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Military commander saved countless lives of American Indians

A man who was commander of several military posts in what is now North Dakota helped save the lives of countless starving American Indians in the winter of 1867-68 and had a profound influence in the territories of Dakota and Montana from 1867 to...

A man who was commander of several military posts in what is now North Dakota helped save the lives of countless starving American Indians in the winter of 1867-68 and had a profound influence in the territories of Dakota and Montana from 1867 to 1888.

Joseph Whistler was also the nephew of a woman whose portrait has been admired by millions of people for the past 135 years. His cousin, James Whistler, painted An Arrangement in Grey and Black, which is considered a masterpiece. The portrait is better known as Whistler's Mother.

Joseph Nelson Garland Whistler was born Oct. 19, 1822, in Fort Howard/Green Bay, Wis., to William and Julia Fearson Whistler. Joseph became the third generation of prominent military officers in the U.S. Army. Joseph's father, Col. William Whistler, commanded forts throughout Wisconsin, northeastern Michigan and northern Illinois during the first12 years of Joseph's life.

In 1835, William Whistler received orders to go to Fort Gibson in Oklahoma Territory. Joseph was sent east for a more formal education. Like his father, Joseph was accepted at West Point at age 18. He graduated in 1846, receiving the commission of 2nd lieutenant.

Whistler was first assigned to the 8th Infantry. In 1846, he was transferred to the 3rd Infantry at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, to prepare for the Mexican War.


After the war, Whistler was stationed in the New Mexico territory to help maintain peace and security. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant in June 1852, and his regiment was transferred to Texas in 1860.

In February 1861, Texas seceded from the Union, becoming a Confederate state. Whistler was a member of Company I, which had not yet withdrawn when Fort Sumter was attacked April 12. He was captured by Texas forces April 25 and taken a prisoner of war. A few weeks later, Whistler signed parole papers agreeing not to participate in the war under penalty of death. He was released to the Union and assigned to be an instructor of infantry tactics at West Point.

In May 1861, Whistler was promoted to captain and remained at West Point until early 1863 when he obtained his release in exchange for a Confederate officer. He could now return to battle.

The military was reorganized in 1866, and Whistler was offered the rank of major in the new 31st Infantry. This division was sent to the Upper Missouri regions of Dakota Territory, where the military was busy building new outposts.

On June 14, 1867, Fort Stevenson was established by Major Whistler near the present city of Garrison, N.D. It is now under Lake Sakakawea. Its purpose was to protect navigation along the Missouri River, as well as the American Indians at Fort Berthold Agency. At Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Gen. Alfred H. Terry commanded the Department of Dakota and divided the department into four districts. The Middle District included Fort Rice, Fort Stevenson, Fort Totten, the Grand River Agency (later Fort Yates), and Fort McKeen (later Fort Abraham Lincoln), and Whistler was temporarily put in charge. On Aug. 21, 1867, Whistler was named an assistant at Fort Stevenson.

A crisis soon arose at Fort Totten. Insubordination was rampant, and many soldiers threatened mutiny because the commanding officers were habitually drunk. To compound the issue, many Dakota Indians at the Devils Lake Reservation were on the brink of starvation. The military at Fort Totten was supposed to look after the Indians' welfare, but they were completely neglected. Whistler was sent to the fort at the end of December 1867 and took command.

Because of his swift action, Whistler is given much of the credit for saving the lives of countless Dakota Indians. General Philippe Regis de Trobriand wrote, "The condition at Fort Totten is completely different from what it was at the beginning of winter. Since his arrival ... Whistler has put everything on a new footing."

After the defeat of Custer and his men June 25, 1876, the military believed it needed to exert greater influence in "Indian Country."


In fall 1876, Whistler chose a site just south of the Yellowstone River to serve this purpose. He had his men begin construction of Fort Keogh, one of the largest U.S. Army posts. On April 11, 1881, Whistler captured Fast Bull and 56 of his warriors, who were on their way to join Sitting Bull. Later in 1881, Whistler became commander of Fort Keogh.

In May 1883, Whistler was promoted to colonel and named commander of Fort Buford. He retired Oct. 19, 1886, and left Fort Buford. He died April 20, 1898, but was not forgotten.

After the sinking of the Lusitania before World War I, key American shore lines had defensive fortifications erected. For the coastal defense of San Diego Harbor at Fort Rosecrans, engineers began work on two mortar batteries (emplacements for heavy artillery) that were named "Battery Whistler" in memory of Col. J. N. G. Whistler.

"Did You Know That" is a Sunday column that focuses on interesting people, places and events that had an impact on North Dakota, or even the country. It is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net

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