June 15, 2021 — Construction began on Fort Buford on this day in 1866; it was located where the Missouri meets the Yellowstone River (near Williston). Fort Buford served as a military post until 1881, when Sitting Bull surrendered to the fort’s military officials.

Soldiers had to provide much of their own food, whether by gardening, fishing or hunting. Lack of fruits and vegetables often led to scurvy, plus the fort had no trained cooks for preparing the food they did have. Preparing meals was a soldier’s duty – the job was rotated among them every 10 days. This led Surgeon J.V.D. Middleton to report, “Under the present system, the cooking is simply abominable, the meat is almost always overdone, dried up, and indigestible and the other articles of the ration share about the same treatment.”

Food and provisions also arrived via steamboats traveling up the Missouri River. But when the river froze over, that supply line was largely gone. Other problems included boredom and alcoholism; some men intentionally wounded themselves so they could leave the army and go home.

During the winter of 1876 a man signing his name simply as “Major” sent a report to the Bismarck Daily Tribune titled “Notes from Buford,” which he wrote on New Year’s Eve. Here’s a portion of it: “The post hospital contains, among other patients, two who are suffering from insanity. One case commenced with an attack of acute mania, and something in this way: Time, evening; Scene, company barracks; men reading and otherwise engaged in passing dull time away.

“Suddenly a man walks up to the stove, selects a fine, large, red hot coal, places it in his pocket, and prepares to increase the supply. Had you been there you might have taken fine sketches of astonishment direct from nature, as exhibited from the audience.

“The man growing worse was taken to the hospital, and it was at times found necessary to contain him in a straight-jacket; the other evening, eluding in some way the vigilance of his keeper, he found his way to his old quarters, and creeping up to his bed found it occupied. He roused the ‘new boarder’ and politely invited him to retire; and that man did retire cordially inviting the ‘wandering heir’ to resume his own – as he said afterward – ‘he wasn’t fool enough to raise any dispute with a man who could heap coals of fire in his pocket.’”

The major must have decided he should paint the picture a bit rosier, because at this point he wrote: “It is sometimes remarked at army posts – what is done with our post fund? where does the money go? and remarks of like character, showing that disaffected parties have something to growl about.

“This never occurs here, however, and in looking over the well filled shelves of the Post Library, its numerous files of papers and magazines, one does not for an instant imagine that it could be otherwise. Manning, the courteous librarian, informs us that the library now contains some eleven hundred volumes; that six monthlies are regularly received, five illustrated and seven weekly newspapers and two dailies are also subscribed for, and by this means, those who wish a good book, or a quiet evening, need never suffer disappointment.”

Fort Buford was abandoned decades ago, but in 1963 (also on this date), a museum was opened in the old headquarters building. Since that day, other portions of the historic military post have been restored as well.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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