Ghosts of Fort Sisseton

Ghosts of Fort Sisseton

By: Ali Tonsfeldt

History is like a ghost – it is as dead as it is alive. Fort Sisseton’s history never stopped. It continues today in the form of a historic park, but it did not start that way. Before it was a fort, it was the land where the Native Americans hunted, camped, gave birth to new life and where the old ones died and were buried. It was their land. It belonged to Mother Nature and was owned by nobody. Then fur traders came in, made peace, married their daughters. The world was changing on the prairie.

It is said that, during the day, most of us don’t believe in ghosts. But at night we are a little more open minded. Fort Sisseton was the home to thousands of men and women who were trying to make a living either as a solider, blacksmith, laundress or even a maid. The Fort gave life to the plains in the 1860s and never stopped. Life continued in the 1900s when the fort became a hunting lodge and a cattle ranch. The 1930s brought a Works Progress Administration camp during the depression and the 1990s a workplace for inmates. The fort is always alive with visitors… physical and spiritual. We share our physical lives with those in the spirit for life, like love, never dies.

The Lady in White

No matter how hard they tried to make life on the prairie just like the life they left back in the east, there were some new challenges they faced out here. They brought as much as they could by wagon – they didn’t want to leave the life of luxury behind. But, at the same time, they had to learn to cooperate with Mother Nature in ways they hadn’t had to before.

In the late 1870s a large infestation  of  bed bugs riddled the camp and there was nothing much that couldn’t be done about it. So, every night, the ladies who worked in the commanding officer’s house were required to take candles and burn the bed bugs off the walls.

A figure, known as the Lady in White, often appears in the upstairs window of the old house. She is seen wearing the nightgown of a servant, holding her candle to the wall, burning those bed bugs off. But the Lady in White is not seen only in the Commander’s house. She has also been seen traveling to the Officer’s Quarter. Sometimes, she seems fascinated by the things around here and she likes to appear on the boardwalk during the Historical Festival or other major events. Many non-believers have changed their minds because of her appearance. Maybe she is still here because her job is not done, or she might be attached to an artifact in one of the buildings. We may never know.

The Little Boy

Not all spirits seen and felt here at Fort Sisseton are soldiers or women. During the 1990s when the restoration was taking place on the fort, one of the payphones was located by the library. One of the working inmates asked to use the phone to call his wife. When he came back to the schoolhouse, he refused to talk. In fact, when he was required to come back to work at the Fort, he refused and was punished with three weeks of solitary confinement.

Finally, he told his story.

He claimed that while he was talking to his wife on the phone, the prisoner felt something tug his pant leg. When he looked down, he saw a little boy grabbing his leg. The boy is still around and will sometimes escort guests when they stroll along the parade grounds late in the evening. He is known to appear for children and wants to play with them even though he doesn’t seem to be able to.

The Buffalo Soldier

Many people do not understand the critical role the 25th infantry played in the history of Fort Sisseton. The 25th infantry was known as the Buffalo Soldiers because their hair, when cut short, reminded the Native Americans of the fur of buffalo. The Buffalo Soldiers built the guardhouse to hold those who were caught breaking a rule. But, it is the 25th infantry themselves who left the greatest mark on the guardhouse. Inscribed on these bricks are the names of the builders.

During the 1990s a payphone was located right outside of the guardhouse. While restorations of the buildings were being done, guards would occasionally  call  back to headquarters to discuss the new inmates coming to work. As one guard was talking on the phone, he was tapped on the shoulder. When he turned around, he was surprised to see a Buffalo Soldier staring him in the eyes. Maybe the names carved on this building are the cause of them to remain or maybe they are still paying for their crimes. We may never know.

Fort Sisseton’s history is rich with stories and tales of those who went before us. Some of the stories are tragic and some have happy endings, but most of all they are stories of endurance. We may not understand why ghost are here. Maybe we keep them around because we don’t let their stories die? But one thing is certain: they are present among us.

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