Bygone times: A snapshot history of Morton County
(This story is reprinted from Nov. 15, 2013. Katie Jones, the editor of the Mandan News at the time, who passed away on Dec. 30, 2013, began a wonderful series that was not able to come to fruition. Our current editor, Dustin White, has taken that series back up. The series is being dedicated to her memory).
North Dakota has a written history that goes back to the 18th century, when explorers, trappers and fur traders roamed the prairie in search of adventure and fortune.
However, the history of the land started many years before the European settlers made their way onto the prairie.
The Mandan and Arikara Native American tribes inhabited the area, with mostly Mandan tribes living in what is now Morton County. The book “Mantani,” by Sarah Tostevin, outlines the history of Morton County and says, “According to Mandan legends they reached the Missouri River at the mouth of the White River in South Dakota. From this point they moved up the Missouri to the Heart River where they established their villages.”
Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye was the first European to explore the area, and was a French Canadian military officer, fur trader and explorer. He visited the welcoming Mandan tribes around 1738 and documented his findings at each of the six villages.
The North Dakota territory exchanged hands over several years, starting first with France, then with Spain and ultimately, of course, the Unites States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Lewis and Clark mapped the area in their exploration of 1804 to1806, following the Missouri river north and west. They camped for the winter of 1804 near present-day Mandan, raising the U.S. flag for the first time in North Dakota.
According to, “North Dakota Post Offices: 1850-1982,” by Alan H. Patera and John S. Gallagher, “The fur trading companies in the area were the only representatives of civilization of this period, crude though they were. They were the law and order providers and enforcers, as well as, the providers of the mail and freight services. They provided their own banking system, with trade tokens known as, ‘made beavers.'”
According to “Mantani,” the North West Company near Pembina, bordering Minnesota and two miles south of the Canadian border, established the first fur trading post, in 1797. Other posts were established nearby in 1801, by the Hudson Bay Company.
The first attempt at settling North Dakota was in 1811, by Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk in Scotland, who was ejected from the Duchy of Sutherland estate back home. He was part owner of the Hudson Bay Company, a fur and trading business.
Selkirk established the settlement near Pembina, by the trading post, bringing with him many settlers from Canada. He had the idea of developing an agricultural colony; however, he didn’t supply agricultural tools for the society and thus discontent spread.
The discontent also spread through his business connections when the Northwest Fur Company led a massacre in 1816, in which Robert Semple, the governor of the Hudson Bay Company, was killed. Today, it is know as the Seven Oakes Massacre.
Although the settlement was abandoned in 1819, this settlement at Pembina was the first settlement of the Europeans in North Dakota.
Explorers scouted the west, while portions or all of Morton County were attached to territories such as Louisiana, Great Northwest, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, before becoming part of the Dakota Territory on March 2, 1861.
There were few substantial settlements west of the Missouri River until the 1860s, when gold was discovered in Montana. The discovery created considerable steamboat traffic on the river, resulting in the establishment of several military forts. According to Patera and Gallagher, The army’s presence was needed against the Sioux tribes, for the growing numbers of settlers and builders of the railroad.
Camp Greene was a military supply camp established in April 1872, under the command of Lieut. O.D. Greene from Fort Rice. The camp was three miles south of the current Fort Abraham Lincoln site and was thought to be the permanent post; however, three months later the camp was abandoned and the garrison was withdrawn to establish Fort McKeen, known today as Fort Abraham Lincoln.
Also formed in 1872 was Morton County, named after Oliver Hazard Perry Throck Morton, who was the governor of Indiana during the American Civil War and later became a U.S. Senator. However, Morton County was not as we know it today, because the county also consisted of portions of Grant County.
According to “Mantani,” “It seems the County of Burleigh had a longing eye on the eastern part of the county.” In 1878 the Morton County commissioners suddenly found themselves residents of Burleigh County, because the eastern portion of the county was acquired. However, things were back to normal by Feb. 18, 1881, when the last was granted back to Morton County.
During the 1880s homesteaders staked out the most arable land and the population swelled. The population of Morton County swelled from 200 in 1880, to 4,728 in 1890.
To accommodate the growing population a large number of post offices were established to meet the areas postal needs. For example, throughout the 1880’s and 1890’s, Morton County gained around 20 new post office locations according to Patera and Gallagher.
New communities sprung up in the hopes the Northern Pacific Railroad would come through their town. Some towns faded quickly while others endured. Many post offices in Morton County were located on a settlers ranch and survived until the railroad established its ties.
According to the “Railroads and the Agricultural Development of the Red River Valley of the North, 1870-1890,” by Stanley N. Murray, Colonization offices and vast immigration efforts were established in German and Scandinavian countries by 1886. The railroad was attempting to attract farmers to the area.
The N.P. Railroad advertised and attracted immigrants with waves of settlers first from English and Irish decent, then Scandinavians in 1881 and shortly thereafter Germans followed. Around 1890, many Germans from Russia immigrated to Morton County, according to the “Morton Prairie Roots,” by Marion Plath Peterson for the Morton County Historical Society.
“Many people were attracted to Morton County by the Northern Pacific Railroad. The railroad needed construction workers to help lay the tracks west. Other people were attracted by the coal mines in the county, and many came for the ‘free land’ offered in the Homestead Act. Many of the people from Fort Rice and Fort Abraham Lincoln remained and settled here.”
In 1883, the main line of the Northern Pacific was completed and by 1886, the company put down 164 miles of main line across North Dakota.
On Nov. 2, 1889, both North Dakota gained its statehood, but much of North Dakota west of the Missouri River was not fully settled until 1910.
The U.S. Census taken in 1910, states the population was at 25,289. The population plummeted the following years and didn’t grow past that number until the census was taken again in 2000.
At one point and time there were 46 separate post office locations throughout Morton County – Only seven exist today within Almont, Flasher, Glen Ulin, Hebron, New Salem and two in Mandan. The county is also devised of three unincorporated communities including Huff, St. Anthony and Sims.
To help tell the history and current status of many Morton County settlements, villages, post offices and coalmines, the Mandan News is archiving the history of as many sites as possible. If anyone has information they would like to share please don’t hesitate to contact the Mandan News by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 701-663-1164.