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Fort Ripley

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Black and white photograph of Fort Ripley, 1862.

Fort Ripley, 1862.

Fort Ripley was a nineteenth century army outpost located on the upper Mississippi River in north-central Minnesota. It was situated near government agencies for the Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe. By its very presence, however, the fort spurred immigration into the area by whites.

Fort Ripley typified remote army posts during the mid-nineteenth century. The buildings were wooden, facing a quadrangle. It was on a navigable river and an important supply route. It was geographically remote from European-American population centers, but American Indians lived nearby.

The Fort was built because the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) had been moved from northeastern Iowa to a new reservation near Long Prairie, necessitating a military post nearby to guard the reservation and administer annuity payments. The government also hoped that the Ho-Chunk, and the fort, would serve as a buffer between the warring Eastern Dakota and Ojibwe. Construction began in November 1848. In April 1849, Company A of the Sixth United States Infantry arrived to take up quarters under the command of Captain John B. Todd. The post, initially named Fort Marcy, was briefly renamed Fort Gaines and in 1850 was renamed again after Brigadier General Eleazar W. Ripley, a distinguished soldier from the War of 1812.

With occasional exceptions, daily life at Fort Ripley was uneventful. The geographic isolation, summer mosquitoes, and long, cold winters challenged everyone on post. Twice each year, the soldiers marched to the Long Prairie Agency to supervise government annuity payments of money and goods to the Ho-Chunk and then did the same for the Ojibwe at the Crow Wing Agency.

In 1855, the Ho-Chunk were moved again—this time to a reservation in Blue Earth County. Thinking the post was no longer needed, the army withdrew the garrison in 1857. Almost immediately, disturbances broke out between white immigrants and some Ojibwe, prompting reactivation of the fort.

Typical of nineteenth century army posts, Fort Ripley’s military reservation was huge. It encompassed nearly ninety square miles on the east side of the Mississippi, plus only a single square mile on the west side to house the garrison. This unusual configuration, chosen because the Ho-Chunk reservation abutted the west side of the river, caused much agitation among those who wanted the unused east side opened to homesteaders. The army agreed in 1857 to sell it in public auction, but local farmers, by mutual pact, underbid the property. The Secretary of War annulled the sale. In the meantime, however, many purchasers had begun to build homes and farm the land. The resulting confusion and litigation took twenty years to untangle.

Military activity on the post intensified during the Civil War (1861–1865). Army regulars—sent south to fight Confederates—were replaced by companies detached from Minnesota’s volunteer regiments.

Despite an undercurrent of mistrust, relations between European-Americans and Ojibwes had largely been peaceful in Minnesota. That nearly changed when the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 broke out. Seizing upon that conflict as an opportunity to gain power and leverage for redress of grievances, Ojibwe leader Bagone-giizhig (Hole-in-the Day II) threatened to launch a simultaneous war in northern Minnesota. Fearful whites in the area flocked to Fort Ripley for protection. Additional soldiers were rushed in and the post was readied for battle.

The threat was defused, thanks to cool-headed negotiating and the garrison’s strengthened defenses. For the next three years Fort Ripley became a base for western military campaigns that came on the heels of the U.S.-Dakota War. Activity reached its peak during the winter of 1863–1864, when four hundred cavalry troops and five hundred horses were quartered at the fort.

On a sub-zero night in January 1877, fire destroyed three buildings. Believing the post had outlived its purpose, the War Department decided to permanently close it rather than rebuild. The troops moved out that summer. The buildings stood abandoned for many years. By 1910, the ruins of the powder magazine, built of stone, were all that remained.

In 1929, the State of Minnesota announced that a new National Guard training site would be built in central Minnesota. The land had to be purchased and, purely by coincidence, the remains of old Fort Ripley were within the proposed boundaries. The new post—Camp Ripley—took its name from the old.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Baker, Robert Orr. The Muster Roll – A Biography of Fort Ripley Minnesota. St. Paul: H.M. Smyth Co., 1972.

Diedrich, Mark. "Chief Hole-in-the-Day and the 1862 Chippewa Disturbance: A Reappraisal." Minnesota History 50, no. 5 (Spring 1987): 193–203.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/50/v50i05p193-203.pdf

Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 2. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1961.

Prucha, F. Paul. “Fort Ripley: The Post and the Military Reservation.” Minnesota History 28, no.3 (September 1947): 205–224.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/28/v28i03p205-224.pdf

Tanner, George C. “History of Fort Ripley, 1849–1859: Based on the Diary of Rev. Solon W. Manney, D.D. Chaplain of this post from 1851 to 1859.” Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society 10, pt. 1 (1905): 179–202.
http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/mn/manney_ripley.html

