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John Tyler


On January 14th, we brought you a story about John Tyler, a popular black rancher in Slope County in the late 1800s. Tyler was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and was also a favorite of Madam Medora de Moores. He was known for his sense of humor and loved to tell stories of how scared he was when he came to Dakota Territory from Washington DC as a teenager.

In about 1900, Tyler went east to find a wife of his own race and returned with a lovely woman named Fanny. They homesteaded near the Dog Tooth Buttes and later adopted a little girl named Ella. The Tylers were popular and became known for their hospitality and their beautiful gardens.

John enticed another black man, Daniel Weaver, to come to the area and homestead, too. John and Fanny proved up in 1911, and Weaver proved up two years later. Weaver was older, and his health wasn’t good. On a January day in 1917, Tyler discovered his friend dead at his log cabin.

The following year, Tyler lost his beloved Fanny to the 1918 flu epidemic. He took it hard, and his life started to go downhill. He sent little Ella to Dickinson to attend the St. Joseph’s School, and his home soon became a haven for bachelors, ranch hands and homesteaders who liked to drink and play cards. Before Fanny’s death, people never saw Tyler get drunk; in fact, when a man named Mat Walzer once gave John some snuff, Tyler promptly passed out.

One of the men who began hanging out on Tyler’s ranch was a neighbor, Charles Bahm, whose story was later published in the Slope Sage. Bahm said that during spring breakup of 1924, “when the snow was melting and the river was high, some young bachelors (including me, Greggs and the Hartman brothers) were at John’s home playing cards and indulging in moonshine. John cooked for the party while all hands did their share in cleaning up after dinner. They played Penny Ante Poker all night and apparently John had gotten somewhat behind on his debts to Greggs for which he gave him a check or county warrant belonging to (his daughter) Ella (for killing magpies). The game and drinking continued on through the night. During (that) time Greggs tried to return the check to Tyler who refused to accept it.”

The story went on to say that when morning came, Tyler and Greggs went outside, where they got into an argument. When they came back inside, the argument persisted and Tyler hit Greggs with a rifle barrel. When Greggs fell over, they all assumed he passed out – until they couldn’t revive him. The men decided to call the county sheriff, but the river was too high to cross. John instead went outside and called to a neighbor that he had killed Greggs.

Tyler was tried for Gregg’s death six months later in Amidon. The trial lasted about five or six days, and each day the courtroom was filled with Tyler’s friends and neighbors. Reportedly, they were all relieved when he was found not guilty.

A few years later, Tyler went into the hospital suffering from dropsy and jaundice. He called for Father George Aberle, saying, “I never was baptized, and I want to die as a Christian.” The Dickinson priest baptized him and prepared him for his death, which came several days later.

The Slope County Post reported, “Another is gone who saw the beginning of settlement here, who lived the life of the Old West. Many stories of historic value will be buried with him today.” That was reported on this day in 1928, one of the “coldest and stormiest days of the year” – the day Tyler was laid to rest in Dickinson’s St. Joseph’s Cemetery.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm