A mass hysteria: The building of Fort Sauerkraut

A mass hysteria: The building of Fort Sauerkraut

Fort Sauerkraut now stands above Hebron, with the shelter having been reconstructed.

Fort Sauerkraut now stands above Hebron, with the shelter having been reconstructed.

Dustin White

Panic had spread throughout the state. Rumors were circulating that a Lakota uprising was imminent. Seized by fear, many of the women and children closest to the Standing Rock Reservation were put on trains, and transported to the perceived safety of Bismarck.

With just the Northern Pacific Railroad bridge crossing the mighty Missouri, there was faith that the Lakota would be kept on the west side of the river.

The terror continued to grow though. For some, the threat was surrounding them, with the Lakota to the south, and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara to the north, even though many of the reports of danger proved to be false.

“We are completely encircled by Indians,” Carl Krauth wrote to his brother in Germany. “One evening a report came that 7000 Sioux Indians had broken out of their reservation, a report that was not substantiated at a later time.”

It was in that environment, in late November of 1890, that the citizens of Hebron rushed to hastily create a fort upon a hill overlooking the city. Filling it with pickled cabbage, a food gathered as it would not spoil easily, the fort would be known as Fort Sauerkraut.

Rush to Hebron
Receiving telegraph warnings of the possible attack on Nov. 17, young men rushed to their horses and rode madly, warning all of the settlers they could find on the prairie. The panic was spreading like wildfire, and in turn, people flocked to the cities, including Hebron.

Many, riding throughout the night, wagons rattling over the rough terrains, would be gripped by fear. One man, Christ Salzer, was reported to be in such a haste that he had gone several miles before noticing that his family had bounced right out of the wagon.

Homesteaders throughout the area quickly made their way to Hebron. Some had packed up all of their belongings, and abandoned their former homes. Others, in such a rush to leave, took just the few possessions they could grab, and fled, afraid that at any moment, hostile Indians would descend upon them.

Upon arriving in Hebron, the fear and terror continued to build. With few guns, and little ammunition, defending the town seemed nearly impossible if an attack were to occur. Consumed with their panic, many of the women and children were placed on the next train to Bismarck, which was thought to be protected by the Missouri River.

With the women out of harms way, those who had assembled in Hebron quickly formed a defense organization. As with many of the communities in Morton County, which put together fortifications to protect their town, those in Hebron decided to build a fort.

Built from sod and railroad ties, the reconstructed shelter serves as a memory of what occurs when mass hysteria grips a community.

Built from sod and railroad ties, the reconstructed shelter serves as a memory of what occurs when mass hysteria grips a community.

Fort Sauerkraut
Looking to a hill-top overlooking Hebron, on Cemetery Hill, the people of Hebron quickly began throwing together a fort.

Lacking proper building supplies, the men began the back breaking work.

Stretching over half a city block in area, the ground that would be transformed into the fort was dry and hard. Fueled by despair, they continued working nonetheless.

Using ox teams to plow the trenches, men were busy with spades and shovels, building up the embankments. Other teams of oxen were kept busy with plowing up sod, the material that would be used to build up the walls, as they were lacking other materials.

A wall was constructed of sod to surround the fort, with a trench on either side of the wall. Three feet thick, port holes were cut into the wall in order to allow defenders to shoot.

However, the first line of defense was meant to be a network of wires, drawn from one short post to another. The intention was to catch a horse’s feet, throwing their riders to the ground. A bit further in, a barbed wire fence was strung along timbers, allowing for only a narrow runway for an entrance.

Near the center of the fort, a shelter was built with sod walls and railroad ties for a roof. It was inside this shelter that those remaining in Hebron would hunker down in during an attack.

Accompanying them was their sauerkraut.

Once the fort was constructed, the community settled in and waited for the attack. Yet, no Indians appeared that first day.

Cautiously venturing out, scouts kept an eye on the countryside. Placing a large pile of straw on the Heart Butte, a good distance off, the scouts were ready to use it as a signal, setting it aflame if any Indians were spotted.

The community stayed busy, preparing for hostile Indians, and each night, they would pack themselves into the church and school.

As the days passed, an ominous cloud of dust was eventually seen in the distance. Panic once again grew as the community tensed for the onslaught. Creating the dust was a group of Indians bedecked in feathers.

Fortunately, they were recognized by Swen Swenson, who knew them as friendly Indians from the Fort Berthold Reservation. The Hidatsa Indians, under Sitting Owl, volunteered to help fight the Lakota. It was in this interaction that the most action would be seen.

“One of the Indians, named Sitting Crow, standing in the midst of some of the workmen was asked how the Indians scalped people. Not being able to explain in words, he proceeded to demonstrate by motions, and drawing his knife, with a few jumps and horrible grimaces, suddenly seized George Raber by the hair and passing the butt of his knife around his scalp with dexterous movement of the hand showed the bystanders how it was done.

“Raber, not expecting or understanding it, was so frightened that he nearly fainted away and upon recovering from his astonishment felt around on his head to see if his scalp was still on, to the great amusement of the spectators.”

In time, the Hidatsa would travel back to the Fort Berthold Reservation, and the settlers returned to their homes.

The community would continue to justify the building of Fort Sauerkraut, arguing that there would still be danger in the spring, and at that time, building such a fort would be nearly impossible, as the ground would be frozen, the weather unfriendly and an attack too sudden. It was best to prepare for war in a time of peace.

Fort Sauerkraut would never the less be abandoned, but it kept a significance.

“Whether there is a need for the fort, or not, it will be an historical spot in the county in years to come, an evidence of the industry and enterprise of the early settler of the Hebron settlement,” wrote the Mandan Pioneer on Dec. 5, 1890.

Today, having been rebuilt, it may stand for a bit more, such as the extent mass hysteria can have on a community.