Fort Union vs Fort Buford

Two forts. One a fur trade outpost, the other an Army installation. So close together.  Why?Fort Buford

Fort Union







Visitors to the southern edge of Williams County in North Dakota get two forts in one short trip: Fort Buford and Fort Union. There’s a reason for two.  Both are essential to American history and the settling of the west.

He could have chosen Fort Union

It was up to Brevet Brigadier General Alfred H. Sully whether to build a new fort, or a remodel an existing fort. He probably was not in a good mood when he came to the plains.

Fort Union General Sully

General Sully

Top brass shuttled him off to the far reaches of U.S. territory after he failed to put down a mutiny in his ranks during the War Between the States. He built a reputation for bloody reprisals in the west based on several skirmishes he had with Sioux tribes during the Dakota War.  

The Civil War Ends

The National Park Service says in last years of the Civil War, Union troops arrived at Fort Union Trading Post many months before there was a Fort Buford. They were part of General Sully’s campaigns against the Sioux. Company I, 30th Wisconsin Infantry garrisoned Fort Union and guarded supplies that were dropped off for Sully.  So, why didn’t the U.S. Army just take over the Fort Union Trading Post?

Sully was in charge of finding the best location for a military fort. First, he went to Fort Union when the American Fur Company offered Fort Union Trading Post to the U.S. Army. When he arrived, General Sully took one look at it and said, “No!” He immediately chose not to use Fort Union, partly due to the dilapidated state and partly due to its small size. (A few years later Fort Union had fallen in to such disrepair, it was salvaged to become part of Fort Buford.)

Three miles away

So, Sully looked around. The flat land along the Missouri River, a major transportation corridor, would be a good place to look. He surveyed the area and picked the site that was to be Fort Buford. Calling it “a wide, well-drained table, northwest of the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers.”

Approaching from Sidney, take a gravel road north to the river to see how the trading post must have looked to trappers and tribes from across the river — minus the wheat fields.

Confluence Center in the fall

Geese use the rivers as their flyway to migrate south in the fall.



You can easily walk the entire site of Fort Buford and explore the confluence that Sully found important.  You’ll see why the site was well-chosen. It was like building a fort at the intersection of two major U.S. Interstate highways.

Building the Fort

In 1866 more troops arrived and began building Fort Buford, three miles east of Fort Union.  Many of the troops shipped to Fort Buford were “galvanized” Union soldiers. They had been Confederate soldiers but were captured and forced to become Union soldiers on the farthest north outpost of the U.S. Army – Fort Buford.

fort buford


In 1866, 80 enlisted men and 6 civilians, commanded by Captain (Brevet Lt. Col.) William G. Rankin camped on the future site of the fort, with orders to build a post. Most of that first construction was built of adobe and cottonwood. The buildings were enclosed by a wooden stockade. The new Fort was christened after the late Major General John Buford, a Union Army cavalry general during the American Civil War.

(General Rankin became the subject of a completely false rumor pushed by big city newspapers back east.  He took great pains to dispel the rumor.  More on that later.)

Dividing the military reservation

The Fort Buford structure itself was the HQ of a large area, a square military reservation 30 miles by 30 miles. The fort was built on a 640 acre (1 square mile) patch inside that military reservation in the center. The structure itself was about 100 acres.

If you drive to Fort Buford or the Confluence Center from Williston, ND or Sidney, MT, you drive across the military reservation. Both towns would have been just outside the border of the 900 square mile reservation if they had been established in 1866.

Fort Buford Military Reservation (Creative Commons)

Special dispensations were given several organizations to be allowed on the reservation, the Post trader was one. Others were the Masons, Odd Fellows and the Railroad.

metal horse sculpture

Marking Masons’ presence at Fort Buford is this metal horse sculpture.

Fort Buford was one of very few Military Forts were the “post” Trader was allowed to establish a presence on the military reservation very close to the fort.


You can program your smart phones to zero in on the exact location: Coordinates are; 47 Degrees 59’ 11’ N 104 degrees 00’ 05 W.


The reconstructed elements of the Fort you see today went through three major building phases. The first phase was under Captain Rankin’s command. That was a major build —  barracks, two officer quarters were surrounded by a stockade in 1866. Later becoming a three-company post in 1867-1868.

If you are from North Dakota, you probably recognize the name of the man responsible for the first re-build of the fort. That was an expansion to a six-company post under the command of Colonel William B. Hazen (as in Hazen, North Dakota).


The final building phase occurred in 1889 when the Fort became a small town on the prairie.

Because cottonwood was the only local building material, Fort Buford was under almost continuous repair from 1866 to 1895. Add to that the lack of skilled tradesmen; the buildings started falling apart almost immediately.

People need supplies that had to be brought up the river between in the spring and summer. Supplies included food and clothing. Mail moved up and down the river, but was carried overland during the winter. Steamboats that carried supplies to Fort Buford and turned around with hides and furs were very large. (Photo: public domain National Archives Archaeological Site [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Sitting Bull Slept Here

Two bits of historical irony. 

General Sully’s daughter Mary, married a Dakota Sioux who became a Christian missionary, an Episcopal priest. U.S. church history honors him for bringing Christianity to the Sioux nation. So, General Sully who was responsible for killing many Sioux warriors in armed conflict had a son-in-law who was from what is now the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Rev. Philip Joseph Deloria was an Episcopal priest, aka Tipi Sapa (Black Lodge), a leader of the Yankton/Nakota band of the Sioux Nation. Tipi Sapa is featured as one of the 98 Saints of the Ages at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. as the first Dakota Christian minister to his own people

Sitting Bull of the Lakota Tribe held the fort under near siege and made a nuisance of himself while soldiers tried to sleep. Later he made the Fort an important site in the history of the Sioux and the United State.

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History still stands at several spots near Fort Buford, Fort Union, Fairview, and Cartwright.  Here’s one architectural wonder. 

The rough life of Fort Buford included murder and suicide.


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