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1863 August 6: The Sibley and Fisk Expenditions, the Battle of Big Mound, and Other Happenings in North Dakota

August 6, 2013

A lengthy letter from Private Thomas F. Morton with the 7th Minnesota Infantry in Dakota Territory. The 7th Minnesota was part of General Henry Hastings Sibley’s troops that pursued Dakota Indians from Minnesota across Dakota Territory.  Some of the Indians were believed to have participated in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.  For those unfamiliar with present-day North Dakota geography, the Sheyenne River is one of the major tributaries of the Red River of the North and meanders for 591 miles across eastern North Dakota.

As with his last letter, Morton’s atrocious spelling and lack of punctuation make his writing almost unintelligible at times.  We have added periods wherever it seemed like the end of a sentence should be and capitalized the beginning of the next sentence, added the occasional comma, and added apostrophes (Fisk’s party, don’t, etc.).

The original letter is in the W. H. C. Folsom Papers (River Falls Mss S) in the University Archives and Area Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

[sheet] No 1

Camp Atchison
Dakota Tery. [Territory]     Aug 6 /63

Mr. Folsom Dear sir,   It is some time since we have heard from the civilized world tho we have heard of the Fall of Vicks Burg [sic], Port Hudson and the victory in Pennsylvania.  I would like to hear from that part of America as the last dates from there was of June the 30th.  I am fearful that the crops is [sic] short on account of the drouth [sic].  The Log crop faild [sic] and if the wheat crop has faild [sic] Bread may be high and Money scarce with some of us at $13 per month Don’t pay for many Barrels of flour at high prices.  [paragraph break added]

We are all well so fare [sic] as I know.  Capt Fisk’s¹ party over took us at this camp on the 2d.  Our Friends visited with us and they went on there [sic] way Rejoicing.  They left heare [sic] the 23[rd].  Visited with us one day.  Mr. Torbet Smith and Meril [?] looks Ruged [sic] tho they are badly sun burnt.  There was a Rumor the other day around camp got up for the express purpose of having some excitement that Capt Fisk’s party was cut to pieces by the Indians.  I speak of this on account of Mrs. Torbet for some Believed it and I heard one man say that he wrote home about it so if Such a Rumor gets in circulation you may asure [sic] their friend that if it is so we don’t know any thing about it for their [sic] has bin [sic] no communication between his forces and Sibly’s [sic].   I think Capt Burt² is pretty well posted in what is going on and I have made free to ask him and he has freely answerd [sic] me and told me more then I ask him.  [paragraph break added]

The  Imposision [sic] arived [sic] hear [sic] at this cam[p] the 18th of July and the 20[th] Sibly [sic] took the mane [sic] force of the command and went on in the direction of the James River where the Red River half Breeds told him that there was some Soux [sic] camped.  The [sic: There] on the 19th  He started two of his loyl [sic] Soux [sic] on ahead to demand their surrender.  In this you may see that he Rather give them a chance to run than to gave move on still and get in position and then demand their surrender and if they refused pithed [pitched?] in and cleand [sic] them out but he was afraid that the Boys would hurt them.  Know [Now] if you doubt the statement I have made about the messengers head being sent ahead I will Refer you to Capt Burt, he understands it well.  On the 23rd he sent dispathes [sic] back that he had found whare [sic] they had bin [sic] two incampments [sic] and that he was in pursuit of them.  And that there was a small camp at Devils Lake and ordered that Capt Burt took two cos [companies] of Infantry and one of cavilry [sic] the only one that was left at the camp and one mountain Hoytzer [sic] with 8 Days Rations and go to the lake and look them up and capture them.  On the 24[th] the [he?] organized his litle [sic] forces.  No one wished it grateer [sic] for every one knew that if Mr Sibly [sic] dident [sic] want the indians hurt that he had chose [sic] the wrong man backed bye [sic] the worong force.  Small as it was, every one thot [sic] to find indians there and Returnd [sic] after a tiresom [sic] march of 75 miles

