Dakota Datebook

Fort Buford

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

This weekend, Fort Buford is having a grand opening of its fully restored army barracks, including tours and music and a chance to indulge in a whole lot of history.

Fort Buford was a military post built, in 1866, where the Missouri meets the Yellowstone River southwest of present-day Williston. Native American tribes were rightfully resisting encroachment of frontiersmen and gold seekers on their hunting grounds, and the army was there to squelch violence, as well as erect telegraph lines and protect railroad survey crews.

Company C of the 13th Infantry arrived in mid-June under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Rankin. To prepare for winter, Rankin quickly put the men to work cutting cottonwood trees and digging a well, as well as building a sawmill and living quarters.

That first version of the post was a “rectangular stockade 320 by 300 feet, 12 feet in height, with two blockhouses, or bastions, each 21 feet square, fixed with four portholes for artillery and 14 for musketry…” Included were officers’ quarters, barracks, a bakery, facilities for carpenters and blacksmiths, an icehouse and a cattle corral. Much of the construction used adobe bricks they made from soil, sticks, grass and water; it proved to be a poor choice for our northern climate.

The Lakota were angry that the fort was consuming so much wood, which was one of their crucial resources. In fact, the fort’s first casualties were two men who were cutting wood.

Soon, skirmishes with the Lakota were becoming more and more problematic. Soon, wild rumors were circulating. Historian Mark Harvey states that in the spring of 1867, a story was published by several national papers stating that the entire Fort Buford garrison had been wiped out and that Indians burned Lt. Colonel Rankin at the stake. The articles stated that the Lakota also “mistreated (Rankin’s) wife in a most uncivilized manner,” and that many were scalped. Rankin was depicted as a hero who single-handedly killed 300 warriors before he himself was killed.

It took many weeks for the story to be reported as nonsense. Still, the troops were vulnerable; the fort was undermanned, because the Civil War had drained army resources. The lifeline to food and supplies came by way of steamboats on the Missouri River, which was frozen over during the winter. Gardening was unreliable, and the lack of fruit and vegetables led to scurvy. To make matters worse, there were no cooks; the soldiers themselves rotated the job every 10 days. Surgeon J.V.D. Middleton reported, “Under the present system, the cooking is simply abominable, the meat is almost always overdone, dried up, and indigestible and the other articles of the ration share about the same treatment.”

Another problem was poor sanitation. The two latrines available to enlisted men backed up every time it rained for any length of time. Contamination of the well water became such a problem that drinking water had to be drawn from the river instead. There were cases of venereal disease, tuberculosis and spinal meningitis, but the worst problem was alcohol, which offered both comfort and entertainment to men who were bored, depressed, isolated and lonely. In 1871, Private Bartholomew Noon died in his bunk while drunk. Some men resorted to deliberately wounding themselves so they could be discharged.

Fort Buford saw a lot of military action during the next decade. Then in 1881, Sitting Bull, deeply concerned about the welfare of his people, finally surrendered at Fort Buford, marking the end to the Dakota Conflict. The fort was used for other purposes for a while and then closed in 1895.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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