RHAME - It’s not known whose idea it was to poison a group of Sioux warriors by using strychnine-laced food a wagon train purposely left behind during a September 1864 battle with the Native Americans, said Dean Pearson, of Bowman, and president of the Bowman County Historical Society.
But it would be later reported that more Sioux died from the poison - which causes dramatic convulsions then asphyxiation - than from bullets.
It’s estimated a total of between 20 to 50 Sioux died in the battle, which took place in several spots north and west of what is now Rhame, said Pearson, author of “Fort Dilts … The Story Behind the Story,” a book about the battle.
Eleven whites died from wounds received by conventional wartime weapons such as arrows.
When word got out, back east, about the use of poison, politicians and the military commanders reportedly were appalled, he said.
Due to the outcry, the “Strychnine affair” was stricken from the official records until the cause was released in 1963, according to information from Pearson’s book.
Pearson is one of the organizers and speakers at this weekend’s 150th anniversary of the Fort Dilts battle, which features talks on Saturday, Sept. 6, at the Bowman Fairgrounds’ Four Seasons Pavillion and guided bus tours of the wagon train route and battle site on Sunday, Sept. 7.
Domino effect of events
Pearson said the wagon train involved was from Minnesota, led by Capt. James L. Fisk, and included people planning to establish businesses in the Montana gold fields.
Sitting Bull, Gall, and other leaders and warriors who attacked Fisk’s wagon train had experienced, just weeks before, “their village and way of life destroyed by Gen. Alfred Sully in his attack on them in the Killdeer Mountains in July 1864,” according to information from the Prairie Trails Regional Museum website.
During Sully’s attack on the village of men, women, children and elders, there were significant Sioux fatalities - and the village’s entire winter meat supply was destroyed as were dogs, tepees and other possessions.
Pearson said the battles or deaths to follow, a “major tragedy,” probably wouldn’t have happened without a domino of events.
In 1863 and 1864, the U.S. government was heavily pursuing a policy of “punishing” Indians after a number of attacks on white settlers in Minnesota, Pearson said. The Dakota War of 1862 or the Sioux Uprising, , as historians refer to, when Native American warriors killed approximately 490 settlers. The U.S. government captured more than 300 Sioux, all of which were sentenced to hang for the murder and rape of the settlers. All but 38 sentences were commuted. The execution of the condemned took place on Dec. 26, 1864, in Mankato, Minn. It remains the largest mass execution on the record books of the U.S.
But Pearson said what needs to be remembered is that the majority of Sioux that were pursued in western North Dakota were innocent and not involved in the Minnesota deaths. They were just people trying to live their lives and take care of their families.
Even so, in 1864, Sully was sent out to this area to “punish Indians” and would drop off a contingent of soldiers to build Fort Rice, south of Bismarck.
“While (Sully) was ‘punishing’ Indians, (the remaining soldiers) were to build the fort,” Pearson said.
tale of two wagons
Meanwhile, there were two wagon trains heading in Sully’s direction.
Thomas Holmes, who was leading a wagon train of settlers from Minnesota to Montana, heard Sully was heading west and made a mad dash to Fort Rice, wanting the protection of Sully and his men during the rest of his wagon train’s journey, Pearson said. Also, Holmes wanted to beat his competitor, another wagon-train leader, Capt. James L. Fisk.
Holmes knew Fisk was scheduled to have been the wagon train that got Sully’s protection. But Sully didn’t know that. When Holmes arrived, Sully was misinformed by Holmes and thought his was the wagon train he was supposed to escort. They left before Fisk arrived.
Sully took the wagon train to southeast of what is now Richardton, and left it there while he took off for the Killdeer mountains with a large contingent of soldiers and artillery. On July 28 and 29, they assaulted the village of about 1,600 lodges. The Sioux were overwhelmed and fled as their village and food was destroyed.
Pearson said Sully then picked up Holmes’ wagon train and would end up battling the Sioux in various skirmishes in the Badlands.
Meanwhile, while Sully was gone, Fitz showed up at Fort Rice with his wagon train - about 100 wagons and 170 emigrants, men, women and children. Fitz was upset with what Holmes had done, but thinking Sully had cleared the area of any Sioux problems, decided it would be safe to continue on.
He convinced Col. Daniel Dill at Fort Rice to give him some protection, about 40 soldiers Sully had left behind for various reasons of unfitness - sickness, or being in the brig for fights or other violations, said Kevin Bucholz, a board member of the Bowman Historical Society.
Fitz then took off for the area that is now New England, then went on to the Amidon area and Rhame and Marmarth to avoid the rougher Badlands.
A poison that killed more than bullets
Meanwhile, some of the Sioux - including Chief Sitting Bull and Gall, who had escaped from Sully’s men - were planning to head south to the Black Hills and Powder River area. They needed to hunt and find enough winter food to replace what Sully had destroyed so they could survive the winter.
