Worthless Railroad Land

Feb 7, 2018


As settlement of northern Dakota Territory was well underway, two military leaders disagreed in letters to newspapers about the plains’ main attraction: fertility of the land.

Brevet Major General William Hazen was commanding officer at Fort Buford, which was southwest of present day Williston at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. He bristled at the “false advertising” meant to attract settlers to the Great Plains, which he saw as arid and infertile. Hazen submitted letters to various publications in the early 1870s, denouncing the speculation of land promoters.

Here’s an excerpt of a letter he wrote to the New York Tribune, published on this date in 1874: “Excepting the very limited bottoms of small streams, as well as those of the Missouri and Yellowstone … this country will not produce the fruits and cereals of the East for want of moisture, and can in no way be artificially irrigated, and will not, in our day and generation, sell for one penny an acre, except through fraud or ignorance,” His letter had the headline “Worthless Railroad Land,” in reference to farmers west of the 100th meridian who purchased land from the railroad or took advantage of the Homestead Act.

Downstream on the Missouri River, General George Armstrong Custer countered Hazen’s sentiments, writing from Fort Abraham Lincoln. In his letter to the Minneapolis Tribune, Custer  questioned Hazen’s credibility to judge the land, but admitted that the Little Missouri Badlands were worthless. He also described “an almost unbroken sea of green, luxuriant, wavering grass.”

Meanwhile, settlement in Dakota Territory was growing as the Red River Valley was settled. The Northern Pacific railroad had crossed west over the Red River in 1872. Contrary to Hazen’s beliefs, North Dakota’s landscape flourished as farm and ranch land, which today covers about eighty-nine percent of the state.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura




Wilkins, R.P., Wilkins, W.H. (1989). North Dakota: A bicentennial history. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc: New York, NY.