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Buffalo soldiers dedication at Fort Buford

Regiments of Buffalo Soldiers, some of North Dakota’s least known inhabitants, have received their place in North Dakota history. According to Native Americans, the black-haired, darker-skinned soldiers who rode horses in the Dakota Territory looked like their beloved bison and were respectfully referred to as Buffalo Soldiers.

That name historically distinguished the brave men who fought with Teddy Roosevelt at Cuba’s San Juan Hill. Ten companies of 40 or so Buffalo Soldiers were assigned to posts in the United States from 1866 to 1898. After 1898 they were shipped to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War, where on July 1, 1898, the 10th Cavalry from Fort Buford and the 24th Infantry Regiment were instrumental in the Roughriders’ advance, effectively ending the war.

The 10 companies of Buffalo Soldiers (between 1,000 to 2,000 in number) in 1866 were assigned from Greenville, Ill., to Leavenworth, Kan., then to Fort Bliss, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Finally in 1892 by way of Arizona, they made their way up to North Dakota. During part of their service, they were assigned bicycles for transportation, and at other times, they rode second-string horses.

That information struck a chord with Steven Reidburn, site supervisor for Fort Buford in Williston, N.D. The former vector-control officer in Jamestown has been responsible for the 125-year-old military site, winning awards since he took the reins in 2010. He’s also responsible for getting the site’s early black soldiers recognized for their role in the Dakotas and for their early Masonic presence at the fort.

Located at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, Fort Buford is about 23 miles southwest of Williston and 2 miles east of 187-year-old Fort Union on N.D. Highway 1804. Fort Buford is one of the memorable campsites where the Lewis and Clark expedition stopped and later wrote about, citing its beauty and commenting on the flora and fauna there. In 1881, Sitting Bull surrendered his rifle and returned from Canada in order to preserve the remnant of his people. He chose Fort Buford as his port of return.

The fort has some unique history associated with its role as a military post as well as non-military duty. Some of that history was memorialized with two related dedications this spring -- one being an indoor interpretive display and the other an outdoor sculpture.   

On May 28, the State Historical Society of North Dakota installed an exhibit that Reidburn introduced, helped research and worked on for six years. It features the trek of the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Buford, from when they came and where they wound up between 1891 and 1897. The history is exceptional. The fact that two black regiments were in North Dakota is unusual, but many stayed after the fort was decommissioned, which is even more surprising.

The SHSND’s large, three banner exhibit tracks the Buffalo Soldier regiments from the Southwest Territory up to Fort Buford, where they served from 1891 to 1895. SHSND officials  attended the day’s events at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center and Fort Buford.

The Masonic Order sculpture, which memorialized the role of Buffalo Soldiers and its Masonic lodge at Fort Buford, was also dedicated on May 28. North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Dale Sandstrom spoke at the dedication of a bronze, near-life size, rider-less horse -- a sculpture showing the lean times and hardships experienced in that area. More than 155 guests from the U.S. and Canada attended the dedication.

The Masonic site is on military land but about a mile west of the interpretive center. Inside that area stands an array of flags, a trading post and now the horse memorial. Nearby are the 1872 officers’ quarters, a stone powder storage unit, a duplex officers’ quarters and the fort’s cemetery. The entire site has been used for a number of purposes over the years, with the SHSND adding a campground, walking trails, comfort stations and interpretive center after it took responsibility for its preservation.

Reidburn and the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center staff hosted the 130th Sitting Bull commemoration in 2011, annual Boy Scout jamborees, yearly school tours, military encampments, cowboy poets/musician weekend (in August) and monthly musical events that are free to the public. But while doing all that, he has been researching and working toward recognition of historic Masonic lodges (Yellowstone 88 and the Buffalo Soldiers’ Prince Hall) and to get a Buffalo Soldier interpretive display inside the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center. With the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center staff and the professional expertise at SHSND, much of that has now been accomplished.

Reidburn is a member of Fort Seward in Jamestown and the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse Committee. He is the SHSND’s licensed black powder safety expert, traveling to historic North Dakota sites overseeing weapons discharges during historic re-enactments. He has been a 35-year volunteer/Civil War re-enactor with the 20th Infantry at Fort Seward and the 6th Infantry in Williston. Reidburn is a 2008 graduate of Jamestown College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in American history and minored in art.

If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND, 58402-1559.