Here’s how to enjoy Lake Sakakawea for free at McKenzie County

This North Dakota county gives you nearly unlimited access to outdoor recreation — free!

Sunset over Lake Sakakawea at McKenzie County.

You don’t need a boat to enjoy Lake Sakakawea.  The magnificent lake is 180 miles long with 1,530 miles of PUBLIC shoreline.

Plenty of opportunities to wade in the water to cool off on a hot day hike.

As we found out, that means you can explore, hike, bike for days on end.  Find a bay or inlet and you can camp next to the water, or if it’s a hot day, dive in and cool off. It’s what we did, and here’s all you need to know to enjoy the Lake.

Hiking the shoreline north of Charlson along Lake Sakakawea

 

 

 

 

 

First, a little background:

The Army Corps of Engineers created and maintains the lake; it owns the immediate shoreline. It says the lake covers 382,000 surface acres making it the largest manmade lake in North America where the entire shoreline is open to the public. It is world-famous for its recreation, walleye fishing and its paddlefish snagging.

History

Without a ferry system, McKenzie County farmers struggled to get grain to a nearby rail line across the Missouri River.

Lake Sakakawea was formed in the 1950’s by damming the Missouri River. Even before it was a lake, the River was a transportation barrier. The river challenged McKenzie County farmers to get their crops to market, going north across the river to Williston.

Ferries such as those at the ghost town Banks on the Tobacco Garden Creek helped farmers move their grain.  Eventually, a bridge across the river at Williston helped ease transportation.

After WWII, the Army Corps of Engineers built a series of dams on the Missouri River, each one backing up on to historic tribal land and Indian Reservations. In 1956, the Garrison Dam swallowed up the largest amount of historic land in the new dam system.

Garrison Dam created Lake Sakakawea and flooded hundreds of thousands of farmland, and homes. Courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota (B8081).

The lake became a recreation attraction. It flooded some 150,000 acres, three towns, and several villages. It divided the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation so that two districts are south of the lake and three are north of the lake.  Lake crossings are about 70-miles apart at the dam itself or at the Mountrail County/McKenzie County crossing, Four Bears Bridge.

Some of the towns and villages flooded by the creation of Lake Sakakawea.

 

What to do

If life before the dam intrigues you. The Three Affiliated Tribes Museum on the eastern edge of McKenzie County has a full display of pre-lake years.   It’s that large A-Frame building inside a wrought-iron fence north of the Casino.  We discovered you will need to check ahead to see if it is open.  You can call 701-627-4477.  Generally, it is said to be open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  That’s not always the case, though.  The last two times we attempted to visit were during those hours, but it was closed.

Admission isn’t free but close.  The last time we were there it was $3.00.

If you are successful, head to the second floor. That’s where we found the most interesting displays.  It’s an eye-opener to learn the history of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nation.  It will shape your views on the region.

If you are in to land-based activities, you’ve got hundreds of miles of opportunity.  Many locations are easily accessed by following two-track trails or no-maintenance roads.  The public access shoreline provides landlubbers the opportunity to hike and explore, swim, camp, view waterfowl and other birds. We like to drive north from Highway 23 on what is designated to be Highway 1806.  It’s a good idea to be in a pickup truck, or a high-clearance vehicle to access the lake. Turn off 1806 to the north and explore the two-track trails.  We’ve done it several times, but only when it’s dry enough that we won’t get stuck.  The dog gets excited about this time because we slow down to about 5 mph and weave our way through the hills and valleys to the shoreline.

In the winter, when the lake’s many bays and inlets freeze over, cross-country skiing is possible.  Snowmobilers often ride the ice and snow.

Pontoon and fishing boats are the most popular boats on the water. Up until about 1970, hydroplane boats raced on the lake, but floating trees and other debris made it too dangerous.

On the water, pleasure boats are commonly seen with passengers enjoying the vast expanse of water. In addition to swimming, water skiing, jet skiing, and scuba diving are just some of the favorite activities.

Fishermen travel from across the world to catch walleye, northern pike, and salmon. The waters also yield a good harvest of smallmouth bass, catfish, yellow perch, and trout.

For a few days in the spring, on the upper reaches of the lake, paddlefish snagging attracts thousands of people to the upper reaches of the lake on the northern edge of McKenzie County. The prehistoric fish lay on the bottom of the river where anglers snag them and harvest their eggs as caviar.

