Settlers Before Fargo is Founded

There were a number of trappers (mostly French-Canadian) who worked in the northern part of Dakota Territory in the early 1800's, but these men were more nomads than settlers. The first settlements were made at Pembina in 1812 by Scottish and Irish families (the Red River Settlement). Fort Union was established in 1828, serving as a base of operations for John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, which controlled the region's trade. In 1832, the paddlewheel steamer Yellowstone traveled up the Missouri River, enhancing trade and transportation. The first permanent settlement was established in 1851 when another group settled at Pembina. The first post office was established at Pembina in 1851, with Norman Kittson as Postmaster.

The mixing of the early French traders and the Native Americans in the upper Red River Valley created a new ethnic group called the Métis. The Métis have a colorful history in their struggles for homeland in Canada and in their lifestyles. Descended from Euro-American fur trade employees and Chippewa Indian women, the Métis melded the two cultures in language, lifestyle, and economy. In the 1840's, regular caravans of high-wheeled wooden Red River carts began hauling buffalo robes and pemmican, the proceeds from semi-annual hunts, to St. Paul along well-worn trails. The Métis center in the United States was St. Joseph (now Walhalla). The Métis nation, however, faded as the buffalo became ever less available east of the Missouri River.

The city of Walhalla is one of the earliest settlements in North Dakota and the Upper Midwest. LaVerendrye, an early French explorer, traveled in the Pembina Hills area a full century before other North Dakota areas were settled and explored. As the pressure to move toward western frontiers gained momentum, development of new areas occurred first along the best transportation routes, which were the rivers in this area. The Red and Pembina Rivers provided the needed transportation for the fur traders and explorers in the early 19th century. Father Belcourt is credited with establishing the city of Walhalla (about 35 miles west of Pembina) in 1845. Father Belcourt moved his church school from Pembina to Walhalla due to severe flooding in Pembina. He named the site St. Joseph, which was later changed (in 1871) to Walhalla—"Valley of the Gods."

Walhalla Trading Post (postcard courtesy Don Schiele)

Norman Kittson, an American Fur Company agent, built a trading post in Walhalla to gather the abundant furs from the Indians who trapped in the Pembina Hills. This trading post, the oldest building in North Dakota, is preserved by the State Historical society in Walhalla. Another trading post, located northeast of Walhalla, was established by Antoine Gingras as early as 1844. Gingras worked with Kittson in establishing Walhalla as a major trading area at that early period of North Dakota's history. Another early settler was Charles Cavalier. Cavalier, the first permanent settler in the Dakota Territory, took charge of the trading post in Walhalla in 1854.

Fort Abercrombie was established August 28, 1857 on the west bank of the Red River of the North at Graham's Point, twelve miles north of the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers. Established by Lieutenant Colonel John J. Abercrombie, 2nd U.S. Infantry, for whom the post was named, it was intended to protect settlers in the Red River Valley from the Sioux Indians. Latter on in its life, Fort Abercrombie was the terminus of the military mail routes from Fort Stevenson via Fort Totten and from Fort Wadsworth (Ft. Sisseton) via Fort Ransom. Evacuated on July 25, 1859, but reoccupied in July, 1860, and rebuilt. Abandoned on October 23, 1878, the buildings were sold to area settlers for their use. The military reservation was transferred to the Interior Department on July 14, 1880.

American settlement of the Northern Plains commenced in earnest when Dakota Territory was organized by Congress on March 2, 1861. Mahlon Gore entered the first land in Dakota Territory under the Homestead Act. Mr. Gore registered his land (near Vermillion) on January 1, 1863. A number of homesteaders quickly followed.

Before Fargo and Moorhead were established and settled, there were a few settlers nearby who had come to the area before the railroad. In July 1858, Edward Griffin, Robert Davis, and Walter Hanna (all of Red Wing, Minnesota) arrived at the Red River seven miles south of present-day Moorhead, near where Fort Abercromie was to be built in August of that year. Griffin's group spent the winter of 1858 at a townsite called Lafayette, near the mouth of the Sheyenne River, about 11 miles north of Moorhead. This townsite was being held for St. Paul parties by Charles W. Nash, Henry Brock, Edward Murphy, and Harry Myers. A similar townsite was being held on the Dakota side of river for Pierre Bottineau by Frank Durant and David Auger. Their townsite was called Dakota City. George W. Northrup (interpreter and guide) was holding a nameless city one mile north of the Sheyenne on the Dakota side. George Myers and Harry and Richard Banning were holding a townsite at Banning's Point, one mile south of the Sheyenne. There were about 15 people associated with these speculative townsite holdings.

Randolph M. Probstfield came into the area in the spring of 1859. George Emmerling arrived with Probstfield but went on alone to St. Joseph's (now Walhalla) where he built the first flour mill in North Dakota. When Probstfield arrived in the area he found Adam Stein and E.R. Hutchinson who became permanent settlers at Georgetown. Probstfield settled in Oak Point, seven miles north of Moorhead.

There was also a man named James Anderson living one mile north of Fargo who was called "Robinson Crusoe." These men named above were practically the only settlers on the Red River south of Pembina in 1859.

In 1859, Georgetown was established about 16 miles north of present-day Moorhead by James McKay for the Hudson Bay Company. A warehouse, store building, shops, and similar buildings were erected. The company town was run by Robert McKenzie until he froze to death returning from Pembina with supplies. He was succeeded by James Pruden and Alexander Murray. R.M. Probstfield took charge in 1864. There were 30 men employed at Georgetown in 1862.

Other Red River Valley settlers near this time included Peter, Joseph, and Adam Goodman (brothers of Mrs. Probstfield) who arrived in 1861; Charles Slayton and his family in 1859; and Zere B. Slayton settled one mile north of Fargo in 1861.

The first farm in the Red River Valley was established in 1858 when Edward Connelly broke 50 acres near Georgetown for the Hudson Bay Company. Connelly brought 20 men with him for that purpose. Commercial farming was a more than a decade away for North Dakota, however. It has been estimated that there was less than 100 acres under cultivation for any purpose in North Dakota in 1870.