On either side of University Avenue, east of Halenbeck Hall, line pins, tape measures and survey flags mark the areas where Charlie Peliska is searching for the remains of Fort Holes.
It’s a bright fall morning and the Cultural Resources Management (CRM) graduate student is leading a needle-in-the-haystack hunt for a settlers’ fort built during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
“We don’t know exactly where it was,” said Peliska, “but these sites give us the best shot at finding it.”
Peliska and CRM graduate student Jake Dupre teamed Sept. 22 with Megan Stroh ’14, a consultant from the Sanford Museum and Planetarium in Cherokee, Iowa. Supervising was Rob Mann, assistant professor of anthropology.
Armed with a gradiometer, Stroh conducted a magnetic survey of the former tennis court area east of Halenbeck Hall. Later that day, Stroh, also a CRM graduate, surveyed the area between Lindgren Childcare Center and Shoemaker Hall. Data from the gradiometer will be used to map each area’s magnetic field.
When Peliska analyzes the magnetic maps in early October, he will look for anomalies in the magnetic field, evidence of earth disturbed during construction of the fort. He’ll look for signs of the fort’s 45-foot diameter main building, well, privy and 100-foot diameter outer wall.
The circular fortress never weathered an attack, but it did house Euro-American refugees from the countryside, according to Mann.
Contemporary descriptions of the fort include a brief in the Sept. 11, 1862 issue of the St. Cloud Democrat newspaper: “It is covered by two-inch plank supported by heavy timbers and this is covered by layers of sods. In the centre is a bullet-proof tower with loopholes for twelve sharpshooters.”
If the magnetic maps suggest evidence of the fort, the search will shift to shovel test pits. If the shovel test pits yield additional evidence, the University could seek an excavation permit from the Office of the State Archaeologist, Mann said.
“It’s like a needle in a haystack,” said Peliska. “You never know unless you try.” The search for Fort Holes is funded in part by a $5,816 Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Small Grant from the Minnesota Historical Society, using monies from the State of Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Samuel Holes, the fort’s designer, was a Civil War veteran and granite quarry operator. His granddaughters, Clara Holes ’09 and Dorothy Holes Mooney ’24, were alumni. The W.W. Holes residence hall, now closed, was named for his grandson, businessman Wilbur Warren Holes, who represented St. Cloud State on the former State University Board.
Fort Holes was one of dozens of citizen stockades built in Minnesota as Mdewakantonwan and Wahpetonwan Dakota battled Minnesota settlers and soldiers. The war, which began Aug. 18, 1862, was sparked by treaty violations, late annuity payments and hunger. Large-scale fighting ended after the Battle of Wood Lake on Sept. 23, 1862. Dakota were executed, imprisoned, interned and exiled. Death tolls on both side are debated yet today.
A similar fort at Fairhaven, in southeastern Stearns County, was excavated this summer. Dupre and Mann, with assistance from Peliska, are seeking a grant to do large-scale excavations in 2016.