Click: The Williston Herald has a great story about paddlefish snagging.

 How to get there:

East of Watford City on Hwy 23, you access Lake Sakakawea at Four Bears. The mile-long Four Bears Bridge spans the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea

Drive north or east of Watford City in McKenzie County. State Highway 1806 north or State Highway 23 east will take you to the shores of Lake Sakakawea.

If you use Google Maps, you’ll get something like this (the complete round trip with an extension to Four Bears is almost 3 hours.  But if you are just going to one spot, the drive is less than one hour):

Easy access from Watford City to Lake Sakakawea.

Our Recommendation

We were not boating when we explored the region.  We went northeast of Watford City and then north past the ghost town of Charlson.  We always take with us a U.S. Forest Service Map ($13) to see all the back roads and trails that got us down to the lake for a good day of hiking, sightseeing, and swimming.  Another useful tool is Google Earth that gives you a precise location and a view of what’s ahead on the trail.

Imagine the steep valley that drops down below this tributary to Lake Sakakawea. You can hike along the top, or take a canoe to explore the shoreline.

If you own a kayak or canoe, just about any road that goes up to the lake from McKenzie County will give you access. Again, a U.S. Forest Service Map is most helpful to find those access roads.

We have accessed the waterscape on canoe.  This summer we’ll do it with a kayak.  It allowed us to get up in to some of the tributaries.  Exploring the upper reaches scratches the curiosity itch.

A canoe or other smaller fishing boats gets up in to some of the tributaries of Lake Sakakawea so you can explore hidden riches.

 

If you want to get out on the water for little money (not free)– consider renting a canoe or kayak.  You can follow the shoreline, investigate bays and inlets, and get a sense of what it must have been like for the Thomas Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery.

 

 

Admittedly, it’s hard to find a canoe or kayak to rent.  Are there any in Williston or Minot? I don’t know any rentals. Do you?

East of Williston in Williams County (directly across the lake from Tobacco Gardens in McKenzie County)  is Lund’s Landing. You can rent a kayak or canoe there for the day.

http://www.lundslanding.com/fishingboatrentals.htm

People who drive up from Bismarck have a couple of places where they can pick up a canoe or kayak in Mandan. They have multi-day rates so you can rent one day and return the next.

http://0317f38.netsolhost.com/rentals.html

http://www.paddleonnd.com/rentals.html#kayak

If you have a boat, here are a couple of good points to consider: the first access point is the Four Bears Peninsula, on the far eastern edge of McKenzie County, is a popular access to the water. A boat ramp, bait shop and large parking area will let you get out on the water. It will introduce you to Native American history of the region. Go in August to take in the Little Shell Powwow.  The peninsula extends south of the Four Bears Casino where people camp, fish and picnic.

Others recommend

(The goal this summer is to check out this highly recommended McKenzie County location.)

The second access point is Tobacco Garden Creek Bay — 2 miles east of Watford City on ND Highway 23, then 25 miles north and east on ND Highway 1806. The resort is open year round and is pet-friendly. A full-service restaurant serving: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner – with Prime rib every Saturday Night.  A convenience store providing Groceries, camping supplies, off sale beer, bait and tackle shop, gas on the water, and everything in between.  There are over 100 camp sites, two log cabins, family picnic shelters, two playgrounds, wireless Internet and hiking on the Birnt Hills Trail – a certified Lewis and Clark site.

We’re always looking for other free or low-cost opportunities to explore Lake Sakakawea.  What do you recommend?

Here’s another free spot in McKenzie County to explore

Subscribe to this blog to get more ideas to explore in this great state of North Dakota

To get a free 22 page travelogue to plan your trip in McKenzie County, just type in the word “McKenzie” in the subject field and send.

 

 

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5 amazing free or low cost world class points in McKenzie County

The county is larger than Washington DC, Rhode Island and Delaware. When settlers moved to the area, McKenzie County was known as an island and called the Island Empire. You cannot get to it without crossing water.stylized-map-of-mckenzie-county-map

The Missouri River, Yellowstone River and Little Missouri River set the boundaries of the county. They also contribute to the world-class recognition of McKenzie County.he largest county in the state, McKenzie County has always been fascinating, going back to the Dakota Territory days.

I was first intrigued by the county thanks to the historic McKenzie County Grazing Association, a rancher group intent on maintaining the industry and the environment that supports ranching. From there, my interest and my involvement in the county’s heritage grew.

There are five world-class points in the county:

  1. Four Bears Bridge
  2. Lake Sakakawea
  3. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
  4. Maah Daah Hey trail
  5. Rough Rider Event Center

Sure, you can take a day trip to buzz through all six locations, but why would you? We put this together so you can take advantage of vacation days, weekends or holidays through the year to explore the adventures, get insight and history of America. It’s  yours to enjoy.  Each site is free or very low cost.

Four Bears Bridge

The mile-long Four Bears Bridge spans the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea

The mile-long Four Bears Bridge spans the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea

This mile-long bridge is the latest effort to overcome the continental division of the Missouri River. During four construction seasons, 2003-2007, a new $55 million dollar bridge was built using context sensitive design.  It won several international design contests and is recognized as a model for designing a modern structure that seamlessly fits in the cultural, natural, social and economic environment of the area.

Each sweeping arch is designed to transfer the load in to the piers and the rock bed 90 feet below the water. The chopped off cones at the base of the piers are designed to stand up to ice floes coming downstream.

Each arched span directs the weight of the bridge in to the piers

Each arched span directs the weight of the bridge in to the piers

Walk the bridge to see artwork detailing the history of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, the MHA Nation.  The stories of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations are on storyboards on both ends of the bridge.

Here’s what you can do here next to an internationally recognized engineering feat (and it’s free!):

  • Walk across,
  • Walk under
  • Follow the recreation trail,
  • Learn history
  • Have a picnic.

Lake Sakakawea

Lake Sakakawea is 180 miles long, providing public shoreline access from which sunrises and sunsets can be viewed.

Lake Sakakawea is 180 miles long, providing public shoreline access from which sunrises and sunsets can be viewed.

Damming the Missouri River at Garrison with Garrison Dam, created a magnificent 180-mile long lake with 1,530 miles of PUBLIC shoreline.  The Army Corps of Engineers says the lake covers 382,000 surface acres making it the largest manmade lake in North America where the entire shoreline is open to the public.

Pontoons, and other boats take full access of the 300,000 acre lake.

Pontoons and other boats take full access of the 300,000-acre lake.

It is world famous for its recreation, walleye fishing and its paddlefish snagging.

Here’s what you can do here next to this world-famous lake:

  • Hike the shoreline
  • Watch sunset/sunrise
  • Visit the parks
  • Learn history
  • Have a picnic
  • Fish
  • Boat (fishing, sail, jet ski)
  • Scuba Dive
  • Camp
  • Swim

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Bison roam freely at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are not domesticated, so give them plenty of space.

Bison roam freely at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are not domesticated, so give them plenty of space.

Undersold and over delivering as a National Park, the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TNRP) is on the south edge of McKenzie County.  It is a rugged wilderness with a variety of trails through the park to suit all types of hikers.  The roadway through the park takes visitors to the Riverbend Overlook cabin above the Little Missouri River.  Along the drive, it’s likely you will see a collection of bison or other species such as mule deer.

When Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1885, he was a skinny, young, spectacled dude from New York. He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life that TR experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today.

–National Park System publication on the TRNP

On the Achenbach Trail, the views of the Little Missouri River Valley are outstanding.

On the Achenbach Trail, the views of the Little Missouri River Valley are outstanding.

It would seem a great number of visitors view the park through their windshield. They’re missing out. There are several trails in the park to accommodate all levels of fitness. One of the most challenging is the Achenbach Trail. It is 18 miles long and you can extend it into a two-day hike. (Anyone intending to camp in the backcountry must obtain a free backcountry permit prior to their trip. Permits are issued at the South Unit and North Unit visitor centers.)

Here’s what you can do here next to this National Park:

  • Hike
  • Picnic
  • Photograph
  • scout wildlife
  • access the river
  • research, browse books
  • drive

Maah Daah Hey trail (Otherwise knowns as the “lasting a long time” trail)

The world-class 125-mile long Maah Daah Hey trail attracts riders from all over the United States and many European nations.

The world-class 125-mile long Maah Daah Hey trail attracts riders from all over the United States and many European nations.

Imagine a 125-mile trek through Badlands wilderness on a mountain bike, horse or on foot. Mule and whitetail deer, antelope, wild turkeys, beaver, prairie dogs, and coyotes are often sighted, while an occasional golden eagle, red-tail hawk, or prairie falcon may be spotted soaring above. Bighorn sheep and elk have been reintroduced into the area and can be spotted by keen observers.

On rare occasions, you can catch a glimpse of the Big Horn sheep.

On rare occasions, you can catch a glimpse of the Big Horn sheep.

Wildflowers such as this crocus adorn the trail.

Wildflowers such as this crocus adorn the trail.

The single-track mountain bike trail has attracted world riders to visit with their $4,000 bikes. You can rent mountain bikes on the south end of the Maah Daah Hey trail at Medora.

The dream was to connect the two units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The actual planning and building took about 14 years. It’s a difficult trail to maintain through the erosive and wild Badlands. In recent years, your tax dollars have not been spent to keep it up. Locals including the Save the Maah Daah Hey trail group sculpt and mow the trail. The group hosts the annual Maah Daah Hey 100 mountain bike ride: 100-miles in one day. The winning time is just minutes under 10 hours.

There is no time of year that is a bad time to strike out on the trail. Of course, North Dakota’s legendary afternoon and evening thunderstorms can make the trail very challenging even for the most experienced adventurer.  dead-tree-in-the-brush-color-sig

Don’t be scared off by the massive challenge the Maah Daah Hey can present.  There are plenty of short-access hikes, here’s where you can get on the trail to get in to the Badlands:

  • CCC Campground
  • Summit Campground
  • Bennet Creek
  • Beicegel Creek
  • Highway 50 West of Grassy Butte

Rough Rider Event Center

img_3287Imagine a $100-million indoor swimming pool with a few extra features.  That’s a silly way to describe the Rough Rider Event Center.  It is an auditorium, arena, gymnasium, and indoor water park, swimming pool, walking track, two ice hockey rinks, convention center, coffee shop and restaurant. Concerts, conventions, hockey and basketball tournaments draw thousands of people to the Rough Rider Event Center.

Architect’s specs:

  • 22,000-square-foot multi-use field house
  • Three basketball courts
  • Removable artificial turf
  • 1,000-seat hockey arena
  • Separate practice hockey rink
  • 3,000-seat arena for sporting events and concerts
  • Eight executive suites
  • 12,000-square-foot gymnastics club
  • 10,000 square feet of convention space
  • Continuous elevated running track.

img_3279

Watford City visitors can use the facility for a surprisingly low fee. For $7.00 visitors can enjoy daily use of any open activities, including swimming.

Just because these are the six world-class sites in McKenzie does not mean there are no more incredible places such as the Long X Museum and Visitor Center, art galleries and coffee houses in Watford City,  Fairview Lift Bridge, the Cartwright Tunnel,  Grassy Butte and its post office, the Frontier Village, the museum at Alexander.

There’s a lot more to these five world-class sites. Type the word McKenzie in the subject line of the contact form to know:
  • more about each one
  • how to get to each one
  • recommendations activities at each site
  • the history of each site
It’s free!
We’ll send you a 20-page travelogue for free just because we think McKenzie County is worth bragging about and you will too.  So, have a good time.
 
Oh, and click to subscribe to this blog to learn more of events, locations, activities each week. Pictures, information, and helps each week are posted here.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Check out a 90-year-old tribute to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation

Memorial Congregational Church from distance at sunset

The Memorial Congregational Church sits by itself on a December afternoon on a Mountrail County prairie where it was moved in 1953.

Cong church MS sept 09

In the fall of 2009, the prairie grasses surrounded the solid church building that once stood along the Missouri River.

You know there are stories behind those abandoned church buildings — such as this one.  What’s the story there?  Take a trip on Highway 1804 to step back in time.

For me, it was easy to ignore the abandoned prairie church building along Highway 1804 as I headed up north to Parshall, North Dakota. But once I stopped to check it out, I uncovered layers of monumental history.  Now, I stop often to step into the history.

charles hall

Charles L. Hall, born in England in 1847 moved to New York and became an architect, working in a local mission until he moved to the Dakota Territory.

The story goes back to 1871 when the Dakota Territory was organized and an architect from England worked in a New York mission.  Charles Hall felt the call to minister to the same people who had ministered to Lewis and Clark 67 years earlier, the Mandans.

