Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 2007


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter 2007, pp. 61-62.


Copyright 2007 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


National Park Service historian Jerome A. Greene, a leading figure in western military historiography, here offers a comprehensive study of Fort Randall, which served as a bastion of U.S. Army presence in the Great Plains for thirty-eight years. Built in 1856, Fort Randall's garrison was expected to keep peace among Native Plains nations, prevent Indian-white conflicts, and monitor the burgeoning traffic on overland trails and the Missouri River. Located just above the Nebraska-South Dakota border, Fort Randall lay within two hundred miles of the Ponca, Santee, Yankton, Rosebud, and Pine Ridge reservations. Despite its proximity to these sometimes troubled reservations, the post's garrison saw relatively little combat. Native nations most important to its story are the Poncas and their linguistic relatives the Yanktons.

Fort Randall's founding resulted from the killing of Lieutenant John L. Grattan and twenty-nine soldiers at Fort Laramie in August 1854. Colonel William S. Harney launched a punitive expedition against the Sioux a year later, and when the campaign ended Harney wintered at Fort Pierre, but found it deficient in many respects. By the summer of 1856, a new post was located on the Missouri about thirty miles north of the Niobrara. When the Civil War began, fears of guerilla attack arose, but no assault materialized. By 1862 many soldiers wished they were in the east, where the gargantuan battles offered better chances for glory and advancement. When the Santee Sioux outbreak in Minnesota took place in 1862, soldiers at Fort Randall anticipated conflict, but again little occurred to disrupt what Greene notes was "a life of comfort, if not of total ease, at the post."

Still, Fort Randall hosted several important expeditions that ventured into the Plains, including those of Gouverneur K. Warren (1857), the Yellowstone Expedition (1873), and Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer's Black Hills Expedition (1874). As well, the notable leader Sitting Bull and 172 of his people were incarcerated at Fort Randall in 1881-83. Greene describes the daily life at the post well, focusing attention on various social activities, and on soldier-sutler relationships, changes in administration, equipment and uniform, and the post's architectural history. Given the limited sources for social history of such posts, Jerome Greene is to be commended for teasing out a good deal of illuminating information on a post that, while important to regional military operations, saw almost no serious action.