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Bismarck: History


Crossing on the Missouri Exploited by Indians, Whites

Long before white settlement of the Northern Plains began, a natural ford on the site of present-day Bismarck was known to Plains Indian tribes as one of the narrowest and least dangerous crossings on the Missouri River. Stone tools and weapons found in the vicinity indicate that the area was used thousands of years ago by prehistoric big-game hunting tribes. By the time white explorers arrived in the 1700s, those tribes had been displaced by the Mandan and Hidatsa peoples. Unlike nomadic Plains tribes, the Mandan and Hidatsa built fortified towns, raised cultivated plants in settled communities in and around present-day Bismarck, and developed a thriving Northern Plains trading hub.

The Mandan were among the first people on the Plains to be contacted by whites, and relations between them were generally friendly. The first recorded visitor was French explorer Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Lord de La Verendrye, who discovered Mandan earthen lodges in present-day Bismarck in 1738 while searching for a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Most subsequent contact was with Canadian fur traders, until Lewis and Clark camped with the Mandan in 1804-1805. In the 1820s and 1830s, American traders out of St. Louis, Missouri, began to ply the Missouri River in steamboats and an outpost of the American Fur Company was established near Bismarck. Contact with white traders and white diseases proved nearly fatal to the Mandan; in 1837, the tribe was virtually destroyed by smallpox. By that time, a small white settlement had been established at present-day Bismarck called Crossing on the Missouri, and it thrived in a small way as a port for steamboats carrying military troops and supplies to forts and Indian agencies in the Missouri River basin.

Dakota Territory Opened; Railroad and Gold Spur Settlement

The U.S. Congress organized the Dakota Territory in 1861 (originally consisting of the two present-day Dakotas plus parts of Montana and Wyoming), but white settlement did not begin in earnest until the indigenous tribes had been expelled. In 1871-1872, squatters who anticipated the arrival of Northern Pacific Railway tracks settled at the Crossing on the Missouri. In 1872, Camp Greeley (later Camp Hancock), a military post, was established nearby to protect the railroad crews, and in June 1873, the railroad reached the crossing. It carried printing presses for the Bismarck Tribune, which published its first edition in July 1873; today it is North Dakota's oldest newspaper still publishing. The paper scored its greatest scoop when it was first to publish the story of Custer's last stand at the Little Big Horn in Montana in 1876. Bismarck mourned the loss of Custer and his men, who often left their post at nearby Fort Abraham Lincoln to join in the social life of the town. (In 1881 Mandan, Bismarck's sister city, was established across the Missouri River just north of Fort Lincoln.)

In 1873, the settlement was renamed Bismarck in honor of the first chancellor of the German Empire. Germans had previously invested in American railroads, and it was hoped that Germany would invest in the financially ailing Northern Pacific. Bismarck's first church service was organized in 1873 by distinguished citizen, author, and suffragette Mrs. Linda Warfel Slaughter, who also started the first school, became the first county school superintendent, and organized the Ladies Historical Society. In her book The NewNorthwest, Mrs. Slaughter estimated the 1874 population of Bismarck at 1,200 people. Bismarck was incorporated in 1875 and began to grow as a steamboat port and, until 1879, as the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railway. The town attracted rivermen and wood choppers, who supplied personnel and fuel needs for riverboats.

Life in the little town was rugged. River traffic closed in the winter because of low water, and the railroad discontinued operating out of Fargo, North Dakota, into Bismarck until spring, when Bismarck residents might look forward to the flooding of the river. Fires were frequent, thanks to poorly constructed, flimsy homes, tents, and rough wooden buildings lit by kerosene lamps.

In 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Bismarck experienced its first boom as gold seekers poured in to outfit themselves for the 200-mile trip to Deadwood, South Dakota. Some stayed to take advantage of new business opportunities.

As railroad tracks were laid across America, word spread to the East and to Europe of the rich land of the Plains, suitable for growing wheat and grazing livestock. Men and women came to break the virgin soil and to build sod houses, barns, frame houses, and windmills. Those who settled around Bismarck suffered considerably when the Missouri River flooded in 1881; livestock drowned, homes were destroyed, and wildlife were carried down the river on ice floes. Bismarck residents who lived on higher ground were more fortunate. In 1882, Northern Pacific built a bridge across the Missouri River at Bismarck. While the trains would no longer have to cross the river on barges in the summer and on tracks laid over the ice in the winter, the event marked the end of Bismarck's prominent position as a center for railroad freight transfers.