The same year that the 7th Cavalry marched to Little Big Horn, Charles Hall floated the Missouri River for two weeks up river to get to his destination. He got off a steamboat armed not with a rifle but with the “Sword of the Lord.”  He landed at Like-a-Fishhook Village where he met with a community of Mandan and Hidatsa people.  (The village is under Lake Sakakawea, now, southwest of White Shield, ND.)

What Custer couldn’t do with a rifle, Hall did with the Gospel. Hall built a school, a community building, successfully lobbied for a bridge (Four Bears Bridge) to cross the Missouri and eventually built this church building at Elbowoods, North Dakota.  It’s the only physical reminder of a work he began about 140 years ago in western North Dakota. It was a long challenge to get it built– yet it still stands today.

Con church next to missionHall labored among the area’s farmers, ranchers and other residents, both white and Native-American for 10 years before the first man converted to the Christian faith.

Trust was earned slowly, but once earned, it became invaluable.  Later both whites and enrolled tribal members met together to worship and socialize.Susan Webb Hall Memorial Church

After 45 years feeding, teaching, healing whites and Natives, the locals followed the architect-missionary’s plans to build this solid building next to the mission and school he started at Elbowoods.

When the building was dedicated, crowds came from as far as 30 to 50 miles over rugged Badlands trails and barely passable roads to join in the dedication.  Dignitaries from Bismarck, Minot and New York also came to the dedication.Cong church cornerstone

In his years on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, Hall helped the members of the Three Affiliated Tribes rise above the limits placed on them by the dictatorial federal government Indian Agency at Elbowoods.  The Indian Agency was so harsh, Hall later testified, that the Indian Agent required tribal members to stop and bow their head when he walked by.  If they received visitors, the visitor would first have to meet with the Indian Agent before going to meet the family or friends they came to see.

That kind of government attitude that could be part of the reason why local residents living in poverty would pay $10 a month to have their children schooled, fed and cared for by Hall’s mission school instead of going to the free government school.  Wages at that time were about 60 cents a day – if someone could find paying work.  The Mandan were an agricultural people; they tilled the river bottom along the Missouri River and grew corn, squash, pumpkin, sunflower and tobacco.  To afford the school with its training, food, health provisions and social network families took their produce by horse-drawn wagon to sell in towns such as Minot, 60-miles north.  They used their money to support the mission, its school, church and community programs.

The nearby cemetery is still used as a final resting place for tribal members. Until 2014, it was surrounded by a woven wire fence

The nearby cemetery is still used as a final resting place for tribal members. Until 2014, a woven wire fence surrounded the cemetery.

The Elbowoods Congregational Mission church building was dedicated to Charles Hall’s second wife, Susan Webb Hall. He had lost at least two children and his first wife to the tireless work of reaching local people with improved diet, health and education. The church people were both white and native; racial distinctions were erased at the Cross.  Together, they built the building by themselves, by hand. They didn’t borrow a penny to build it. It cost them $5,500, with $3,500 coming from their own donations, and another $2,000 donated by friends of Charles Hall.

When the federal government flooded out the people who lived along the Missouri River and the towns such as Elbowoods, hundreds of families were forced to move out of their homes. A hospital, a school and many businesses were flooded. Locals moved five church buildings out of the valley, including the Susan Webb Hall Memorial Church building.Cong Church MCU looking up in the fall

Starting on a Friday night, as the flood waters moved up in to town, and up on to the foundation of the building, local farmers and ranchers worked non-stop to lift the building from its original footings at Elbowoods. By the time they got it up a bit of a hill, the flood was already taking over the original site.  Their work was not done until they moved the building nine miles north near the communities of Lucky Mound, Parshall and White Shield.

Cong Church I Love YOu Grandpa

Click on the image to see it full screen and to see the love note to Grandpa.

Cong Church stepsToday, the building is more than 90 years old and stands alone on the prairie where it was moved during the man-made flood. When it was moved to its current site, neighbors saw it move in. They said it seemed to them the church was all lit up. A story on the relocated church quoted the neighbors who said “It gave them a queer feeling as they had never lived near a church before.”

No windows or doors remain on the old structure, though it appears to be solid in its old age.  No furnishings remain inside, no furniture or other features, just a love note to a grandfather.

