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ND boundary crew had best days before battle

The boundary between the U.S. and Canada along North Dakota and Montana’s northern border was not surveyed until the early 1870s. Since much of it ran through Indian territory, the survey crew was escorted by members of the U.S. military stationed at Fort Totten.

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Five of the six highest-ranking officers who participated in this duty would be reunited in June 1876 at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The events of that day would prove disastrous for all five.

Two were killed by the Indians, one committed suicide, one drank himself to death less than six months after the battle and the fifth was publicly accused of cowardice.

Three of these officers had served with distinction during the Civil War, three have geographic features at Little Big Horn named in their honor, three developed serious drinking problems, and three had troubling experiences with women.

These five men were Major Marcus Reno, Captains Myles Keogh and Thomas Weir, and first lieutenants George Lord and James Porter. The one surviving higher-ranking officer was First Lt. James Bell, who was away at the time of the battle.

Reno, Keogh and Weir were all recognized for valor during the Civil War and were assigned to the 7th Cavalry after the war. All three were in charge of companies within the cavalry and assigned to duty in the South enforcing reconstruction and stopping Ku Klux Klan activities.

Meanwhile, it was discovered that the 49th parallel, the boundary line between the U.S. and Canada, had never been surveyed. In March 1872, Congress authorized funding, and the survey began.

Gen. Alfred Terry had the responsibility of protecting the surveyors. He ordered Reno, Keogh and Weir to come to Fort Snelling and await further orders. On June 2, Reno was placed in command of two escort companies.

Also involved in this project were Porter, who was assigned as Reno’s adjutant; Bell, who would serve as quartermaster; and, in 1873, Lord as medical officer. The group settled into Fort Totten for the winter of 1872-73.

Because there were no immediate threats, Reno’s protection party had little to do during the summer of 1873. The survey party got as far as the Souris River when winter closed in. They returned to Fort Totten.

In 1874, Reno was to lead a larger group, four companies, because the surveyors planned to mark out the boundary all the way to the Rocky Mountains.

The survey was completed on Sept. 1, and the companies returned to Fort Totten. Reno was granted permission to spend time at home, and Weir became commander. In the fall of 1874, Bell received orders to go to Shreveport, La., and bring to justice the Ku Klux Klan members who were murdering and terrorizing former slaves.

Lord went to New York City to appear before the Medical Examining Board for his licensing, then was assigned to Fort Buford. Keogh rejoined his troops in January 1875, and in the spring, he and Weir brought their companies back to Fort Snelling.

Meanwhile, there was growing concern about the number of potential hostile Indians who were leaving the reservations.

This fear intensified when it was learned that the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians had formed an alliance and that Sitting Bull had instituted the Ghost/Sun Dance in preparation for battle.

Authorities in Washington told Gen. Terry that action needed to be taken to force the defiant Indians back onto the reservations. The general “devised a hammer-and-anvil strategy that would crush the renegade Lakota gathered around Sitting Bull.”

To implement this plan, Terry needed to beef up the number of soldiers stationed under Col. George Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln. In October 1875, he sent Keogh, Porter and their regimental company to the fort. Early in 1876, Reno was dispatched to Fort Lincoln to serve as second in command.

On April 17, 1876, Bell joined Weir and the rest of Company D as they gathered at Fort Abraham Lincoln. With all the participants in place, Terry believed he could soon turn his plan into action.

(We will continue this story next week.)

Eriksmoen is a history columnist from Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at