Ben Bird, North Dakota Cowboy Poet
Ben Bird was a true cowboy in North Dakota history. He knew how to herd cattle and how to rope and ride.
Born in Texas in 1864, Benton “Ben” Bird came to Dakota Territory in 1886, when he worked for the OX (OH-EX) outfit. He was a cowboy in the great cattle drives, guiding thousands of longhorns to the Little Missouri River country. He rode north with the cattle several times in his early 20s, but in 1892, he decided to quit his migratory ways. He settled down in North Dakota, acknowledging “that he liked it better than any place he had ever been.”
Ben Bird homesteaded in the Heart River country near Almont, where he established his White Butte Ranch and raised horses. Being skilled at roping, he competed in rodeos from 1893 to 1915. He also served as a law enforcement officer for over 25 years, because of, as the Bismarck Tribune reported, his “expert horsemanship, along with his sterling character.”
It was on this date, in 1962, that Ben Bird died, at age 97. The Tribune called him the oldest living cowboy at the time of his death, a poet at heart, who could “see and appreciate the beauties and mysteries of nature.”
Ben had said: The plains and deserts of the West were like television for the cowboys, because some afternoons, cities seemed to rise up out of nowhere, beautiful cities in the sky, and antelope fifty-feet high, lakes and trees and whole herds of cattle that turned out to be – a mirage.”
The liveliest times came when an electrical storm put St. Elmo’s Fire “on the cattle horns and horses’ ears until the bobbing flashes would make the herd of 3,000 cattle really restless.” Then a “solid flash of light would blaze,” and “likely as not” we would “have a stampede on our hands.” It “looked like the whole world was afire, flashing and streaking, blue fire, red and yellow,” when the static-electricity became “ball lightning.”
And then, there were the Northern lights. According to Ben Bird, nothing could compare with the “Dakotas for Northern lights.” They were beautiful, what he called real television.
Dakota Datebook co-written by Levi Seidel, MSUM History graduate, and Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department.
Bea Peterson, “Famed Dakota Cowboy Dead at 97,” Bismarck Tribune, April 4, 1962, p. 9.
“Ben Bird, Veteran of the Saddle, Still Going Strong,” Bismarck Tribune, May 28, 1949, p. 6.
“White Butte Ranch,” in Standard Atlas of Morton County, N.D., 1917 (Chicago: Geo. A. Ogle & Co., 1917), p. 85.
“Ben Bird,” N.D. Cowboy Hall of Fame, https://www.northdakotacowboy.com/ben-bird, accessed on March 2, 2020.