In the poem "The Death of General Grant," Walt Whitman wrote:
Thou from the prairies! Tangled
And many veined and hard has been thy past
In 1885, The Griggs County Courier published these lines from Whitman’s book, “Leaves of Grass.” The editor further stated, “The poem seems to be an attack on the General, or else Walt got wound up with tangle-foot when he was in the weird west.”
Life in Dakota Territory in 1885 was indeed sometimes “the weird west.” It was unglamorous and far-removed from the comforts of eastern cities. But local newspapers did provide a connection to the rest of the country.
Newspaper growth mirrored the population boom in the Territory, which grew from 2,400 people in 1870 to 190,000 in 1890. According to the American Newspaper Directory, in 1872, there were 87 newspapers in “The Territories.” By 1885, there were 521.
In the early 1880s, North Dakota towns were usually no more than a name on a map and a few makeshift homesteads. Newspapers, like the Griggs County Courier, were among the first businesses to open. The papers were typically funded by wealthy business owners or investors, hoping the news of their young, prosperous town would encourage further settlement.
The Courier was funded by R.C. Cooper, a Bonanza farmer who came to the Sheyenne River Valley in 1880 and founded Cooperstown. In 1881 he built a boarding house and hotel, became a county commissioner, and harvested his first crop. In 1882, Cooperstown became the Griggs County seat. After this, Cooper needed a newspaper. He bought a printing press, having it shipped most of the way by rail, but the last 40 miles required a mule-drawn wagon. The paper’s first editor was a recent graduate of Michigan State University. True to the paper’s purpose, he described Cooperstown as “the most promising city in the universe.”
However, the editor left his post within a year, and his successor didn’t last much longer. It was a time of change, and pioneering newspapers came and went, as even the towns themselves lasted little more than a few years. However, the Griggs County Courier is published in Cooperstown to this day.
And Walt Whitman, who was born this date in 1819, wrote in his preface to Leaves of Grass that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
And we from the prairies are still writing our verses.
Dakota Datebook by Maria Witham
Cooperstown Courier. 26 Jan. 1883: p.4
Griggs County Courier. 29 May 1885: p.1