Whitestone Hill Battlefield State Historic Site
Whitestone Hill Battlefield State Historic Site
Whitestone Hill Battlefield State Historic Site, located twenty-three miles southeast of Kulm, Dickey County, marks the scene of the fiercest clash between Indians and white soldiers in North Dakota. On September 3, 1863, General Alfred Sully's troops attacked a tipi camp of Yanktonai, some Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota, and Blackfeet (Sihasapa Lakota), as part of a military mission to punish participants of the Dakota Conflict of 1862. In the ensuing battle, many Indian men, women, and children died or were captured. Military casualties were comparatively light. The Indians also suffered the destruction of virtually all of their property, leaving them nearly destitute for the coming winter.
That morning, Major Albert E. House, a Battalion Commander of the Sixth Iowa Cavalry, led a scouting party in search of Indians. In the early afternoon, their Métis guide, Frank LaFrambois, discovered a small encampment of Sioux on a small lake near Whitestone Hill. LaFrambois notified Major House, who moved his battalion toward the village. Upon closer reconnaissance, House discovered that the "small" encampment included 300 to 600 lodges. Frank LaFrambois and two soldiers were dispatched to notify General Sully of the discovery and to request reinforcements. While they were gone, the Indians detected the presence of the troops, and some of the villagers prepared to flee, while others prepared to fight. Major House sent two reconnaissance parties to opposite sides of the tipi encampment to gather tactical information while he waited for the main column to arrive. For nearly three hours, an uneasy standoff continued, during which a delegation of Indian elders approached the soldiers and offered to surrender some of their chiefs. House, however, insisted on total surrender, and negotiations broke down.
Sully's command was less than a mile away when the Indians saw them coming, and departure preparations became frantic. Tipis were stripped, travois were hastily attached to ponies and dogs, and possessions and small children were strapped to the travois. Masses of Indians began streaming east, down a ravine that opened into a shallow mouth at the rear of the village. It was nearly sunset when Sully's troops reached the scouting party.
As Sully's main column advanced toward the village, it became apparent that the Indians were escaping. Sully ordered Colonel Robert W. Furnas, commanding the Second Nebraska Cavalry, forward at full speed to cut off the Indians' retreat. Stopping briefly to instruct Major House to circle around to the left (north and east), Furnas directed his men around to the right (south), hoping to encircle the village. Seeing that Whitestone Hill blocked escape to the south, Sully sent Colonel David S. Wilson, with part of the Sixth Iowa, to the north side of the village.
General Sully, with one company of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry, two companies of the Sixth Iowa Cavalry, and the artillery battery, charged toward the center of the village. As they passed through the village, they captured a number of prisoners, who were left behind under guard. Sully and his troops climbed to the top of Whitestone Hill to direct the rest of the battle and to offer artillery support, if needed by the soldiers on the flats below.
Although the Indians scattered in as many directions as possible, most tried to escape down the ravine. As the Indians came to a saucer-like broadening of the ravine about one-half mile from the village, they began to gather in a large throng. There they were surrounded by Colonel Furna's cavalry, Major House's battalion, and Colonel Wilson's Sixth Iowa troops.
Fearing that the Indians might escape in the impending darkness, Furnas ordered his men to dismount and advance toward the ravine on foot. When his men were within a few hundred yards, he ordered them to begin firing. The other troops followed his lead, dismounted, and closed in on the Indians. Only Wilson's men remained mounted, and, as the attack continued, their horses became wild and unmanageable. The Indians, noticing this weakness in the north firing line, suddenly charged in that direction. Many were able to escape the deadly ravine.
As darkness deepened, Colonel Furnas suspected that bullets from the other units were hitting his lines. He withdrew his troops to higher ground surrounding the ravine. As Furnas and his men withdrew, the other units also broke off the engagement and spent the night on the hilltops overlooking the battlefield.
The light of the following day revealed a field of carnage. Dead and wounded men, women, and children lay in the campsite and in the ravine. Tipis stood vacant, or drooped in various stages of destruction. Camp equipment and personal items, tools, utensils, weapons, toys, and injured or dying horses and dogs littered the ground. Injured women protected babies and the little children. As the soldiers looked after the wounded and gathered the dead, Sully moved his camp to the battlefield. While some squads of soldiers patrolled the region searching for escapees, other men were put to work digging graves and destroying the village and Indian possessions.
During the Battle of Whitestone Hill, 20 soldiers were killed and 38 were wounded. Although there was no accurate count of the Indian casualties, estimates ranged from 100 to 300 dead. In addition, 32 men and 124 women and children were captured. For two days, military patrols guarded against reprisal raids while troops destroyed Indian property. Tipis, buffalo hides, wagons, travois, blankets, and perhaps as much as half million pounds of buffalo meat were stacked and burned. Some of the fires were set over the graves of the soldiers to obscure the location of the burial places. Troops threw pots, kettles, weapons, and other things that would sink, into the lake.
On September 5, one of the scouting details ran into a party of Indians. In the ensuing skirmish, two more white soldiers were killed. The following day, Sully and his army marched south toward their transport on the Missouri River. The Indians, who had escaped the battlefield, scattered over the plains looking for friends and families who could share necessities during the winter months.
Today, Whitestone Battlefield State Historic Site includes a portion of the battlefield and a small museum with exhibits explaining the 1863 Sibley and Sully expeditions and the Battle of Whitestone Hill. There are two monuments, one honoring the Indian dead and a second commemorating the soldiers who died in the battle. A marker also recognizes two early settlers, Tom and Mary Shimmin. A fieldstone shelter beside the trail provides a resting point overlooking part of the battlefield and a freshwater lake. Nearby is a picnic area with a shelter, table, horseshoe pits, pit toilets, and a parking lot. The site is open May 16 through September 15, Thursday through Monday. Admission is free, and donations are accepted.
Pictures and information were provided by the State Historical Society of North Dakota
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