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May 15: A Wild and Wooly Town

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Located near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, Williston was founded in 1887. Railroad magnate James J. Hill named the town for his friend, Daniel Willis James. Williston is the county seat of Williams County. At the time of Williston’s founding, Dakota Territory was untamed. Far from population centers like Fargo and Bismarck, Williston quickly developed a reputation as a wild and wooly town.

Early in its history, Williston became associated with saloons. In 1888, before the territory became a state, a farmer was killed in a barroom brawl. He was hit over the head by the saloon owner, who then took off for Canada.

When North Dakota became a state in 1889, it entered the Union as a dry state, its Constitution including a prohibition of alcoholic beverages.

The following year, the Oakes Republican congratulated Williston for not having any trouble during the July 4 celebration, despite the fact that Williston had eleven illegal saloons!

Williston’s wild reputation continued into the twentieth century. In 1901, the town made an attempt to shut down the saloons. Several owners were arrested and it looked like Williston had turned the corner on the way to becoming “civilized.” But North Dakotans were stunned when Judge Cowan threw out all the cases on the grounds that some jury members were biased. In spite of the dismissal, the Williston Graphic was able to report by September that there were no saloons left.

In 1902, several of the former saloon owners avoided prosecution by signing an agreement never to do business in North Dakota again. On this date in 1903, the Bismarck Tribune reported, “At present, Williston has no saloons of any nature and the signs of the times would indicate that it would not be well for one to open up.”

Today there are a few bars in Williston, but there are many other reasons to visit. The National Park Service maintains Fort Union, a reconstruction of a fur trade era fort. There’s also Fort Buford, on the National Register of Historic Places. The Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center is a museum that presents exhibits on the Lewis and Clark expedition and highlights the importance of waterways that once served as frontier highways. James J. Hill would no doubt be pleased that the Amtrak train known as the “Empire Builder,” named for him, still runs through Williston on its way from Chicago to the Pacific Coast.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Carole Butcher


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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