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March 6: Is Your Mother A Woman?

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This week in 1886, readers of the previous day's Bismarck Weekly Tribune were treated to a glorious tall tale. It mocked the information required for proving up land claims. It read:

“Cross roads newspapers amuse their readers by the publication of such items as the following:

Questions to be added to Land Commissioner Sparks' catechism, to be asked the claimant when proving up:

  1. In what state were you born, and is your mother a woman?
  2. Are you a Christian or a Democrat?
  3. What is your sex, and how do you know?
  4. Does your wife cook potatoes with the skin on?
  5. What is the difference between a hypothetical hyperbole and a perpendicular parallelogram?
  6. What was your name before you left the States?
  7. Do you want the land for a farm or a skating rink?
  8. Do your wife's folks live with you, and how old is your grandmother?
  9. Have you ever told a lie?
  10. If so, has it ever been found out?

The party satisfactorily answering the above questions will get his patent from the local land office.”
This fake news story became highly appreciated. It got reprinted not only throughout Dakota Territory, but in dozens of newspapers across the United States.

For example, the Jamestown Alert fittingly reprinted this story on April First. It got reprinted in Deadwood three days later. The Philadelphia Inquirer reprinted it, as did newspapers in Yazoo, Mississippi, and San Diego County, California.

The Western Cyclone, a historically black newspaper based in Nicodemus, Kansas, carried the story later that year in July.

In December, newspapers in Idaho would carry this story under the caption “Queer Questions.”

This lampoon, with its intrusive, stupid, and pointless questions, expressed exasperation with the red tape for which the United States General Land Office had become notorious.

This questionnaire also reflected the controversial tenure of Commissioner William Sparks. At the time, local Bismarck notable Linda Slaughter was waging a lobbying campaign on behalf of squatters seeking land patents on the old Fort Rice reservation, now called the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation.

So, the Bismarck Tribune probably had an ax to grind.

Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel


  • Bismarck Tribune, 5 March 1886, page 4, column 6.
  • On, 47 examples of this questionnaire come up when the term search “is your mother a woman” get used.
  • “Sparks' Catechism”, Jamestown Alert, 1 April 1886, page 1, column 6.
  • “Additional Proof,” Black Hills Weekly Times (Deadwood, DT), 4 April 1886, page 8, column 4.
  • “An Order from Sparks.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 April 1886, page 4, column 6.
  • “An Order From Sparks.” Yazoo Herald (Yazoo, MS), 23 April 1886, page 4, column 3.
  • National City Record (National City, CA), 15 September 1887, page 1, column 6.
  • Western Cyclone (Nicodemus, KS), 1 July 1886, page 2, column 1.
  • “QUEER QUESTIONS”, The Free Press (Grangeville, ID), 3 December 1886, page 4, column 1.
  • “Queer Questions”, “Idaho Tri-Weekly Stateman (Boise, ID), 11 December 1886, page 4, column 1.
  • “A HALT IN DAKOTA SURVEYS,” Bismarck Tribune, 5 February 1886, page 1, column 5.
  • “Chicago News: Commissioner Sparks continues to make himself unpopular with land grabbers.” Bismarck Tribune, 12 February 1886, page 7, column 3.
  • “... address of Mrs. Linda W. Slaughter,” Bismarck Tribune, 5 March 1886, page 4, column 1.
  • “THE petition of the honest settlers of the old Fort Rice reservation...,” Bismarck Tribune, 5 March 1886, page 4, column 2.
  • “The powers at Washington move slow.” Bismarck Tribune, 5 March 1886, page 4, column 4.
  • “NEWS NOTES AND COMMENTS: A Huron dispatch says...”, Bismarck Tribune, 12 March 1886, page 2, column 4.

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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