Fort Buford dates back to the days of the Dakota Territory, decades before the map was crisscrossed by a spiderweb of railroad lines. Founded in 1866, Fort Buford was a strategically chosen point near the best highways of the day — the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. The original fort was reportedly constructed using some recycled parts from Fort Union and Fort William.
The State Historical Society of North Dakota describes the fort as “one of a number of military posts established to protect overland and river routes used by immigrants settling the West. While it served an essential role as the sentinel on the northern plains for twenty-nine years it is probably best remembered as the place where the famous Hunkpapa Sioux leader, Sitting Bull, surrendered in 1881.”
The fort received heavy use in the early days, enduring frequent attacks from the Sioux who were angered by the new facility, and later, by the Northern Pacific Railroad’s survey activities, which were a violation of the Treaty of 1868. Many of the original adobe and timber buildings were destroyed or damaged. By 1895, however, the fort had outlived its usefulness and was abandoned.
These photos were captured as part of the River Basin Surveys program, which came about following the Flood Control Act of 1944. Dams would be built, and large reservoirs, including Lake Sakakawea, would inundate or otherwise endanger important archaeological, paleontological, and historic sites, so an effort was made to excavate and document impacted reservoir areas.
The Fort Buford file data was collected under the direction of Regional Historian Merrill J. Mattes, Historian Ray Mattison, and Architect John A. Bryan. Bryan’s team shot these photos in 1952, at a turning point in Fort Buford’s history. Most of these remains would eventually be restored, but at this moment in time, the fort had been long abandoned and many of the buildings dismantled or deteriorating. The main structure shown here, the former Regimental Headquarters, had been used as a residence off and on over the years, and also as a Boy Scout outing destination, but was no longer in use by 1952.
In their 1952 report, the RBS says the Regimental Headquarters “needs painting and a considerable amount of carpenter work, such as replacing broken window sash, doors, and porch posts.”
The former Powder Magazine was a near-ruin at the time these photos were captured. A fire had destroyed the roof several years earlier.
Today, the fort is a State Historic Site. The Regimental Headquarters building has been restored, the Powder Magazine got a new roof, and a reconstructed barracks and tourist-friendly boardwalk have been added. The cemetery is also fascinating. I don’t think the former stable shown above made it, though. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong about that.
Video from the State Historical Society of North Dakota shows Fort Buford as it looks today.
Photos by Historic American Buildings Survey
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Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy