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July 4: Independence Day

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North Dakota has a lively history of local Independence Day celebrations. Here is a sampling of the Fourth of July from way back when.

In 1880 in Bismarck, there were many festivities over three days for the Fourth. About 200 people rode a train west to the Green River on a newly laid extension of the rail line. They enjoyed a meal, music and dancing before returning east.

At Fort Abraham Lincoln, an entertainment troupe performed.

At least 400 people picnicked in an elm grove near Apple Creek.

The Rosebud steamboat carried 150 people and a band downstream to Fort Yates. They arrived too late to catch a Lakota sun dance performance, but they did catch a military band and a dress parade. 

Other events included horse races and a tightrope walk over Bismarck’s Main Street.

In 1886, a young Theodore Roosevelt gave an Independence Day speech in Dickinson. He had been ranching and hunting for a few years in the Badlands around Medora. The cowboy and future president spoke afternoon from atop a soapbox on the edge of town. He was initially hard to hear over the wind. He said: “I am myself at heart as much a westerner as an easterner; I am proud indeed to be considered one of yourselves, and I address you in this rather solemn strain today only because of my pride in you and because your welfare, moral as well as material, is so near my heart.”

In 1916, a bachelor preacher in McKenzie County journaled about the two-day festivities at Watford City. Those included a band that repeatedly played the only four tunes in its repertoire; a “terribly stale” baseball game between Watford and Banks; and a bronco busting contest. The next day, the city provided free beer at the back of a blacksmith shop, and despite North Dakota being a dry state, it was a local marshal who doled out the beer! The afternoon included bareback and “saddle and go” races and another bronco bucking contest. One horse ran between two houses, forcing the rider to throw himself off to avoid having a clothesline take off his head! He won first prize.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1880, July 9. Page 1: Fourth festivities
  • The Saint Paul Daily Globe. 1886, July 6. Page 4: Dickinson’s jubilee
  • Jamestown Weekly Alert. 1886, July 8. Page 1
  • The Bad Lands Cow Boy. 1886, July 8. Page 4
  • Vivian, J.F. (1989). The romance of my life: Theodore Roosevelt’s speeches in Dakota. Published for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation by Prairie House, Inc.: Fargo, ND. Pages 7, 10
  • “Called to the Prairie: Life in McKenzie County, North Dakota, 1915-1916, From the Journals of the Rev. Richard C. Jahn.” Edited by Richard P. Jahn Jr., Jan Dodge and Dennis E. Johnson, 2014, Catlinberg Publishing. Pages 169-171
  • Schmidt, A.J., Vermeer, A.C. (2009). Railroad development in North Dakota, 1872-1956. Summit Envirosolutions, Inc.: St. Paul, MN. Retrieved from: history.nd.gov/hp/PDFinfo/North-Dakota-Railroads-MPDF-Final-corrected.pdf

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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