Fort Stevenson stories

GARRISON Nearly 150 years ago, Fort Stevenson was built near present-day Garrison.

Although the original fort is gone and the site is under the water of Lake Sakakawea, the Guardhouse at Fort Stevenson State Park, south of Garrison, tells the story of the frontier military history of the original Fort Stevenson.

Many people visit the Guardhouse each year.

It’s also a focus of Frontier Military days held at the park each year during the fourth weekend in June. “The Guardhouse itself is always an attraction,” said Dick Messerly, treasurer of the Fort Stevenson Foundation and former manager of Fort Stevenson State Park.

The Guardhouse has explanation and educational panels about old Fort Stevenson and the area. There’s also a gift shop in the Guardhouse.

Messerly recalled that last year visitors from 38 states and six foreign countries visited the Guardhouse.

The Guardhouse has two seasonal employees: Geniece Holst and Elizabeth Mautz, both of Garrison. Holst, who grew up in that area, is “a real history buff of local history” and Mautz is an interpreter, Messerly said. “They do a great job of touring people through.”

He said Mautz does a “Kids in the Guardhouse” program Saturday mornings. She also does the weekly interpretive programs Friday and Saturday at Fort Stevenson State Park campground.

In the neighborhood of 30,000 or 32,000-plus visitors go through the Guardhouse during the summer, Messerly said.

He pointed out a few of the many items in the Guardhouse.

“The giant mural that’s in there depicts Fort Stevenson as it would have been back in its heydey. It was actually painted by a local artist, Harold Yellow Bird from the Fort Berthold tribe. He worked here at the park for many years,” Messerly said. He said the late Yellow Bird also did a painting of the Far West riverboat that hangs behind a riverboat pilot wheel in the Guardhouse. “He was a very good artist and all self taught,” Messerly said.

According to information about the original fort, Fort Stevenson was located about two and a half miles southwest of the present Guardhouse. It was named for Brig. Gen. Thomas G. Stevenson, who was killed in the Civil War in Virginia, and operated from 1867 to 1883. The fort was to protect the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes from the Sioux tribe, protect mail routes between other forts, protect immigrants and serve as a river supply base for Fort Totten. General de Tobriand was the fort’s first commander.

The fort’s notoriety includes that the Far West riverboat stopped briefly at Fort Stevenson, making the garrison one of the first to receive news of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana and Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s defeat there in 1876.

After Fort Stevenson was no longer used as a fort, the Bureau of Indian Affairs used the buildings as a boarding and industrial school until 1894. The buildings and land were sold at auctions in 1897.

Messerly said the Frontier Military Days that are held at the park each year, most recently this past June, is a special event held in the park when many visitors also visit the Guardhouse.

The Guardhouse is open Memorial Day to Labor Day Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. During other months, visits are by appointment by calling Fort Stevenson State Park at 337-5576.