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September 14: Woodcutter Joseph Dietrich

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Go West. In 1869, at age 23, Joseph Dietrich (1846-1931) left his safe life in Wisconsin, seeking gold in Montana. He never reached those goldfields. Instead, he found his life in Dakota Territory.

Traveling up the Missouri River from Sioux City in September, the first steamboat he took broke down partway, and the next steamboat carried him only to Painted Woods by October, when early ice and snow forced the boat’s captain to turn back, leaving Dietrich behind.

Dietrich immediately surrendered his dreams of gold and became a woodcutter at Painted Woods, a woodland about 25 miles north of where Bismarck would soon be founded. Dietrich chopped a whole lot of tough cottonwood that winter, piling it up the steamboats’ return in the spring.

The next year, 1870, Dietrich got work at the forts of North Dakota. First at Fort Stevenson, then in the stores at Fort Berthold and Fort Buford.

Because he was an expert rifleman, Joe Dietrich next became partners with the famous marksman Charles Reynolds, shooting deer, elk, and antelope to supply meat for Fort Stevenson and Fort Rice. This 1871-1872 partnership taught him the best ways to hunt, fish, and trap throughout the region.

Upon hearing about the Northern Pacific Railway laying tracks westward from Fargo in 1872, Dietrich claimed land in Burleigh County, at Burleigh Town, figuring he could get properties where the Northern Pacific would cross the Missouri River.

But the railroad crossed instead at Bismarck, so Joe made the two-mile move from Burleigh Town to Bismarck, becoming one of its early settlers.

By 1876, he had married Honora Crane and they built a house on Thayer Street, where they raised three children.

Dietrich got into various business ventures, doing well. He operated a Black Hills freight service and supervised his own horse-drawn bus service between Bismarck and Mandan. Later, Joe owned a meat market.

One of Bismarck’s old settlers, he lived a long life, dying of heart disease at the age of 85, in 1931.

It was on this date, in 1922, that the Bismarck Tribune published an article recognizing the Dietrich family as one of the ‘first families’ of Bismarck, recounting Joe’s early days chopping wood along the Missouri.

Dakota Datebook by Steve Hoffbeck, Retired MSUM History Professor


  • “Joseph Dietrich, Pioneer, Came Up Missouri River Here In 1869,” Bismarck Tribune, September 14, 1922, p. 23.
  • “Oldest Resident of Bismarck Succumbs at 85,” Bismarck Tribune, December 23, 1931, p. 1, 7.
  • “To Raze Bismarck Landmark,” Bismarck Tribune, October 17, 1959, p. 1, 2.
  • “Mrs. Patrick Byrne, Oldest County Native,” Bismarck Tribune, May 4, 1974, p. 18.
  • Richard J. Wolfert, Quarter Sections and Wide Horizons, Vol. II (Bismarck: N.D. State Library, 1978), p. 409-410.
  • “Pioneer Daughter,” Bismarck Tribune, July 29, 1972, p. 1.
  • “Joe Dietrich,” Washburn [ND] Leader, August 10, 1901, p. 1.
  • “William H. Mercer,” Compendium of History and Biography of North Dakota (Chicago: Geo. A. Ogle & Co., 1900), p. 70.
  • Mary Ann Barnes Williams, Origins of North Dakota Place Names (Washburn: Bismarck Tribune, 1966), p. 49, 54-55.

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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