FORT SISSETON HISTORIC STATE PARK, S.D. (KELO) — Ghosts live at Fort Sisseton Historic State Park near Sisseton, according to the staff and visitors who have seen them.
Just over three years ago, park ranger Ali Jo Tonsfeldt was working late in her park office when she felt a presence behind her.
“I turned around and saw a soldier staring at me,” Tonsfeldt said. And then, “he just disappeared.”
Although startled, Tonsfeldt wasn’t scared. The ghosts have no history being mean at the park. Yet, they can startle, unsettle and even scare people.
Visitors can hear about these ghosts and the fort’s history during a lantern tour set for 9:30 p.m. tonight and tomorrow night, Oct. 31. Tour guests should show up about 10 minutes before the tour starts. The lantern tour has been a virtual tour this year until this weekend.
For Tonsfeldt, ghost stories are history stories. They help tell about life at the fort which was established on a stark prairie in northeast South Dakota in 1864.
Tonsfeldt has started her fourth year at the park. Familiar with ghosts from a prior position at the Buffalo Bill Historic Ranch in North Platte, Nebraska, she wants to make sure that the lantern tour treats the ghosts with respect.
“I started adding more about the lifestyle in the 1800s so that people could understand more about the ghosts they could possibly see that night,” Tonsfeldt said.
Why do the ghosts of Buffalo Soldiers appear on the boardwalk and in the 14 preserved buildings on the park grounds?
“Life was so hard back then,” Tonsfeldt said. “These young men lived a life of isolation.,” Tonsfeldt said. “(Soldiers) would fight over letters from home. They’d fight over it so they could read it.”
Fort Sisseton housed between 120 and 200 enlisted infantrymen during its years, according to the September 2006 report History of Weather Observations, Fort Sisseton, South Dakota, 1866-1889.
Soldiers in South Dakota often faced bad weather, bad food, danger and boredom, according to the South Dakota Historical Society.
Some of those isolated, lonely soldiers could be among those ghosts seen at the park.
A park employee can tell the story of seeing a young soldier in full uniform appearing from a library wall in the 1990s while he was watching TV. The employee left the room. When he returned, the TV had been removed from the TV stand and the ghost soldier was gone.
Two other of the more familiar ghosts are the Lady in White and the young boy.
The boy is described as wearing a bowler hat and knickers which are clothing items common for the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“There are children who will be playing with him,” Tonsfeldt said. Parents will ask who their children are talking to and the children describe the child the parents cannot hear or see.
There is no record of a boy being buried at the fort. But even after the bodies of soldiers were removed for re-burial in Montana in 1899, the cemetery may have been used by those who were settling the nearby prairie, Tonsfeldt said. The boy may have been buried by settlers.
The Lady in White is most likely a servant dressed in white nightclothes. One of the jobs of servants for the officers and their families was to use burning candles to remove bedbugs from the walls of rooms. She is seen holding her candle in an upper window.
But, she has been seen in other areas of the park.
Tonsfeldt said it’s common for park visitors and campers to share stories of ghost sightings. She’s written about some of the encounters in the state conservation magazine.
Even nonbelievers have been convinced of the ghosts.
A 15-year volunteer who had teased staff and others about the ghosts was walking by the commanding officer’s house when he saw a woman dressed in white walk out the house door about two years ago.
“He chased after her but she was no where to be seen,” Tonsfeldt said. “Now, he finally believed us.”
Tonsfeldt can’t guarantee that tour participants will see a ghost on Friday or on Halloween but they will hear the stories. Guests will also can a feel of how dark and different the landscape is at night without electric lights, much like it was when the fort was in service from 1864 until 1889.
‘There will be a full moon that night. That adds a whole new element,” Tonsfeldt said.
Here is a the OLLI organization at the University of South Dakota has to one of this year’s virtual tours.
Wear warm clothes and good shoes. Face coverings are recommended. Children are allowed but Tongsfeldt said parents should consider how their children handle the dark because the only lights are lanterns and moonlight. South Dakota daily state park fees are required and they are $8-per vehicle.