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Duncan Graham


In the early days of the U.S., there were people who fought heroically for King George, yet turned up later as a champion for the Stars and Stripes. Duncan Graham was one such person.

James Alexander Duncan Graham was born to aristocratic parents in the Highlands of Scotland in 1772. At the age of 20 he rejected his nobility and immigrated to North America, landing at York `Factory on Hudson Bay. Graham traveled south with a party of Scottish Highlanders to establish a colony at the confluence of the Pembina and Red Rivers. He eventually set up trading posts near the present-day regions of Fargo and Grand Forks.

His days of trade were interrupted by the War of 1812. As a loyal British subject, Graham joined the British army. He was commissioned as a lieutenant and assisted in the successful recapture of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Graham was promoted to the rank of captain, and placed in command of one of two companies stationed at the fort.

The United States immediately made plans to recapture the Prairie du Chien fort. The task fell to American Major Zachary Taylor who sailed up the Mississippi with 8 gunboats and 350 men from the 7th U.S. Infantry Division. Captain Graham was sent to intercept the American force with 30 volunteer fur trade employees, 1,200 Native Americans and an arsenal composed of only one artillery cannon.

Before daybreak on the morning of September 5th, Graham spotted the American flotilla. The first shot from the single British cannon blasted through the bow of one of Taylor’s boats, while Graham’s men opened fire on the Americans.

Major Zachary Taylor thought he was up against six artillery canons and concluded his objective was hopeless. For the first and only time in his long military career, Taylor ordered a retreat. Thanks to Duncan Graham’s actions, Prairie du Chien remained under British control for the remainder of the war.

After the War of 1812, Graham resumed his trading operations. He pressed further west, and was the first white man to settle in the Devils Lake area. Building a stockade on “Graham’s Island” he traded with the local Native Americans who referred to him as “Big Foot.”

Only a decade after fighting against the Americans, Duncan Graham was commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army, and in 1834 became a U.S. citizen. He was stationed at Fort Snelling, and was instrumental in helping bring about peace between the Dakota and Chippewa in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Graham retired in 1834 ... and in what is now Mendota, Minnesota, he died -- on this day in 1847.

Written by Richard Campbell


Eriksmoen, Curt. Did You Know That…? 47 Fascinating Stories About People Who Have Lived in NORTH DAKOTA: Volume 1. (McCleery & Sons Publishing, 2006)

"History and Links," City of Pembina, ND, http://pembina.govofice.com.

Wells, Philip F. "Ninety-six Years Among the Indians of the Northwest-Adventures and Reminiscences of and Indian Scout and Interpreter in the Dakotas." North Dakota History vol. 15, no. 2 (1948): 85-133.[podcast]http://www.prairiepublic.org/media/dakotadatebook/2008/Dec/01.mp3[/podcast]