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Exploring frontier history out west

by Candi Helseth

The 6th Regimental Infantry
The 6th Regimental Infantry re-enactors march at Fort Buford. (Photo by John Nervig)

In these days of instant messaging and online shopping, it’s hard to imagine an era when acquiring purchases involved traveling to trading posts to barter buffalo robes for guns and blankets. Military troops, American Indians and Euro-American trappers and traders roamed northwest North Dakota’s plains in those days.

Now, thousands of tourists visit the forts every summer to view and learn more about life as it was. Three North Dakota historic sites are within easy driving distance: Fort Union Trading Post, Fort Buford State Historic Site and the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center.

“People really enjoy being able to come here and see separate sites so close together,” Fort Buford and Interpretive Center Site Director Steve Reidburn commented. Through Sept. 15, the sites are open daily to visitors. All three sites are about 25 miles southwest of Williston. Several summer events are planned:

July 20-21: Fort Buford History Alive
 Actor Arch Ellwein appears twice daily, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., as champion buffalo hunter Vic Smith, whose personal memoirs form the basis for Ellwein's true-to-life dramas. Along with educating visitors about their tribal culture and music, Standing Rock Sioux drummers and singers perform Native music.

• Aug. 3-4: Fort Union Showcase
Native American artists display and sell their artwork. Drum and dance groups perform.
• Aug. 17-18: Fort Buford Sixth Infantry Living History
Local Sixth Infantry members march, re-enact soldier drills and fire cannons. “Getting out of Dodge,” performers from Trenton, present a concert Sunday at 3 p.m.

• Aug. 24-25: Fort Buford History Alive
Fort Buford's largest summer event features Ellwein as Sgt. Ordway, a Corps of Discovery member. Dale Marks, Jamestown, displays and explains the history of his extensive gun collection dating back to Lewis and Clark times. His wife, Ann, bakes bread and pies in a Dutch oven. Using a few modern tools, ironworks members from Fairview, Mont., demonstrate forging, one of the oldest known metalworking processes. Artist Einar Olstad, Amidon, displays his Western Badlands artwork.

Ellwein will perform again, as Capt. Grant Marsh, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sept. 14-15, at Fort Buford.

• Aug. 31-Sept. 2 Fort Union Living History
On Saturday, Fort Union muzzleloader volunteers, along with other re-enactors such as tribal members, clerks and members of the bourgeois (middle class) live in the fort and present life and living as it was when the fort was active.

“Our visitors think it’s just a lot of fun because our re-enactors really get into their roles and ponder various viewpoints from their perspectives,” Fort Union Superintendent Andy Banta said. “On Saturday night, we re-enact the last bell. At the end of the day, the bell rang before the fort gates closed for the night. With the candlelight and darkness, our visitors really like the ambiance of that ceremony.”


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