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The Two Fargos

1/5/2004:

Fargo had been bustling five years before it was officially incorporated on this day in 1875. When the railroad headed west, there was a flurry of speculation to determine where it would cross the Red River, because it was forecast that the crossing would be the site of the next large city.

To deal with spring floods, surveyors had found the highest place to cross the river, at what is now Moorhead, but they had to keep it secret so the railroad could buy the land before anyone else did. As a subterfuge, they leaked word that the crossing would be farther north, and almost everybody believed them and moved up to the Elm River. But several thought it was a trick and daily patrolled the riverbanks for signs of a different site being chosen. Sure enough, someone spotted activity where Fargo now lies, and there was a quick rush to claim land there.

It soon became a mess to determine who actually owned the land at and around the crossing. Congress had issued a land grant to the railroad, three settlers legitimately staked claims to it, and there was also a group of squatters hired by the Puget Sound Land Company living on it – all maintaining that they were the rightful owners.

In the meantime, two towns sprang up. About a quarter mile from the river, General Rosser organized “Fargo on the Prairie,” with almost 100 people living in fifty tents outfitted with all the amenities. A contingent of the army lived there, as well, and law and order prevailed.

Down near the riverbank by the ferry landing, was another tent village called “Fargo in the Timber.” This was an entirely different story. Gordon Keeney, Fargo’s first postmaster, wrote, “The only thing Fargo in the Timber had in any great quantity was a fair quality of whiskey. This whiskey was usually drunk from a tin cup, and it is generally supposed that whiskey from a tin cup is more enlivening than if drunk from a glass. Whether this be so or not, Fargo in the Timber was a particularly lively place, and it was seldom, day or night, that someone was not trying to work off a “tin cup jag”...

“.... A large tent, 25 x 60, was built well down toward the river, and here a dance was held as often as it was thought enough ‘girls’ could be found to make it interesting for the ‘boys.’ The house paid for the music, and the only expense was for the dancers to respond promptly to the call, ‘Swing your partners half-way round and sashay to the bar,’ (where) the ‘boys’ – who were sometimes gray haired men – would pay for the drinks or cigars for two. The ‘girls’ usually took cigars which they would sell back to the house next day.”

Needless to say, the two Fargos didn’t get along. General Rosser had nothing but contempt for the timber folks, and the riverbank squatters looked for any opportunity to irritate him.

Remember that land squabble? Well, it turns out that Fargo in the Timber wasn’t owned by any of the three that claimed it. It was Indian land, and in February, 1872, a detachment of troops from Fort Abercrombie made the squatters move back across to Minnesota. Those engaged in selling liquor were arrested...and their whiskey went back to Fort Abercrombie with the soldiers.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm