of the fort site to the
State of North Dakota for historical purposes. The site then became
the Fort Totten State Historic Park, which was listed on the National
Register of Historic Places in 1971.