[sheet] No 2

with out seeing more than one indian.  The scouts found him in the wee [weeds?] with out any thing to load his gun with, he had just shot a wolf with the last charge he had.  He is the celebrated Little Crows son just from the Minn. River whare [sic] he says his Father was kild [sic]. He was when we found him he was hard up.  He was 28 days from Henderson.  His thyes [sic: thighs] isent [sic: isn’t] larger than my arms.  He expected to find his friends there about the lake and had bin [sic] there around the lake for three days and couldent [sic] find any traces of them.  Thay [sic] had left and burnt the whole contry [sic] over on that side of the Shayenne [sic] River so as to hide there [sic] trail.  The Expedition mite [sic] just as well have bin [sic] there before they left as not one month.  The 23[rd] is the last we have heard from the Imposition.  A mail was started to it last Saturday by some half Breeds and thay [sic] Returnd [sic] that nite [sic].  Had came across some Sioux and they wouldent [sic] let them go any further, so on munday [sic] thay [sic] started agane [sic].  On the forth [sic] day after Sibly [sic] [s]tarted out thre [sic] was five of his men strayed away from the force some distance and got after a[n] antelope and run it down and held it and while dressing it some Indians shode [sic] them selves and three of Mr Sibly’s [sic] loyl [sic] Sioux and Capt Bracket [sic] and Lieut Freeman of Co D³ MT R [Mounted Rangers, or Cavalry] constituted the party, and the Loyl [sic] Sioux sed [sic] to the other two to save them selves if thay [sic] could [pose?] time to save them selves by flight after runing [sic] there [sic] horses down after the antelope.  The loyl [sic] Sioux give them selves up with there [sic] horses and aquipments [sic] so the other two started to save them selves on theire [sic] run down horses and the indians persude [sic: pursued] and kild [sic] Lt. Freeman.  Capt Bracket [sic] saved him self by leaveing [sic] his tired horse and hid him self in some Rushes by the side of a lake and waited til the indians went away, then Roved about on the plains seven days and then he got back to this camp very hungry having nothing to eat for the seven days except some hard bread that he picked up at one of Sibly’s [sic] camps the fifth day.  This shoes [shows] what the loyl [sic] Sioux will do if they have a chance.  One before it semes [sic] left with two horses [—] you have seen that perhaps in the paper.  [paragraph break added]

There is a bout 150 Beef cattle come up missing our herd the indians has like a nuff [enough?] got them our hard Bread is about every Barrel of it Damaged more or less and the Quarter master sargent [sic] Ed Wood told me that it was condemnd [sic] before it started, and Col Miller4 knew that it was damaged as early as in May.  I will Refer you to Wyman5 for the proof.  Know [now?] he is helt [sic] up for governor of the State.  If you voters thare [sic] at home wants to put an end to this Sioux war let Col Miller alone get him out of the army and get him to preaching for I don’t want an officer over the Seventh Reg. that preaches, plays cards and drinks Brandy Saturday nights til into Sunday.  Frank Prat [sic]6 is the Proof, call on him.

[sheet] No 3,

Know [Now?] it is the intention to to [sic] keep up this Sioux war another summer and keep the troops in the state this winter.  I have heard boste [sic: boast?] made that it was helping the state, it was bringing money in the state.  It may be very nice for those that is speculating out of it tho it ant [sic: ain’t] very nice for the poor solders [sic].  I can speak for one in leted [intent?] in ernist [sic] to put an end to the war not to make money out of it.  It is nothing uncommon for an officer to say I don’t want to get out of it til my three years is out.  The United States sevennight [Senate?] was wise when it Refused to confirm the appointment of Mr Sibly [sic].  Know [now?] I want the voters of Minn to speak if the Peole [sic: People] of Minn wants to take a millitary [sic] man take Col Mashal [sic]7 who is a man if he could had command of this Imposition it would have bin [sic] an Expedition and there would have hardly Bin [sic] a Sioux indian under the light of the sun to day [sic, although a common way of spelling “today” at the time].  When he was in 40 miles of them he wouldent [sic] have sent some loyl [sic] Sioux to demand of them to surrender.  No he ant [sic: ain’t] that kind of man, he would have went him self and took his amunition [sic] along.  But as it is the soldiers is to be Run Down after them.  After awhile there will Bee [sic] a grate [sic] flourishing Report of the arderous [sic: arduous] campaign and Raped [?] marches and nothing acomplished [sic] unless thay [sic] attact [sic] him or see proper to come in and give them selves up which is not likely they will do the latter.  It is the intention of the Millatary [sic] Power and Speculators of this north west, especly [sic: especially] those partisioners [sic: petitioners] for the Reappointment of Mr Sibly [sic] as Brigadier and those who connived in the hard Bread Speckulation [sic].  It was justly condemnd [sic] for there the goverment [sic] lost it or what it cost then the speculators took it along and Deels [sic] it out to the soldier as good Bread so you can see that the goverment [sic] pays for Bread that is moldy or at least part of abot [sic] every Barel [sic] of it is and when a Part is the Remainder tasts [sic] of the mold and not only pays But pays twice.  Some one pockets the full cost of good Bread.  Allso [sic] we started from Camp Pope on half Rations of some artickles [sic] for instance salt, soap and candly [?].  Some one is making a good thing of it.  And if the powers that be was not intersted [sic] in the profits such things would not exist.  Know [Now?] what was Col Miller stationed at St Paul for Col Crooks Ranks him I think Because they can make a cats paw of him.  Capt Burt cant [sic] lead him whare [sic] he chooses tho he is a loyl [sic] man and would end the thing if he could, that is I mean Capt Burt.

