© 2023
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Mysterious Pipe


On a cold day in February of 1913, Mr. W.W. Potter of Bowman County watched curiously as an owl swooped down and disappeared into a hole in a pile of rocks on his property. On a whim, he walked up to the hole and stuck the barrel of a gun in the opening. But he found no owl-only a pile of dry grass, which he scooped out with his hand. As Mr. Potter sifted through the debris, an old briar pipe and lead pencil fell on the ground at his feet. Believing that a sheep herder must have left the artifacts while passing through, he casually picked up the pipe and stuck it in his pocket.

It wasn't until that evening, when Mr. Potter's wife examined the pipe, that they realized the historical value of the object. As Mrs. Potter dug out clay from the bowl, she discovered a small scrap of paper buried at the bottom. The fragile paper contained a note dated June 17, 1873. It was written by an American soldier lost on the North Dakotan frontier. Though the soldier only managed to write a few brief words, the scrap of paper told the story of his tragic death.

The young man, who signed his name "J. More," wrote that he had become detached from his Company. While wandering the plains alone, More encountered a band of Indians and was surrounded. Though he claimed to have held off the hostile natives for three days, he was eventually shot in the chest. As the soldier lay dying, he wrote a farewell note recounting his final struggles, and stuffed it into the briar pipe. He also left instructions guiding the finder of the pipe to his hidden valuables, which he had concealed under a stone on the "third hill."

On this date in 1922, the Bismarck Tribune reported that the pipe and its accompanying note were given to the State Historical Society of North Dakota. The donation stirred great excitement and controversy, as newspapers speculated on the validity of the soldier's story. Burleigh County Historian, W.A. Falconer, proclaimed the pipe story "pure fiction," as the War Department could not trace the identity of the fallen soldier. Yet, troops did pass through the North Dakotan plains in 1873, and it was possible that a soldier was detached from his Company. While the pipe can still be found in the state archives, the truth behind the story remains a mystery to this day.

Dakota Datebook written by Carol Wilson


The Bismarck Tribune, February 11, 1922.

The Fargo Forum, March 21, 1922.