Dickinson, ND | History
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Dickinson History

From its beginnings in the 1880s, Dickinson, ND has grown in to a regional center for a variety of activities, ranging from medical care and business to arts and entertainment. Dickinson, ND History.
Images courtesy of Southwestern North Dakota Digital Archive/Dickinson Museum Center. To purchase historic prints, contact the Dickinson Museum Center at 701-456-6225.

From its beginnings in the 1880s, Dickinson, ND has grown in to a regional center for a variety of activities, ranging from medical care and business to arts and entertainment.


Southwest North Dakota has a long and rich history that begins with Native American communities. When the first non-native settlers came into this area, it was populated by the Dakota and Lakota (or Sioux) tribes, who camped and hunted on the prairie. The Mandan tribe also has a long history in the area, and often hunted in this region.

Some of these first settlers to come to the area included General Alfred Sully in 1864, who was chasing the Dakota tribe. Although the Dakota were involved in a conflict in Minnesota in 1862 where several people were killed, the Dakota people living in this region were not part of the band involved in the conflict. By 1873, the Northern Pacific railroad survey crews were in the region scouting potential routes to build the tracks west, connecting Duluth, Minnesota with Puget Sound, in Washington Territory.
From its beginnings in the 1880s, Dickinson, ND has grown in to a regional center for a variety of activities, ranging from medical care and business to arts and entertainment. Dickinson, ND History.
Dickinson, ND has a lot of great history to share!

It was at this time that George A. Custer came to the region to help protect the survey expeditions. In 1876, Custer died in the Battle of the Big Horn in Montana Territory. Less than a year later, Fort Keogh was established (present Miles City, Montana), and the Keogh trail was the primary route for travelers going west from Bismarck to Montana. A stage line operated until rail service could be established in 1881.

The city of Dickinson has more than lived up to its original name. It began as “Pleasant Valley Siding” when the Northern Pacific Railroad reached this point in a wide valley on the Heart River, halfway between the Missouri River and the Montana Territory border. As Northern Pacific construction crews pushed westward, a way station was set up along the tracks at Pleasant Valley Siding. By the middle of August in 1881, some portable buildings were set up along the Pleasant Valley tracks. There was a water tank, a depot station, a section house, and a temporary eating house with several lodging rooms.
As is the case with most North Dakota towns, the original town site was developed as a “T-Town.” This term describes the standard layout of communities whose settlements hinged on the coming of the railroad and is marked by the T shape formed by the intersection of two primary streets—usually the location of the depot. In Dickinson this can be seen where Sims Street (running north and south) meets Villard Street (running east and west). This is the precise location of the historic Northern Pacific Depot, which is still in use by the Burlington Northern Railroad Company today. Dickinson was chosen as a division point by the Northern Pacific because of its central location between Bismarck, North Dakota and the Montana border.

D.R. Taylor, superintendent of the railroad, employed E.F. Messersmith of St. Paul to oversee provisions for the railroad crew as it worked its way into Montana. Messersmith soon tired of the long separations from his family and severed his connections with Northern Pacific and took charge of the eating station planned for Pleasant Valley.

From its beginnings in the 1880s, Dickinson, ND has grown in to a regional center for a variety of activities, ranging from medical care and business to arts and entertainment. Dickinson, ND History.
From its beginnings in the 1880s, Dickinson, ND has grown in to a regional center for a variety of activities, ranging from medical care and business to arts and entertainment. Dickinson, ND History.
The Messersmith family enjoyed their new home in Pleasant Valley so much that they sent for Mrs. Messersmith’s brother-in- law and his family, the Moses Lennevilles of St. Paul. They arrived on September 7, 1881 and the settlement's first private dwelling was built for them near the water tank and eating station.

Frame shacks rose on the prairie surrounding the railroad tracks during the ensuing months. The first private building, a saloon, was made of lumber with a canvas top. Another shack went up and became a store, supplying the buffalo hunters, rail workers, and the frontiersmen. The population of the settlement was estimated at 50 that first year of 1881.

One of Pleasant Valley's first visitors in the fall of 1881 was Wells S. Dickinson, who oversaw land grants for Northern Pacific. Later that fall, H.L. Dickinson, a cousin of Wells S. Dickinson, visited this prairie outpost and realized the opportunities available in Pleasant Valley.

By this time, the name “Dickinson” was chosen to replace the name “Pleasant Valley Siding” and a post office was established on October 6, 1881. In early 1882, H.L. Dickinson returned with his family from Moria, NY and bought land on Section 4 immediately west of the tiny settlement. His farm was located at about what is now Seventh Avenue West and Villard Street.

Wells S. Dickinson purchased land adjacent to the railroad and platted the townsite in the summer of 1882. The first lot was sold September 7, 1882, to Messersmith, who also purchased a lot on the south side of what is now 1st St. East. George Auld was second to buy lots at $225 and $250 each on Villard Street.

Buffalo hunters shipped out bales of hides and boxes of bones in those early days before the great beast disappeared from the land. These hunters bought their provisions from the early merchants, sending out their wagon teams in all directions to gather hides.

