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An Unremarkable Life

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On this date in 1907, an obituary appeared in the Bismarck Daily Tribune. Readers learned that Henry Porter had been found dead. At first glance, there did not seem to be very much about Henry that was special. But for all the lack of detail, the brief obituary gives tantalizing hints.

The newspaper estimated that Henry was about seventy-six years old. At that time, it was common for a person to not have a birth certificate. This was especially true for a former slave. Henry was a black resident of Bismarck, born in Missouri in what the newspaper called “the old slave days.” He had lived as a slave until the Civil War.

There is no story about how Henry escaped slavery, but he had joined many other former slaves in offering his services to the Union Army. At first, blacks were denied the opportunity to serve in uniform, but abolitionists lobbied for blacks to be accepted. Americans like Frederick Douglas, Horace Greeley, and Minnesota newspaper editor Jane Swisshelm argued that the Civil War was less about states’ rights and more about putting an end to slavery. In 1862 Congress passed the Militia Act, which approved enlisting black soldiers.

While Henry Porter did not serve as a soldier, he supported the Army by working as a teamster. He stayed in service until the end of the war. But the conclusion of the war did not bring peace and safety for the former slaves. The end of Reconstruction and the violence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan prompted many to move West to build new lives, and one avenue was to participate in the Homestead Act to establish their own farms.

But former slaves filled many roles in the American West. Aside from farming, they were cowboys, soldiers, newspaper editors, and doctors. They were elected to state and local offices. They built churches and schools.

Henry Porter had joined the exodus west, moving to Bismarck, probably in 1876. He lived an unremarkable life, as did so many others. The American West could not have been settled without those ordinary lives.

At the end of his life, Henry had no family, but the other black residents of Bismarck took charge of his remains and a proper burial.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Bismarck Daily Tribune. “Found Dead.” Bismarck ND. 8/5/1907. Page 4.

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