Man who named Grand Forks later established North Dakota's first telegraph line
"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen explains how Sanford Cady made a lasting impact on Dakota Territory.
In 1869, when Sanford Cady “built a log shack” in the wilderness, overlooking the Red River in Dakota Territory, little did he realize that 20 years later, the shack would be located in the heart of a city of 5,000 people.
Between 1870 and 1890, the population of this city exploded from 30 people to become the second largest city in what had become North Dakota. Cady was also given the task of coming up with an official name for this settlement, and he chose “Grand Forks.”
On June 15, 1870, a post office was established at his cabin and Cady became the postmaster. Enos Stutsman, an agent for the U.S. Treasury Office and a former Dakota Territory legislator, from Pembina, worked with Cady to get a post office assigned to this remote location. Cady arrived at the name by anglicizing “Les Grandes Fourches,” the name the Métis employees of the Hudson Bay Co. called it, since it was located at the confluence of the Red and Red Lake rivers.
In 1871, Cady erected and maintained the first telegraph line in what is now North Dakota, which ran from Pembina to Fargo. He then farmed at various locations in the Red River Valley before moving to Larimore, where he became sheriff and manager of the city’s pumping station.
Sanford Charles Cady was born May 21, 1844, on a farm in north-central Ohio, to James and Dorothy (Prescott) Cady. While in his teens, he left home to become a tobacco packer in Independence, a suburb of Cleveland. On Aug. 11, 1862, Cady enlisted with the Indiana Regiment during the Civil War and was assigned to Company D of the 67th Infantry. Less than a week later, the 67th was sent to the Green River region of Kentucky, and Sept. 14-17, he saw action at the Battle of Munfordville. Since the Union troops had very little training, the battle turned into a Confederate victory.
On Oct. 8, Cady was involved in the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky, and he and other Union soldiers were captured. In December, when there was a prisoner exchange between the Union and Confederate armies, Cady was included. In the summer of 1863, Cady was with the soldiers under the command of Gen. William Sherman that forced the Confederate Army to retreat into Vicksburg, where they ultimately surrendered on July 4.
In early March 1864, the 67th was ordered to assist Gen. Nathaniel Banks to take control of territory “across Louisiana and into Texas along the line of the southern Red River.” He was to be aided in this effort by Adm. David Porter, who would navigate his fleet up the Red River where he would be joined by the forces under Banks.
Unfortunately, Banks was basically incompetent as a military commander, and gave up on his attempt to reach Porter. Because the water level of the Red River had dropped, Porter’s gunboats were grounded and unable to navigate back into the Gulf of Mexico. Cady, along with some other soldiers, then built dams in the Red River, which raised the water level, allowing Porter to float his boats to safety and avoid capture.
On April 6, 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, and three days later, a formal ceremony was held that ended hostilities. On July 19, the entire 67th Infantry, including Cady, were mustered out of the Army at Galveston, Texas. During the War, Cady had been wounded three times.
After the war, Cady went to Iowa, where he contracted to haul goods in wagons. In 1866, he was appointed by the Quartermaster Division of the War Department to be the “chief wagon-master in hauling supplies from Fort Abercrombie to frontier posts.” Fort Abercrombie, constructed in 1858, was the first permanent military settlement in what is now North Dakota, and was known as “The Gateway to the Dakotas.” The fort was a transportation hub and it also guarded the Red River Trails used by the Red River ox cart trains of the fur traders. In the spring of 1869, Cady resigned from his government position and signed a contract to haul freight from the lower Red River Valley to Fort Garry/Winnipeg in Canada.
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In the fall of 1869, Nick Huffman and August Loon “built a log shack” midway between Fort Abercrombie and Pembina, from which they established a mail and stagecoach rest station. In August 1869, they were joined by Cady, who found the location ideal for his transportation business. Soon, the area began to attract other settlers and Cady believed a post office needed to be established.
The most influential person in the area was Stutsman, a Pembina attorney who had served six years in the Dakota Territorial Legislature. Cady contacted Stutsman and a petition, requesting a post office, was sent to the postmaster general in Washington, D.C. Permission was granted, and on Aug. 2, 1870, Cady was granted his commission as postmaster of Grand Forks.
In the summer of 1871, the Northern Pacific Railroad contracted with the Northwestern Telegraphy Co. to string telegraph lines from Fargo to Pembina. Cady received a contract with the telegraph company to provide the poles needed for the telegraph line, and to set them firmly in position. The poles needed to be straight, sturdy, 22 feet long, 6 inches in diameter and made from oak, ash or elm. Cady needed to erect between 22 and 27 poles per mile, depending on the terrain. For this, he was paid $1 per pole. The contract stipulated that he needed to complete his work by Sept. 30, 1871. When that was completed, “Cady was assigned the position of line repairer.”
Apparently, Cady completed his work a little early, because on Sept. 29, he married Sarah J. Fadden, the daughter of John Fadden, the ferryboat operator at Grand Forks. This was the first marriage, in what would become Grand Forks County, where “both bride and groom were white.” Cady then sold part of the land on which he squatted (to settle on public land with the intent to later purchase it) and deeded the rest of it, including his post office, to his father-in-law, John Fadden.
On June 24, 1876, Frank Viets “purchased the Fadden claim,” and turned the post office into a general store. In the early 1970s, the building was obtained by the Grand Forks County Historical Society and, in 1975, it was moved to the society’s property on Belmont Road where it was restored.
It appears that after Cady left Grand Forks, he began a process of squatting on different plots of land in the Red River Valley. He would claim the land, clear it and once it was suitable for agriculture, he would sell the purchase right to the property that was ready to be farmed. Census records show that Cady only stayed in each place about five years. In 1885 his farm was near Pembina, and in 1890, it was near Northwood. His farm was near Logan in 1900, and by 1910, Cady had moved to Larimore.
On Dec. 12, Sanford Charles Cady died, and he was buried with military honors at the cemetery in Arvilla.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.