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Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site

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Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site overlooks the site of a battle fought on July 28, 1864, between troops commanded by General Sully and a gathering of Sioux Indians.  This attack on an Indian trading village in the Killdeer Mountains was one of a series of military reprisals against the Sioux that followed the US-Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota.  However, many of the village’s inhabitants were not involved in that war.  The Killdeer Mountain Battlefield is eight and one-half miles northwest of Killdeer, Dunn County.

The region of Killdeer Mountain was long recognized as a good hunting spot and a gathering and trading point for groups of Sioux people.  By July 1864 large numbers of Hunkpapas (including the chiefs Sitting Bull and Gall), some Sans Arc, Miniconjous, and Blackfeet had arrived.  Many Yanktonai people and a small number of Dakotas, some led by Inkpaduta, had also gathered.


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On July 28 scouts raced back to the column and told Sully that they had found an Indian camp of about 1,500 lodges a few miles ahead.  Sully immediately rearranged the marching order of the command into a huge, hollow square.  Inside the square were his artillery, transport wagons, ambulances, and the command staff.  Much of the cavalry dismounted to fight on foot.  Every fourth man took the reins of his mount and three other horses and waited inside the square until needed.  Tȟatȟáŋka Ská (White Bull), a Minniconjou Lakota who was present at the village that morning, later described Sully’s formation as a mile-wide line of soldiers on foot, with other soldiers following on horseback, and a string of wagons following them.

After advancing four or five miles, the army confronted the Indians.  Stories differ about who fired the first shot.  White Bull described the battle as starting when a warrior named Šuŋká Išnála (Lone Dog) (check marks with TC, pg. 99) moved close to the soldiers’ lines to see if they would shoot at him.  Lone Dog was described by White Bull as being “with a ghost” or having a charm that made it difficult to shoot at him. (1)  Lt. Col. John Pattee of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry described a similar event:  “About this time an Indian, very gaily dressed, carrying a large war club gorgeously ornamented, appeared in front of the 6th Iowa Cavalry and called loudly to us and gesticulated wildly from about half a mile away.  Major Wood, chief of cavalry, approached my position and said, ‘The general sends his compliments and wishes for you to kill that Indian for God’s sake.’” (2)

As the soldiers continued their advance toward the Indian encampment, groups of Indian warriors rode along the formation’s flanks, skirmishing with the soldiers as they went, and circling around to the rear.  At one point, cannons were brought forward to fire upon onlookers on a prominent hill, which stood squarely in the line’s advance.  At another point, an Indian scouting party, returning to the village, threatened the supply wagons at the rear until cannon were rushed back.  Foot by foot, the soldiers advanced, and inch by inch, the Indians yielded.

As the day wore on General Sully ordered a cavalry charge to break the Indian line and drive it into forested breaks in front of and beside the village.  Sergeant Eugene Marshall of Brackett’s Cavalry would describe the charge as a “succession of hand-to-hand encounters, which ended in the death of one or the other party.” (3)

Meanwhile, cannons reached a position overlooking the village.  From this vantage point, cannons tore apart the village and the Indians’ forward lines.  The troops surrounded the village on three sides and advanced toward the center.  More cannon began shelling the Indians out of the forested gullies behind the village and onto the exposed hillsides.  Seeing that they no longer had any chance of repelling the troops, the Indians fled over the steep, rugged terrain to the rear.  As their families climbed to safety, the warriors valiantly defended them until darkness silenced the guns.  Oral traditions say some of the people escaped by climbing to the top of Killdeer Mountain and then down through a cave known today as the Medicine Hole.

The following morning, Sully left some of his troops at the village site to collect and destroy all abandoned materials.  Col. Robert McLaren of the 2nd Minnesota Cavalry made a record of the destruction.  He estimated that the soldiers burned about 1,400 lodges.  “The men gathered into heaps and burned tons of dried buffalo meat packed in skin cases, great quantities of dried berries, buffalo robes, tanned buffalo, elk, and antelope skins, household utensils, such as brass and copper kettles, mess pans, etc., riding saddles and dray poles for ponies and dogs.” (4)  In his report after the battle, General Sully estimated that between 100 and 150 Indians were killed.  No prisoners were taken.  Lt. David Kingsbury of the 8th Minnesota Infantry would later recount that at least one infant was found alive in the abandoned village and subsequently shot. (5)

With the rest of his force, Sully set out after the people who had escaped Killdeer, but they made good use of the broken terrain, and Sully was unable to find them.  Returning to the destroyed village, Sully gathered all his troops and marched back to Sully’s Heart River Corral.  That night warriors attacked the picket line, killing two soldiers.

Survivors of the Battle of Killdeer Mountain still had some time before the onset of winter to replace some of their belongings.  However, the battle solidified the antagonism of those Native Americans, especially the Lakotas, who had not participated in the US-Dakota War of 1862, toward the encroaching whites.

The modern-day site bears considerable resemblance to the historic battlefield, despite modern intrusions of roads, fences, farms and ranches, and oil wells and collection facilities.  Set against the scenic backdrop of the Killdeer Mountains, a sandstone slab monument and flagpole mark part of the July 28, 1864, battlefield.  Two headstones honor soldiers who were killed in the cavalry charge.  An unpaved parking lot is separated from the site by a log barrier.  The on-acre site is surrounded by private land, so please be respectful.


Endnotes

  1. Walter S. Campbell, (pseudonym, Stanley Vestal), “Interview with White Bull,”  Collections of Stanley Vestal, boxes 105-106, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma.
  2. John Pattee, “Reminiscenses of John Pattee.”  South Dakota Historical Collections 5:275-350.  Pierre:  State Publishing Company, 1910
  3. Kurt D. Bergeman, Brackett’s Battalion (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004), 114.
  4. Abner English, “Dakota’s First Soldiers.” South Dakota Historical Collections 9:241-307, Pierre:  South Dakota Historical Society, 1918.
  5. David Kingsbury, “Sully’s Expedition against the Sioux in 1864,” Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, vol.8, St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society, 1898.)

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