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Jack O’Neil


By 1874 Bismarck was booming. The railroad had reached the Missouri only a few years before, and the larger, more substantial buildings were beginning to slowly appear above the clapboard houses, saloons and tents that dotted the landscape to form a town. It took a tough group of men to build the railroad, and Bismarck was at the end of the track. Steamboat crews frequented the city on their way up and down the river, and only recently gold had been discovered in the Black Hills. A sea of humanity from all walks of life flowed into Bismarck as the jumping off point to wealth and prosperity.

But there was a different breed of men and women that preyed upon the needs of these workers, offering them the liquor and sensual pleasures in exchange for their hard-earned wages. These people often followed the railroad, keeping a few steps ahead of the law or a lynching committee. Jack O’Neil, Sallie O’Neil and Dave Mullen were such people and, having been forced out of Fargo, they came to Bismarck. Dave Mullen and Jack O’Neil were partners in a saloon, but Mullen was killed by men from the 7th Cavalry, leaving O’Neil to carry on the business.

On this date in 1874, in the early hours of the morning, the citizens of Bismarck were startled by the report of a revolver. Shootings were not uncommon in the area as only a few days before a young man by the name of John Peterson had been cold-bloodedly murdered on his claim near Bismarck, but the killing this night would set easier on the minds of the citizens. Jack O’Neil, who had already been involved in numerous shootings, lay dead fifteen feet from the front door of the Exchange Saloon. A man by the name of Paddy Hall, with whom O’Neil had exchanged blows a few hours earlier, and had threatened to kill, fired two shots into O’Neil as he exited the saloon. O’Neil had armed himself with a double-barreled shotgun and a Navy revolver, and he wasn’t going to take any chances. Hall immediately turned himself into the law. A coroner’s inquest was held over the body of O’Neil, and the impression was that Paddy Hall acted from a personal sense of self defense.

Within a few years, Bismarck would settle into a more peaceful atmosphere, and what was once the heart of the saloon district would become the heart of the central business district. In less than a decade, the raucous frontier town had been tamed.

Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis


The Bismarck Tribune December 15, 1874