Some of the early history of the region is full of names that will make history in later years for their part in the American Civil War.
Take, for example, the first survey of the route that would become the Northern Pacific Railroad. A survey crew that would have passed near the Jamestown area in the summer of 1853 or about 20 years before the construction of the line.
Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy but the U.S. Secretary of War at the time, hired Gen. Isaac Ingalls Stevens to do the survey. It was a bit of double dipping for Stevens. He had been recently appointed to the position of Governor of Washington Territory. The War Department hired him to do a survey while he was in route to his new job.
Actually Stevens only had to survey the eastern part of the route. Gen. George McClellan, later a Civil War commander and saddle inventor, surveyed the route from the west end. They were to meet at Fort Benton, Montana.
Stevens started the expedition from St. Anthony, Minnesota in May of 1853 with Pierre Bottineau, sometimes called the Kit Carson of Dakota, as a guide. He used Red River carts purchased from Norman Kittson, Joe Rolette and Charles Cavileer to haul his supplies.
And it was protecting these carts that caused Stevens some problems.
At Lake Jessie, in Griggs County, the expedition became surrounded, by an estimated 200,000 buffalo. The animals crowded around the people and the supply carts. Stevens made an effort to keep the buffalo back and was evidently knocked about a bit. He spent the rest of the expedition, or at least until they reached Fort Union in the present day Williston area, riding in the expedition’s ambulance.
And that wasn’t the only problems the party had.
A little further west, in present day Wells County, Bottineau rode up to the column warning of a large band of Sioux approaching the column.
While the Stevens expedition went into a defensive corral it turned out to be a false alarm. The party the Kit Carson of Dakota spotted was not Indians but turned out to be 1,300 Metis hunters from Pembina.
This group of people, mostly of French and Indian descent, traveled with 824 Red River carts and about 1,200 horses and was on the prairie hunting for buffalo in preparation for the winter. They were completely peaceful.
This story tells us a couple of things. The original route of the Northern Pacific must have been planned for 30 or 40 miles further north than the route that was actually built and now passes through Fargo, Valley City, Jamestown, Bismarck and Dickinson.
And even the best frontiersman sometimes can’t tell who is who on the prairie without a scorecard.