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Those Who Dwell in a New Territory


“The business in which I was interested was that of live stock: cattle and sheep, chiefly the latter,” writes Edson C. Dayton in his memoir, Dakota Days. I like the way he writes: understated, meticulous, and yet partaking of the energy and sweep of his place and time.


Livestock, chiefly sheep, were his business in Dakota Territory (becoming North Dakota) during the years 1886-1898, but they were not his initial reason for coming to the territory. A New Yorker and a theology student, Dayton suffered from what he called “bronchial hemorrhages.” An old college mate, the Presbyterian minister C. B. Austin, had gone west to Bismarck, and he advised the ailing friend, “Why don’t you come out to Dakota and try that climate?”


Which he did, making his home in Mandan for several years, but his condition worsened into what he termed “breakdown of the throat.” Dayton consulted with Dr. Henry W. Coe of Mandan, whose name the history wonks among us will recognize as that of the man responsible for the placement of equestrian statues of Theodore Roosevelt in Mandan, Minot, and Portland, Oregon, whence he ultimately relocated. Coe gave Dayton a gloomy prognosis: his condition would only worsen.


Dayton got a second opinion from Dr. W. E. Fraser of Bismarck, who gave him more hope and told him to double down on his initial course--to “remain in Dakota and live out of doors.” So, as recounted in a previous essay, Dayton relocated to Dickinson in 1889; established sheep ranches on Cedar Creek, on the Cannonball, and at Black Butte; and at one point had 12,000 sheep ranging the Missouri Plateau, the West River country Dayton called the Missouri Slope.


Now in 2020, as we ramble through our summer patriotic holidays, seems a good time to recall the occasion when Dayton shared a speaker’s platform in Dickinson with Roosevelt. TR spoke on the 4th of July, 1886. Being a stodgy academic, I have to observe the future president’s remarks were a splendid expression of chaos theory a century before such a thing existed. I am licensed to exercise professorial prerogatives because Dayton himself says that TR, in physical posture as well as rhetorical form, spoke from “an academic position.”


“It always seems to me that those who dwell in a new territory,” he begins, “and whose actions therefore are particularly fruitful for good and for bad alike, in shaping the future of the land, have in consequence peculiar responsibilities.” This is a statement of what we today would call the butterfly effect, only with a twist, investing the process with a sense of agency: actions have consequences; they may be formative in ways we cannot foresee.


“We must never exercise our rights either wickedly or thoughtlessly; we can preserve them in but one possible way, by making proper use of them,” Roosevelt says. “In a new portion of the country, especially here in the far west, it is peculiarly important to do so; and on this day of all others we ought soberly to realize the weight of the responsibility that rests upon us.”


Now page forward to 1937. Dayton concludes his memoir: “One night, in the middle of the night, a new and far-reaching collateral connection bore down on me,” he writes. “It was almost like a revelation, and being all alone, I exclaimed, as if I had discovered a world: ‘I, I, am a member of the race and “nothing human is foreign to me”.’ A race consciousness took possession of me and awed me. There was an awareness never before had that I was an integral part of what Shakespeare called ‘the whole race of mankind.’ How far are the individuals who compose the world of today from realizing this fact and being governed by it, the solidarity of mankind and its corollary the Golden Rule!”


May your 4th this year be glorious in the fashion of the young Roosevelt and the venerable Dayton.


-Tom Isern

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