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A Kind-Hearted Old Soldier

One August afternoon in 1896, the editor of the Emmons County Record greeted a well-known visitor to his Linton office. The editor called him by one of his many nicknames, “Colonel Ben Corbin, the Wolf-Worryer from Wayback.” Colonel Corbin bore gifts — a “nice mess of catfish,” which he taught his host how to skin for the table.

Weeks ago I was going deep into the history of catfish in Dakota Territory, discovering that popular tastes happily embraced channel catfish as table fare. I thought this line of inquiry would enter the realm of folklore — likely some good fish stories.

I did not anticipate an encounter with a larger-than-life legend. Bill Corbin was a frontier figure of considerable fame. As with many such, however, his fame passed with the frontier, turned into notoriety, and ultimately a pitiable state. Frontier figures from Linda Slaughter of Bismarck to Quannah Parker of the Comanche Nation made successful transitions to settled and progressive times. But not Bill Corbin.

Like many frontier figures in Dakota Territory, Corbin was a Civil War veteran — a private soldier in Company F, 34th Iowa Infantry. He lived for twenty years or so after the war in Iowa. Federal veterans got favorable terms for homesteading, so, ahem, Private Corbin came out to Dakota and proved up a claim on the lower reaches of Beaver Creek.

This was convenient to its juncture with the Missouri River, where Uncle Ben, as he also was called; or Ben the Elder, to distinguish him from his son; or “The Terror of Beaver Creek;” or most commonly, “the Wolf-Slayer,” harvested catfish for sale in nearby communities. He announced by newspaper in 1887 he would supply all comers with fish. Any veterans, he said, could find his place by the American flag posted on it, and they would get a free dinner.

Besides his veteran status, Corbin had another social advantage: he was Anglo-American. Anglo-Americans got newspaper coverage, and their eccentricities were endearing. Foreigners were amorphous, objects of local color, not candidates for individual frontier fame.

In the 1880s Emmons County, which today we class as German-Russian country, was not. Few Germans from Russia had arrived; there were some other immigrants, but Anglo-Americans were the pioneers. In the fall of 1888 the editor of the Record took a ramble along Beaver Creek, which he considered “a paradise for the man who wishes to raise both stock and crops.” Along the way he met Corbin, “On his way home from the lower Beaver, where during the warm season he captures — and supplies the public with — fish, grape juice, etc.”

Settlers took claims along the creek first, because of its advantages — including fish. As reported, “near every residence along the creek, the settlers have built fish-traps ... The traps are made by damming the creek and putting in a chute made of boards, with a slatted box under the lower end.” The first German-Russian settler, a Mr. Brown with his wife, had arrived on the creek and lived in a house made of Batsa, earth brick. “The adobe brick were made,” we are told, “of clay tramped in a pit by oxen, mixed with grass, hay or straw, moulded in a box, dumped on the ground and dried.” Both Mr. and Mrs. Brown made the Batsa.

Anglo-Saxon bottomland culture peaked by the early 1890s. When Corbin married off his daughter to Herbert Smith from Fort Rice, the wedding was the biggest dance the country had seen. The wedding was scheduled for 4pm, but the groom and the father of the bride were missing — ostensibly obtaining the marriage license. The dance commenced with two fiddlers, food and drink were plenty, the missing parties finally arrived for a midnight wedding, and the dance continued until after daylight. Editorial compliments for “the good-natured and kind-hearted old soldier and his estimable wife” were profuse.

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