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Burleigh, Dr. Walter Atwood

By | Last Modified: January 17, 2018

Dr. Walter Atwood Burleigh (1820-1896) was a physician, Indian agent, trader, entrepreneur, opportunist, steamboat captain, and politician. Burleigh County, of which Bismarck is county seat, is named in his honor.

Early Life

Burleigh was born in Maine in 1820. He studied medicine in Burlington, Vermont and New York City.

He served briefly as a private in the Aroostook War in 1839 before completing medical school. He practices medicein in Richmond, Maine and Kittanning, Pennsylvania. In the 1850s, he entered the legal professional and was admitted to the Bar of Pennsylvania.

As a young adult, he was a staunch Republican who strongly supported Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign. It was this strong devotion that resulted in President Lincoln offering Burleigh a foreign assignment in 1861, which Burleigh declined.

Alternatively, Burleigh accepted Lincoln’s appointment as Indian agent at Yankton, Dakota Territory (one report states Greenwood, D.T.). He represented Dakota Territory as delegate to the 39th and 40th Congress, until 1869. He lost subsequent runs for the position.

Following President Lincoln’s assassination, Burleigh continued capitalizing on his strong devotion to the Republican Party, maintaining strong connections to Presidents Johnson and Grant.

Burleigh City

Burleigh arrived in the area that is now Bismarck after the Northern Pacific Railway awarded him the contract to grade the 50-mile stretch through the region, between Crystal Springs and the Missouri River. It was here that he leveraged his position and intimate knowledge of the planned rail line to secure land along the projected route. Dr. Burleigh sought to prosper from the custom of “squatter’s rights,” laying first claim to prime real estate.

The town that erupted through his backdoor dealings was known to locals as “Burleigh City” or “Burleighton” and was located near the present-day site of Bismarck Airport. Together with nearby Carleton City, further west of the planned route, Burleigh City thrived for some time.

The original proposed rail line was to cross the Missouri River at the mouth of the Heart River, straight through Burleigh City. To Burleigh’s dismay, Northern Pacific later shifted the line north, partly to avoid the area’s susceptibility to flooding, while also counteracting Burleigh’s scheme.

Despite this, both towns thrived for some time because locals took belief that the route change was a ruse.

The line change was no ruse. Dr. Burleigh’s stratagem ultimately backfires, resulting in severe financial hardship for Burleigh.

Nevertheless, Burleigh’s early influence earned him the distinction of Burleigh County being named in his honor upon its organization in 1873.

Failed Political Run

After a failed attempt to run as the territory’s delegate to Congress – as a Democrat, interestingly – where he was accused of scheming towards a victory, Dr. Burleigh moves to Iowa to become a farmer.

Burleigh Returns

Burleigh couldn’t stay away from his namesake county indefinitely, however.

By 1876, Burleigh had entered the freight business and was awarded the contract for carrying government goods between Bismarck and Yankton, where he was again residing. Around this time, Burleigh had heavy investments in nearby mines and real estate.

Burleigh returns to Bismarck in 1878 after procuring a brand-new steamboat, the Gen. Terry. Burleigh had commissioned the steamboat to engage in the Bismarck-Yellowstone trade. Upon arriving, Burleigh proclaimed that he would be “hereafter a citizen of Bismarck.” Despite this, Burleigh seemingly remains living in Yankton, where he again dabbles in politics.

Burleigh was vehemently opposed to an effort into statehood in 1883. Although statehood was strongly approved by the public, U.S. Congress rejected the application due to poor voter turnout. It would not be until 1889 that North and South Dakota entered statehood.

Montana, Back to Yankton

By 1885, Burleigh had moved to the Miles City area in Montana, where he practice law and again attempted politics. He was even a candidate for judgeship. He apparently continued to maintain a home in Yankton during this time.

In 1890, Burleigh was inaccurately reported by the press to have died of consumption, when it was actually his son, Tim Burleigh, who had passed.

Burleigh fell deathly ill in early 1896, spending his last remaining days at his long-time home in Yankton, where he died of “paralysis” on or around March 10.

Personal Life

Burleigh graduated with a degree in medicine from his home state of Maine. For some time, he traveled to Europe and South America. In 1852, he relocated to Kittanning, Pennsylvania. His first wife, the daughter of Andrew J. Faulk – a newspaper editor – died shortly after the two married.

In 1858 or 1859, Burleigh married Caroline, the eldest daughter of ex-Governor Faulk, the third governor of Dakota Territory. It was his second marriage.

He had three surviving sons.

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