City Becomes Center for Dakota Government

In 1882 Bismarck replaced Yankton, South Dakota, as the capital of the Dakota Territory, and a second boom began. The price of land skyrocketed, and everyone believed that Bismarck was on its way to becoming a major population center. It was with high hopes that the cornerstone of the capitol building was laid in 1883 in a gala ceremony that included many prominent figures of the day. Some, such as ex-President U.S. Grant, were members of the Golden Spike Excursion, on their way west to mark the completion of the Northern Pacific Railway. Others present at the ceremony included U.S. congressmen, foreign noblemen, and the Sioux chief Sitting Bull. The high hopes did not pan out; Bismarck grew steadily but slowly as federal and state government offices located there and it became a center for shipping wheat to Minneapolis. Other businesses flourished, including flour mills, creameries, grain elevators, and the innovative Oscar H. Will Company, specialists in seed corn like that used by the Mandan Indians, as well as several varieties of hardy, drought-resistant plants.

When the Dakota Territory was divided and North and South Dakota entered the Union in 1889, Bismarck became the capitol of North Dakota. As the town developed politically, new buildings went up, including schools, churches, and frame houses to replace sod shanties. By 1890, 43 percent of the population was foreign-born, and mostly comprised of Russians, Germans, Norwegians, Canadians, English, Irish, and Swedes. In 1898 the Northern Pacific freight depot caught fire; the fire spread and destroyed most of downtown Bismarck. However, citizens rallied and the town was quickly rebuilt.

The population around Bismarck swelled in 1903 when thousands of German farmers moved from Wisconsin and began producing dairy products, wool, honey, and corn, all of which were shipped out of Bismarck. In 1909 the Bureau of Indian Affairs opened an Indian boarding school in Bismarck. By 1910 the population had risen to 4,913 people; by 1920 the population was 7,122; and by 1930 it reached 11,090. The population increase was mostly due to farmers moving into town to retire or because they were looking for an education for their children. A drought and an invasion of hordes of grasshoppers in the 1930s destroyed wheat crops and brought home the need to diversify farming in the region.

In December 1930, with the Great Depression and the drought under way, the old capitol building burned down and talk turned to moving the capitol elsewhere. By a popular statewide vote in 1932, it was decided to keep Bismarck as the capitol. On October 8, 1932, the cornerstone was laid for a new statehouse.

Manmade Changes Usher in the Modern Era

Bismarck farmers and ranchers benefited from the 1947 construction of the Garrison Dam, 75 miles up the Missouri River, as spring flood danger was lessened, but the project remains controversial. Local Indian tribes claim that land was taken from them for the massive project, and environmentalists decry the loss of the natural shortgrass land and the flooding of countless acres of bottomland. The project was headquartered at Fort Lincoln, and attracted new residents to Bismarck. Sister projects the Heart Butte Dam and the Dickinson Dam opened up new recreational opportunities to Bismarckers. By 1950, 18,541 people called Bismarck home.

In 1951, oil was discovered near Tioga, North Dakota. Although it was flowing from wells 200 miles away, it led to the formation of state agencies and oil company offices in Bismarck, and the city became a center for oil leasing activities. Bismarck continued to cope with floods and droughts, but farms thrived because of improved farming methods. Bismarck's population soared to 27,670 people in 1960. During that decade, attention turned to soil and wildlife preservation and water conservation, and new office buildings, a junior college, a conservatory of music, and highways were constructed. Construction continued into the 1970s, when shopping centers and homes were built, and prospects for Bismarck's growth and prosperity looked bright.

Today Bismarck is the center of North Dakota state government and home to an impressive historical museum as well as several colleges, including a unique intertribal college owned and operated by five Native American tribes. A thriving medical, transportation and trade center, Bismarck boasts amenities typically found in much larger cities.

Famous or notorious former residents of Bismarck include poet James W. Foley, author of the official state song and several books including Prairie Breezes; Alexander McKenzie, politician, friend of the railroads, and the man credited with moving the Dakota Territory capital to Bismarck; the French-born Marquis de Mores, who hoped to establish a huge meat packing industry in the Badlands, was tried three times in a sensational murder case and found not guilty, and who founded the town of Medora, North Dakota, named in honor of his wife; former President Theodore Roosevelt, who owned a cabin in town from 1883 to 1885 when he was a rancher in the Badlands; and General E.A. Williams, first representative from Burleigh County to the Territorial Assembly.

Historical Information: State Historical Society of North Dakota, State Archives & Historical Research Library, Heritage Center, Capitol Grounds, 612 East Boulevard Avenue, Bismarck, ND, 58505-0830; telephone(701)328-2666, fax (701)328-3710


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