A few miles west of Stanley, ND, is Ross, which technically existed as a town site as far back as 1887. It was really just a Great Northern stopping point back then, consisting of a siding and a water tank. Then, around the turn of the century, development began, and on this date in 1902, a post office was established.
Ross has a couple claims to fame; it was the home town of Ruth Olson Meiers, who was the state’s first female Lieutenant Governor. Historians state the Ross community also had the oldest known Muslim group for organized prayer in America.
The primary ethnic group in that area came from Syria, starting with a pioneer named Hassen Juma, who settled on 160 acres in 1899. Nearby was Sam Omar, and by 1902, twenty other families had followed their path from Bire (Berrie) and Rafid, Syria.
These families ran into problems, because the U.S. objected to their naturalization, but in 1909, the government withdrew the ban, and Syrians were able to apply for citizenship.
As the Ottoman Empire blurred territorial boundaries in the Middle East, Arab settlers were variously called Turks, Syrians or Lebanese, depending on what country presently claimed their homeland. While as many as 90% of the Syrians who emigrated to this country were Christians, the group at Ross were Islamic; their North Dakota neighbors called them Muhammadans.
To give a little background, Muslims believe in a chain of prophets starting with Adam and leading up through Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Job, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Elias, Jonah, John the Baptist, and Jesus. Muslims diverge from Christians at this point, believing God reconfirmed his message through one more prophet – Muhammad – who began receiving revelations from the angel Gabriel in the (Christian) year 610.
The Muslims in Ross prayed five times a day and gathered in each other’s homes for Jumah – a prayer service held on Fridays. The leaders for these meetings were educated laymen, as there was no iman – or Muslim prayer leader – in the community.
In 1929, the residents built a Jumah mosque which is said to be the Nation’s first. Accounts differ, but it’s generally agreed that other Muslims around the country organized their mosques in rented spaces. The mosque at Ross is said to be the first built specifically as a house of worship.
The building itself was not an attractive one. It was long and low, sunk into the ground. There’s a reason for this; it was intended to be the basement of a structure yet to come. Unfortunately, the depression hit soon after it was built, and the transformation never happened. The building was used as late as the 1960s – by then, intermarriage had led many to join Christian churches.
In 1983, author Francie Berg wrote: “The potential significance (of the building) went unknown for many years. However, a few years ago, the North Dakota Historical Society began some research into the mosque, intending to submit it for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, in order to preserve it. Researchers soon were disappointed to find out the building had been torn down a year or two earlier.”
While the mosque is gone, the Arabic cemetery remains. You can spot it by its arched gate adorned with a crescent and star.
Sources: Berg, Francie M., Ethnic Heritage in North Dakota, published by the Attiyeh Foundation, 1983; William C. Sherman et al, Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History, North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1988; http://www.muslimunited.org/topics/und_islam.html; Douglas A. Wick, North Dakota Place Names, Sweetgrass Communications, 1988
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm