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History of Bismarck, North Dakota

Original Capitol Building Burning 1930

Located at the crossroads of the Missouri River and northern transcontinental railroad, Bismarck – or, Edwinton as it was called during its first year – was destined for greatness when the Northern Pacific Railway founded the key city along its rail line in 1872. Early inhabitants sought to prosper on what was predicted to become a major metropolis. Some even hailed it as the “next Chicago.” While Bismarck never evolved into the likeness of Chicago, Bismarck’s colorful history is full of ingenious political maneuvers, innovative entrepreneurs, iconic historical characters, and exceptional prosperity.

The early days of Bismarck were turbulent and lawless, earning such reputations as the “Wickedest City in the West.” Troops, railroad workers, and gold prospectors filled the myriad of saloons, gambling houses, and brothels that lined the streets. Violence was so prominent, particularly along a stretch of Fourth Street, that such derogatory nicknames as “Murderer’s Gulch” and “Bloody Fourth” were once attached to the city. By some accounts, Bismarck averaged 1 murder per day at the time. 

By the turn of the century, Bismarck had become established as an important economic, health, and government center. It was named capital in 1883 and gained the territory’s first hospital two years later.

The area was previously home to several dominant native tribes, most notably the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Sioux, and Chippewa.

La Vérendrye was one of the first outside explorers to the area, around 1738. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped the winter of 1804-1805 at a site roughly 40 miles to the north, along with their Lemhi Shoshone guide, Sakakawea.