Not to be confused with Fargo State Representative Jim Kasper, an advocate for North Dakota becoming a legal safe haven for online poker parlors, the original Poker Jim is a legendary North Dakota Badlands cowboy who lies buried in a cemetery that bears his name in McKenzie county, near the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Poker Jim, who’s real name remains a mystery (likely by his own choice), may have loved the game, but his last act before his fellow cowboys laid him to rest was to break up a game, sending cards, cash and cowboys flying through the air.
No doubt the colorful cowboy’s story has been told around many a badlands campfire over the years. Our source is Leonard Lund, reporting from Squaw Gap, as published in the Minot Daily News on this day in 1973.
Poker Jim was probably an outlaw who came into the area with a cattle drive from the south. He was employed by the Frenchman Pierre Wibaux of the enormous W Bar Ranch. Wibaux was a contemporary of the Marquis de Mores and Theodore Roosevelt. Unlike his contemporaries, Wibaux’s ranch was a profitable operation, and became the largest cattle operation of the time.
Lund writes, “During the winter of 1894, Poker Jim…and a companion, Cash Lantis, were stationed at the line camp at the mouth of Hay Draw near the Little Missouri. By February their food supply had gotten so low that Poker Jim was delegated to ride to Glendive, Montana, at least 65 miles away,” for provisions.
“But he never made it back. About a week later cowboys found his frozen body propped against a huge scoria rock along a small frozen creek about 10 miles from the cow camp. Poker Jim’s horse, tied to a tree, had eaten off the bark. Burned matches about the corpse were evidence that Poker Jim had tried to build a fire.”
“Harlowe (Tough) Bentley reported that Poker Jim, whose love for gambling was exceeded only by his fondness for whisky, had seemed a little sick from drinking when he left the Smith Creek line camp that last morning.”
“After staying overnight with Bentley at the horse camp, Poker Jim began the 16-mile ride back to his camp on Hay Draw. Those who found Poker Jim’s frozen body carried it into a small shack and placed it across the rafters, in cold storage.”
“Later another group of men gathered at the shack for a poker game. They heated the building and the body gradually thawed. Finally if fell right onto the poker table directly below. According to the tale, no poker game ever broke up so fast.”
“Poker Jim was laid to rest beside his old friend, Sid Tarbell, the first person to be buried on the hill overlooking the cow camp.” Several others have been buried there over the years, but the cemetery bears the name of one unforgettable nineteenth century cowboy…Poker Jim.
“Poker Jim Dropped in On…” Minot Daily News 24 Feb. 1973, p.11.
Dakota Datebook written by Russell Ford-Dunker