Stand where history was made at Fort Buford

On the Missouri River, just barely inside the North Dakota state line, Fort Buford is one in a line of forts constructed as homesteaders/miners/fur traders went further west.

Fort Buford

Officer’s Quarter building, reconstructed.

The symbolic if not effectual end of a great war ended at Fort Buford. The Great Sioux War that covered as many as five decades, five states and parts of Canada. It ended where you can stand at Fort Buford.

Stand where master warrior Sitting Bull stood

Sitting Bull

from Library of Congress Wikimedia Creative Commons License

Beginning in the early 1800’s, lasting through the Civil War and up until about 1882, thousands of people were killed, most of them innocent victims of the Great Sioux War.

The growing Sioux Nation expanded as Sioux tribes such as the Hunkpapa, Lakota, and Dakota, by conquest, took over areas where weaker indigenous people lived.  Lakota and Northern Cheyenne were notable victors in battle.  Lakota Sioux Chieftain Crazy Horse was a mastermind warrior.  His colleague-in-war was Teton Dakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull.  As young as 14-years old. Sitting Bull rose through the ranks as he and his braves overpowered lesser tribes such as the Shoshone, Crow, and Assiniboine.  The Sioux nation grew in power and size as they took over much of the home turf of other nations.

Then, they met a more powerful adversary, the U.S. Army.  Narrow pieces of land across the west were developed as rail lines; along those lines were small collections of “homesteaders,” shopkeepers and other adventuresome white people.  Under constant attack from Sitting Bull and others, the U.S. Army moved in to protect the rail workers and white communities.

Stand and envision Fort Buford, then and now

Fort Buford was one of the points of conflict.  As Steve Reidburn, the former site supervisor at Fort Buford State Historic Site writes about Fort Buford:

“…as soon as construction on the buildings at the fort commenced, Sitting Bull and followers attacked the soldiers and the fort consistently, leaving the occupants virtually under siege. In a bit of irony, Sitting Bull held the fort under near siege the first year of its existence. It was also the place where he and his followers came when they returned from exile in Canada. During this period, the Sioux had at one point captured the building housing the sawmill and kept pounding on it all night, setting it to ringing like a loud, clear bell into the night.”

Fort Buford at dusk

The war was not over

The Lakota, Dakota, Teton, Santee, and Hunkpapa Sioux had been nearly invincible against other indigenous nations, and now the white settlers.  Farmers, ranchers, and merchants were no match for the powerful warriors of the Sioux.

However, the U.S. Army proved to be the stronger. Faced with this new powerful enemy, Sitting Bull moved his people first down the Yellowstone River and then moved them north to follow an ever-shrinking buffalo herd. He and an estimated 4,000 of his followers moved to Canada. 

For five years, Sitting Bull’s people starved and died until he was compelled to move back south.  He was greatly concerned about his daughter because he’d been told she was shackled in irons at Fort Yates. Once he arrived at Fort Benton, he was cheered when he learned his daughter was not in chains, but was free and living well at Fort Yates, Dakota Territory.

Stand on the exact spot history was made

fort Buford murder/suicide cemetery

Fort Buford Cemetery

Here’s how

Sitting Bull Fort Buford

Walk past the cemetery toward the trees to be in the exact spot where Sitting Bull arrived at Fort Buford.

Visit the historic Fort Buford site southwest of Williston, north of Sidney, Montana. Park in the parking lot and take a walk from the buildings south past the cemetery toward the river. 

Look to the northwest to Dead Woman Draw, about two miles away. On July 19, that’s where a long train of carts, wagons, travois, and horses camped after arriving from Canada before riding to Fort Buford.

When Sitting Bull rode in to the Fort, neither he nor the commanding officer acknowledged one another.   Where you are standing, at the southwest corner of the fort compound, you are standing where Sitting Bull dismounted from his horse. According to eyewitnesses, he walked partway to the northeast toward the buildings where he met the commanding officer.  That walk marked the walk toward peace.

Sitting Bull left his horses where he dismounted. Later, all of Sitting Bull’s horses were confiscated.  There are some who believe his horses formed the foundation stock of the wild horses of the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s a debate that has covered many recent years. Even so, at least one of the horses in the feral herd is a Medicine Hat horse, an especially spiritual horse.

Stand at the beginning of the end for Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull’s appearance according to a Bismarck Tribune story

The Chief had two rifles. He turned over one there where you can stand on the southwest corner of the Fort.  The second, he held on to until the next day when he handed it over to the U.S. Army in one of the buildings of the Fort.

Stand between the Officers’ Quarters, (the Fort Buford Museum), and the river and you will be standing where Sitting Bull’s lodge and those of his people were erected when Sitting Bull surrendered.

“Most had only one garment which, at best, was threadbare and dropping off piecemeal.  Sitting Bull’s raiment was a dirty calico shit, plan black leggings, a calico kerchief tied about his head and a  simple woolen blanket.” Paul L Hedren, former National Park Service Superintendent of the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site.

A teaching moment for kids

Fort Buford

Even in winter, the walking path through Fort Buford is open.

Any time during the year, you can make this moment be part of your and your family’s awareness of U.S. History.  The grounds and interpretive signs are open year-round. 

It’s free. In the summer, the museum and staff are available.  

Contact Fort Buford:
phone: (701) 572-9034
fax: (701) 572-6509

Confluence Center sign

The relatively young (15 years) Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Center marks a major point of peaceful settlement, trade, and transportation for the Western United States.

Before you leave the historic site, stop at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Center. It’s the other main attraction and essential piece of U.S. History. We’ve written quite a bit about Fort Buford and the neighboring Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Center.  

Sitting Bull’s signature reproduced in an 1881 Bismarck Tribune story

Resources consulted to write this article:

Prairie Man: The Struggle between Sitting Bull and Indian Agent James McLaughlin By Norman E. Matteoni

Sitting Bull’s Surrender at Fort Buford by Paul L. Hedren

Bismarck Tribune June 1881 

Bismarck Tribune August 5, 1881,

Bismarck Tribune November 5, 1880, 

Bismarck Tribune July 22, 1881

Bismarck Tribune., July 22, 1881

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