It’s all in the cemetery records. Killed at Fort Buford.

fort buford

A cold winter’s sunset on Fort Buford. (Photo by Steven Reidburn)

A brief history of Fort Buford — Murder and Suicide

(Editor’s note. This murder suicide is one of several that happened at the Fort. A Halloween tour of the Fort’s cemetery is planned to give you the ghastly and ghostly stories.)

murder/suicide at Fort Buford Officer Row

Fort Buford Officer Row

Disease and Indians

Murder and suicide at Fort Buford was common and a part of the history. Fort Buford is one in a line of forts constructed when homesteaders/miners/fur traders went further west. It was considered an outpost in a region of desolate prairies.  Not a high-class outpost.

According to a record of the Fort Cemetery, 21 died by Indians and 60 died by disease. 

Notable Deaths

Then Private Bartholomew Noonan “died in his bunk in company quarters…There was much drunkenness in the garrison last night. The source of supply of liquor is unknown. A post mortem examination was held on Private Noonan in the afternoon. No other cause for death was given.”

Charles McAlister, the Quartermaster Clerk committed suicide by shooting himself through the ear. The cause as far as known was an imaginary disease of the brain producing melancholy. No autopsy.”

John Langen died of worms.  The report said, “he is now discharged to a higher authority.”

Louis Kramer was found drowned, but there were suspicions.  His ear was partly severed and there appeared to be a wound above the ear. It was hard to tell because the body was so messed up by being in the water for so long.  The post surgeon wrote “The body was in an extremely offensive condition, enormously swollen and emitting sickening gases. These escaped with an audible whistling.”

John Smith shot Ed Shaffer in his bunk. Shaffer died.

John Potter killed himself.  They found a handkerchief tied to the trigger of his rifle then looped around his foot. “On examination, the ball was found to have passed through the roof directly over the bed and as several small pieces of the skull were found on the roof and on the bed, and a portion of the brain spattered around the walls, it was supposed the shot was fired in standing position.”

One soldier on the payroll wagon was shot by “road agents” near where the town of Savage, Montana is now.

fort Buford murder/suicide cemetery

Fort Buford Cemetery (Photo by Steven Reidburn)



by Steven Reidburn

murder/suicide at Fort Buford

Corporal Hartwell’s tombstone is a reminder of the hardship of the days.

During the Buffalo Soldier stay at the fort there occurred a tragic case of murder/suicide. The event was the murder of Corporal John Hartwell. The corporal was shot by Private Basil Williams without provocation.

Both men were from ‘C’ Company of the 25th Infantry. The civilian court was given the decision as to what should be done with Private Williams.[1] The shooting and decision to place Private Williams in the guardhouse following the shooting occurred on April 17, 1894. The civilian court found Basil Williams guilty of murder and he was taken to Cass County Jail to await transfer to prison.

While residing in the jail Private Williams hung himself in his cell on July 16, 1894.[2] City Marshall of Fargo, Crovin, sent a telegram to Fort Buford detailing the hanging.[3]


This incident made multiple papers in North Dakota including the Fargo Forum and the Williston Graphic.

The news article in the Daily Fargo Forum Monday evening July 16th, 1894 states that “Williams was the colored man awaiting trial in the United States court for the murder of a fellow colored soldier Corporal John R. Hartwell, at Fort Buford April 16.” “He was indicted by the grand jury and brought to Fargo at the last term of the United States court and Colonel Dodge, who was appointed to defend him. Col. Dodge succeeded in getting the trial postponed till the Devils Lake term of court—but the prisoner not only acted as judge and jury but as executioner as well and no trial will be necessary.”[4]

Williams had taken a leather shawl strap, which he had used as a belt, put one end around his neck and strapped the other end into the steel frame of the cell and slumped down into an almost sitting position, where he was found dead the morning of July 16th, 1894. Three months after the murder of Cpl. Hartwell.

Editor’s note: The tragic story of Private Williams is one of many from the lonely outpost called Fort Buford.  The Fort Buford cemetery tells part of the story of tragedy. 

murder/suicide at Fort Buford

To learn more about Fort Buford

Its history is here.

“Fake News” spread about Fort Buford in 1867.

Is the Fort haunted?

What was food like at Fort Buford?

Its buffalo soldiers are memorialized.

Masonic Metal Horse sculpture at Fort Buford

The horse sculpture is a tribute to buffalo soldiers at Fort Buford. It is praised for its authentic detail in even the smallest details.

Click here to read of another cemetery on the other side of the river. It tells a different story of tribal members who help the U.S. Army.  

[1] Williston Graphic

[2] African book

[3] microfilm

[4] The Daily Fargo Forum Evening edition July 16th, 1894