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September 2: Duncan McGillis and the Bald Eagle Episode

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When you see an eagle soaring on high in the skies, you might marvel at its magnificent size, with a wingspan seven-feet-wide. You might admire the bald-eagle’s snow-white head and tail gleaming in contrast with its chocolate-colored wings and body. You might visualize an eagle’s claws or its pointed beak that rips and tears its victims into bite-sized pieces. Eagles truly are legendary as birds of prey.

For the North Dakota family of Duncan McGillis (1860-1946), eagles became unforgettable because of an early 1890s incident. McGillis was one of Bismarck’s early settlers, arriving in the fledgling community in 1878. He married Elizabeth Wilcox in 1887, and in 1889, they had a baby girl they named Helen.

On this date, in 1892, the Bismarck Tribune reported a nightmarish episode at the McGillis farm, which was located at Baldwin, north of Bismarck.

Little Helen, almost three years old, was playing outside on a Sunday in late August. Duncan was not at home, having gone to Bismarck, and Elizabeth was in the house. Helen was playing make-believe with her doll just outside, when Mother Elizabeth heard a scream.

Mrs. McGillis rushed out, and there stood Helen, holding fiercely onto her doll, but the toddler’s face had been “cut in several places.” Hovering just above were three large eagles. As soon as the eagles saw Mrs. McGillis, they gave an angry scream and flew away.

Helen’s face and lips were cut, bruised, and painful, and while she eventually recovered, scars remained.

Years passed, and more children were born, then grandchildren.

One of the grandsons, Duncan Perry (1927-2010), a well-known dentist in Bismarck, re-told the story in 1997, over a century later, offering more details:

“My grandmother was outside” of the “little shack on the farm” with 3-year-old Helen. Helen was wearing a little white dress. Suddenly my grandmother saw that a huge eagle had swooped down, grabbed Helen and was trying to carry her away. It actually had Helen a little bit off the ground. My grandma came flying out with a broom and began to swat it away. It finally let go of Helen.” As Duncan Perry related the tale in 1997, he noted that Helen had lasting scars on her neck.

The eagle and Helen had become an enduring family legend.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM Professor of History

“Last Sabbath, While Duncan McGillis Was In Bismarck,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, September 2, 1892, p. 8.
“Bismarck Pioneer Dies at Age of 85,” Hope Pioneer, May 16, 1946, p. 2.
“Mrs. D.J. McGillis, 78, Dies Saturday Afternoon,” Bismarck Tribune, October 9, 1944, p. 1.
“Duncan Perry,” obituary, Bismarck Tribune, June 21, 2010, p. 5.
“Prairie Perils Force Family Into Town: McGillis-Perry,” Bismarck Tribune, (Bismarck-by-the-river, Special Edition), June 22, 1997, p. 60.
“Dunc Here 55 Years,” Bismarck Tribune, September 7, 1935, p. 3.
“Bald Eagle,” Smithsonian National Zoo, nationalzoo.si.edu, accessed on August 4, 2022.
“Bald Eagle,” N.D. Game and Fish, gf.nd.gov, accessed on August 4, 2022.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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