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George Northrup: Adventurer and Soldier
George Northrup was born in New York in 1837. As a boy, he valued education and reading. A restless teenager, he decided to go west at the age of 15. He wrote to his family, “I think it is the best thing I can do.” He went to St. Paul, Minnesota Territory, where he went to work for fur trader Auguste Larpenteur. Unsatisfied with a clerking job, he headed to Pembina (later in Dakota Territory) where he planned to work for the American Fur Company. Though the fur trade was no longer important, there were still a few opportunities in the West for an ambitious, adventurous young man.
The trip took about 40 days through “Buffalo Country.” Northrup packed a revolver and a rifle knowing that he was traveling through the lands of the Chippewas, Dakotas, and Assiniboins. He thought he might be in danger from tribes who were trying to protect their homes and way of life. He wrote to his family from Pembina, stating that he had walked some 900 miles of the entire 2,500 mile journey from his New York home. Northrup admitted that he had made the journey “from St. Paul to Pembina for nothing more nor less than to go out on the plains and kill a Buffalo. . . . I killed my Buffalo.” He was just 16 years old.
In the fall of 1853, the Protestant Mission at Pembina hired Northrup as a teacher. Northrup took advantage of his position to learn the languages of his students: Assiniboin, Chippewa, Cree, and French. He was soon dressing in the style of the Metís residents of the area. He wore a “Blue Hudson’s Bay [blanket] coat . . . with a Hood on the back to pull over the head when it is very cold weather, with white moleskin [soft cotton] pants, and a Red Sash around the waist with a large knife in its scabbard stuck in the belt, with a pair of fancy Moccasons.”
In the spring of 1854, Northrup and friends set out on a three-month-long buffalo hunt. Though he was excited about the hunt and his opportunities to make some money from the meat and hides he would bring back, he was also planning to “study Indian life” and to “pick up curiosities of the region that stretches from the Red River to the Missouri.” Northrup’s experiences in the Red River country had already changed him from a bookish boy into an Indian fighter and plainsman with notable skills in tracking, hunting, and survival.
Northrup returned to St. Paul in the spring of 1855. He got a clerking job and studied mathematics and navigation. He soon set out on another expedition, this time with only a dog as a companion. For more than a month, he walked west pulling a handcart while following the trail of Isaac I. Stevens’ 1853 railroad survey into the Missouri Coteau. There he encountered Dakotas who stole the contents of his cart in a stealthy, night-time raid. Discouraged and without supplies, Northrup returned to Minnesota, eating only raw frogs during his four day journey. By fall, he was employed as a government farmer, teaching the Sisseton Dakota how to farm in the European-American style.
The young man’s familiarity with the Red River country and the Missouri Coteau made him a valuable consultant to business interests that were interested in what the Northwest had to offer. In 1859, Northrup mapped a route for a stage coach line and guided the first coach from St. Paul to the Red River. He later worked for James C. Burbank and Company which owned the first steamboat on the Red River.
By 1860, this young man, just 23 years old, had become a well-known and respected frontiersman known as the “Kit Carson of the Northwest.” But he was still a shy, soft-spoken youth who owned 150 books and whose “language is always proper, frequently elegant , . . as unaffected as a child.”
When war threatened to break up the Union, Northrup wrote his sister that if war broke out between the states, he would not enlist because he lacked courage. He may have been joking; his courage was never in doubt. When “the South . . . raised her head to rend asunder our devoted union . . . I enlisted.” He mustered into service with the Fifth Iowa Cavalry on November 2, 1861.
His Civil War service was exemplary. In December 1863, General George Crook transferred him into his Scouts unit. As a Scout, he traveled, in his Union uniform, through Confederate lines without being captured.
In 1864, he re-enlisted in Minnesota and joined Brackett’s Battalion which joined General Alfred Sully’s expedition against the Dakotas. Northrup understood how important this expedition would be. He wrote that the soldiers would pursue the Dakotas to the Black Hills, if necessary, where the Indians would have to “fight or loose their families which will most certainly fall into our hands.”
The campaign against the Dakotas was emotionally difficult for Northrup. Among the Dakotas he expected to find his old friend, Standing Buffalo. They had met and sealed their friendship with a ceremony when Northrup had been held prisoner by the Yankton Dakotas. Yet, both men knew they must declare their loyalty to their own nations even though it meant fighting against a friend.
On July 11, 1864, as Sully’s troops prepared to leave Fort Rice in pursuit of the Dakotas, George Northrup wrote: “They [the Dakotas] are not anxious for peace and we must teach them a salutary lesson.” He thought he might die in this battle though he understood his duty to fight. Indeed, George Northrup was one of the two men in Sully’s command who died at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain on July 28, 1864.
George Northrup died a respected frontiersman and soldier who had lived the adventures he dreamed. He understood Indians very well and respected their power and their devotion to family and home. However, like other Anglo-Americans of his day, he believed that Indians had to yield to the on-coming settlement and government of the United States.