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Living at Fort Lincoln State Park

I've spent the past four weeks camping at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park while I've been working on my website, writing e-mails, and doing research on my mother's ancestors.  This wonderful park is located across the Missouri River and a few miles downstream from Bismarck.  Since the nights have getting pretty cold these last few weeks, I'm one of the few campers in the campground now and have been here so long that I'm on a first-name basis with the rangers.  Fort Lincoln is a fascinating place, so I decided to devote this update to it.

 

Above:  Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park has been my home for the past four weeks.  You know you've been in a campground a long time when the rangers start calling you by your first name.

Fort Abraham Lincoln was established in 1872 to protect the railroad construction crews who were building a rail line across North Dakota -- or the "Dakota Territory" as it was called then, encompassing what is today North and South Dakota.  The fort was named, of course, for the U.S. president who had been assassinated seven years earlier. 

 

A year after the fort was established, in 1873, the 7th U.S. Cavalry, led by the controversial Colonel George Custer, moved here and Fort Lincoln became the most important fort in the Dakota Territory.  Some claim that Custer was a hero who helped open up the American West to settlers while others say he was a heartless butcher.  Either way, in May of 1876, Custer and several hundred soldiers rode out of Fort Lincoln early one morning while the regimental band played the song "Garryowen."  Custer was heading to Montana territory, where he planned to round up "renegade" Indians who had refused to report to their reservations.  Thousands of Cheyenne and Sioux warriors turned the tables on Custer at the Little Bighorn River a month later, however, and his group of 280 men were wiped out at what became known as "Custer's Last Stand."

 

I became intrigued with Custer when I was young.  In Fifth Grade I read a book about him and then gave a class presentation about his life, and a few years later I watched the movie "Little Big Man," starring Dustin Hoffman, a semi-biographical (emphasis on "semi") account of Custer's life and his Last Stand.  It's a fascinating and entertaining movie that's stuck with me all these years -- that's how I judge a good movie, if it sticks with me afterwards -- and one I highly recommend.

 

George Custer selected Garryowen, an Irish jig, as the official song of the 7th Cavalry.  As depicted in the 1970's movie, "Little Big Man," Custer's band often played this tune as the 7th Cavalry rode into battle against the Indians.

 
   

There are lots of interesting things to see and do at Fort Lincoln today.  The fort, which was dismantled after the 7th Cavalry left in 1882, has been partially reconstructed and the State Park rangers give tours of the Custer House twice an hour.  There's also a reconstructed Mandan Indian village here on the site of the original, much larger village.  The Visitor Center has a lot of fascinating displays, as well as a 20-minute slide show, and there's a great campground with campsites right on the Missouri River, where I've spent many evenings watching the twinkling lights of Bismarck upriver while listening to the honking geese as they fly south for the winter.

 

The North Dakota State Parks Department has done a great job of reconstructing what life was like here during the 1870s.  In addition to the guided tours, the rangers hold live demonstrations periodically and at the top of every hour, a bugle (albeit pre-recorded) plays an appropriate tune, audible a half-mile away in the campground.  They finish with Taps at 9 p.m.  Trail rides are also offered and a trolley links the park with the city of Mandan, a few miles north.

 

If you're interested in the U.S. Cavalry and the Indian conflicts of the 1800s, you should spend a few days here -- or even an entire month, as I've done!

 

   

Above left:  The campground at Fort Lincoln State Park, across the Missouri River from Bismarck.  Fort Lincoln was George Custer's home between 1873 and 1876 before his encounter at the Little Big Horn River in Montana. 

Above right:  A view of Bismarck and the peaceful Missouri River from the campground.  Lewis and Clark camped here at the mouth of the Heart River on their way up the Missouri in 1804.

 

       

Above left:  Colonel George Custer, who graduated last in his class of 34 at West Point.  A few years later during the Civil War, though, he became the youngest general in the history of the American Army at age 23.  Custer fought with the 5th Michigan Cavalry during the Civil War while my great-great-grandfather, Ransom Myers, fought with the 10th Michigan Cavalry.  Custer was brash, arrogant, careless -- and to many Americans of the time, a national hero.

Above center:  An 1873 photo of the officers of the 7th Cavalry at Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, three years before the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  That's the hatless Colonel George Custer on the left standing next to his wife, Libbie. 

Above right:  Sergeant Mark taking us around the grounds of Fort Lincoln.  He gave us a great tour of the Custer House, which is in the background.

       

Above left:  The most impressive building at Fort Lincoln State Park is the replica of the Custer House (the original house was torn down in the 1890s).  They've filled it with a lot of the original furniture and the inside is well worth a tour.

Above center:  The barracks of Company I, 7th Cavalry at Fort Lincoln.  The 66 men in this company were led by Captain Myles Keogh who, in contrast to Custer, was a competent leader.

Above right:  Each footlocker in the barracks has a brief biography posted of one of the soldiers.  I thought the most interesting bio was that of blacksmith Gustave Korn who, after the battle, nursed Keogh's horse, Comanche, back to health.  Comanche was the U.S. cavalry's only survivor of "Custer's Last Stand."  Comanche's whereabouts was the topic of an earlier entry (see News: August 8, 2001)

 

       

Above left:  An old Army blockhouse -- and, in the distance, another blockhouse better known as the North Dakota Capitol Building.

Above center:  The same blockhouse 65 years earlier, in 1936.  My mother (in the back), who was 12, is standing next to her two younger sisters and three of her many cousins.

Above right:  And here's the eastern blockhouse (and a beautiful truck).

 

       

Above left:  These are either cavalry soldiers or the folks at Visa chasing me down. 

Above center:  Firing a cannon they had stuffed with two heads of cabbage (no kidding).  It made a very loud bang -- and then delicious cole slaw.

Above right:  And speaking of loud, these soldiers are firing a Gatling Gun, the first type of machine gun.  Gatlin guns were used throughout the American West during the late 1800s.

 

       

Above left:  The park also has five reconstructed Mandan Indian lodges.  Lewis & Clark wintered with the Mandan, a peaceful tribe, about 50 miles north of here in 1804.  By 1837, the Mandans had been virtually wiped out by smallpox 

Above center:  Smoke from a campfire in a Mandan lodge.

Above right:  Geese heading south for the winter.  I'm going to do the same pretty soon.

 


 

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