Touting North Dakota as “Legendary,” Tourism Division entices travelers to visit the big Badlands, fish for walleyes, or see Jamestown’s big buffalo statue. But there was a time when Dakota’s boosters minimized some regional legends, particularly the legendarily-big mosquitoes that bit arms, faces and all kinds of places.
Mosquitoes buzzed over Dakota-land since time immemorial, but an early written description of Dakota ‘skeeters’ came from the Lewis and Clark expedition. In 1806, William Clark wrote in his journal on August 3rd, “Last night the Musquetors was so troublesome that no one of the party Slept half the night . . . . [and] those tormenting insects . . . tormented me the whole night.” The biters had gotten inside Clark’s mosquito-netting.
After settlers arrived, the Missouri River bottomlands became notorious for fierce mosquitoes. On this date in 1909, the Bismarck Tribune published a letter from riverboat captain D.C. Basey, who described the colorful Missouri River country after it had “plenty of rain,” making “everything green, except mosquitoes, and they are of a very tormenting color.”
Captain Basey said the bloodsucking mosquitoes made so he “could not sleep a wink,” so he “walked . . . and prayed . . . and tried to run away” from them.
In 1878, another commentator wrote that Dakota’s mosquitoes “came in every style and shape . . . . Some . . . pretty and some . . . ugly; some . . . big and some little; but all the same – big, little, black, brown, red or green – they all bite, and bite hard.” For protection, people could “wear a net over the face” or put gloves on their hands. It was said, “if you held your hand out” for fifteen seconds, it would be so heavily-covered with mosquitoes that it looked like you were wearing a glove.
Pioneers deterred ‘skeeters’ with smoke from smudge-fires, but wire-screens on windows and doors worked better.
The legend of Dakota’s mosquitoes grew, even claiming that mosquito-multitudes flew “in clouds” so thickly that they darkened the sun.
Negative Easterners said Dakota was “good for mosquitoes, and that [was] about all,” while others included “ blizzards and mosquitoes.” To counteract detractors, Dakota’s booster-press boasted of Bonanza farms and golden wheat fields.
One writer mockingly wrote that mosquito millions actually ruled Dakota “all Summer and Fall,” until winter came, and then the monster-mosquitoes simply walked away, southward – “on snowshoes.”
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
Sources: “Captain Basey Thinks River Can Be Made Great Highway,” Bismarck Tribune, July 25, 1909, p. 5.
Clay Jenkinson, editor, A Vast and Open Plain: The Writings of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in North Dakota, 1804-1806 (Bismarck: SHSND, 2003), p. 375.
“The Home of Mosquitoes,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, October 3, 1878, p. 2.
“The River,” Bismarck Tribune, April 28, 1882, p. 5.
“Advertising Bismarck,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, November 18, 1887, p. 5.
“Mosquitos On High Ground,” New York Times, December 22, 1904, p. 8.
“Wire Mosquito Netting,” Bismarck Tribune, June 3, 1874, p. 1.
“Burleigh: His Blackmailing Slanders on the Northern Pacific,” Bismarck Tribune, October 7, 1874, p. 3.