fort buford

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

Fort Buford

by Steven Reidburn

murder/suicide at Fort Buford Officer Row

Fort Buford Officer Row

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.

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Soldiers

The US Military commissioned Fort Buford in 1866 and then, decommissioned (abandoned) it in 1895. During this time several notable events happened at the fort or to the soldiers stationed there. The first noteworthy event happened as soon as construction started.

Sitting Bull and followers attacked the soldiers and the fort often. So the entire time the fort was active, occupants were under siege.

In 1882 the same Sitting Bull returned to the United States from Canada and he turned over his rifle at Fort Buford. 1891 saw the Buffalo Soldiers stationed at Fort Buford. This was the only fort in North Dakota where they were stationed.

fort Buford murder/suicide cemetery

Fort Buford Cemetery (Photo 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 17th, 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 cemetery at Fort Buford tells part of the story of tragedy. 

Steven Reidburn is the Director of Fort Seward Interpretive Center 2005-2010; Site Supervisor Fort Buford 2010-2017; Employed by State Historical Society of ND; Graduate of Jamestown College; Living Historian since 1983; Enjoys woodworking, history and my grandchildren Westin, Peighton, and Beckett. Living the good life with my Fiancee Sharon since retirement. Currently Site Supervisor of the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse Historic Site.

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






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