Newspapers Write North Dakota’s History

Winistorfer, Jo Ann. "Newspapers Write North Dakota’s History." North Dakota Living, November 2006, 28-30.

Decades before the two Dakotas become states, Dakota Territory residents were already reading local newspapers.

Missionaries brought the first real printing press to what is now northeastern North Dakota. They used it to print news and reports of their activities, which they then sent to supporters back East.

The Frontier Scout, dubbed the state’s first newspaper, was issued July 7, 1864, at Fort Union, a trading post near present-day Williston. The Scout enabled troops stationed at this remote outpost during the height of the Civil War to read news of the post and its surrounds.

The Aug. 17 issue of the Scout discussed bedbugs at the post. Erling Nicholai Rolsfrud wrote the following excerpt from the paper in his “The Story of North Dakota”: “We have seen (bedbugs) in battalions, in divisions, in army corps, all sizes, regularly organized, thoroughly drilled. Not content with disturbing our sleep, they are on the paper when we sit down to write. If we have a game of cards, bedbugs form the hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs.”

In 1865, the last Frontier Scout was printed at Fort Rice, on the west side of the Missouri River south of Mandan.

Pioneers bring their presses

The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, promised 160 acres of free land to citizens who agreed to work and live on the land for five years. News of this offer soon reached Europe and Scandinavia, leading to a mass exodus of immigrants to the United States.

What began as a trickle of homesteaders into northern Dakota in the mid-1860s, became a flood in the next decades.

Many old-stock Americans pulled up roots in the East and South to settle in the Midwest, some as land speculators and businessmen, others as farmers and ranchers. A few brought their printing presses to prairie communities to which they moved.

One such adventurer was Col. Clement A. Lounsberry, a Civil War veteran. A visit to the Missouri River settlement of Bismarck soon convinced the young editor-entrepreneur of the town’s potential. In 1873, “The Colonel” moved to Bismarck, where he established North Dakota’s first official newspaper, The Tribune. The old Washington hand press was hauled from Minneapolis to Bismarck, partly by railroad and partly by a team of horses.

The Bismarck Tribune made its debut in July 1873 as a seven-column weekly. Three employees worked there when it first opened its doors. Production time was one paper per minute—on a good day! In 1881, the Tribune became a daily and remains so to this day.

In 1876, Lounsberry would get the scoop of a lifetime: He relayed the story of the Battle of the Little Big Horn to newspapers in the East via telegraph, publishing details on the front page of The Bismarck Tribune.

The Colonel sold the Tribune in 1884, later helping to found the State Historical Society of North Dakota, publishing a historical monthly magazine, and writing a book, “North Dakota: History and People.” He eventually moved to Washington, D.C. He died there in 1926 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Soon after The Tribune came into existence, the Fargo Express, The Grand Forks Plaindealer and The Jamestown Alert made their appearance. The Grand Forks Herald began in 1875. In 1879, the Fargo Daily Argus began circulating its papers. A subscription cost $1 a month, or $10 a year.

Despite fire and flood

Fires were the scourge of early-day newspapers. A devastating fire wiped out the Argus newspaper plant in 1886. Its publisher, Major A.W. Edwards, was soon forced into bankruptcy, but soon recovered. In November 1891, he and a printer friend, H.C. Plumley, started The Fargo Forum.

The great Fargo fire of 1893 destroyed three printing plants—the Forum, Daily Republican, and the Commonwealth. The Bismarck Tribune recovered from three separate fires—in 1885, 1898 and 1920.

And then there was the weather. The Argus described the blizzard of March 1892 as “the worst storm that has ever been known in this section.”

The newspaper claimed that, at the height of the storm, the four-story, brick Argus building, “swayed and rocked fearfully.”

Floods also took their toll on the printing plants. The Grand Forks Herald, which flooded and burned during the flood of 1997, was not the only printing establishment to suffer from Mother Nature’s fury. The severe winter of 1896-97 led to a March deluge that flooded the entire Red River Valley, spreading 50 miles wide in places. In the editorial style of the times, the Forum reported, “Passengers from the East this morning saw three horses and four cows on the roof of one barn—with the water still rising.” And, “Island Park deserves its name—there isn’t much left of it—in sight.”

From boom to bust

The Great Dakota Boom had a major impact on the newspaper business. Northern Dakota’s population exploded from 16,000 in 1878 to 190,000 in 1890, a year after Dakota Territory was split by statehood.

According to “Dakotans Are Reading People,” a history of the North Dakota newspaper Association (written in 2004), in 1890, “only 50 incorporated towns and villages dotted the landscape, but nearly 135 newspapers competed for readers, with more papers starting up monthly and even weekly.”

