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This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

The Failed Fisk Expedition: What If??

Captain James L. Fisk

Captain James L. Fisk, SHSND

“A strong camp and picket guard were posted for the night—a cold lunch was passed around at nine o'clock, and then some tried to sleep. But soon the night darkened into blackness. Hundreds of wolves, attracted by the scent of blood and of corpses set up a most unearthly howling and yelping, while there gathered and broke over us a thunder storm more grand and terrific than anything I had ever experienced. There was incessant and intensely vivid lightening for nearly an hour, and then came peal and treble peal of heavy continued and incessant thunder which lasted for two hours. A shower, not in drops but in sheets poured for an hour upon our parched camp, till within the corral, in the natural basin around which it was formed, cattle were standing in the morning in two feet of water. The fatigue of the day, the groaning of the wounded, the howling of wolves, the unprecedented storm under such circumstances made this a night in my experience never to be forgotten.”[1]
James L. Fisk,
Dakota Territory
September 3, 1864

William L. Larned

William L. Larned, Emigrant member of the 1864 Fisk Expedition, SHSND


“To gain a little personal fame he (James L. Fisk) has thrown the train to the south of a route already open & well defined by Gen. Sully under the guidance of the most competent guides, & has been pushing ahead through a rough broken country of which he is utterly ignorant & his engineer often unable to set on his horse from intoxication…. Yet I like him for his good nature covers a great many defects.”[2]
William L. Larned,
emigrant member of the Fisk expedition,
September 10, 1864


Hubris, poor planning, and bad luck had followed the emigrant train to this point.

I began this story in my last blog post, [http://blog.statemuseum.nd.gov/blog/troubled-time] and quotes like those above are the reason why I enjoy doing research in the State Archives at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum (http://www.history.nd.gov/archives/index.html). Publications sometimes leave out the gritty details and personal anecdotes of the participants in historical events. Additional searching adds context and substance to some of these stories. Personally, I find it fuels the “what ifs” of history.

For instance:

The Fisk emigrant train spent seven days at Fort Rice awaiting and completing passage over the Missouri River aboard the steamboat U.S. Grant. If they had departed Fort Rice even two days later, would they have steered clear of Sitting Bull and his warriors?

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull, SHSND

Conversely, if the emigrant train had departed Fort Rice a couple of days earlier, would they have been bogged down in the rugged terrain of the Badlands and put at risk of total annihilation by the Hunkpapa (Lakota) warriors?

Sitting Bull was shot in the left hip during the Fisk raid in September 1864, when a band of Hunkpapas attacked the Fisk wagon train. The bullet exited out through the small of his back and was not serious. How would history have changed if Sitting Bull had been killed during the skirmish?

After the siege, survivors from the Fisk emigrant train returned to Fort Rice. Some of the members of the aborted expedition remained at the fort over the winter and beyond. Is it possible that some of those travelers played a part in early Edwinton/Bismarck, Dakota Territory?

On July 28, 1865, Sitting Bull and his warriors attacked Fort Rice. This intense battle, one of the largest in the history of Dakota Territory, may have wiped out the fort if not for the superior weaponry of the “Galvanized Yankees,” the former Confederate prisoners-of-war stationed there. Would this attack have occurred if Sitting Bull had been killed eleven months earlier?

What if??

If you have not yet visited the State Archives, I invite you to do so. I am interested in your thoughts and research into the “what ifs” of the failed 1864 Fisk emigrant expedition.

[1] James L. Fisk to US Army Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, “Report of the Expedition (Northwestern) to Montana in 1864 for the protection of Emigrants under his Command,” 13 January 1865, www.fold3.com

[2] Ray H. Mattison, ed., “The Fisk Expedition of 1864: The Diary of William L. Larned,” North Dakota History 36 no. 3 (Summer 1969): 209–74.

Non-traditional Ways to Find Fossils

When most people think of finding fossils, I bet the image that is conjured in their heads is a lone paleontologist wandering through the badlands, stopping once in a while to examine a fragment of rock or bone. Admittedly this is true in most cases. Some of the techniques used to find and collect fossils in the field are over 100 years old and have changed very little. However, with the advent of new technology comes the testing of new techniques.

Finding a large fossil is one thing. Finding a large fossil and being able to see it from space; well, that is something else entirely. A few years ago a visitor came to the North Dakota Heritage Center with tales of a fossil tree so large you could see it with Google Earth. I will admit that at first I was doubtful, but after very quickly navigating to the location on the computer and seeing photos he had taken from the ground, it did indeed turn out to be a fossil tree.

Fossil tree circle

Image captured from Google Earth. The object in the yellow circle is a fossil tree trunk measuring over 100 feet long.

After some quick calculations, we determined the tree to be well over 100 ft. in length. It is broken along its length into 4-6 foot chunks, some of them likely weighing several hundred pounds each.

I study small mammals. Some of the mammals I study are classified as microfossils (fossils smaller than about 1 cm). Some of these microfossil teeth can be less than 1 mm in length!

Fossil tooth

One fossil tooth from the Brule Formation of North Dakota. This image was captured with a microscope camera. The scale bar represents one millimeter in length.

As you can imagine, finding fossils that small is no easy task. Finding these microfossils starts with a process called screenwashing. This process involves washing collected rock and dirt through wooden boxes with brass screen making up the bottom of the box. The screen openings are smaller than the openings found on most window screens. What remains on the screen after the washing process is dried. Normally it is at this point that the dried material would be picked under a microscope looking for fossils. However, we have added an additional step to the process. Some fossils from certain rock formations will glow under the application of ultraviolet light. The Oligocene age Brule Formation found in North Dakota is one such rock layer. The fossil bone from the Brule Formation glows a bright white, and the teeth from the Brule Formation actually glow a bright orange. Fortunately nothing else found in this formation reacts to the ultraviolet light, just the fossils. This makes finding microfossils from the Brule Formation very easy. Before the washed and dried material is picked under a microscope using white light, we spread the material out on a dark surface and use ultraviolet flashlights to find the teeth.

Tooth hidden among other debris

Washed and dried Brule Formation matrix spread out and ready for picking. The left image was captured under normal, white light. The right image is the exact same spot, under ultraviolet light. Note the brightly glowing tooth in the right image. Can you spot that same tooth in the left image?

This works amazingly well. We have recovered several dozen microfossil teeth using this technique.