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Dennis Hannafin, Irishman


With tomorrow being St. Patrick’s Day, we bring you the story of one of North Dakota’s better-known Irishman. He was a Civil War veteran, a frontiers-man, a friend of governors and of the men who made governors, but he was also an enemy of Native Americans. He was born in 1835, and yesterday was his birthday.

Dennis Hannafin came from Ireland when he was ten. His father died during the journey, and “Dinny” became the man of the family when they reached Buffalo, New York. To support his family, he shined shoes, sold newspapers and did farm work. As stated in a 1917 Bismarck Tribune article, he also earned “a splendid course in the university of hard knocks.”

In the Civil War, he took part in Sherman’s march to the sea, then headed west to work for the Union Pacific Railroad, but he mostly made his living from gambling. In 1870, he migrated north to work for the Northern Pacific and was one of the first white men to locate on the site where Moorhead now stands.

When he learned the railroad was going to establish a new town where it would cross the Missouri, Hannafin’s gift of gambling paid off big. He and several friends outfoxed rich St. Paul speculators by getting there first, where they squatted on 80 acres of prime land along the riverbank. The rich folk had to settle for land two miles east. There, Hannafin opened a saloon – an interesting career choice, because Hannafin didn’t drink. In fact, he supported prohibition.

Because of his shrewd land grab and his passion for politics, he soon earned the nickname of “the squatter governor.” He had a biting sense of humor and wasn’t afraid to express his opinions. An 1894 article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press states that “Denny Hannafin was at the Ryan last night (where he said), ‘The only trouble with Bismarck is that there ain’t half enough funerals. I’m going to see if I can’t have my mandates obeyed during the next session of the legislature, and get rid of some the (blank) fools. They seem to have forgotten the fact that when I was elected president of the Suicide club, I was elected for life, and what I say still goes.’”

The article went on to say that Hannafin was in St. Paul to recuperate after an election. Hannafin had chosen to support a man named Budd Reeve, saying, “He is the only man in North Dakota politics that’s always right... (but) the fool democrats didn’t know enough to vote for him. It was a one-man nomination. I held a convention all by myself and nominated Budd... You see, according to my idea of things, there are two kinds of honest men in politics. The man that you can’t buy, and the man who will stay bought. Well, the pops come in neither category. They are wolves, and, as I told the party this fall, the trouble with them is, they ain’t satisfied with the earth – they want too many planets – and I don’t know how it is with you, but up in Bismarck we haven’t any planets to spare.”

In the fall of 1873, Hannafin discovered a 3-foot wide vein of lignite near the town of Sims, which today is a ghost town. Believing the lignite might someday be valuable, he staked a 600-acre claim on Indian-held land. There he established Fort Hannafin, which became the target of daily Indian attacks. At one point, Hannafin and his partners were given protection from an attachment of cavalry sent out by Hannafin’s friend, General Custer, but as a former fighter in Indian wars, Hannafin shunned Custer’s help. Hannafin turned out to be right about the value of coal. By the following year, the town of Sims had a population of 1,000, most of who were cashing in on coal mining. Hannafin died on November 4th, 1917, in Bismarck.

Written by Merry Helm