I would go on if I had time and space.  Every letter that I send out or Receive I have to pay 10 cts so you see that is a B thing [big thing?].  Wyman is out with the Imposion [sic].

Yours Truly
Thos. F. Morton

W H C Folsom

1.  James Liberty Fisk (1835-1902) led four expeditions from Minnesota to Montana between 1862 and 1866 to promote settlement in the West. Fisk had been a private in the 3rd Minnesota Infantry, but in May 1862 he was commissioned a captain and appointed to escort emigrants and gold-seekers through the Dakota Territory between Fort Abercrombie, Dakota, and Fort Walla Walla, Washington. Because of Indian unrest described here, Fisk’s second expedition in 1863 had only around 60 people. The group departed from Fort Ripley, Minnesota, on June 25 and reached the vicinity of Fort Benton, Montana Territory, on September 7. Fisk took a route further north of his previous route due to the widespread drought described in this letter.
2.  William H. Burt was the captain of Company C of the 7th Minnesota Infantry. In 1864 he will be promoted to major.
3.  George Brackett was the Sibley Expedition’s beef contractor. Chaska, an Indian scout, witnessed Lieutenant Ambrose Freeman’s death on July 24 and then helped Brackett hide in tall grass to avoid detection. Chaska was instrumental in Brackett’s escape.  Ambrose Freeman (1823-1863) was the 1st lieutenant in Company D of the 1st Minnesota Cavalry, or Mounted Rangers.
4.  Stephen Miller was the colonel of the 7th Minnesota Infantry. He will be promoted to brigadier general in November 1863.
5.  W. H. C. Folsom’s son, Wyman H. Folsom, also in Company C of the 7th.
6.  Frank H. Pratt (1835-1884) was originally from Maine but was living in Taylors Falls, Minnesota, when he enlisted. He mustered into Company C of the 7th Minnesota Infantry on November 24, 1862. On May 25, 1863, he became the 2nd lieutenant; was promoted to 1st lieutenant on April 15, 1864; and captain on January 18, 1865. After the War he will serve in the Minnesota Legislature in 1874, chairing the Military Affairs Committee.
7.  William Rainey Marshall (1825-1896) was the lieutenant colonel of the 7th Minnesota Infantry. He will become the 5th governor of Minnesota, serving from 1866 to 1870.  The William R. Marshall Papers, 1853-1894, at the Minnesota Historical Society (A/.M369) include Colonel Marshall’s journal of the 1863 Sibley Expedition. The journal was published in the North Dakota Historical Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 3, pp.38-40; no.4, p.11; vol. 2, p.126 (April, July, 1927; January, 1928).

Thomas F. Morton letter of August 6, 1863, from the W. H. C. Folsom Papers (River Falls Mss S) in the University Archives and Area Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Thomas F. Morton letter of August 6, 1863, from the W. H. C. Folsom Papers (River Falls Mss S) in the University Archives and Area Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

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