Fort Buford was situated on the frontier near the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. It was built in 1866 close to the old fur trading post of Fort Union and was relegated to the duty of protecting settlers and gold seekers on their way to Montana. Throughout the late spring and early summer, steamboats braved the dangerous waters of the Missouri to carry supplies for the garrisons at the fort and points beyond. However, by late summer, the water levels fell and steamboat traffic came to an end.
Caravans of wagons were the alternative to steamboats. They wound their way seven hundred and fifty miles from St. Paul to Fort Buford each summer, following a circuitous trail from Fort Abercrombie to Fort Totten, and from there to Fort Stevenson before making the final leg of the journey along the Missouri River past Fort Berthold to the post.
On this date in 1871, Captain Joseph Anderson, who for the past five years had run a freight business from St. Paul to Buford, began his homeward journey after delivering his cargo. Along with Anderson was Captain Atchinson of the Second infantry, Charley Paist, his bookkeeper and four hired men. They left with two lumber box wagons, two teams of horses and supplies for the trip. A storm was setting in as they left the post.
The storm intensified and it took four days to travel the one hundred and twenty miles to Fort Berthold where they rested for one day and then pushed on for Fort Stevenson. The temperature plunged to below zero, but not to be swayed from their homeward journey, they again spent only a day in the safety of the fort before starting out across the wind-swept prairie, which was encrusted with more than a foot of packed snow. Progress was slow, and often it seemed as though the horses would give out. They traveled by day and camped at night in ravines or on the leeward sides of hills for protection from the storm. They kept fires going, and a watchful eye was kept as bands of Sioux still roamed the Northern Plains.
With two guides they hired at Stevenson, they were able to pick their way through the blinding snow to Fort Totten, and then on December 13th, they arrived at Fort Abercrombie. Finally, twenty-six days after leaving Fort Buford, Anderson’s party, frostbitten and exhausted, limped into St. Paul. It was a journey that took all their skills and a no small amount of luck.
Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis
The St. Paul Pioneer December 23, 1871