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Fear and Stereotypes of Gypsies in N.D., 1933

9/30/2016:

The word “gypsies” conjures forth thoughts of wanderers, nomads and vagabonds drifting along, stealthily moving along highways and byways, living by their wits, as coppersmiths, basket-weavers, and horse-traders.

The word “gypsy” carried darker tones among those who did not know them, with fears and prejudice predominating. Many Americans stereotyped gypsies as beggars, scammers, fortune-tellers, and thieves.

It was on this date in 1933 that the Bismarck Tribune reported that the local public library had purchased 211 new non-fiction books that would be displayed on special shelves, including a book entitled “ Story of the Gypsies.” The book has been long-discarded, but its story remains vibrant.

The Romani culture, or ‘gypsy’ culture, began in Northwest India about a thousand years ago. The Roma moved through Afghanistan into Turkey, to Greece, and throughout Europe. Often persecuted for their secretive ways, many Roma people immigrated to the US in the 1800s, where they continued their wandering lifestyle.

Gypsy-caravans journeyed through Dakota’s territory, beginning in the 1880s, and continuing annually until the 1940s. A band of gypsies camped near Bismarck in 1888, south of the railway tracks, and the newspaper dutifully informed local residents that a fortune-telling session would cost $5.

The “largest gypsy camp that ever crossed the Red” River into Dakota, consisting of “23 wagons and 70 or 80 horses,” came in 1895 and moved ever-westward.

Many more gypsies traversed North Dakota after 1900. They were reported at Jamestown, Crystal, and Surrey in 1903; Glenburn in 1905; Bowden and Minot in 1906; Wishek in 1907. Their arrival aroused curiosity among young men desiring to see the exotic campsites; and their presence incited vigilance among business-owners who feared pilfering. Some homeowners locked their doors, fearing burglaries. Some parents even told children to hide – and to be good “or the gypsies will get you.”

Townspeople noted ripe vegetables missing from gardens; farmers viewed depleted pasturelands; housewives detested insistent beggars; and merchants suspected shoplifting. So, local police told gypsies to leave town, forthwith, and the gypsies departed, grudgingly.

The gypsies came and left, like will-o’-the-wisps, returning yearly along well-worn paths. By 1916, gypsies began to abandon covered wagons for automobiles, traversing Dakota’s roads more swiftly than before, yet continuing to gather in camps on open, and abundant, public lands.

Eventually, America’s Romani gypsies settled down, tenaciously keeping their ancient languages and secretive ways, but leaving behind the romance and troubles of their old, wandering ways.

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

Sources: “211 New Volumes Placed On Shelves At Public Library,” Bismarck Tribune, September 30, 1933, p. 2.

Marcelle Hutchins, “What does it Mean to be American Romani or Gypsy,” July 3, 2014, PRI’s The World, "http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-07-03/what-does-it-mean-be-american-romani-or-gypsy" http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-07-03/what-does-it-mean-be-american-romani-or-gypsy ; “Gypsies in the U.S.,” "http://smithsonianeducation.org/migrations/gyp/gypstart.html" http://smithsonianeducation.org/migrations/gyp/gypstart.html , accessed on August 20, 2016.

“The Gypsies and Luck,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, May 25, 1888, p. 5.

“The Largest Gypsy Camp,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, August 2, 1895, p. 8.

“Are Ordered To Leave,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, April 14, 1908, p. 10;

“Police Drive Gypsies From Bismarck,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, October 18, 1913, p. 4; “Band Of Gypsies Get In Trouble,” Evening Times [Grand Forks, ND], July 9, 1912, p. 2; “Officer McCormick Ordered the Gypsies,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, July 23, 1903, p. 5.

“Gypsies Forsake Canvas-Covered Wagons for the Latest Model ‘Eights,’” Bismarck Daily Tribune, June 23, 1916, p. 6.

“Crystal,” Ward County Independent, June 3, 1903, p. 3; “Surrey,” Ward County Independent, July 1, 1903, p. 4; “Thieving Rovers Cause Trouble,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, July 23, 1903, p. 11; “Glenburn,” Ward County Independent, July 5, 1905, p. 7; “Bowden Farmer,” Ward County Independent, October 11, 1906, p. 10; “Gypsies Steal Ear Rings,” Ward County Independent, September 6, 1906, p. 2; “Gypsies at Wishek,” Bismarck Tribune, May 19, 1907, p. 5.

William C. Sherman, “Gypsies,” Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History (Fargo: N.D. Institute for Regional Studies, 1988), p. 380-381.