Liberal Arts Blog — Bismarck, North Dakota — the Great Anomaly, Second Fiddle, Teddy Roosevelt

Liberal Arts Blog — Sunday is the Joy of Humor, Food, Travel, Practical Life Tips, and Miscellaneous Day

Why would any state capital have a German name? How could that name have survived the anti-German sentiment of World Wars I and II? Which Dakota is it the capital of anyway? Three questions that have haunted me for decades. Today, some clarification, a few random notes, and a vain quest to find something beautiful in the town itself. This is the second in a series on state capitals that I have never visited. The idea is to get out of the Boston bubble. Never having driven cross-country, I thought it was time to do so virtually. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

THE MYSTERY OF THE NAME — finally solved

1. Original name: “Missouri Crossing” — because Lewis and Clark crossed the Missouri River there in 1804.

2. Then came “Edwinton” — named after the engineer-in-chief of the Northern Pacific Railway, Edwin Ferry Johnson.

3. 1873: name changed to “Bismarck” (the only state capital named after a foreign statesman) by the Northern Pacific Railway in the hopes of attracting German settlers. It kinda worked. (See Demographic section below.)

SECOND FIDDLE TO FARGO — the pearl of the Red River Valley

1. Bismarck (pop 70,000) is only the second-largest city in North Dakota.

2. Fargo (pop 124,000) is located in the Red River Valley, on the border with Minnesota (highlighted above). Bismarck in on the Missouri — that would be the river that comes into the northwest corner and descends through the center into South Dakota. Unfortunately could not find a map that did justice to both cities and rivers.

3. Demography: 92% white, 4% black, White breakdown: 56% German, 20% Norwegian, 7% Irish, 7% Russian, 4% of English descent. For context 49 MM Americans claim to be of German ancestry (16% of the total). Second prize: Irish at 35 MM. Third: Mexican at 31 MM. NB: The biggest employer is Sanford Health. The second is the state of North Dakota.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT’S CABIN — on the State Capitol grounds (until 1959)

1. “I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” (Theodore Roosevelt)

2. In 1884, Roosevelt’s mother and wife died within hours of each other. He sought solace in the wilderness of the Dakota badlands.

3. “I do not believe there ever was any life more attractive to a vigorous young fellow than life on a cattle ranch in those days. It was a fine, healthy life, too; it taught a man self-reliance, hardihood, and the value of instant decision…I enjoyed the life to the full.”

NB — The cabin is now in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the only one named after a single person — and appropriately so given that he put 230 million acres into conservation!!!! He also wrote three books about his years as a cowboy — Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, and The Wilderness Hunter. Don’t miss the story about how Teddy the cowboy brought three thieves to justice (last link below). You really, really, can’t make this up. The Park is 133 miles from Bismarck. A hop, skip, and a jump away by western standards.

Bismarck, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt bibliography

Elkhorn Ranch



Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.

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John Muresianu

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.