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Fort Brule: A Wall Built of Fear

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We’ve taken that razor-straight county road east and west often enough to have stopped, but never did. Last week, with time to kill, I pulled off where a bleached sign announced a historical marker with the headline Fort Brule.

Years ago, I laughed out loud when an old neighbor told me a story his grandma had told him somewhere near the turn of the century—the 20th century that is. I even wrote a story a farcical thing about nutty hayseeds going bonkers, because once upon a time, Wisconsin frontiersmen dragged their families into town, armed themselves with pitchforks and hammer handles because somewhere out west an Injuns were on the warpath--men, women, and children tortured and murdered. Everyone took refuge in town to hold off an imminent attack that never came, that old grandma had said.

What I didn’t know back then was that the news wasn’t wrong. Native and white blood flowed along the Minnesota River valley in August, 1862, so much that panicked homesteaders in a settlement of Dutch immigrants 400 miles east, my ancestors among them, circled the wagons up downtown with everyone else. CNN was not broadcasting breaking news in the 1860s. Radios wouldn’t show up for a half century. Word about the attack—a real one—had traveled 400 miles on a riptide of desperation.

Those same bloody stories echoed down south to Siouxland, where, four years earlier, Dakota warriors had killed a dozen settlers at Spirit Lake. In August of 1862, more blood was shed at Lake Shetek, Minnesota, a day’s travel north.

Right here, down South Dakota Highway 50, white homesteaders banded together and built a refuge, Fort Brule, a place to fight off an Injun’ attack that never came. Waves of terror spread all over as far the eye can see—and much farther. 

Fort Brule, at Brule Creek, just north Elk Point, is remembered today only by way of a beautiful dusty roadside marker that looks like sandstone.

Stop there sometime and look around. There’s not much to see. That there were white folks here in 1862, enough of them to build a fort, is hard to believe. They would have been here that early because of the river, I'm guessing.  Water was a highway. In a snit probably, the Missouri River decided to cut a different path. Today, it’s a ways out west.  

Once upon a time, a half century ago, I thought it a hilarious that a bunch of farmers pulled out pitchforks to ready themselves for a war that never happened. Still makes me laugh.

But anyone who knows anything about the Dakota War of 1862 can’t help stand here at the historical marker on Highway 50 and feel at least something of  the fear that must have been here when a hundred settlers from hither and yon banded together to prepare for the worst.

It’s almost impossible to imagine an actual fort right there along the road, wary men and women and children, cautious and afraid, all of them strangers in this strange land.

When all those folks went home after an attack that never came, you can’t help but wonder how much fear they still carried, how scared of the unknown, of what might still happen, of what could.

Old Fort Brule didn’t amount to much. Abandoned in 1868, just six years later, it was dismantled in 1873. If you check rafters in some old barn close by, you might find one or two that once upon a time was all that stood between scared people inside and what they were sure was unimaginable without.

Just a stone inside a small, square fence--that’s all that’s there really.

And fear maybe, the edgy trembling that still cripples us when we just don’t know what’s in the darkness on the other side of the wall. 


Dr. James Schaap reads from "Small Wonders," a collection of Siouxland histories, every Monday morning at 7:44 on Siouxland Public Media.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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