Whether you’re a local history buff, like myself, or not, you probably have heard the name Alexander McKenzie. Even if you haven’t heard the name, his impression on the region is still felt to this day. What many don’t know is that this influential person from Bismarck’s frontier days had kept a secret that even his closest friends and family didn’t know about for over thirty years.
First, a little back-story on the man himself, for those who might not know. Alexander McKenzie was a local political boss, whose “McKenzie Machine” ruled local politics until about 1908. He had served as Burleigh County Sheriff for twelve years, and also served as the North Dakota Republican National Committeeman for 21 years.
McKenzie is perhaps best remembered as being the person credited for relocating the capital of Dakota Territory from Yankton to Bismarck in 1883.
McKenzie’s 32-Year Secret
McKenzie had a total of six children from two different marriages. Surprisingly, despite his fame and fortune, he successfully kept his second wife and their three children together a closely held secret, from even his closest friends and family, for 32 years.
His first, and only public, marriage was to Mary Ellen Hayer in 1877, with whom he had three children. At age 8, their son, John Alexander, died of diphtheria. The two divorced four years later, in 1887, at which time McKenzie bought a house in Saint Paul, Minnesota for his recently separated wife and their two daughters to reside in.
McKenzie married again, in 1890, to Elva Stewart, a Bismarck school teacher. For the remainder of his life, he kept his second marriage a closely held secret.
In 1893, the couple had their first child, a daughter. The following month, McKenzie established an apartment in New York for Elva and their newly born daughter to reside in. Two more children, both boys, were born to the McKenzies over the next couple years.
McKenzie’s second marriage, and the couple’s children, were not discovered until his passing in June 1922 – only a month after the passing of Elva. The discovery was made during the execution of McKenzie’s estate, where letters were discovered revealing his secret family.
McKenzie’s hidden family was first made public in September 1922, three months following his death, with the cooperation and assistance of the three children he’d kept hidden all those years.
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