When General Custer left North Dakota he told us not to do anything until he came back. We have done our best to respect his instructions.
It is true that he had political ambitions. After all, General Grant got two terms for being a war hero. Custer decided to run as a Democrat which would have been worse than going to the Little Big Horn. Even though he messed up in Montana, we still think of him as a North Dakota hero because he is the best we could get.
Not in the Civil War
He was a genuine hero in the Civil War. Minnesota had a unit in the Civil War but North Dakota was unrepresented. We were just as hawkish as Minnesota but we had no one to go. People were scarce in the prairie state around the Civil War days. (Wars are never civil).
In fact, our cartographers created several western counties that had no people just to impress investors and attract immigrants. Slope County is still hoping for people – even an orphan train.
We kept stealing more and more of the land from the Indians but they plan to get it all back. It may take a while but the reservation casinos will eventually do it.
Seeing ND clearly
There is still a strong feeling that God did not intend for this flat country to be used for anything but raising bison. When Dave Barry was here, he said there was nothing to see for a hundred miles, and you could see that pretty clearly.
Not only does winter try to kill residents at least three times a year but there is nothing to stop the constant wind except two miles of barbed wire fence east of Washburn.
Yankton and Bismarck vied for the location of the state capitol with Bismarck eventually winning the challenge. We didn’t really need a capitol because our government for the first decades was in St. Paul.
Divided east and west
So why was the territory boundary drawn from east to west rather than north to south. First of all, all the wagon trails across the state were made by Minnesotans escaping to Washington. Then the Northern Pacific already had rails laid east to west.
After a good deal of maneuvering, a constitutional convention was called for 1889 at which the delegates spent their time lobbying for institutions for their home districts. Promises were made for institutions of higher learning even in areas that didn’t want higher learning. We’re still living with the consequences of this high stakes pork-barreling.
To demonstrate the state’s priorities, more votes were cast on the issue of legalizing alcohol than on approving the constitution which the Territory needed to become a state. That’s when more people started reading “Statehood for Dummies” in the Starbucks coffee shops.
Socialists at work
In the first part of the 1900s, North Dakota had more farmers than any other professional gamblers so they were a force to be reckoned with, something the Minneapolis bankers, millers and railroads didn’t know until it was too late. That brought on the Nonpartisan League and its socialist advocates who invented the Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill and Elevator, a total embarrassment for a private enterprise state.
Through the decades, free enterprise legislators introduced bills to sell the Mill and/or the Bank until they both became prosperous and prominent across the whole country. Russian trade teams would come and giggle all the way through their tours of the Mill.
There isn’t enough space to discuss the impact of the 1930s on the psyche of average North Dakotans, but a lot of us became unbalanced with our checkbooks.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.