Pearson said the Sioux just happened to come across Fitz’s wagon train when it was northeast of Rhame. And they followed it for a couple of days.
On Sept. 2, when one of the covered wagons tipped over while crossing Deep Creek north of Rhame, another wagon stayed with it as did a nine-member rear guard of soldiers. At that point, about 60 Sioux attacked, Bucholz said. The nine soldiers were killed as were two civilians.
A rescue party from the wagon train was sent out, including Jefferson Dilts, a wagon-train scout and former military soldier. While the rest of the party held back, Dilts continued with arrow and gun wounds on into the thick of the battle. He would later die of arrow wounds to his back.
In the ensuing battles, cavalry soldiers, using a horwitzer, would park it on a hillside - raining down 60-caliber lead balls on Sioux warriors, who were hiding behind sagebrush - and then move the artillery to the next hillside.
One day, the wagon train made it nine miles that way, and the next they made it three miles. But with the Badlands approaching, they decided to hand-dig a six-foot-high sod wall around the wagons, an area about the size of a city block, Pearson said. Remnants of the wall, now only about 18 inches high, can still be seen, he said. Wagon ruts in the area also remain.
The fort, west of Rhame, would later be named for Dilts, who is buried there.
The Sioux left after three or four days, needing to get to the Powder River area to hunt for food. The wagon train stayed entrenched at the fort while about 15 soldiers raced to Ft. Rice to get reinforcements of about 900 soldiers, many of whom traveled on foot, and arrived on Sept. 20, 18 days after the battle had started.
Pearson said people with the wagon train were given the choice to continue west on their own or return to Fort Rice. Everyone chose the later.
The battle is unique for the use of the poison on the Native Americans. Strychnine, used to kill mice among other uses, would have been an item to bring and stock in a store.
Diaries and reports about the battle don’t state whose idea it was to poison the Sioux. But it was reported that as the wagon train left trying to escape, hungry Sioux were seen “eagerly pouncing” on the purposely left-behind poisoned food that was reportedly crackers, hardtack or bread, Pearson said.
It was an event 19-year-old Fanny Kelly, who was captured by Oglala Sioux warriors on July 12, 1864, in the Montana Territory, wrote of in her book, “Narrative of my captivity among the Sioux Indians.”
“The Indians found a box of crackers saturated with water, and, eating them, sickened and died,” Kelley wrote. “I afterward learned that some persons with the train who had suffered the loss of dear relatives and friends in the massacre of Minnesota, and who had lost their all, had poisoned the crackers with strychnine, and left them on one of their camping-grounds with the captain’s knowledge.
“The Indians told me afterward that more had died from eating bad bread than from bullets during the whole summer campaign.”
An attempt made by Kelly to be rescued at Fort Dilts failed in negotiations between Fisk and the warriors, mostly due to the captain believing the ransom was too high and that he didn’t trust the Native Americans to release the woman, according to Bill Markley, a writer for the magazine, Wild West, who lives in Pierre, S.D. Kelly was released to Sully three months after the battle at Fort Dilts.
There are various military and other records, 36 original diaries - mostly from military officers and some emigrants - and a 1921 newspaper interview with a survivor that Pearson pulled information from for his book that was published in 2001. A revised book, with additional information, should be available by year’s end, he said.
This weekend’s commemorative event will include bus tours and numerous speakers, including American Indians, whose talks will focus on traditional skills such as traditional navigational skills and the use of various native plants for food and medicine.
Pearson said those talks purposely will focus on that type of information to underline what white society could have benefited from if the native societies had been approached in a different way rather than the U.S.’s policy of manifest destiny intended to destroy those cultures.
“Look what we could have had,” Pearson said.
IF YOU GO
What: Fort Dilts 150th anniversary commemoration.
Who: Presentations by Diane Rogness of the State Historical Society of North Dakota; Dakota Goodhouse, United Tribes Technical College; Doug Wurtz, North Dakota Archaeological Association; Dean Pearson; Linda Different Cloud Jones, Sitting Bull College; and Dan Peterson, Bowman American Legion Post.
When: Presentations beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 6; Guided bus tours of the Fisk Wagon Train route beginning at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 7.
Where: Presentations at Bowman County Fairgrounds Four Seasons Pavillion, 12 Hwy. 12, Bowman, N.D. Tours leave from the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum, 12 First Ave. NE, Bowman.
More info: To find the application to register for these events and meals, call the museum at 701-523-3600, or go to this page on the museum’s website: www.ptrm.org/events/?event_id=22.
Grantier is a reporter for The Dickinson Press. Contact her at 701-225-8111. April Baumgarten, the assistant editor of The Press, contributed to this feature.