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State Penitentiary


The first inmates of the new Bismarck penitentiary arrived from Sioux Falls on this date in 1885. The thirty-five men were transferred from the Dakota Territory Prison, which had become overcrowded in the four years since it was built in 1881.

Territorial Governor Nehemiah Ordway had advocated for the penitentiary in Bismarck, reasoning that the central location would not only lessen the burden on the Sioux Falls institution, but would also save time and money spent on transporting prisoners. The prison was in the east, but the hot spots of mining in Deadwood, and cattle rustling in the Badlands were in the west. So, a fair amount of the Sioux Falls prison budget was spent on transportation.

It might also be suggested that the Governor had additional motives for constructing a new, northern penitentiary. He had also proposed a new university for Fargo and a new asylum in Jamestown. Creating ‘mirror-institutions’ in the north suggested that the Governor was looking much farther into the future, when the territory itself could be divided into separate states – an idea circulating as early as the 1870s, as politicians lamented the distances and inconveniences incurred when governing a territory so large. The growth of such institutions also supported the territorial legislature’s decision to move the capital from Yankton to Bismarck.

So, what greeted those first thirty-five Bismarck inmates? Builders had erected a large central building with seventy-two cells, a warden’s office, a chapel, dining hall, guardrooms, a barber shop, and a kitchen. The following year, warden Dan Williams added plumbing, a sewer, stables and a boiler house for laundry. In 1895, gardens and livestock were added so the inmates could produce their own food. Overall, the Sioux Falls and Bismarck prisons would have looked rather similar to the inmates – the only change expected would be the view.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme Job


Lounsberry, Clement Augustus. 1919 Early History of North Dakota : Essential Outlines of American History . Liberty Press: New York: p. 370-377, 429, 478.

Unauthored, n.d. “History of the North Dakota State Penitentiary,” pp. 1-67. Accessed via: http://www.nd.gov/docr/adult/sphistory.pdf