A Long & Eventful History
Just below Fort Randall Dam, at the western edge of the Missouri National Recreational River's 39-mile reach, lie the ruins of Fort Randall. Strategically located on the west or right bank of the Missouri River near the South Dakota-Nebraska border, Fort Randall served as an important outpost on the upper Missouri River for operations against the Sioux in 1863-65 and was one of the chain of forts that surrounded the Sioux country from 1865 to 1876. It served longer as a continuously occupied military post than any other fort on the upper river.
Established by General William S. Harney in June 1856, the post provided troops and routed supplies to serve an assortment of government ventures. Harney named it after the late Deputy Paymaster General of the US Army, Colonel Daniel Randall.
Mission To Maintain Peace
The fort's primary purpose was to maintain peace between American Indians and white settlers, as well as among the tribes themselves. Its soldiers guarded against incursions by Dakota warriors following the Minnesota Sioux Outbreak of 1862. Later, troops interacted with the Poncas along with the Santee, Yankton, and Teton Sioux.
Most of the soldiers lived a monotonous military life, working the same routine day after day, broken only by occasional trips into Indian Territory. But the boredom led to discontent among the soldiers, resulting in high desertion rates.
Famous Visitors & Prisoners
Important visitors to the post always caused a wave of excitement. These included:
Buffalo Bill Cody stopped on his way to the East with his "Wild West Show."
Jim Bridger, the famous mountain man, appeared as a scout with a visiting survey crew.
Renowned Civil War General Phillip Sheridan inspected the post in 1879.
Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of Fort Randall was not a soldier but a prisoner. Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake) of the Lakota Sioux is probably best known for his contribution towards the defeat of Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. He and his band of 158 Hunkpapa Sioux camped south of the fort and were kept under loose surveillance from July 1881 until November 1883 when he was moved to Fort Yates, in present day North Dakota.
In 1877, Chief Standing Bear and his brother Big Snake, head of the Ponca warrior society, were briefly imprisoned in retaliation for opposing relocation of the tribe and for evicting federal Indian agents from tribal land. They were released by the fort commander who sent a telegram of protest to President Hayes.
The most conspicuous improvement to the fort made in the 1870s, when it was home to the 1st United States Infantry, was that of the combination chapel, library and lodge. Conceived by Lt. Colonel Pinkney Lugenbeel and designed by the post carpenter, George Bush, the cross-shaped building was erected in 1875 with the sweat from many a soldier and at a cost of about $20,000.
The Army campaign of 1876 substantially ended the military aspect of the regional "Indian question." But the post continued to provide security by assuring federal presence to settlers who flocked into newly opened lands in the region.
The Final Years
By 1880, the Great Plains had calmed considerably and the western frontier had passed over the South Dakota horizon. During its last years as a military post, Fort Randall's soldiers were kept busy with drills, target practice, and repairing roads from the post to eastern Dakota and Nebraska. The end came on October 31, 1892, when Fort Randall was turned over to the Quartermaster Department. In a historic quirk of irony, the last company to leave the post on December 7th was composed entirely of American Indians, commanded by two white officers.
Upon abandonment in 1892, and with exception of the chapel, the fort's buildings and contents were sold at auction and removed by local settlers.
Today visitors can walk the half-mile paved parade grounds and view the archeological remains of the post's former buildings. Over time and left to the mercy of the elements, the chapel had deteriorated to the point of collapsing totally. In 2003, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erected a stabilizing structure over the historic chapel after a National Park Service study and assessment of the building.