By 1910, more than 344 newspapers documented news and events of the developing state. Often taking sides, newspapers would wrangle with opposing papers over political issues. Accompanying these tirades were cartoons containing unflattering caricatures portraying politicians of the “opposing party.”

The newspapers benefited from an amendment to the Homestead Act the required homesteaders to “publish notices of their claim in five consecutive issues of the newspaper nearest their claim.” These Proof Notices netted the newspapers a healthy profit. According to Rolfsrud, “The fee for printing homestead claim notices ranged from $5 to $6.50 each. Some newspapers carried over 200 such notices in one issue.”

That all ended in 1919, when a law passed limiting the number of newspapers publishing these official notices. Many newspapers, however, were unable to survive on local advertising and subscription revenue alone. A farm economics crisis contributed to the decline. As a result, more than 200 newspapers folded within a five-year period.

Many smaller papers merged with those in neighboring towns and were thus able to hang on. For others, such as the Mannhaven Journal (1900-04) and the Omemee Herald (1889-1918), the newspapers died with the towns. In some cases, they were absorbed by the other papers. The Sanish Sentinel (1915-52), for example, was swallowed up by Lake Sakakawea’s backwaters, but continued on as part of the New Town News.

News for everyone

Early newspaper titles were often catchy, many featuring alliteration. They included names such as the Bowbells Bulletin, the Casselton Courier, the Dodge Dispatch, the Monango Mirror and the Willow Lake Wave.

Others looked to the sky for inspiration, resulting in names like the Fargo Moon and the Jamestown Sun.

Early-day newspapers often featured “canned” national news and political cartoons on what was called “ready print.” Thus, an eight page paper would feature four pages of pre-printed items, leaving four blank pages for local printers to fill.

Local “news” columns of the day lumped items together, so that an obituary, for example, might be tucked in-between items about a runaway horse and a garden party.

For instance, The Mower County (Minnesota) Transcript carried the following in its Feb. 10, 1904, paper: “GRAND MEADOW. Mr. And Mrs. Geo. Correll entertained a large card party Friday evening. C.W. Martin has the grippe. Mrs. Olson died at her home near Racine Friday night.”

“Mrs. Olson” was this author’s step-great-great grandmother, Magdalena Trondsdatter Dokken Olsen, who settled in Mower County, Minn., in 1854.

The obituary of Magdalena’s stepdaughter, Mrs. Knute (Anne) Temanson (my great-grandmother), of Fertile, Minn., appeared under the following headline in a 1916 paper: “PIONEER WOMAN CROSSES DIVIDE.”

Each item was written in flowery language. News of criminal activity was sensationalized to the point where the suspect could hardly receive a fair trial.

Many of the early immigrants from foreign counties could not read English. Norwegians could subscribe to out-of-state newspapers such as the Dakotah Posten. Swedish immigrants could read the Svensk-Amerikanska-Posten, which began in 1885.

German newspapers also flourished in North Dakota. Der Staats-Anzeiger was published in Rugby, beginning in 1906. Deutsche Pionier operated out of New Salem from 1905-13.

Other towns—from Abercrombie to Zap—published German language pages in their newspapers, or printed whole papers targeted to their German or Germans-from-Russia subscribers and advertisers.

From ads to advocacy

By 1880, the Argus was advertising everything from anti-rheumatic underwear to Pride of the West threshing machines.

Display ads in the 1910 Forum offered the latest in automobiles, including two “Torpedos.” They sold for $2,250 each.

Along with printing ads of local businesses, the local newspaper took a stand on everything from politics and prohibition to splitting Dakota Territory into two states.

While The Bismarck Tribune banner had been proclaiming “Bismarck, North Dakota” since 1880 (nine years before statehood), the editor of the Argus opposed statehood, as did many other editors. They used their editorial license to voice their opinions in their papers.

The Nonpartisan League, which began during the hard times of the late teens of the 20th century as a farmer’s advocate, used the power of the press to spread its message. Eventually the group established its own newspaper.

Law preserves all N.D. newspapers

From territorial days to the present, local newspapers contained a treasure trove of historical information on businesses, social conditions and people in the communities they covered.

Fewer than 100 newspapers thrive today in North Dakota. But thanks to a law passed in 1905, copies of most of the state’s newspapers have been preserved for modern-day researchers. The law requires publishers to send two copies of every newspaper to the State Historical Society of North Dakota, where they are microfilmed and available for research. Newspapers published before that date are also being sought for the collection.

Reprinted with permission of North Dakota Living.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller