Road Trippin’ to South Dakota – Searching for William Peck at Old Fort Sully (Part 1)

If you have read my background about Joe, you will know that I believe he co-opted Civil War and Indian fighting stories from the military experiences of his brother Samuel and step-father William Peck. This week I was on the hunt for some of William Peck’s activities during the Civil War, specifically his connection to the building of Fort Sully in Dakota Territory in 1863. Several of Joe’s Indian fighting claim surround the military regiments associated with this fort, so I hope that my adventure will uncover some leads and clearer connections.

You can read more about William on his bio page, but here’s a quick military intro. William enlisted in Company D of the 30th Wisconsin Infantry in August 1862. The following spring brought orders that took his company to St. Louis, Missouri where companies D, F, I, and K guarded supplies and support General Alfred Sully on his Northwest Indian Campaign. In August 1863 William and his company were transferred up-river and assisted with the building of Fort Sully located near Farm Island along the Missouri River just a few miles east of modern-day Pierre, South Dakota.

So off to Pierre I went!

During my eight-ish hour drive through northeast Colorado, central Nebraska, up to the center of South Dakota, and finally to Pierre, it was really easy to get a sense of what the landscape was like nearly 150 years ago. Easy, because I don’t think the landscape has changed very much apart from the roads, fences, and the occasional cell phone tower.

Somewhere in the middle of South Dakota. The majority of my drive looked just like this.

Nearing Fort Pierre, South Dakota. There are inklings of things green in the gullies that probably run with water in spring.

Between the periodic small towns, the rolling hills were filled with prairie grass, endless corn or hay, acres of sunflowers, or a distant line of cottonwood trees identifying a small creek. It wasn’t until I neared the Missouri River and Pierre did I see a vast amount of vibrant green trees again.

The goal of this research trip was to learn what I could from the South Dakota Archives about the first Fort Sully and the men who lived there or passed through. Yes, there was more than one. The first fort was built quickly in the summer of 1863 during the campaigns led by Generals Sully and Sibley against the Sioux in Dakota Territory. This was the fort William Peck helped to build, but it only stood for three years.

The location of the fort was not optimal. It was in a low-lying marshy area next to a small inlet off of the Missouri River (now known as Hipple lake). During those three years the soldiers suffered from disease and damp conditions. The first year was particularly harsh due to the lack of food, especially vegetables and fruit, and many of the men suffered from scurvy, including William.

Even today the area is quite marshy. View is looking south across Hipple Lake with Farm Island in the distance. Trees from the heavily-wooded island were cut down for the construction of the fort.

By 1866 the structure was in such disrepair that the commanding officer wrote that it was “hardly made habitable during cold weather…a few of the men’s quarters [were] high enough to permit me to stand erect in them…and the whole place is over run with rats, fleas, bed bugs and other vermin.” (1) So the old fort was disassembled and new Fort Sully (or Fort Sully II) was built about 25 miles north of Pierre.

** Part 2 Coming Soon! **

(1) Commanding Officer of Fort Sully, Dakota Territory, to Lieut. H G. Litchfield of the Head Quarters of the Department of the Platte in Omaha, Nebraska Territory, letter, 25 June 1866, discussion of quality of work and life at Fort Sully; Building Fort Sully I, Harold H. Schuler Papers, 1989-1993, Boxes 5973-5974, South Dakota Archives; original letter held by the National Archives.

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