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Fort Ripley, 1862.
Black and white photograph of Fort Ripley, 1862.
Black and white drawing of Brigadier General Eleazar Wheelock Ripley, c.1812.
Black and white drawing of Brigadier General Eleazar Wheelock Ripley, c.1812.
Bagone-giizhig (Hole-in-the-Day the younger)
Bagone-giizhig (Hole-in-the-Day the younger)
Graphite Drawing of Fort Ripley, 1863. Drawing by Jonathan Burnett Salisbury.
Graphite Drawing of Fort Ripley, 1863. Drawing by Jonathan Burnett Salisbury.
Graphite drawing of Fort Ripley from east the Mississippi, 1863. Drawing by Jonathan Burnett Salisbury.
Graphite drawing of Fort Ripley from east the Mississippi, 1863. Drawing by Jonathan Burnett Salisbury.
Fort Ripley, 1862. Pen and wash drawing made in 1864 by Corporal August Harfeldt, Third Battery, Minnesota Light Artillery.
Fort Ripley, 1862. Pen and wash drawing made in 1864 by Corporal August Harfeldt, Third Battery, Minnesota Light Artillery.
Fort Ripley view from the north, 1864. Pen and wash drawing by Corporal August Harfeldt, Third Battery, Minnesota Light Artillery.
Fort Ripley view from the north, 1864. Pen and wash drawing by Corporal August Harfeldt, Third Battery, Minnesota Light Artillery.
Black and white photograph of Fort Ripley in the early 1870s.
Black and white photograph of Fort Ripley in the early 1870s.
Color scan of a map of Fort Ripley as surveyed in 1874.
Color scan of a map of Fort Ripley as surveyed in 1874.
Black and white photograph of abandoned Fort Ripley, c.1895.
Black and white photograph of abandoned Fort Ripley, c.1895.
Black and white photograph of abandoned Fort Ripley as seen from the east side of the Mississippi River, c.1895.
Black and white photograph of abandoned Fort Ripley as seen from the east side of the Mississippi River, c.1895.
Black and white photograph of the abandoned blockhouse at Fort Ripley, c.1895.
Black and white photograph of the abandoned blockhouse at Fort Ripley, c.1895.
Black and white photograph of the powder house ruins at Fort Ripley, 1926.
Black and white photograph of the powder house ruins at Fort Ripley, 1926.
Watercolor of old Fort Ripley by Minnesota artist Paul S. Kramer (1919–2012). Painted in 1989 as a study for a larger oil painting that hangs in Camp Ripley’s post headquarters.
Watercolor of old Fort Ripley by Minnesota artist Paul S. Kramer (1919–2012). Painted in 1989 as a study for a larger oil painting that hangs in Camp Ripley’s post headquarters.
Watercolor of 1868 Fort Ripley by Col. Edward G. Bush (1838–1892). Painted by Bush in 1880 upon revisiting the fort that he commanded September 1868 to May 1869 while a thirty-year-old captain.  The painting depicts the fort as he remembered it in 1868.
Watercolor of 1868 Fort Ripley by Col. Edward G. Bush (1838–1892). Painted by Bush in 1880 upon revisiting the fort that he commanded September 1868 to May 1869 while a thirty-year-old captain.  The painting depicts the fort as he remembered it in 1868.
Black and white photograph of a sign marking the site of old Fort Ripley, 1850.
Black and white photograph of a sign marking the site of old Fort Ripley, 1850.
Color image of the sign marking the site of Fort Ripley, 2005.
Color image of the sign marking the site of Fort Ripley, 2005.
Color image of the remains of the Fort Ripley powder magazine, 2005.
Color image of the remains of the Fort Ripley powder magazine, 2005.
Illustration showing the building layout of Fort Ripley in 1864.
Illustration showing the building layout of Fort Ripley in 1864.

Turning Point

In August 1862, while a group of Dakota are attacking whites in southern Minnesota, a group of Ojibwe led by Bagone-giizhig (Hole-in-the Day II) threaten to do the same in northern Minnesota. Fort Ripley is hastily reinforced and hundreds of fearful whites flock to it for protection. For the next three years, the post becomes a beehive of military activity.

Chronology

1848

Construction of Fort Ripley begins.

1849

Soldiers arrive from Fort Snelling to form Fort Ripley’s first garrison.

1855

The Ho-Chunk are moved from their nearby reservation to Blue Earth County in south-central Minnesota.

1857

The army closes Fort Ripley, but reactivates it when disturbances repeatedly break out between whites and some Ojibwe in the area.

1861

Army regulars are transferred south for service in the Civil War. Companies from Minnesota volunteer regiments garrison Fort Ripley instead.

1862

While a group of Dakota are attacking whites in southern Minnesota, Ojibwe leader Bagone-giizhig (Hole-in-the Day II) threatens to do the same in northern Minnesota. Fort Ripley is reinforced and whites seek protection within its walls.

1863

Fort Ripley becomes a cavalry post and staging area for the U.S. Army’s Punitive Expeditions into Dakota Territory.

1864

Fort Ripley reaches its largest size, housing four hundred troops and five hundred horses.

1866

Army regulars return to garrison Fort Ripley.

1877

A mid-winter fire destroys three buildings. The army decides to close Fort Ripley rather than rebuild. That summer the flag is lowered for the last time.

1929

The State of Minnesota announces that a new National Guard training site will be built north of Little Falls. By coincidence, the proposed boundaries include the now-abandoned former army post. Camp Ripley takes its name from the old fort.