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Dakota Optimism


North Dakota has recently become the envy and admiration of the rest of the nation as first among those few states experiencing an economic boom. But there was an earlier time for Dakota, a time like today, a time back in the beginning when the sky was no limit. The distinguished British statesman Lord Bryce wrote a famous work on the United States called "The American Commonwealth." He had traveled extensively and mentioned a singular experience. He said, "I happened in 1883 to be at the city of Bismarck in Dakota when this young settlement was laying the corner-stone of its Capitol . . . The town was then only some five years old, and may have had six or seven thousand inhabitants."

Bryce noted that former United States president Ulysses S. Grant was present for the festivities, also the eminent Lakota leader Sitting Bull, who announced that the Great Spirit had moved him to shake hands with everybody. But what truly astonished Bryce was that the new capitol building was going up on a hill a mile north of town. Expressing his amazement, the locals assured him that the city would soon grow out to encircle the building. Reflecting on this, Bryce said:

It is the same everywhere, from the Mississippi to the Pacific. Men seem to live in the future rather than in the present: not that they fail to work while it is called today, but that they see the country not merely as it is, but as it will be, twenty, fifty, a hundred years hence, when the seedlings shall have grown to forest trees.

Bryce, from an old and long-settled Europe, felt the impact of the raging American spirit that was conquering a continent within decades. Bryce was in Bismarck on September 5, 1883. Historians have generally marked the close of the frontier at about 1890, just even years later, by which time the wide-open areas were at least sparsely settled. But it seems the American people have gone on to new frontiers of science and technology and the dream remains, today nowhere more brightly than in North Dakota. Mining and urban development are rapidly expanding and, though with a reduced rural population, the agricultural sector remains as strong as ever. If Lord Bryce could return today we would escort him from Fargo to Williston and he would be amazed all over again.

Dakota Datebook written by Grael Gannon

Source: James Viscount Bryce, "The American Commonwealth," 2 volumes, 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1891.