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Early Dakota Markers

North Dakota’s southern boundary is not the same as it was when the state was young. Towns have come and gone; the Missouri River is dammed; and roads have been constructed. In the autumn of 1891, it was hard going as Charles H. Bates and his eight-man survey crew moved west along the prairie, following the seventh standard parallel and planting quartzite monuments every half-mile to mark the Dakotas’ boundary.

Besides physically marking the border in changing weather and topography, Bates’ crew also had to conduct an original survey of the Sisseton Wahpeton Indian Reservation, which overlapped states’ border.

Bates had began the work in mid-September after crossing the Missouri at Fort Yates to the town of Winona, which also had the nickname “the Devil’s Colony” for its drunken debauchery. That old town site is now under Lake Oahe.

Bates worked his way to the states’ border, then followed the parallel east to the border of the Sisseton Wahpeton Indian Reservation. From there, he used the North Star to find his latitude, and continued east to find the Bois des Sioux River, which marked the border with Minnesota. Back then, the Bois des Sioux was dry and “nothing but a marsh bed.”

With the three states meeting in the streambed, Bates placed the initial marker on dry land nearby.  From there, the crew worked westward, using the nearby town of White Rock, South Dakota, as a base for receiving mail and supplies.

On this date in 1891, Bates’ crew was working in the area of Lidgerwood, North Dakota and had a long way to go. He informed the General Land Office that he wasn’t sure how much surveying he could do. The markers weren’t arriving on time, and winter was threatening. He was also facing hilly country with ravines and trees as he reached the Coteau des Prairies near Havana, North Dakota.

Nevertheless, he and his crew did reach the Missouri River that fall. In six weeks, across 190 miles, they planted more than 380 markers weighing 800 pounds each. And Bates was right about winter. For 50 miles, his crew had worked in snow, which blew into steep drifts in places. They set a marker just east of the Missouri River in mid-November before extreme cold and snow ended the season. Bates wintered in Yankton.

With the completion of the eastern half of the border surveyed and marked, he was eligible to receive 90% of his $21,300 compensation, but it would be 18 months before he saw a penny. And there were many more miles to go.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Iseminger, G.L. (2007). The quartzite border: Surveying and marking the North Dakota-South Dakota boundary 1891-1892 (2nd ed.). The Center for Western Studies: Sioux Falls, SD

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