Dakota Territory | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Dakota Territory


Ben Bird was a true cowboy in North Dakota history. He knew how to herd cattle and how to rope and ride.

Born in Texas in 1864, Benton “Ben” Bird came to Dakota Territory in 1886, when he worked for the OX (OH-EX) outfit. He was a cowboy in the great cattle drives, guiding thousands of longhorns to the Little Missouri River country. He rode north with the cattle several times in his early 20s, but in 1892, he decided to quit his migratory ways. He settled down in North Dakota, acknowledging “that he liked it better than any place he had ever been.”

Roosevelt Arrives

Mar 18, 2020


Adding up all his hunting and ranching visits, Theodore Roosevelt spent about a year in Dakota Territory. He visited Medora in 1883 to hunt bison, then returned to try ranching. He had two ranches: Chimney Butte south of Medora, and the Elkhorn, deep in the Badlands north of town.

When it was part of Dakota Territory, what we now know as North Dakota had a reputation as a wild place where saloons and saloon girls flourished. As the area neared statehood, many citizens hoped to create a more gentile environment. They wanted to clean up North Dakota’s reputation. It was way past time, they thought, for North Dakota to become more civilized. One way to do this was to do away with saloons and liquor, along with the “wild women” that went with them.

George Armstrong Custer was not from Dakota Territory, and his military exploits primarily took place elsewhere, but he is nonetheless closely tied to the area.

[Dakota Datebook: 100 Years of Women Voting is produced in cooperation with the North Dakota Woman Suffrage Centennial Committee.]

The attempt to pass woman’s suffrage in the Dakota Territory was first made in 1868 and 1869 as one of the earliest of its kind in the United States. It passed the House but not the Council, was reworked, and passed the Council, but then the House did not pass it, so the bill failed. Yet the bill did receive much attention around the country, some accurate, some erroneous, and all marking the attitudes that were prevalent.

Theodore Roosevelt’s first step into Dakota Territory was not to western cowboy country, but to Fargo-Moorhead. His first tangle with wildlife was with birds, not bison.

And when 21-year-old Theodore and his 20-year-old brother Elliott left the Red River Valley after ten days of hunting with new shotguns, the area was minus 208 critters – prairie chickens, ducks, plovers, coots, grebes and more. That was acceptable hunting style in September 1880.

The next month he would marry Alice. And over the next few years, Roosevelt became the youngest man elected to the New York State Assembly, published his first book The Naval War of 1812, and shot his first bison in the Badlands.

Theodore Roosevelt’s initial trip to Western Dakota Territory’s badlands was a rollicking adventure of hunting, frustration, and awe for the young New Yorker in his early twenties. In mere days TR was entranced by the beauty and the desolation of gnarled, stunted cedars, miles of plateaus, running rivers, scoria, sandstone and clay.

A parade of national figures came together to lay the cornerstone for the new Dakota Territory Capitol in Bismarck on this date in 1883. They included Henry Villard, president of the Northern Pacific Railway; financier Jay Cooke; former President Ulysses Grant; Hunkpapa Lakota holy man Sitting Bull; and a German minister appearing for Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. More than 3,000 people attended the ceremony.

Theodore Roosevelt’s first opportunity to personally express much of his passion for our nation, as well as Dakota Territory’s gift of healing grace, was in 1886. TR was the featured speaker at Dickinson’s first full-on Independence Day celebration.

Theodore Roosevelt’s residency in Dakota Territory began in June of 1884 when he saddled up for the life of a cowboy and rancher. In the wake of his wife and mother’s same-day deaths, the despondent 24-year old from New York found healing and solace in the Badlands and a lifetime connection with the people of the wild West.