Mem Cong Church steeple and moonIt’s a sacred place and vandals have not left graffiti or other degrading elements.  The bell tower is as empty as the rest of the building, though it once held a donated bell that called people to worship through out the early Missouri River Valley.

Memorial Congregational Church in the autumn of 2009

Autumn of 2009, the church stands isolated and preserved. (Click on the image to see it full screen.)

I don’t know about a queer feeling, but it certainly is inspiring to know the history behind the building, a part of North Dakota history that few know.   Charles Hall left an account of the work in his collection of documents assembled in the book 100 Years at Ft. Berthold, 1876 to 1976.  I’m thankful to one of the tribal elders, Mary Bateman who lent me her copy.  What would you suggest as a way to make the historic landmark more famous?

(you can click on any of the images to see them full screen)

#ndlegendary

An amazing find — a little known Indian Scout Cemetery honors fallen U.S. Soldiers

Indian Scout Post #1 on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation between White Shield and Parshall is a nearly forgotten veteran cemetery. The Old Scout Society has kept alive the memory of the tribal members who served in the U.S. Army since the time of General Custer. (photo courtesy of Mary Tastad of Mary's Photos)

Indian Scout Post #1 on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation between White Shield and Parshall is a nearly forgotten veteran cemetery. The Old Scout Society has kept alive the memory of the tribal members who served in the U.S. Army since the time of General Custer. (photo courtesy of Mary Tastad of Mary’s Photos)

There’s no other place on earth like this place.  There is only one Old Scouts Society and this is the graveyard where the Society honors their war dead.  Here lay members of the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara who served in the U.S. military.

Relatives leave memorials at the site of their ancestors who served in the U.S. Military.

Relatives leave memorials at the site of their ancestors who served in the U.S. Military.

The tradition of scouts from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara goes back nearly 200 years.  Today, the Society is a group of relatives of those historic soldiers.  They honor the U.S. Army veterans of the Indian Wars and other tribal members who served in all branches after the Indian Wars.old scouts_0005

old scouts_0009

 

old scouts_0002Go back to the first Hidatsa scout, Sakakawea (Hidatsa pronunciation suh-CAG-a-wee-uh).  She and her husband Charbonneau helped the Corps of Discovery find its way west and back again.sagawea-picture-1

Later when the U.S. Army occupied this region to protect the railroad expansion to the west coast, Army commanders relied on scouts from these tribes to provide intelligence about the tribe’s hostile opponents, the warriors of the Sioux Nation. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara scouts carried dispatches, found food and water, tracked game and served as interpreters.

Several unrelated events converged to create the birth of the long-standing tradition of tribal members joining the U.S. military.  In 1873, Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were stationed at Fort Lincoln, south of Mandan, North Dakota.  The Seventh Cavalry was to protect the Northern Pacific Railroad Survey crews who had been attacked by hostile Sioux.

A rebuilt blockhouse above Fort Lincoln marks the uppermost reach of the Fort where General Custer and his scouts once lived.

A rebuilt blockhouse above Fort Lincoln marks the uppermost reach of the Fort where General Custer and his scouts once lived.

Before Custer, hostile Sioux were at war with neighboring tribes, including the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara who had withstood the Sioux attacks, at first.  Then, small pox wiped out nearly all the three tribes so they banded together to defend themselves against the Sioux.  Forming a confederacy between the three tribes, was insufficient, they were not strong enough to battle the Sioux, so they aligned themselves with the new and stronger opposition to the Sioux – the Blue Coats or the Seventh Cavalry – the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

At first, the Arikara or Ree were the principal tribe to supply scouts for Custer.  From 1872 until the late 1800’s Arikara scouts were the backbone of the Army’s scouts.

A few soldiers are buried at Fort Abraham Lincoln south of Mandan including some of Custer's scouts from the Hidatsa and Arikara tribes

A few soldiers are buried at Fort Abraham Lincoln south of Mandan including some of Custer’s scouts from the Hidatsa and Arikara tribes

One of the earliest scouts was Red Bear who later was joined by his younger brother Boy Chief.  He was one of the first scouts to die in a skirmish with the Sioux while stationed at Fort Lincoln along the Missouri River south of present day Mandan.

Bobtailed Bull, one of Custer's favorite scouts in the Indian Wars against the Sioux is second from the left.

Bobtailed Bull, one of Custer’s favorite scouts in the Indian Wars against the Sioux is second from the left.

Boy Chief tells the story of his enlistment like this: “Bobtail Bull brought me to Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1872.  Bobtail Bull took me to headquarters to ‘touch the pen’ to my enlistment papers.  I thought the medical examination would throw me out, as I was very young.  But I passed.  In another building, an officer gave me a gun, clothing and two gray blankets.”

Bobtail Bull was one of the first Indian scouts to be promoted and receive a commission under Lt. Col Custer who often bragged of this Arikara scout when in Washington.  Custer said of Sergeant Bobtail Bull that he was a man of good heart and good character.  He promised that if anything happened to Bobtail Bull and his fellow scouts that “their reward will not be forgotten by the government.”

It is said that a good scout who was promoted as Bobtailed Bull was promoted, could earn more than the $13/month paid most soldiers and in some cases earned as much as $50/month

Sgt. Bobtail Bull was one of the first under Custer to fall at Little Big Horn. That was despite the fact that Custer would not use his scouts as a fighting force except for skirmishes. Bobtail Bull, however, boasted of his experience in fighting the Sioux and stood ready for whatever battle commands Custer ordered.

Custer used the scouts to find the enemy, report their movement and act as couriers.  On the day of the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer ordered Bobtail Bull and other scouts to “take the horses away from the Sioux camp. Take away as many horses as possible.”  Custer knew that a warrior on foot was no match for a soldier on horse.

Bobtail Bull's grave site is at Little Big Horn, one of the few Hidatsa Scouts in a marked grave off the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Bobtail Bull’s grave site is at Little Big Horn, one of the few Hidatsa Scouts in a marked grave off the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Bobtail Bull got separated from the rest of the troops. Sioux warriors grouped behind him, separating him from help and from escape.  A dense swarm of Sioux rode against him and he attempted to fall back. He was left as a solitary horseman, surrounded by circling warriors.  He was shot off his horse and so became one of the first to fall at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Like Bobtail Bull, Red Bear, Boy Chief and others the scouts who served in the U.S. Army from 1866 to 1914 at most western forts, these scouts served with fidelity, placing their unique skills at the disposal of the frontier army.  To the shame of the U.S. Government, many of these brave soldiers were harshly treated after they served the U.S. Army.  For some, prison, poor health, disabilities or even death was the future they faced after serving the United States.  Many have been completely forgotten.

(A contemporary of Custer who worked with tribal members of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara left an influence on the people who remains today.  To learn of Harold Case’ missionary work see this link: http://wp.me/pOdPo-HP )

In 1979 the Old Scouts Society of White Shield was established. The group cares for and maintains Post #1 Cemetery at White Shield where several of the scouts of the Seventh Cavalry are buried alongside veterans of WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam.old scouts_0003

In 1983, the Fort McKeen Detachment, Old Scouts Society was officially formed. Organizers included the grandsons of Bears Belly who was one of the original scouts who served under Custer at Fort Lincoln.

The Fort McKeen Detachment of the Old Scouts Society is dedicated to correcting misconceptions about the scouts who served in the U.S. Army.  Members educate the public about the military scouts and work to keep alive the stories of how the historic scouts influenced American and North Dakota history.  They work to preserve and honor the gravesites of the scouts buried at Fort Abraham Lincoln south of Mandan.  They also help maintain the Old Scouts Cemetery west of Garrison, North Dakota on Highway 1804.

The Indian Scout Cemetery, also known as the Old Scouts Cemetery is near White Shield, North Dakota. On New Years Eve, 2014, it stood quietly against the setting sun.

The Indian Scout Cemetery, also known as the Old Scouts Cemetery is near White Shield, North Dakota. On New Years Eve, 2014, it stood quietly against the setting sun.

As often as possible, I go past the cemetery, usually on motorcycle. I stop to tend to fallen flags and other markers left to honor this group of war dead who contributed much but received so little recognition for their sacrifice.  old scouts_0001Have you taken the scenic drive past Garrison, up to Parshall on 1804?  Did you see the Old Scouts Cemetery?

(This article is excerpted from a script I wrote for a documentary on the Old Scouts Society — yet unproduced. It is the product of months of research at the Fort Berthold Library, the Three Affiliated Tribes Museum and the North Dakota State Historical Society. For more information see http://www.mhanation.com/main2/history.html)

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