'Overlooked' history: Impacts of Killdeer Mountain Battle felt 150 years later
Monday marks 150 years since the battle at Killdeer Mountain, an event that shaped North Dakota in ways felt more than a century later.
As one of the western-most Civil War-era battles, the Killdeer Mountain Battle was “a turning point in Dakota history,” said writer Jennifer Strange, co-coordinator of a commemoration event beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Dunn County Historical Society and Museum, where she also sits on the board.
But for many outside of the state — even inside the state — the conflict between the U.S. military and a gathering of Teton, Yanktonai and Dakota Indians doesn’t carry the same weight as other Civil War-era battles like Gettysburg or Antietam.
“It’s not much taught about, or, for that matter, discussed,” said Tom Isern, a North Dakota State University professor of history. “Here within North Dakota, there’s just a little postage stamp of a historic site. Hardly anybody goes there.
“It’s a very much neglected and overlooked chapter in history,” he said.
Some state historians say they hope that by commemorating the events of 1864, it will bring renewed attention to their impact on the state, particularly on Native American communities.
“It’s a good time to reflect on this,” said Diane Rogness, historic sites manager with the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
The impact of the two-day battle in 1864 cannot be understated, she added.
“It’s very significant,” she said. “It changed the way of life for the Sioux and for the settlement of Dakota territory. It changed the world. It changed history.”
Remembering the battle
She and several others — including United Tribes Technical College instructor of Native Studies Dakota Good House and Standing Rock Sioux tribal historian Ladonna Brave Bull Allard — will speak at the Dunn County museum Saturday on a panel discussing the significance of the battle, which saw General Alfred Sully and 2,200 troops launch an attack on an estimated 1,600 Indians who had gathered at the sacred site of Killdeer Mountain.
Anywhere from 31 to 100 Indians were killed in the conflict, depending on whose historical account you read, as well as two U.S. soldiers. Troops targeted women, children and other non-combatants, even returning to burn down lodges and buffalo meat, and shoot abandoned dogs and horses, according to historians.
The bloody assault was and is regarded as a punitive campaign for the Dakota War of 1862, in which Sully and General Henry Sibley sent forces in to quell an uprising of Dakota Indians in Minnesota angered over late payments from the U.S. for their land. Sully and his men either didn’t know or didn’t care that most of the Indian tribes at Killdeer Mountain two years later had no involvement with the Dakota War, historians said.
Though Killdeer Mountain was theoretically punishment for the hostilities in Minnesota, it was beyond any provocation that took place in Minnesota, Isern said.
“This was about the fate of North Dakota territory,” he said.
Somewhat indirectly, the Battle of Killdeer Mountain opened the door for western railroad expansion, pushed many Native Americans onto reservations, and effectively shaped North Dakota 25 years before the territory was even a state.
A new focus for an old battlefield
Historians and educators have put a renewed focus on Killdeer Mountain in recent years, both because of the lead up to the 150th anniversary of the battle, and because of the encroachment of the energy industry on the now-private land on which the battle took place.
New information is being discovered all the time, mostly in the form of U.S. military correspondence and documents, said Isern, but the American Indian perspective is often left out of the story.
More than a century later, the Native narrative that has been passed down orally for two generations or more is starting to help shape modern understanding of the conflict.
Good House said he has been meeting with tribal elders — many whose grandparents witnessed the conflict — who have continued to share the story of Killdeer Mountain with their own children and grandchildren.
“The most important thing is that we’re talking about it and we remember it so another generation or two don’t go by and we forget about it,” he said.
The State Historical Society of North Dakota could, in the future, update their North Dakota studies curriculum to included the American Indian perspective of not only Killdeer Mountain, but of other conflicts across the prairie between the U.S. military and Native Americans, he said.
Though the Civil War-era battles “did nothing but shape anti-American sentiment” among Native American tribes, by continuing to share the story in oral tradition, “I feel like there’s a burden that’s lifted,” Good House said.
“When we talk about history or significant sites or conflicts where terrible things happened, we need to remember those things happened,” he said. “But those things didn’t happen to us today or yesterday or just last year.”
Strange said the goal of Saturday’s event — featuring storytelling, a bison roast and a writing workshop — is to be “inclusive, educational and respectful of all cultures.”
The spiritual significance of Killdeer Mountain, where for years separate bands of Sioux Indians would gather, often for coming-of-age vision quests for young males, lends an added element to the battle that took place there.
A narrative is still taking shape of what happened at Killdeer Mountain 150 years ago, and what it means for North Dakota today.
“In some ways it’s not as climactic, I don’t think, as some have made it out to be,” Isern said, “but in other ways, it’s more so.
“I think it still remains to be placed in full context,” he said.