From the special 25th anniversary issue of the Pembina Pioneer, published in 1904...
The First American Fort Pembina
It is probable there have been quite a number of fortifications at the confluence of the Red and Pembina rivers. As we have elsewhere observed, it is probable that this point has been occupied by man since man occupied the country. Certainly the earlier white settlers of Selkirk's colony and the Swiss who came shortly after would find it safer if not necessary to arrange their rude log swellings in the form of a square, with a stockade fence of heavy posts in the vacant spaces between, which was the usual form of frontier posts, and is that shown in the picture. The Selkirk fort or stockade, however, if any, disappeared without record, except by inference from the writings of the older historians.
The fort as presented, however, was the first American post at this point. Our readers should not confound this with the Fort Pembina of later days built some ten years after and situated one mile farther up the Red River.
The picture presented is taken from a sketch made by a soldier who was a member of Hatch's Battalion and who helped to build it.
It is just forty years ago since this Fort Pembina was erected; not a long time in history; not so long that there are still many men yet in vigorous life who were members of the battalion.
As late as 1880, the ditch or moat that ran across the point at the base of the stockade was still visible, but was obliterated at the time of the grading of the streets of the city. One building of the many that were built at that time and afterwards, is still in existence, being used by William Fowler as a stable.
To many however the query may come, why was this fort built and who and what was Hatch's Battalion?
We can in this place give but a short account of this little phase of history, which if it had occurred at any other period than it did would have occupied a far more prominent place in the annals of our country.
It was in the dark days of the Civil War. The Indians of Minnesota, encouraged by the fact that the nation was apparently in the throes of self destruction, attempted to drive out the white settlers from their former hunting grounds and without warning they swept down upon the defenseless frontier killing and scalping as they went until they reached the more thickly settled part of the state in the vicinity of the Twin Cities. Notwithstanding Minnesota had already sent a large portion of her able-bodied citizens to the armies which were fighting the rebels, yet almost every man able to bear arms rose, forming irregular companies and battalions and went to meet the Indians and preserve their homes. Without going further into this part of the history it is enough for the present to say that they were successful and beat back the murderous wretches in several pitched battles, some being fought on the soil of what is now North Dakota, culminating at last in the trail of two or three hundred who had been taken prisoners, of whom forty were hung on one scaffold at Mankato.
A large number of the remaining Indians fled to the country just across the line north of this county. There were several hundred of these renegades in the party and they were a perpetual menace to the few white people who resided in this vicinity, and the people of Minnesota were afraid of possible raids for the sake of plunder and revenge. On the other hand the Indians were anything but welcome to the authorities on the Canadian side.
To those who are at all familiar with the history of the rebellion it was be easily understood why the government had no troops to spare in the year 1863 to protect the northern border. That was the time of the darkest days of the war, when the result was in doubt and volunteers hard to get and every man possible was hurried to the front.
In this emergency, the men of Minnesota had to help themselves and while Hatch's Battalion was authorized and raised under the orders of the government, yet it was recruited in Minnesota and a part of the Minnesota volunteers.
During the months of August and September 1863, three companies were filled and the fourth partially filled with recruits. The battalion (a battalion is a body of military less in number than a regiment) was under the command of Major E.A. C. Hatch, who is described by the historian as a man intimately acquainted by experience with Indian customs and manners. Captain A. T. Ohambehn, George C. Whitcomb, Abel Grovenor and Hugh S. Donaldson were in charge of the respective companies.
They began their march from St. Paul on October 5, 1863, but were delayed several days at St. Cloud and then with their wagon train drawn by oxen and horses they started on their long journey for Pembina.
It was the 15th by the time they arrived at Sauk Center and there they encountered the first snow storm. From that time to their final arrival the journey was one of extreme hardship. The storms and blizzards were almost continuous, the snow was a foot deep and in many places piled in enormous drifts. Warmer weather at times only made the roads worse with mud and such, so that sometimes they were compelled to march by night when it would be frozen. They could only travel from ten to twenty miles a day. They were sleeping in tents. To make matters worse the supplies for the oxen and horses (part of which they expected to get on the way and part to be purchased in advance and stored for them) were not to be had, as they were not in the country. Some hay that was found was seized from the half-breeds, but for a large part of the latter part of the weary march there was nothing for the animals to live on but the young twigs of the trees.
The consequence of this was that the road was lined with the dead bodies of animals that perished from hunger and fatigue. At one time when the neighborhood of Georgetown (near Fargo) there was great pressure on Major Hatch by his officers and men to go into winter quarters there, but the commander after deliberation decided to leave part of the stores, take the best of the horses, and press on.
The battalion arrived at Pembina on November 13th after a month of about as had journeying as is often done by men with success. Immediately upon their arrival they began to build their log huts and form the fort illustrated. The weather was extremely cold, the thermometer ranging from 20 to 40 below every day, 60 below being the record on January 1st, and it was no until after the first of January that the buildings were completed so that all the soldiers were sheltered. The labor and hardships involved in the erection of these dwellings and the stockade by about 300 men in the cold northern winter may be imagined. Here again they were disappointed in not finding supplies of forage for their animals. The quartermaster went to Fort Garry (Winnipeg) and with the assistance of some of the citizens there secured all that was possible to buy, but the amount was very deficient and only the working teams and a few of the best cavalry horses could be allowed grain, and that in small quantity.
Quoting from our historian: "Prior to this time but little attention had been given by the inhabitants of this country to agriculture. A very large majority lived by hunting and trapping. The ordinary products, such as potatoes, onions, cabbage, and other vegetables were produced in very limited quantities; in fact, the greater portion of the people raised nothing at all. A number of the soldiers were in the hospital afflicted with scurvy. Dr. Armington, the surgeon, urgently recommended the use of vegetables, especially onions, potatoes, and cabbage. Diligent efforts were made to purchase two hundred or more bushels of potatoes, fifty bushels of onions, and a large quantity of cabbage. The entire country was canvassed with the result of 18 bushels of potatoes at $6.00 per bushel and 7 bushels of onions at $8.00 per bushel, and not a cabbage to be had at any price..."
Capturing the Indians
Meanwhile, through all the trials, hardships and difficulties incident to the long march and the building of the fort, Major Hatch had not forgotten for what he had come to this country. He had not come to stay indefinitely and protect the border by his mere presence. He had something more specific in view to capture the Sioux who participated in the Minnesota massacre and have them punished; and thus not only bring them to the punishment they so richly deserved, but also to strike terror into any other Indians who might be inclined to go on the war path in the future.
His plan was beset with difficulties. The Indians occasionally came across the line, but they were so mixed in with the half-bloods, who to some extent sympathized with or were afraid of them that the Indians had no difficulty in finding out if Major Hatch sent men out after them. However, in December Major Hatch, after several fruitless expeditions, sent out a small detachment of about twenty picked men to get after a lot of Indians who were camped in the vicinity of St. Joe. The Indian camp was surrounded about three o'clock in the morning and several Indians were killed and none escaped. A few soldiers were wounded, but none seriously.
The news of this affair soon spread among the remaining Indians in Manitoba and they were much demoralized. Meantime the citizens of Fort Garry, the Hudson Bay officials and the Canadian authorities were doing what they could to assist the Americans in getting the Indians. They even went so far as to intimate to Major Hatch that if the American troops by accident or otherwise happened to get across the line in pursuit of the rascals, that there would be no notice taken of the affair. Major Hatch, however, assured them that while he would do all that he could to capture the Indians, he would not send his armed forces across the line into foreign terrority. While Major Hatch was thus particular in official statement, there appears to be no doubt from subsequent events that he was not averse to meeting his Canadian assistants at least half way.
A very short time after the St. Joe affair, the Indians sent word for a council. The council was had, but the Indians wanted to surrender with the assurance that none of them should be punished, but Major Hatch would accept only unconditional surrender. They would not agree to this, but soon afterwards about two hundred voluntarily gave themselves up and later other parties came in, until something like four hundred were made prisoners. The chiefs, however, still held back. Finally, in the early part of January, Messrs. A. G. Bannatyne, John McKenzie and other citizens of Fort Garry, by sagacious and successful scheming, captured Little Six and Medicine Bottle, who were the principal leaders and worst villains, and brought them to Fort Pembina. This practically completed the job. Only one chief of prominence - Little Lead - with his family, and less than a dozen all told, were left in Manitoba, most of whom died of starvation or disease within the next year.
For the rest of the winter all that the soldiers had to do was to guard their prisoner's. In February a part of the soldiers with the most of the Indians went southward to Fort Snelling.
On May 1st the steamer "International", the only steamboat then on the Red River, came down to Pembina and the battalion, in pursuance to orders, got on board with their prisoners, Little Six and Medicine Bottle, and departed for Fort Abercrombie on May 5, 1864.
Little Six boasted that he killed not less than fifty white men, women and children during the massacre in Minnesota.
The battalion continued in frontier service at various posts until the summer of 1866, and was afterward commanded by Col. C. Powell Adams, who succeeded Major Hatch, he having resigned in June 1864.
The buildings were sold to and taken possession of by the residents here and gradually rotted down or otherwise disappeared, so except as noted at the beginning of this article there is nothing left but one, and it is doubtful if that was a constituent part of the original structure.
There is much to moralize over this old Fort, but it is all included in this: Only forty years ago next October Little Six was hung at Fort Snelling for his murderous participation in the Minnesota massacre, and now - look about you, no transformation could be greater. Then it was far beyond the wildest dreams of the most sanguine, today it is fact. We look upon a thickly settled land, rich in all that civilization and prosperity can give. The buffalo have disappeared forever, the Indian is but a miserable remnant. Fort Pembina and Hatch's Battalion are history, glorious but past. A campaign that began in St. Cloud in the fall of '63, that included a march through the snow to Pembina, that built a fort, that killed 28 Indians, that captured 300, more out from a foreign country - all during one of the coldest winters ever known - and all finished successfully to the extreme by May '64 - is worth a place in the memories of us, who have succeeded them.