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Hills of history: Medora to commemorate Battle of the Badlands 150th anniversary

Press Photo by April Baumgarten It was among the rolling hills of the Badlands like these, shown June 29 southwest of Medora, that Gen. Alfred Sully and his men faced of against Native American warriors during the Battle of the Badlands Aug. 7-9, 1864.

MEDORA — When people think of the Indian Wars, battles like Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee come to mind.

The Battle of Killdeer Mountain and the Battle of Badlands may not be the most memorable, but they played a large part in history of the fight for land on the prairies.

0 Talk about it

“It culminated into what they call the Great Sioux War of 1876 and ’77 when (Gen. George Armstrong) Custer was killed,” said Doug Ellison, a historian and mayor of Medora. “It all stemmed back to this (Gen. Alfred) Sully campaign.”

One of those influential battles took place 150 years ago today. On Friday and Saturday, locals will celebrate the significance of the battle and how it shaped the history of the area and the country.

“Any battle is important to remember because people lost their lives fighting here,” Medora native Ashley Ellison said. “It was all important in the scheme of the war.”

A rising conflict

The conflict that took place near Medora was one of several in Sully’s campaign to claim the Dakota Territory for the U.S. government. Over a three-day period, his troops marched through the Badlands, meeting pockets of Native Americans along the way.

“It was kind of a running, more of a long-distance, kind of a sniping battle between Sully and the Sioux,” Doug Ellison said.

The battle was a continuation of Sully’s campaign from the Battle of Whitestone Hill, Doug Ellison said. The general had attacked a village Sept. 3-5, 1863, on the eastern side of the state 23 miles southeast of Kulm. Sully’s men killed, wounded or captured approximately 400 Sioux Indians.

“Out here it was the Teton and Lakota, who really had no connection with the Minnesota massacre,” Doug Ellison said.

He referred to the Dakota War of 1862, where a Santee Sioux uprising resulted in the deaths of 490 white settlers. As a result, 38 Dakota Indians were hanged in Mankato, Minn., on the orders of President Abraham Lincoln. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

But the fight didn’t stop there. Soldiers were ordered into the Dakota Territory to pursue Native American tribes. The battles would carry on across the prairies, and the Battle of the Badlands was just one of many.

The confrontation between Native American warriors came less than two weeks after the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, where 2,200 of Sully’s men launched an attack on approximately 1,600 Native Americans. The force was the largest involved in the Indian Wars.

“Mainly out here in 1864, the majority of Sioux out here had not fought the whites before,” Doug Ellison said. “So, to them, it was kind of an unprovoked attack. It just initiated the animosity between the western Sioux and the United State.”

The march continued to the Badlands, or present-day Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit, according to historians. Sioux warriors scattered to the area with women and children to evade Sully. The general decided to pursue them.

The cavalry was ambushed by Native American warriors on Aug. 6, 1864, as the soldiers slept near the Little Missouri River, though only one guide was injured. The next day, Sully began his march to an area southwest of Medora, and eventually was able to reach Square Butte on Aug 9, 1864. There, he was confronted by a large number of warriors and the butte became the site where the heaviest fighting took place, Doug Ellison said.

Sully eventually broke through the fighting, and the Native American warriors dispersed. Sully claimed to have killed 100 Sioux warriors, though it is likely an overestimation. No soldiers died.

“There was really no close hand-to-hand combat, so the troops didn’t have anyone killed,” Doug Ellison said. “They thought they had killed quite a number of warriors, but it was just kind of a running battle through the Badlands.”

Telling both sides

There were a lot of factors in the battle, especially with the events leading up to it. On one side, the U.S. wanted revenge for what happened in Minnesota. On the other hand, the Native Americans in western North Dakota had not been involved in the massacre, and felt the attacks from Sully were an invasion.

“So it is kind of a case of mistrust and misunderstanding that led both sides into this decade-long war between the U.S. and the Sioux,” Doug Ellison said.

The mayor felt it was important to show both sides of the story and invited several speakers for the event. Kurt Bergemann, author of the book “Brackett’s Battalion,” will offer a military perspective on the campaign. Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of Sitting Bull, will tell the Lakota side of the story.

One unique perspective of the battle was offered through the eyes of Native American captive Fanny Kelly, who was at the Battle of the Badlands. The woman was captured after a wagon train was attacked by Lakota Indians near Fort Laramie in Wyoming.

“When she saw Gen. Sully’s soldiers, she wanted them to rescue her, so she was rooting for them,” said Ashley Ellison, who will portray Kelly during the commemoration on Friday. “But when she was released, she advocated for Native American rights in Washington, D.C.

“I think her being a part of the village life really helped them to understand their culture. She realized these aren’t just savages they are fighting off; these were people and they also had their reason for fighting.”

Medora is a historic place — it owes its fame to President Theodore Roosevelt and Marquis de Mores, who named the town after his wife, Medora. But the Battle of the Badlands also is important to remember, especially 150 years after the fighting began.

“It’s to remind us of our heritage in the Dakotas,” Doug Ellison said. “(The battle) played such an important role in the formation of the Dakotas. It just played such a permanent role in our development.

“I think it is just important to understand where some of these issues originated, and a lot of them originated with the Sully campaign. It led to the reservation system, which led to Wounded Knee, which led to these divisions we are still dealing with today.”

If you go

What: Battle of the Badlands 150th Anniversary

Where: Medora

When: Friday and Saturday

What: Special program at Medora Community Center, 6-9 p.m., Friday; Trip to and presentation at battle site at Square Butte, Meet at Community Center 1:30 P.m. Saturday.

Info: Call 701-623-4345 for registration, no charge for events, limited seating on bus

April Baumgarten
April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, as the news editor. She works with a team of talented journalists and editors, who strive to give the Grand Forks area the quality news readers deserve to know. Baumgarten grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college,  she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.