From its beginnings in the 1880s, Dickinson, ND has grown in to a regional center for a variety of activities, ranging from medical care and business to arts and entertainment. Dickinson, ND History.
From its beginnings in the 1880s, Dickinson, ND has grown in to a regional center for a variety of activities, ranging from medical care and business to arts and entertainment. Dickinson, ND History.
The spring of 1883 saw renewed activity in Dickinson. At this time, Dickinson was considered a part of Morton County. After months of negotiations, Stark County, Dakota Territory, was formally organized on May 30, 1883. The building that housed the newspaper was used as the first courthouse until one was constructed in 1886 with a $15,000 bond issue.

The Dickinson area experienced agricultural growth along with business growth throughout the 1880s. The first shipment of livestock from Dickinson took place in the fall of 1883. Records show that about 1,219 carloads of beef were sent to the Chicago market, representing about 26,818 head. These were sold for $1,206,710 and raising stock had now begun in southwest North Dakota.

Growth and development of the small town was rapid. By the end of 1882, there were almost 100 different buildings of all sizes, shapes, and colors spread out along the railroad tracks.

Buffalo hunters shipped out bales of hides and boxes of bones in those early days before the great beast disappeared from the land. These hunters bought their provisions from the early merchants, sending out their wagon teams in all directions to gather hides.

The spring of 1883 saw renewed activity in Dickinson. At this time, Dickinson was considered a part of Morton County. After months of negotiations, Stark County, Dakota Territory, was formally organized on May 30, 1883. The building that housed the newspaper was used as the first courthouse until one was constructed in 1886 with a $15,000 bond issue. Dickinson became an established city in 1883. Its first mayor was Dan Manning.
From its beginnings in the 1880s, Dickinson, ND has grown in to a regional center for a variety of activities, ranging from medical care and business to arts and entertainment. Dickinson, ND History.
Great ranching spread across Western Dakota and Dickinson, ND.
The period before the dawning of the 20th century was the day of great ranching spreads in Western Dakota. The influx of immigrants and settlers was only a trickle. The range was open and free for the use of the rancher and his large herds. The cowboy kept to a schedule of branding, herding, shipping, and wintering livestock.

The Medora and Black Hills Stage and Express Line was operating in the 1880s. The Marquis de Mores opened up his various enterprises in Medora, North Dakota including a thriving meat packing plant. The western slope of the Dakotas was booming.

The Dickinson area experienced agricultural growth along with business growth throughout the 1880s. The first shipment of livestock from Dickinson took place in the fall of 1883. Records show that about 1,219 carloads of beef were sent to the Chicago market, representing about 26,818 head. These were sold for $1,206,710 ($45 per head) and raising stock had now officially begun in southwest North Dakota.

Education was an important part of the community life then and remains so to this day. The Dickinson public school system held its first commencement exercises on May 25, 1894, with Carrie Fowler being the only graduate and Dr. Stickney giving the address and presenting the diploma. Several years later, in 1918, a new force was established in Dickinson when the North Dakota Legislature set up a State Normal School in the city. This meant southwest North Dakota had a college where its young people could be trained as teachers and in other fields. Samuel T. May, a school administrator from South Dakota, was named the first president of the school.

Statehood was achieved for North and South Dakota in 1889 after years of agitation. From this time on, immigration increased by leaps and bounds. Settlers from every part of Europe poured into the United States and North Dakota received its share. They gathered in communities of their own, providing a variety of cultural influences, and most of them came to farm the land.
Dickinson, ND became an established city in 1883.

By the end of 1910, Dickinson was the center of a golden circle of grain crops. Dairying and the raising of livestock continued their growth. With this growth in agriculture came the establishment in 1905 of the Dickinson Agricultural Experiment Station.

The Dickinson Horse Sales Company was one of the largest and best equipped in the country, selling thousands of horses a year, with buyers from every state in the union. Dickinson had become a center for the brick and pottery industry, as well as a shipping point for lignite coal. By the time that Dickinson was 30 years old, it had changed from a shanty town along the railroad tracks to a strong, healthy, and hustling town. With its two flour mills, bottling works, warehouses, and hotels and business places, the city was a growing metropolis of the plains.
Dickinson gradually became the main trade center within a 150-mile radius in the territory. The large cattle outfits dotting the countryside purchased their supplies from and shipped their stock out of Dickinson. For decades Dickinson remained a major cattle shipping point, and ranching was a major element in the region’s economic system. At the same time, those in farming started to realize the potential for No. 1 hard wheat. Gradually this area shifted to a strong agricultural- farming base and more and more immigrants arrived to take on the challenge of raising grain for a living. By the 1950s the oil industry had also become a significant resource to the region. Ranching and farming continue to be integral to the local economy, in addition to the oil and coal industries.

Because of its central, southwestern location between Fargo, North Dakota and Billings, Montana, Dickinson was eventually given the nickname “Queen City of the Prairies”.
As Dickinson is also the gateway to the great American West, to Medora, and to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, its nickname has now changed to “The Western Edge” because it truly is on the Western Edge of the Dakotas!
Dickinson, ND changed it’s name to “The Western Edge” because it truly is on the Western Edge of the Dakotas!


History and Drives

SW North Dakota History and Drives near Dickinson, ND.
You want to take a drive and DO something, right? Maybe you aren’t into the walking and wildlife viewing and such. Like a little history and taking a drive? We have several ideas for you!

Going a short distance around our area is a day trip that can be fun, and you can learn a few things too along the way.

SW North Dakota History and Drives



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