Steele County Organized
Three of the smallest counties in North Dakota are found in a neat horizontal row in the east-central part of the state, sandwiched between Cass and Barnes counties on the south, and Grand Forks and Nelson counties on the North. From east to west, starting at the Red River, they are Traill, Steele, and Griggs counties. The threesome is easy to spot on a television weather map. Prior to June of 1883, the same area contained just two counties—Traill and Griggs.
In early 1883, the one-year-old town of Hope was situated in the southeast corner of Griggs County. In the months prior to the June election, the Hope Pioneer newspaper ran numerous articles in support of taking ten townships from Griggs and ten from Traill to form a third county, which would be called Steele.
The same newspaper carried huge ads for the Red River Land Company, offering 30,000 acres of “choice lands” and town lots in Hope. Incidentally, the Red River Land Company, the Hope townsite, and the newspaper were owned by a Minneapolis investor by the name of Edward Steele...and his wife Hope.
The Steeles were Minneapolis merchants, and had no intention of living in Dakota. This was an investment—a promising opportunity to make a lot of money in a short time—with the added benefit of having your name on the map. Settlers were pouring into Dakota. The Steeles could double or triple their money on the farmland in short order and make a killing on the town lots—assuming the town continued to thrive.
The town’s hopes were well founded—it was on a rail line and Governor Ordway had designated it as the county seat of Griggs County initially. All had gone according to plan until the Cooper brothers platted their town in central Griggs County and the voters decided to move the county seat to Cooperstown. Hope was a convenient location for visitors from Minneapolis or Fargo, but not so for many county residents.
The Steeles’ strategy for Hope to regain coveted county seat status was to form a new county. They had powerful allies in the territorial capitol, and for added leverage the county records had been hijacked at gunpoint from Cooperstown and held hostage until the plan for Steele County was created and set before the voters for approval.
Hope and Steele County interests also took advantage of a parallel county seat war in Traill County. Hillsboro and Mayville-Portland were competing for the county seat there. Eastern Traill County voters agreed to give up the western townships for the new county because the population loss would weaken Mayville-Portland’s position.
All the political maneuvering (and perhaps some election-day subterfuge) paid off when the voters of Griggs and Traill approved the creation of Steele County by a small margin. On June 13, 1883 the first meeting to organize the new county was held in the parlors of the Steele’s grand Hope House hotel.
During the marathon meeting, a delegation of about 75 men and women made their way across the prairie to Hope in a long caravan from Hillsboro. That night, Hope and Hillsboro—both named for Minneapolis elite—celebrated their victory with dinner and dancing “into the wee hours.” Can’t you almost smell the cigar smoke and hear the music and laughter emanating from the Hope House that warm summer evening?
Written by Russell Ford-Dunker
Steele County 1883-1983. (1983). Finley, ND: Steele County Press.