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

Bismarck Name Change Controversy in World War I


In 1918, when America was fighting against Germany in World War I, there were some U.S. citizens who allowed war fever to rage too hot. Some fervent patriots thought all things German were un-American, changing the name of “hamburgers” to “Liberty sandwiches;” dachshunds into “Liberty pups,” and sauerkraut to “Liberty cabbage.” That turmoil also affected cities with names associated with Germany. North Dakota’s capital, Bismarck, endured wartime pressure to change its venerable name.

Originally called Edwinton in 1872 for railway man Edwin F. Johnson, the Northern Pacific stockholders changed the name to Bismarck in 1873 in honor of Otto von Bismarck, the unifier of Germany, in an effort to encourage German capitalists to invest in U.S. railway bonds.

Controversy surfaced in early 1918, when Fargo’s Women’s Relief Corps petitioned North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier, asking him to change the name of the capital city to one that sounded English or more American.

Governor Frazier responded to the petition by saying “it would not be advisable to change the name of the state capital,” and that Bismarck would keep its name intact.

Frazier pointed out that Otto von Bismarck had died way back in 1898 and that, obviously, the deceased former-chancellor had been out of German politics for some time. Bismarck, being dead, had “nothing to do with the present trouble in the world.”

Others agreed. The editor of the Devils Lake World wrote that changing Bismarck’s name would be a “foolish action,” defying history and denigrating common sense.

It was on this date, in 1918, that the Bismarck Tribune’s editors chimed in, stating definitively: “Bismarck stands pat on its name. Bismarck stands pat on its destiny. . . . YOU BET!!!”

Other towns in the U.S. did not stand strong, bending to hysterical name-changing demands. In Minnesota, the village of New Germany changed its name to “Motordale.” In Missouri, Potsdam turned into “Pershing,” honoring WW I General John J. Pershing. In Ohio, New Berlin became “North Canton.” Similarly, Berlin, Michigan, was renamed “Marne,” commemorating U.S. soldiers who perished in the Battle of the Marne. And Tennessee’s Germantown temporarily became “Neshoba,” meaning “wolf.”

Wartime controversy over Bismarck’s name did not completely disappear. Some suggestions for a new name included Edwinton, Capital City, and Roosevelt.

The Mandan Pioneer jokingly wanted to overtake Bismarck and call it …. “East Mandan.”

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

Sources: “Bismarck Stands Pat,” Bismarck Tribune, February 1, 1918, p. 4.

“Our State Capital,” Bismarck Tribune, January 17, 1918, p. 4.

“Around The State,” Ward County Independent, January 10, 1918, p. 6.

“Governor Would Not Change Capital’s Name,” Valley City Weekly Times-Record, January 17, 1918, p. 1.

“Bismarck Not Named By Huns,” Bismarck Tribune, July 23, 1918, p. 4.

“Town Changes Name,” Willmar Tribune, November 27, 1918, p. 7.

Mary Ann Barnes Williams, Origins of North Dakota Place Names (Washburn, ND: Bismarck Tribune, 1966), p. 48.

“City of Germantown: History,” "http://www.germantown-tn.gov" www.germantown-tn.gov , accessed on December 22, 2016.

“New Berlin, Ohio,” "http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/New_Berlin,_Ohio" http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/New_Berlin,_Ohio , accessed on December 22, 2016.

Cami Reister, “West Michigan’s Marne,” Grand Rapids [MI] Press, February 9, 2011, "http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2011/02/west_michigans_marne_gets_nati.html" http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2011/02/west_michigans_marne_gets_nati.html , accessed on December 22, 2016.

Arthur Paul Moser, “A Directory of Towns, Villages, and Hamlets, Past and Present of Gasconade County, Missouri,” "https://thelibrary.org/lochist/moser/gasconadepl2.html" https://thelibrary.org/lochist/moser/gasconadepl2.html , accessed on December 22, 2016.