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Tall Tales from Fort Buford


On this date in 1929, the “roll of drums” and “tramp of feet resounded again at Fort Buford.” The important historical site west of Williston was being dedicated as a State Park. Bands played, choirs sang, and people cheered in commemoration of the days of the pioneers. And this fort had some good stories to its name. It is most famous for being the place where Sitting Bull, the legendary Lakota warrior finally surrendered his rifle. Fort Buford also played a pivotal role in the Battle at Little Bighorn, known by some as the Battle of the Greasy Grass. It was also one of the least hygienic forts, and one of the most difficult to build. This was partly because of poor building materials, but also because of frequent Indian attacks. Many believed that when the fort was first built, it was ill equipped to defend itself. This belief helped create the rumor that became one of the fort’s most exciting stories, although it was in reality a tall tale.

In the spring of 1867, Indians attacked soldiers at Fort Buford at every possible opportunity. There were some injuries and deaths from these skirmishes, and the rest of Dakota Territory, along with the rest of the country found these reports very concerning. Then, somehow, the stories began to get out of hand. A dramatic story depicting the downfall of the entire fort was printed in almost every national newspaper under the headline “Fort Buford Massacre.” According to the story, Indians attacked the post, burned Captain Rankin at the stake, treated his wife in “the most uncivilized manner,” and took the scalps of numerous other victims. The story also portrayed Captain Rankin as impossibly heroic, saying he fought with superhuman capacities. They reported that before the Indians managed to force him to the fire, he brought down nearly three hundred of them single handedly. Needless to say, this story captivated the masses. And without the instant-gratification news coverage that we are both blessed and cursed with today, it took several weeks before the country realized the mistake.

The New York Times later printed an apology that said poignantly “it is almost impossible to conceive a mind base enough to invent so malicious a falsehood.”

Dakota Datebook written by Leewana Thomas


North Dakota State Historical Society “Today in North Dakota History,” August 1st

The Fargo Forum, August 1st, 1929. “Roll of Drums, Tramp of Feet Resound Again at Fort Buford.”

At the Confluence: Now and Then. Papers Presented at the Symposium Held in Williston, North Dakota, June 29, 2002. “Securing the Confluence: A Portrait of Fort Buford, 1866 to 1895” by Mark Harvey.