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1871-1872: Establishment

By | Last Modified: January 22, 2020
Camp Hancock, circa 1872-1875. Bismarck's oldest surviving building is located here. Credit: State Historical Society of North Dakota (00095-00048-02)

Bismarck was founded as the town of Edwinton in 1872 by the Northern Pacific Railway to be the point where its northern trans-continental railroad would cross the Missouri River, commonly referred to as “The Crossing” or “The Point.” The city was expected to become a booming railroad hub, some even hailing it as “The Next Chicago.”

Construction of the railroad commenced westward from Carlton, Minnesota on February 15, 1870. Eastward construction efforts began in Washington the following year, with the two points expected to join somewhere in Montana. The railroad, when completed, spanned between Minnesota and Washington state, connecting the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean.

Ahead of the line, operations consisted of establishing military posts and securing land for the railroad. Northern Pacific was entitled to every other section of land within 40 miles of its road and principally responsible for selecting townsites.

1871: Railroad Penetrates Dakota

The earliest impetus towards establishing what became Bismarck came in September 1871, when Northern Pacific awarded contracts for constructing the railroad between the Red and Missouri Rivers.

An expedition commenced from Fort Rice on September 6th, 1871 to locate the railroad through western Dakota Territory and eastern Montana. It consisted of seven companies of infantry (totaling 420 men), twenty-two mounted Indian scouts, twenty-five Northern Pacific engineers, and seventy “teamsters” and Government employees.

Among them was Thomas H. Canfield – president of Puget Sound, Northern Pacific’s auxiliary townsite company – who was chiefly accountable for locating potential town sites along the railroad’s path.

General Whistler was in charge of the expedition itself, while General Thomas Rosser oversaw the engineering team. Rosser – a former confederate soldier – was chief engineer of the railroad’s Dakota Division.

1872: Establishment

By the spring of 1872, the railroad was established to the Red River and had been located to the James River. Progressing at a rapid pace, the railroad was expected to reach the Missouri River by autumn.

Camps Green & Greeley; Fort McKeen

Established in April 1872, Camp Greene was perhaps the first modern settlement in the region. It was intended to be the primary depot supporting railroad development. Named for its commander, Lieutenant Greene, the camp was located at the mouth of the Little Heart River, approximately three miles south of the original planned crossing, where Fort McKeen (Fort Abraham Lincoln) would be established, at the mouth of the (big) Heart River.

Camp Greene’s existence was short-lived. Its replacement was approved on April 16th by Special Order No. 65 of the Headquarters of the Department of Dakota in Saint Paul. The order appointed a board of directors, including Doctor Benjamin Slaughter, to select a site for the location of a new post within the “immediate vicinity of the point where the railroad would cross the (Missouri) river.”

Fort McKeen/Abraham Lincoln in 1872 or 1873. State Historical Society of North Dakota (00200-6×8-585)

In June, the military commissioned Fort McKeen (renamed Fort Abraham Lincoln in November, by order of General Sheridan) on the west side of the Missouri River near the expected river crossing, on the site of an abandoned Mandan village. The fort’s original namesake was a staff officer for General Hancock. By September, a news report stated that the fort was rapidly under construction. Fort Abraham Lincoln would later gain notoriety under the command of the infamous Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer.

What would eventually become Bismarck is generally considered to have been founded on May 14, 1872, when Colonel George W. Sweet – a lawyer for Puget Sound – took possession of land for a townsite “on an elevated swell of ground about two miles back from the river.”

The town’s ultimate resting place is not where Northern Pacific intended, however. Originally, the railroad was expected to span at the mouth of the Heart River, which would have positioned the town directly across from what is now Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, roughly three and-a-half miles south and two miles west from its eventual establishment.

Thwarted by greedy opportunists, the railroad and corresponding town were shifted north to their present-day location. Early prospectors hoping to benefit from the principle of adverse possession, colloquially known as “squatter’s rights,” interfered with Northern Pacific’s plans by staking land claims along the projected route. These squatters sought to profit from what was expected to become a bustling city.

Townsite Contest: Jackman, Burleigh, and Sweet

At least two individuals possessing privileged knowledge of the railroad attempted to take advantage of their priceless intelligence: John Jackman and Walter Burleigh.

Jackman was a member of Sweet’s crew who, under financing from competing railroad tycoon James Hill, resigned upon discovering the crossing’s coordinates and organized a five-man gang to preempt land claims ahead of Sweet. His party arrived only hours before Sweet, on May 13th, occupying roughly two miles along the riverfront.

To the east, on or near the present-day site of Bismarck Airport, Doctor Walter Burleigh, who held the contract to grade the 50-mile line westward to the river, leveraged his knowledge to assert land.

Sweet, who had no legal remedy against squatters, retreated to a new site where Edwinton (now Bismarck) is established. Eager to promptly procure unencumbered land, Sweet hired individuals to take personal possession of land at the new site under the condition that they would sell it to the railroad once proper title could be conveyed.

When Jackman learned of Sweet’s latest endeavor, he encouraged others to derail Sweet’s land claims. Dakota Territory Governor Jay and others also contested land in the new townsite. This inevitably lead to a townsite contest that lasted for five years, casting serious doubt on the sanctioned town’s location and stunting permanent development.

Carleton, Burleigh City, and Edwinton

With the townsite location seemingly unresolved, so-called “tent cities” flourished along the original route, namely Carleton and Burleigh City (also known as “Burleighton”). These “embryo” cities, as referred to in an 1872 Sioux City Journal article, thrived in Edwinton’s shadow, swelling to roughly 200 individuals and businesses ranging from saloons to trading posts.

Carleton City, named for Charles Carleton Coffin, sprouted along the riverbank near the original crossing, directly across from Fort McKeen (later named Fort Abraham Lincoln). Not be confused with Carlton – the Minnesota city where construction of the line began. Along with the town, inhabitants had reportedly staked claim to six miles of riverfront. Carleton was likely on the land secured by Jackman’s gang.

A reported 15 saloons and several homes of “questionable” use were located inside Carleton, giving the town such undesirable nicknames as Whisky Point, Point Pleasant, and Lookout Point.

Burleigh City was established about two miles east, on or near the present-day site of Bismarck Airport. A newspaper article from June 27th mentions such streets as “Greeley Avenue” and “Durfee Square” inside Burleigh City.

While both Carlton and Burleigh City are mentioned by June 1872, it’s unclear which actually came first, although Burleigh City is mentioned as early as May 1872. Regardless, it’s undeniable that Burleigh City became the more prominent of the two, although Carleton survives longer. In fact, many accounts of the era incorrectly identify Carlton and Edwinton as Burleigh City. Burleigh City and the original railroad path, along with Edwinton, are even marked on one of the earliest survey maps of the region.

One source says the towns were established as soon as 1871, but this contradicts other reports and seems unlikely. There was little activity until 1872, certainly not enough to support towns. Carleton City, in particular, was largely supported by the military personnel stationed at Fort McKeen directly across the river, which wasn’t established until June 1872. There are also no discovered references to either town before 1872, and Burleigh had not yet commenced grading work as of a June 29, 1872 news article. Northern Pacific didn’t even award contracts between the Red and Missouri Rivers until October 1871.

Nevertheless, Northern Pacific proceeded at the new town site and adjusted its line accordingly, to the north. The town was officially christened “Edwinton” on August 17th (one source says August 24th) by order of Northern Pacific, although there are mentions of this name prior to its formal christening. Edwinton was named for Vermont native Edwin Ferry Johnson, Northern Pacific’s former chief engineer who first lobbied for constructing the northern transcontinental railroad. Johnson was a friend of Thomas Canfield. The telegraph line reached Edwinton within a week.

Few believed the authenticity of the changed railroad route and townsite location. Many suspected it was a scheme disguised to outwit squatters from Northern Pacific’s actual target. After all, grading work had already been completed along the original path and there was no steamboat landing within Edwinton’s limits. Even so, there was doubt in Northern Pacific’s ability to fend off squatter claims in Edwinton itself.

On the other hand, some alleged that the original route itself was a tactical deception – a strategic attempt by Northern Pacific to thwart squatters from inception.

Newspaper accounts during the time seemed just as confused, with varying accounts as the authenticity of the actual town. One Sioux City Journal article, dated September 7th, 1872, mentions that businesses had relocated six-to-eight times in an attempt to secure corner lots in the legitimate town. Lots once worth hundreds of dollars suddenly were worth pennies.

The line change was no ruse. The squatters’ stratagem backfired and Edwinton, now Bismarck, became the official sanctioned town. Even so, Edwinton faced ongoing land claim obstacles. Land ownership couldn’t be guaranteed, which stunted permanent development. It would be more than a year before the town was formally platted and land made available for purchase. The earliest structures were made to be portable with the expectation that they could be forced to move.

The isolated Burleigh City failed quickly, but Carleton, benefiting from nearby Fort McKeen/Abraham Lincoln, prospered for some time. One source says that Carleton was wiped out by flood in 1874, but another source suggests it lasted much longer.

The squatters’ actual impact on the line change is debatable. One other significant cause for the northward shift was to avoid the lowland area’s susceptibility to flooding, which remain problematic until the 1950s with the completion of Garrison Dam. There’s even at least one accounting that the town was moved inland due to a heavy mosquito population along the river. It’s very likely that the line was altered regardless of the squatters’ claims.

The track was laid to within forty-five miles of the Missouri River by the fall, but a strong winter storm in October delayed construction of the railroad until spring.

Camp Greeley/Hancock

Camp Greeley, named for Horace Greely (later renamed Camp Hancock) was occupied on August 8th when officers arrived aboard the Ida Stockdale from Fort Rice. Greeley’s occupation marked the first formal settlement in what would become Bismarck. It was a military post used primarily as a supply depot.

Doctor Burleigh is credited with commissioning the town’s first buildings, including a mess hall for officers garrisoned at Greeley, reportedly where the Dakota Block now stands on the northeast corner of present-day Main and 2nd, as well as a warehouse that Burleigh also used as his office and home, reportedly at the corner of 3rd Street and Main Avenue.

Nevertheless, several log buildings and tents were erected at Greeley that fall. One of the original log buildings, which has since been covered by clapboard siding and expanded several times, still remains at the site as the city’s oldest surviving building.

There are varying accounts as to when the sole surviving building at Camp Hancock was built, and by whom. Most sources state that it was one of the initial buildings erected in the fall of 1872, but some do indicate it wasn’t constructed until 1873. It may have been one of the early buildings utilized by Doctor Burleigh.

Linda Slaughter: First School

Linda Slaughter – whose husband was the camp’s post-surgeon – established Bismarck’s first school in a tent at Camp Greeley/Hancock on August 24th. It was a Presbyterian Sunday school called Sabbath School, hosting about six students. The following year, she is named Bismarck’s first school superintendent and establishes the first public school.

Mrs. Slaughter is remembered as a one of the most influential local pioneers. In addition to establishing the first schools, she serves many years as postmistress and her manifesto, Fortress to Farm, is one of the most detailed accounts of early local history.

Near Miss: Prairie Fire

The new town of Edwinton was nearly wiped out by a prairie fire on October 12, 1872. The fire surround the town on all sides. It was believed to have been started by Native Americans to combat encroaching settlers.

First Businesses

The moment settlers arrived, the region became a business magnet. Railroad and military personnel supported these early establishments, which operated out of tents that were quick to assemble and could be easily relocated. This was important given the ongoing townsite dispute. They would be “papered” and boarded over during the winter.

The most notable first businesses included that of Asa Fisher’s billiard hall, John Dunn’s general/drug store, John Yegen’s restaurant and bakery, and the Shaw & Cathcart dry goods store. Some of these originated in Carleton or Burleigh City before relocating to Edwinton. The Shaw store was explicitly said to be located in Carleton in Linda Slaughter’s Fortress to Farm manifesto.

Established in or around May 1872, Shaw & Cathcart was likely the first local retailer. The store originated in Boston as Shaw, Cathcart, & Fisher – a partnership enterprise involving Asa Fisher and W.B. Shaw. The Cathcart connection relates to an affiliation with long-time Saint Paul dry goods merchant Cathcart & Co. At the very least, Cathcart was a supplier, and may have also been a partner. W.B. Shaw – the local proprietor – also had Saint Paul roots, and both men may have formerly resided in Toronto. At some point, the store was relocated to the corner of 4th Street and Main Avenue in present-day Bismarck.

More Chapters

Next Chapter:

1873-1879: Railroad Arrives, New Name, Panic!

Previous Chapter:

Pre-1872: Early History


  • One source says Carleton and Burliegh City were established as soon as 1871, but this contradicts other reports and seems unlikely. There was little activity until 1872, certainly not enough to support towns. Carleton City, in particular, was largely supported by the military personnel stationed at Fort McKeen directly across the river, which wasn’t established until June 1872. There are also no discovered references to either town before 1872. Northern Pacific didn’t even award contracts between the Red and Missouri Rivers until September 1871, and Burleigh had not yet commenced grading work as of a June 29, 1872 news article. Lastly, a news report from March 1872 states that surveying was only complete to the James River.
  • A source says the name “Carleton” derived from Carlton, Minnesota, where the railroad’s groundbreaking took place in 1870. Despite its similar name, this seems unlikely due to the spelling difference. Carlton, Minnesota – the city and county – were named for Reuben B. Carlton. Charles Carleton Coffin, on the other hand, once worked in the engineering division of Northern Pacific.
  • Some sources spell Fort McKeen as Fort McKean, but this is inaccurate. The fort’s original namesake was Colonel H. Boyd McKeen, who was a Pennsylvanian officer and brigade commander killed at the Battle of Cold Harbor during the Civil War. A Fort McKean did exist, but not in Dakota Territory.

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