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Unit 3: Set 6. “We Have Suffered Severely”: Gardens at Frontier Army Posts 1864–1880 - General Introduction

Intro | Scurvy | Army Food | Ag Debate | Activity I | Activity II

The U. S. Army sent troops into northern Dakota Territory in 1863 in an attempt to locate Dakota Indians who had fled southern Minnesota following the outbreak of hostilities. Troops briefly occupied the old fur trade post called Fort Union, but gave it up for new forts built along the Missouri River including Forts Rice (1864), Buford (1866), and Stevenson (1867). (See Unit 3 Document Set 3: Armed Conflict)

The Missouri River posts were located hundreds of miles from the nearest railroad line and depended on the river for most shipments of supplies and mail. Some freighting continued during the cold winters by dogsled, but the loads were necessarily light. River traffic was limited to about six months of warm weather, if the river levels did not drop too much during a long dry spell in the summer. The isolation of the posts from supply centers, especially during the winter, presented a new set of difficulties for the Army.

In addition, the posts were hastily constructed and the poorly insulated buildings could not protect vegetables from freezing during the intense cold of winter nights. Most of the posts lacked underground, frost-free storage cellars.

The Army had noted the hazards of isolation at Army posts in 1818 and had ordered all frontier posts to plant gardens to ensure the health of the soldiers. But, when Fort Rice was built in 1864, few people believed that it was possible for vegetables to ripen on the northern plains, which was still widely known as a “desert.” Without vegetables, the soldiers could become ill with any of a variety of diseases related to poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies, including dysentery and scurvy.

In the documents that follow, you will read about how the isolation of Army posts, inadequate information about vegetable gardening and preservation, and the short growing season in northern Dakota Territory led to serious health problems for the Army. Drawing on their experience in gardening, officers of these posts, engaged in an argument in the national press about the future of general agriculture and the Northern Pacific Railroad in Dakota Territory.

For more information on North Dakota’s early Army posts go to: http://history.nd.gov/historicsites/index.html