The Fort Randall Military Post, located on the south side of the river just below the present site of the dam, was named for colonel Daniel Randall, a career Army officer who also served as Deputy Paymaster General of the Army. The site was selected in 1856 by General William S. Harney, Commander of the Sioux Expedition.
Early in the summer of 1856, the post was laid out and construction began. The buildings at the fort were constructed by the troops themselves from cottonwood logs and materials scavenged from old Fort Pierre. Around the central parade ground, which contained the flagpole and a bandstand, were erected the quarters of the garrison, the commissary, and the quartermaster departments. These buildings were little more than one-story log cabins. The officer's quarters were also constructed logs, but were far more imposing structures than were the barracks buildings. A sutler's store, the old military name for the Post Exchange, was built and became one of the important and popular of post dwellings. Fort Randall even boasted a large post garden. After three years of construction, Fort Randall consisted of 24 log structures that housed six companies or about 500 men.
As the years wore on, the cottonwood logs shrunk and warped. Yawning cracks in the walls gave easy entrance to dust and snow, rats and insects. By 1871, a thorough renovation of the fort was needed, and was ordered by then-commander Lieutenant Colonel E. S. Otis, 22nd Infantry. The shabby log barracks were replaced by two-story frame structures. The commanding officer's house was remodeled and made into a two-story veranda building. All the quarters, buildings, and yards were surrounded by white picket fences. Eventually, a swimming pond, bathhouse, photographic gallery, and many private dwellings were added. By the end of 1871, Fort Randall was considered the best constructed military fort on the upper Missouri River. In the late 1800's, most of the Army's soldiers considered accommodations at Fort Randall to be a "lap of luxury."
Fort Randall was, in its day, an important military post. Its strategic location along the Missouri River made it a key fort in two lines of western frontier defense. It was the last link in a chain of forts protecting the overland route along the Platte River. It was also the first fort in the chain of forts on the upper Missouri River.
The men that found themselves stationed at Fort Randall during its 36-year existence handled a multitude of duties. They provided military protection to settlements up and down the Missouri. They provided escorts for the many wagon trains and survey parties that journeyed across the plains. They loaded and unloaded a never-ending string of Army supply wagons, for this post became the Army's central supply depot for the Missouri River Area. Constant squabbles between various Indian tribes, mostly the Ponca and the Teton Sioux, demanded their constant attention. And, of course, there were the constant and tedious "post duties" -- guard duty, kitchen duty, litter duty, firewood duty, etc.
The most important mission assigned to the soldiers of Fort Randall was to mount expeditions which would discipline the many restive Indian tribes on the plains, primarily the Teton Sioux. Year after year, springtime found Fort Randall's "Blue Boys" riding and marching jauntily out of the post gates to the tunes of the Fort Randall Band. The years 1863 through 1865 brought the famous Sully Expeditions, three rather unsuccessful campaigns mounted by the dashing and determined General Sully. During the Indian Wars Period of the 1870's, these expeditions brought full military power to bear on the irreconcilable Sioux.
It was not only the Indians who required chastisement from the Fort Randall Garrison, but also many white men who illegally entered Indian lands. After discovery of gold in South Dakota's Black Hills by the 1874 Custer Expedition, hundreds of gold seekers poured into this Sioux Territory. Fort Randall's guard troops dwindled to a skeleton crew as every available soldier was sent into the field to track down these squatters. Many elaborate plots to elude the tenacious troops were foiled by the Fort Randall soldiers. Yet, the lust for gold kept the squatters coming, and Fort Randall reported an increasing number of men A.W.O.L. These soldiers were said to be on "French Leave," for they joined those who searched for gold in the stream where it was first discovered, French Creek.
For the majority of the soldiers, life at Fort Randall meant a tedious, monotonous military routine occasionally broken by an exciting foray into Indian territory. Most of the troops came from the East Coast of the United States, and found it most difficult to adjust to the desolation of the Dakota Plains. For a single enlisted man, there were no women to court, no towns in which to make merry. This dull existence spread discontent, and desertion rates were high. The long winters were especially depressing. Nearly every month's official report listed half a dozen or more soldier's A.W.O.L.
A concerted effort was made by the Army to make life on a frontier post more enjoyable. The soldiers were encouraged to organize fraternal societies, and after 1871 Fort Randall had an active Odd Fellow's Lodge. There was also a thriving Lodge of Good Templars, a temperance society. The post boasted a championship baseball team which was called the "O'Reilly's." A stage connection to Yankton allowed many a rough-and-tumble baseball game between the O'Reilly's and the Yankton Coyote Ball Club. The men could also find diversion in reading, for Fort Randall had a library which contained as many as 1,500 volumes.
Most of the officer's and some of the enlisted men were allowed to have their families with them at Fort Randall. The wives of the post formed a strong Women's association, and engineered many social events. Picnics were organized during the summer; skating parties in the winter. Military balls were held to celebrate gala occasions. The women triggered the organization of an amateur theatrical group during the winter of 1871. Dramatic presentations were given on holidays and included the very popular play, "Ten Nights in a Bar Room."
Important visitors to the post always caused a wave of excitement throughout Fort Randall. Buffalo Bill Cody stopped by 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 made an inspection of the fort in 1879. These little excitements did much to enliven the routine military life of a frontier post.
Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of Fort Randall was not a soldier at all, but a prisoner. Sitting Bull, the legendary Chief of the Dakota Sioux who is best known for his contribution toward the defeat of Colonel (BVT General) George Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, was imprisoned at Fort Randall in 1881. His band of 158 Hunkpapa Sioux camped south of the fort and were kept under loose surveillance. Hundreds of sightseers came to view the legendary chief, and handling their large numbers became quite a problem for the soldiers. For this reason, the Fort Randall troops were not sorry to see Sitting Bull removed to Fort Yates in 1883.
By 1880, things had calmed considerably on the Great Plains. Most of the Indian tribes had been placed on reservations. The Western Frontier had now passed by Fort Randall. During its last years as a military post, Fort Randall's soldiers were merely garrison troops, performing routine maintenance chores. Troops were kept busy with drilling, target practice, and repairing the roads leading from the post to Eastern Dakota and Nebraska.
Fort Randall had seen its day come and go. On 9 November 1892, Lieutenant Samuel Leah marched his 21st Infantry out of Fort Randall and closed the gates behind him. Fort Randall was therefore officially abandoned. All government buildings and surplus equipment were later sold at a public auction, except for the church.
Today, all that remains is the old parade ground and excavations of several building foundations. A self-interpretive trail has been established around the parade grounds. Three chairs from the fort and a 1/120 scale exhibit are located at the Fort Randall Visitor Center. There is also a display of the 1992 archaeological dig located in the powerhouse lobby.
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