Fort Ridgely State Park loaded with history

Staff Writer

FORT RIDGELY – The removal of Fort Ridgely’s golf course is at the center of much controversy recently. However, the fort is far more than a sporting location. The history of the fort-turned-park reserves it a special place in many locals’ hearts.

The story of Fort Ridgely begins with the treaty of Traverse Des Sioux. On July 23, 1851 the upper bands of the Dakota Nation – the Sisseton and Wahpeton – sold roughly 21 million acres of land in exchange for promises of cash, goods, a reservation and education.

The Mendota treaty, signed Aug. 2, 1851, was a similar treaty with the lower bands: the Mdewakanton and Wahpekuta bands.

The United States Government paid the Dakota $1.6 million – about 7.5 cents an acre – for the land. When adjusted for inflation that would come to about $55 million today, or about $2.62 per acre.

Fort Ridgely was built to protect settlers and officials from the Dakota, who were considered one of the most war-like tribes, according to a letter from General Henry Sibley.

Completed in 1855, the site of Fort Ridgely was chosen because of the abundance of natural resources and riverboat access during high water seasons.

Brigadier General W. S. Clarke was sent to scout the area. On April 23,1853 the site was established when companies C and K of the United States sixth army infantry arrived. They were led by Lieutenant Colonel Francis Lee and Captain Napolean Dana.

The sixth infantry had been garrisoned at Fort Dodge, in Iowa, which was decommissioned when Ridgely became active.

Originally, all the fort’s buildings had been intended to be built out of granite quarried nearby. However, only the commissary and the barracks were made entirely of granite.

“They got special permission to finish the fort with milled lumber because the granite was so hard and heavy to move and was taking a very long time,” said Fort Ridgely Site Manager Amber Bentler.

Ridgely was a frontier fort, meaning duty there was often dull.

“They (the soldiers) kind of thought it was punishment because we are way out here on the western front,” said Bentler. “They did not see much action, there was a lot of drilling and things like that.”

The fort became an economic center for the area after its construction, thanks to the sutler, Benjamin Randall, who sold goods to soldiers and settlers in the area. A sutler is a government appointed trader for a fort, and at Fort Ridgely Randall also acted as the post office.

Along with the economic development, Fort Ridgely became a community unto itself. Farmers could come to purchase goods and their daughters could meet soldiers.

“We have documentation of a dance that happened for Washington’s birthday one year,” said Bentler. “They hired a band, they had food, over 500 guest came and they danced all night.”

The fort became an artillery training ground in 1859. Four guns were stationed there: a six-pound gun, two twelve-pound guns and a 24-pound gun. Cannons were identified by the weight of ammunition fired, so a six-pound gun would use ammunition weighing six pounds.

Once the Civil War broke out, Fort Ridgely became a training ground for regular and volunteer regiments.

Then in 1862 the fort unexpectedly had to fight off a direct assault by the Dakota. This marked the U.S.-Dakota War.

Many factors led up to the conflagration across 13 counties. Tensions were high as Dakota were being moved from the land for whites to settle.

“There was a shooting contest up near Achton,” said Bentler. “Some Dakota braves had challenged some farm men to a shooting contest and when the contest was done the Dakota turned on the family and shot everybody, with only one survivor.”

What is commonly cited as what sparked the powder keg that was the Minnesota River Valley at the time, was when the Dakota were refused the payments for their land.

“At Lower Sioux Agency, the warehouse was still there, and the Indians had arrived, they wanted to get at least their food, they at least wanted partial payment even though the gold was not in yet and they were refused,” said Bentler.

The Dakota attacked the fort twice, on Aug. 20 and 22. They were driven off both times after attempting to coordinate attacks from the surrounding ravines.

It was largely the cannons that kept the Dakota at bay. The powerful, and loud, weapons shocked the attackers.

“The cannon disturbed us greatly … but for the cannon I think we would have taken the fort,” said Chief Big Eagle, according to a historic site directory document.

After the war, Fort Ridgely returned to its duties as a frontier fort. It continued to train soldiers for the Civil War throughout the rest of the fighting.

The fort was decommissioned May 22, 1867 and officially abandoned in 1871. Settlers in the area repurposed many of the buildings and building materials into their own homesteads.

The east magazine was turned into wheat storage and used as a dance hall. The guard house was used as a blacksmith shop, and Officer’s Quarters A was used as a wheelwrights shop and a liquor store, according to an appraisement of Fort Ridgely.

The barracks were pulled apart by settlers for the granite and half of the commissary was demolished with the remaining half turned into a barn.

The monument commemorating the defenders of Fort Ridgely was erected in 1896. By 1911 the fort became the fourth state park in Minnesota.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps set up a company at Fort Ridgely in 1934. The veteran corps did a lot of the restoration work at the fort.

“They (the veteran CCC members) are the ones that uncovered the foundations outside.” said Bentler. “They were working with the archeologists digging down, finding out what life was like here at the fort and then they rebuilt the back half of the commissary using the same granite that the soldiers did in 1853.”

From then up through today Fort Ridgely has stood as a reminder of when the Midwest was the western frontier.

(Historical information is from the files of the Brown County Historical Museum, from the Fort Ridgely archives, and from Fort Ridgely Site Manager Amber Bentler.)