Under the command of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel William G. Rankin, Fort Buford, North Dakota began to be built in June 1866 and was named for the late Major General John Buford, a Gettysburg hero.
From the very beginning, the fort was under attack, with Indians wounding one soldier the second night, and attempting to drive off their cattle on the third day. Raids continued throughout the summer and fall, but the soldiers persisted and by the end of November the fort included log and adobe buildings surrounded by a 360-foot-square stockade.
Though established to protect the overland and river routes used by immigrants moving westward, the soldiers remained busy protecting themselves, as well. The unhappy Sioux attacked a work party at the sawmill in December 1866 and continued to raid throughout the winter.
As a result, the number of troops at the fort was increased by four additional companies in the spring of 1867, which required the post to expand. The stockade was partially torn down and expanded, enlarging it to 999 feet by 600 feet. The buildings; however, didn’t fare very well, as the handmade adobe bricks deteriorated quickly. The deterioration, coupled with the constant Indian attacks required the soldiers to rebuild again just three years later. Expansion again occurred in 1871-72, designed to house six companies of soldiers.
In the meantime, the Northern Pacific Railroad resumed survey activities west of the Missouri River and the Yellowstone expeditions of 1871-1873 were occurring, violating the Treaty of 1868 with the Sioux. Further angered, the attacks by the Sioux increased, especially after the Black Hills expedition of 1874, which brought thousands of prospectors flooding into Sioux lands.
As the attacks continued, more and more troops were brought into the area and Fort Buford became key in the supply of troops for the military campaigns. By the end of 1875, the situation had deteriorated to the point that the government decided to force the Indians onto their respective reservations. This action began the Sioux Wars of 1876-1879 which included the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Sitting Bull’s flight into Canada. Forced to return, Chief Sitting Bull surrendered on July 20, 1881, at Fort Buford.
After the Indian Wars were over, the fort lost its importance and began to deteriorate. On October 1, 1895, it was abandoned.
Today, the Fort Buford State Historic Site, run by the North Dakota State Historical Society, preserves remnants of the once vital fort. Three original buildings continue to stand including the stone powder magazine, the post cemetery site, and a large officers’ quarters building which now houses a museum. Southwest of the museum is the fort cemetery; however, the soldiers’ remains were moved to the national cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana after Fort Buford was abandoned. Today, reconstructed wooden headboards mark the graves where soldiers were once interred. Some headstones still mark the spots where civilians were buried.
The museum is open daily during the summer months and by appointment only the rest of the year.
Fort Buford State Historic Site
15349 39th Lane NW
Williston, North Dakota 58801
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated July 2022.