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Jamestown Asylum


As we grow older, we see more clearly how fragile human life can be. Perhaps nowhere is this fragility more readily apparent than in the realm of mental health.

Emotional and behavioral disorders have been known by many names. What we now call “mental illnesses” might have once been called “insanity” or “madness.” Dakota Territory built a Hospital for the Insane in Jamestown by 1885, and by then, a movement to establish mental hospitals had swept the nation.

The 1889 North Dakota Constitution mandated Jamestown to be the permanent location for the state’s Insane Asylum. On this date in 1900, the Grand Forks Herald reported that there were 344 patients in the hospital. This statistic from the U.S. Census Bureau would not seem to be controversial, but the newspaper explained that 251 of the 344 patients were of “foreign birth.”

The author of the article claimed that “officials of foreign countries” had deliberately “unloaded” mentally-ill people on the United States, sending them “west as immigrants” so that their governments would not have to care for their own mentally-ill patients.

On its face, the idea that two-thirds of the patients in the Jamestown mental hospital were foreigners might seem startling. However, a closer examination of North Dakota’s population data can make sense of what was happening. According to the census data, in 1900, the state had a total population of almost 320 thousand, with over a third foreign-born, and almost a third more of “foreign parentage.” So, 67 percent were considered “foreign.”

Therefore, it was logical that two-thirds of the mentally-ill patients in Jamestown were said to be foreigners, because two-thirds of North Dakota’s population were of foreign birth or of foreign parentage.

The largest ethnic group among those immigrants were the Norwegians, who made up about 20 percent of the population, followed closely by Germans, who made up another 20 percent. At Jamestown’s mental hospital, 28 percent were of Norwegian extraction, while Germans made up about 9 percent.

While Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, as engraved on the Statue of Liberty, encouraged the nations of the world to send their “huddled masses yearning to breathe free;” their “wretched refuse,” and “homeless” people and those ‘tempest-tossed,’ to the United States, federal immigration laws established barriers. The First General Federal Immigration Law of 1882 excluded as immigrants “any convict, lunatic . . . or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” Any such immigrants, including the mentally ill, were to be sent back to their homeland.

The care of those who fall into mental illness, including senile dementia and schizophrenia and other maladies, remains an obligation of North Dakotans today –through the many private and public agencies, including the Jamestown State Hospital.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “The Enumerator Has Finished The Asylum Census,” Grand Forks Herald , June 19, 1900, p. 4.

“Asylum Census,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune , June 22, 1900, p. 3.

“Asylum Census,” Jamestown Weekly Alert , June 21, 1900, p. 9.

“The Insane Asylum,” Grand Forks Daily Herald , January 22, 1893, p. 4.

“Capitol Gone,” Grand Forks Herald , August 8, 1889, p. 1.

“Interesting Figures,” Grand Forks Herald , September 5, 1901, p. 1.

Robert A. Divine, American Immigration Policy, 1924-1952 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), p. 2.

Marion T. Bennett, American Immigration Policies: A History (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1963), p. 17.

Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” "" , accessed on May 24, 2014.