The Missouri River served as a water highway for the Native Americans and early trappers, traders and explorers.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, on its search for a water route to the Pacific Ocean, spent more time in North Dakota than in any other state on their journey. Two of their campsites were located in the vicinity of Fort Stevenson State Park. On their journey west, the expedition made camp on April 9, 1805, about 15 miles above what was then the mouth of Snake Creek. The expedition's journals noted seeing a burning coal vein in a bluff.
On August 13, 1806, on their trip home, they again camped near the mouth of the Snake after covering 86 miles with "the assistance of the wind, the current and our oars." Due to the changing course of the Missouri River and the creation of Lake Sakakawea, many of the Lewis and Clark campsites, including those near Fort Stevenson State Park, were inundated.
Fort Stevenson State Park takes its name from a 19th century frontier military fort. The fort was named in honor of Brigadier General Thomas Greeley Stevenson, a Union officer who was killed on May 10, 1864, during the Battle of Spotsylvania (VA), one of the costliest of all Civil War battles.
The original site of the fort, now underwater, was located on the north bank of the Missouri River between Douglas and Garrison creeks, about two miles southwest of the present park site.
By 1867, the year Fort Stevenson was established, traffic on the Missouri River was at its peak. Trading posts sent packets of furs--beaver and buffalo hides--downstream to St. Louis. In 1863, gold was discovered at Alder Gulch in Montana. Steamboats plied the river, bringing supplies to miners prospecting in the Virginia City gold fields.
Fort Stevenson was envisioned as one of a chain of forts that were to be built to guard the emigrant route from Minnesota to the gold mines of Montana and Idaho. It was to provide military protection from the Sioux for the peaceful Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa tribes at Fort Berthold. It was also to serve as an intermediate point for the mail routes that extended from Fort Rice to Fort Buford, and from Fort Benton to Fort Totten. Finally, and what became the primary function of Fort Stevenson, was that of a supply base for Fort Totten, 126 miles to the east.
Construction of Fort Stevenson began in July, 1867. When completed late the following year, the post consisted of ten rough buildings, built mainly from materials scavenged from the land. Cottonwood logs, cut in the river bottom forest, were stacked and chinked with a mixture of mud and wood shavings. The soldiers also shaped local clay into adobe bricks. Deterioration of the buildings set in even before the post was completed. The bricks crumbled in hard rains, and the cottonwood shrank and warped as it dried.
The fort itself was never directly attacked, although war parties were sighted, and work crews occasionally engaged in skirmishes. Of far greater danger were the fierce winters on the northern plains. Temperatures of 40 below or less were recorded; snow piled above the crude windows; and all communication with the outside world shut down as the weather halted supply trains, mail delivery and river traffic. An exceptional account of life on the Missouri can be found in the journals of Philippe Regis de Trobriand, who commanded the fort from 1867 until 1870.
The post was officially abandoned on August 31, 1883, following the surrender of the Sioux. The buildings were turned over the to Bureau of Indian Affairs and used as the Fort Berthold Indian School until 1894, then later sold at public auction.
A replica of the fort's original guardhouse has been constructed in the park and houses interpretive exhibits on the history of the fort and the Missouri River.