The Red River of the North has been a conduit of trade for centuries.
It starts at the confluence of the Otter Tail and the Bois des Sioux Rivers between Wahpeton, North Dakota and Breckenridge, Minnesota and its banks form the border between modern Minnesota and North Dakota.
If you stick your feet in where the river begins, the cool water running over your toes will run north through Fargo, Grand Forks and dozens of other North Dakota and Minnesota river communities and into The Forks in downtown Winnipeg. From there, the water flows into Lake Winnipeg and the Nelson River and ultimately drains to into Hudson Bay.
The Red River has linked the region since Métis, Chippewa, Cree, French and English fur traders wheeled squeaky wooden carts north along the network Red River oxcart trails. Later, those oxcarts trails were replaced with stagecoach routes and ferryboats that brought goods north through the Red River Valley.
Fort Abercrombie, the first permanent military installation in what’s now North Dakota, was built in 1858 to guard these trade routes and keep an eye on the new state of Minnesota from just across a looping oxbow of the Red River. Fort Abercrombie is located just a few miles north of the river’s beginning in Wahpeton, North Dakota, about a 35 minute drive south from Fargo, the state’s largest city.
It was called “The Gateway to the Dakotas.” The fort was abandoned in 1877, but it was a busy place during the years in between.
It saw action in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, served as the launching point for a few gold hunting expeditions in Montana and was a trade hub in the region. It also housed hundreds of men, who were stationed far away from the battlefields of the Civil War in this remote frontier fort.
A WPA project rebuilt the site in 1939 and 1940, reconstructing three blockhouses and the wooden posts of the stockade. The original military guardhouse was returned to Fort Abercrombie, giving visitors an idea of what the quiet site, now surrounded by cornfields and endless prairie sky, looked like in its heyday. There’s an interpretive center on the grounds, where fabulous guides can tell you more about the fort’s history. You’ll also find a few exhibits and a small gift shop.
And of course, no visit to Fort Abercrombie is complete without taking a few minutes to gaze at the Red River. This unassuming body of water is what brought all those frontier soldiers to this then-untamed place generations ago. It inspired so much of the region’s trade and history.
Fort Abercrombie is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There’s a wonderful Sunday History Program during the summers as well. (Please check the website for more details.)
If you want to check out my talk about beer in the frontier forts, you can join me for the Sunday History program on Sunday, July 30. You can RSVP on Facebook or comment below if you’d like me to send you more info. I hope to see you there!
County Highway 22
What about you?
What do you think about Fort Abercrombie?
How do you prefer to learn about history? Books? Tours? Historical sites? Tell us why!
What do you recommend that travelers see or do in this part of the Red River Valley?
What other frontier-era historical sites should I check out on my travels?
Will you join me on Sunday? Let me know so I can say hello!
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