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North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department
 

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

History

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in North Dakota is one of the outstanding historic areas within the state. The park is made historically important because within its boundaries are the ruins of On-A-Slant Mandan Indian Village and the Fort Abraham Lincoln cavalry and infantry posts.

The land itself was deeded to the state in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Park development started in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), who built the visitor center, earthlodges, blockhouses, shelters and roads, and placed cornerstones to mark buildings at the infantry and cavalry posts.

Additional development took place in the late 1980s and 1990s, with the reconstruction of the commanding officer's house, commissary storehouse, enlisted men's barracks and granary, all on the cavalry post grounds; and the Council Lodge in the On-A-Slant Village.

Block House at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park
 
  • On-A-Slant Village
    • On-A-Slant Indian village at Forth Abraham Lincoln State Park.
    • The history of the Heart River Mandan teaches that not all Plains Indians lived a nomadic life. Since most people equate Indian life on the Great Plains with that of the culturally different hunting and gathering Sioux, it may surprise some to know that the Mandan lived a sedentary, agriculturally-based society.
    • Newly studied archeological data suggests the On-A-Slant Village was established about 1575. On-A-Slant was one of the southernmost of nine villages near the mouth of the Heart River, which they believed to be the center of the universe.
    • The village, named On-A-Slant because of its slope toward the river, contained about 75 earthlodges with a village population of around 1000.
    • The earthlodges were constructed and owned by the women. The frame was made of cottonwood logs, covered with a thick mat of willow, grass and earth. Typical earthlodges were between 20 and 40 feet in diameter and 15 to 20 feet high. In the center of the roof, a circular hole acted as a skylight and smokehole for the firepit.
    • Unlike most Plains Indian tribes, the Mandan lived in sedentary communities and relied upon a mixture of hunting and agriculture for subsistence. The men hunted while the women tended crops, prepared animal hides and meat, gathered wild berries, wove baskets and made pottery. The Mandan were noted for their skill in processing animal skins and manufacturing pottery, and their villages became trading centers where nomadic tribes came to exchange animal skins for agricultural products.
    • After prospering on this site for two centuries, a smallpox epidemic hit in 1781 and virtually eliminated the Heart River-region Mandan. The survivors moved north along the Missouri River, eventually joining the Hidatsa near the Knife River.
    • When Lewis and Clark discovered the deserted On-A-Slant Village in late 1804, it was already in an advanced state of decay, for they reported that the remains included fallen heaps of earth which had covered the houses.
    • Today, descendants of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes live on the Fort Berthold Reservation surrounding Lake Sakakawea.
    • Seven of the estimated nine Mandan village sites on the Heart and Missouri rivers have been identified. Most of the village sites were destroyed or seriously disturbed due to urban and industrial development along the rivers. These villages represent the middle period of Mandan culture, during which they achieved their highest civilization. On-A-Slant has probably had less disturbance and pilferage than the others and offers future archeologists considerable opportunity to expand the knowledge of Mandan society.
  • The Military Years
    • Cavalry
    • Nearly a century later, the military established an infantry post on a bluff above the On-A-Slant ruins.
    • In preparation for the Northern Pacific Railroad to lay its track to the Missouri River and beyond, the military was dispatched to the area. In June 1872, an infantry post, called Fort McKeen, was built by Companies B and C of the 6th Infantry. The name Fort McKeen was short-lived; the designation was changed to Fort Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1872. In 1873 Congress authorized the addition of a cavalry post and its construction was mostly completed the same year.
    • The Seventh United States Cavalry, which had been scattered throughout the south and west, proceeded north to Fort Abraham Lincoln. By 1874, Fort Abraham Lincoln housed three companies of the 6th and 17th Infantries and six companies of the 7th Cavalry, making the fort a nine-company command. With a total complement of about 650 men, the fort was among the largest and most important on the Northern Plains.
    • Lt. Colonel (Brevet Major General) George Armstrong Custer was the first commander of the enlarged fort and served here from 1873 until the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.
    • Fort Abraham Lincoln was the headquarters of the 7th Cavalry until June of 1882, when the 7th Cavalry and its headquarters were transferred to Fort Meade in present-day South Dakota. Upon completion of the railroad to Montana, Fort Abraham Lincoln had fulfilled its primary purpose. Consequently, the fort gradually declined in importance and was finally abandoned in 1891.
    • In its heyday, the fort encompassed 78 separate buildings. Many of the original buildings were dismantled by area settlers and the materials used in the construction of area homes and farms.
    • Today, the Victorian-style home of George and Libbie Custer has been reconstructed and is open for living history tours. Also reconstructed are the commissary storehouse, which houses a gift shop, the enlisted men's barracks, granary and stable.
  • History Links
    • For more information about the Plains Indians, Lewis and Clark, Custer and military life, check out the links listed on the Little Big Horn Associates web site at http://www.lbha.org.