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Dakota Datebook

Cannonball River Legend


The Cannonball River got its name from the stones found in its waters and along its banks that are so round and smooth that they “greatly resemble cannon balls.” 

The spherical rocks vary in diameter with sizes like musket balls, baseballs, cannonballs, and even boulders—two-feet tall.

Area residents often removed the round rocks as souvenirs, often finding them where the Cannonball River joined the Missouri River, 45-miles-south of Bismarck.

A legend arose, questionable in its truth, about the stones.

In 1889, a writer explored the “mystery of the origin[s]” of the Cannonball River. This “special correspondence” for Iowa’s Sioux City Journal spun a tale of the day “when the heavens fell” in a battle between the Dakota people and the Crow tribe. It was a time of incessant inter-tribal warfare, with great loss of life, supposedly-set in the late 1840s.

As the tale was told, the Dakota were much-beleaguered and took refuge in a stronghold. The Dakota leader, Long Red Dog, reportedly told his people: “The Crows have reinforced their already powerful army . . . and we are doomed to die an ignominious death . . . The Crows will swoop down upon our devoted children and destroy everything in their path . . . We must flee for our lives.”

In gloomy resignation, the Dakota made a hasty flight. When they reached the shore of the Cannon Ball river, their scouts discovered the “advance guard of the Crows” on a “hilltop not a half-mile distant,” making “further flight . . . out of the question.”

The Dakota determined to “fight the foe to the bitter end.” A terrible battle raged and just when the Dakota were weakening, a legendary storm arose.

The daylight “turned into a night as dark as ink,” and the heavens rained down “falling stones,” pelting the Crow warriors, killing many; and causing the rest to flee, never to return.

Marvelously, “not a single member” of the Dakota tribe had been hit by the “molten stones.”

On this date, in 1890, a reprinting of the reputed Cannonball River legend appeared in a Minnesota newspaper.

Was this tale true? Was it a cleverly-devised fable? Could it be that the “thousands of cannon-ball stones” along the Cannonball River testified to its truth? Perhaps it is an unbelievable story.


Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department.



“When the Heavens Fell,” St. Paul Globe, March 17, 1890, p. 8; reprint of “A Sioux Indian Legend,” Sioux City Journal, October 27, 1889, p. 12. Also, “Cannon Ball River,” Wahpeton Times, March 13, 1890, p. 6; “When the Heavens Fell,” San Francisco Examiner, January 26, 1890, p. 20; and numerous other U.S. newspapers in 1890.

“Cannonball Curiosities,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, January 5, 1911, p. 7.

“The Banner City,” Bismarck Tribune, May 18, 1883, p. 8.

Mary Ann Barnes Williams, Origins of North Dakota Place Names (Washburn: Bismarck Tribune, 1966), p. 286.

Maximilian, Prince of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America (London: Ackermann and Company, 1843, in Reuben Gold Thwaites, Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, Vol. XXII (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1906), p. 338.

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