North Dakota ‘Riel’ history

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and if you read history books, you will see how remarkable that really is. Many of us have in our minds that what is now North Dakota began with statehood in 1889, but there were a lot of historical events that occurred and people who lived here prior to statehood and the establishment of the Dakota Territory in 1861.

Some of the history of our state is obscure, some is well known, and some is tangled into other sources of history.

• As an example, there’s a publication called “The Beaver,” which is published by Canada’s National History Society. As you might imagine, it has a lot to do with the fur trade and how settlers moved west and south. Back then, they followed rivers not highways, and that’s how Pierre La Verendrye ended up in what is now North Dakota. There’s evidence in “The Beaver” that La Verendrye visited numerous places in present-day North Dakota. One of them is Crow Flies High Butte west of New Town. He was there more than 65 years before Lewis and Clark passed through there.

• There are documented accounts that Canada’s most notorious bandit, Louis Riel, spent time in the 1870s in what is now North Dakota, meeting with Indian leaders and mailing letters from the post office in St. John. It is also believed that when Riel was on the lam from the Northwest Mounted Police, he wound up working in the Gingras Trading Post in Walhalla. Apparently, he spent several years there hiding out from Canadian authorities after sparking a rebellion in Manitoba.

• In 1910, Halley’s Comet made a return trip to the sky over the Northern Hemisphere. There are newspaper reports filed in the North Dakota State Historical Society that tell us residents were afraid the comet was going to crash into the Earth and some sort of poisonous gas would envelope the state. Unnecessary precautions were taken because of it.

• In 1915, the Non-Partisan League political movement sprang up because farmers were getting a raw deal on their commodities. It led to the establishment the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and Mill & Elevator. The two state-owned businesses, which many consider socialism, still exist in a predominately Republican state.

• There was a ceremony in 1924 in Fort Yates where more than 20,000 American Indians gathered to become U.S. citizens.

• President Franklin Roosevelt spoke on the dry bed of Devils Lake on Aug. 7, 1934. There is a large photo of it hanging on the wall in the White House Cafe in Devils Lake. It’s a very strange site when you consider today, the water, in that exact spot near Fort Totten, is more than 60 feet deep.

• In 1977, after playing to exhaustion in seven overtimes, Grand Forks Red River and Grand Forks Central were both awarded the state championship in high school hockey. It was such a strange high school sporting event that it was featured in Sports Illustrated magazine.

• In 1953, Sitting Bull’s body was exhumed illegally near Fort Yates and taken to South Dakota where a shrine stands today near the community of Mobridge where he grew up. North Dakota wanted his body back, but the Rapid City Journal reported that locals around Mobridge used steel and concrete to entomb Sitting Bull’s remains. About the same time, there was strong interest to take Sitting Bull’s remains to Glendive, Mont., because he was born in that area.

• In 1969, Zap was the only place in North Dakota history where the National Guard was called out to control a riot until June 2020 when the Guard was called in to stop the violence during a Fargo Marches for George Floyd demonstration.

• Just this past election in November, David Aandahl won a seat in the North Dakota House of Representatives. The only problem with that is he was deceased. COVID had taken his life weeks earlier, and the secretary of state didn’t have enough time to change the ballot. So a deceased individual won an election which started a chain of events leading to the governor appointing someone to the seat when the rules indicated otherwise. A friend who lives in Maryland wrote on Facebook, “Leave it up to my old state to elect a dead guy.”

These and other unusual, and even bizarre, stories can be found with just a little research. North Dakota has a rich history prior to statehood and since.


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