Fort Buford, located near present-day Williston, was one of a number
of military posts established to protect overland and river routes used
by immigrants settling the West. While it served an essential role as
the sentinel on the northern plains for twenty-nine years, it is probably
best remembered as the place where the famous Hunkpapa Sioux leader,
Sitting Bull, surrendered in 1881.
On June 15, 1866, soldiers under the command of brevet Lieutenant
Colonel William G. Rankin commenced building a new fort in Dakota Territory.
It was named after the late Major General John Buford, hero of Gettysburg.
By the end of November, the finished fort consisted of a 360-foot-square
stockade, enclosing log and adobe buildings, which was constructed to
house a single company garrison.
Although historically the Fort Buford region was claimed by the Hidatsa,
the Sioux controlled the area after the Hidatsa population was decimated
by smallpox. The Sioux, angered by the establishment of the fort, attacked
a work party at the sawmill on December 21, 1866. Raids continued sporadically
throughout the winter. Post Surgeon James P. Kimball noted that these
attacks were led by Sitting Bull.
During January, Rankin received orders that the strength of the garrison
would be increased by four additional companies that would arrive in
the spring. Construction of a larger fort to house the new troops began
in 1867. The old stockade was partially demolished and original buildings
were either remodeled or torn down. The new fort measured 999 feet by
600 feet and was enclosed on three sides by a twelve-foot stockade.
Unfortunately, the buildings were constructed from handmade adobe bricks
and green lumber, which causes deteriorations within three years. The
deplorable condition of the buildings, as well as increased Indian attacks,
necessitated the construction of an expanded fort in 1871-1872. As part
of the third construction phase, the post was designed for ten companies
but was ultimately built to house six companies.
The 7th Cavalry, with its support column and wagons, during the Black Hills Expedition of 1874. Lieutenant Colonel Custer heads the column, wearing light-colored buckskins and riding a dark horse. (National Archives)
While the fort construction was underway, the Northern Pacific Railway
resumed survey activities west of the Missouri River. These Yellowstone
expeditions of 1871-1873 and the Black Hills expedition of 1874 violated
the Treaty of 1868. The Sioux were provoked and felt the president of
the United States "must stop the railroad" because it would
destroy or chase away wildlife. They would not let the invasion of their
lands go unchallenged.
By late 1875, the situation had deteriorated to the point that the
secretary of interior asked the secretary of war to force Indians onto
their respective reservations. This action began the Sioux Wars of 1876-1879
that included the defeat of Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn and
Sitting Bull's flight into Canada. Sitting Bull struggled to maintain
his independence, but lack of natural game for hunting and the desire
of his people to return to their relatives led him to return to Dakota
Territory. Thirty-five families, 187 people in all, traveled with Sitting
Bull to Fort Buford, where on July 20, 1881, the great Sioux chief surrendered
his Winchester .44 caliber carbine to Major D.H. Brotherton, Fort Buford's
The role of the army at Fort Buford for the next fifteen years was
to protect survey and construction crews of the Great Northern Railway,
to prevent Indians and Métis from crossing the international
boundary from Canada, and to police the area against outlaws. By 1895
the Fort Buford buildings were so dilapidated that repairs were deemed
too expensive to undertake. Because the fort was no longer necessary
for the mission of the army, it was abandoned on October 1, 1895.
Currently, three original buildings stand at Fort Buford State Historic
Site: the stone powder magazine, wood-frame officers' quarters, and
a wood-frame officer of the guard building. Inside the officers' quarters
is a museum exhibit and interpretive center featuring artifacts and
displays about the frontier military and Fort Buford's role in the history
of Dakota Territory. A modern restroom and office building and the site
supervisor's home are located across the road from the museum. Although
the original guardhouse is gone, its "ghost" remains. A metal
framework outlines the building showing its original size and shape,
while preserving the original foundation.
Southwest of the museum is the fort cemetery. After the fort was abandoned,
all military personnel buried at Fort Buford were disinterred and removed
to the national cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National
Monument in Montana. Reconstructed wooden headboards mark the graves
where soldiers were once interred. As far as it is known, the graves
marked by civilian headstones still contain the bodies of those interred
Commanding a historic northern plains crossroads, Fort Buford State
Historic Site offers history, beauty, and recreation. At the site a
museum in an original military building tells the fort's story; a nearby
military cemetery and a stone powder magazine emphasize the fort's history,
enhanced by interpretive exhibits.
The confluence area adds a wealth of attractions. The Fort Buford site
includes a picnic area, campground, and every spring a large paddle-fishing
operation attracts hundreds of sportsmen. In July of every year the
6th Infantry reenactment group holds its annual Fort Buford Sixth Infantry
Frontier Military Encampment. A few miles away, Fort Union Trading Post
National Historic Site interprets the fur trade that made the confluence
a nineteenth-century crossroads and a historic, exciting place to be!
Fort Buford is located just off Highway 23 about twenty-five miles southwest
of Williston, Williams County.
There is an admission fee of $5.00 per adult and $2.50 per child.
The fort is open year around, subject to the weather. School groups
are $1.00 per student, adults with students get free admission. Tour
buses are $40.00 each. North Dakota Heritage Foundation members and
children five and under are admitted free; school groups pay reduced
admission. Brochures describing the site are available at the site or
from the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
10:00 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily from May 16 - August 22; 8:00 a.m. - 6:00
p.m. daily August 23 - September 15. September 16 - May 15, weekdays
Grand opening of the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center,
August 23-24, 2003.
For more information, contact the Site Supervisor, Fort Buford State
Historic Site, R.R.3, Box 67, Williston, North Dakota, 58801; call (701)572-9034
or email email@example.com.
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