After battling the Great Chicago Fire this N.D. governor became a swashbuckling pirate

Fred Fancher also survived North Dakota’s deadliest blizzard, wrote the state constitution, and became a multimillionaire businessman.

Future North Dakota governor Fred Fancher, far right, had a very interesting path to the top office in the state, including Great Chicago Fire hero and stage actor. This is Fancher in an 1892 production in Jamestown.
Forum archives

Say it. “Fred Fancher.”

It’s hardly a noble-sounding name, right?

But to borrow a phrase from that Dos Equis beer commercial, this 19th-century guy with the everyman moniker just might have been “the most interesting man” in North Dakota.

Listen to this story on Tracy's podcast

Fancher was the governor of North Dakota in its earliest days. Elected as a Republican in 1898, he only served until 1900 but left his mark on the very young state as a bonafide Renaissance man.

Fred Fancher was just 19 years old when he was caught in The Great Chicago Fire. He would later move to North Dakota for a quieter life, which turned out to be not so quiet.
Forum archives


Heroics in The Great Chicago Fire

Born in New York in 1852, the young Fancher was just 19 when he found a job at the Chicago News Agency where he’d play an integral part in saving the business from disaster.

On the night of Oct. 8, 1871, fire broke out in or around a barn located on the property of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary on the city’s southwest side. (Rumor had it a cow started the fire with a “fatal swat of a lantern,” but the origin of the fire has never been proven.)

Over the next couple of days, the fire raged. Dry weather and an abundance of wooden buildings, streets, and sidewalks made the entire city vulnerable to the flames.

When the report of the fire reached the news agency, Fancher, who was working alone, knew the company’s large stock of paper was directly in the path of the fire. Reports say for the next several hours, “using all his strength he succeeded in getting most of the stock into a freight car” and had the car pushed onto the railroad track that crossed a lake, safe from harm’s way.

When the fire was over by Oct. 10, 300 people had been killed and thousands of buildings destroyed.

The Great Chicago Fire started on Oct. 8, 1871. Due to the many wooden buildings, the flames ravaged much of the city. A future N.D. Governor is credited with saving one business.
Library of Congress

When the president of the news agency, W.E. Tunis, got wind that Fancher singlehandedly saved the business, he wrote a letter of commendation to the teenager.

Oct. 14, 1871

My Dear Sir, 


You were instrumental in saving a greater portion of my stock, while the great Chicago fire was raging in all quarters, Oct. 9, 4:00 a.m. If you can, accept my thanks with the accompanying ring with as much pleasure as I give them you will know my opinion of you. You did most nobly.

Yours truly,

W.E. Tunis

Fancher would later call that amethyst ring one of his “most prized possessions.” He would own it for 73 years.

This letter written to the teenage Fred Fancher praised the future North Dakota governor for his heroism during The Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Forum archives


Lost in a blizzard

Shortly after the Great Fire, Fancher left the big city for a quieter life on the prairie. He started farming seven miles from Jamestown, Dakota Territory. But with "the spirit of the pioneer," life wouldn’t be as quiet as he might have liked.

In January of 1888, Fancher had to be rescued during the famous Great Plains Blizzard of ‘88, often called "The Children’s Blizzard" because it killed so many children on the way home from school.

According to “ Extreme Weather: A Guide and Record Book ,” the storm was “a classic Great Plains howler,” and “some 237 people lost their lives, a very high number considering how sparsely populated the region was at the time.”

Fancher was nearly one of them. According to reports, the future governor was stranded in the snow on his own property. The fierce winds and falling snow caused zero visibility so as Fancher walked out the front door of his home to go the short distance to the barn, he was lost in the whiteout. The frostbitten Fancher was eventually rescued by a hired man.

One of the Midwest's worst blizzards happened Jan. 12-13, 1888 as is often referred to as "The Children's Blizzard," because of the number of children who died walking home from school.
NDSU Archives

As he had done after his close call at The Great Chicago Fire, Fancher shook it off and continued farming, actually starting to manage farms for Eastern investors, manage an insurance agency, and later becoming president of the board of trustees of the North Dakota Hospital for the Insane. He was also a participant at the state’s constitutional convention, helping design the framework for the brand-new state in 1889.

Taking to the stage

Fortunately, Fancher’s brushes with disaster were a thing of the past. But, perhaps he missed the drama of his former life. By the 1890s, he took up acting and hit the stage in a number of theatrical productions.

One photo printed in an old issue of The Forum shows the future governor in a production of “Held by the Enemy” in 1892. Looking like a swashbuckling pirate, Fancher and his fellow actors were a hit. The show, which was staged in Jamestown, went on tour to Bismarck, Valley City and Fargo to packed houses.

Future North Dakota governor Fred Fancher, far right, had a very interesting path to the top office in the state, including Great Chicago Fire hero and stage actor. This is Fancher in an 1892 production in Jamestown.
Forum archives

By 1894, Fancher took on the real-life role of North Dakota's insurance commissioner, and by 1898 he was elected to the state’s top office on the Republican ticket. He served his term and was renominated in 1900 but withdrew just before the election due to concerns over his health. He decided to move to California. He was 48.


But California must have agreed with him. His health improved and he would live another 44 years working in the mercantile business and making a small fortune.

In 1940, at the age of 88, Fancher’s intense early years were behind him. All that remained were the memories and that amethyst ring. The metal ring was so worn down after decades of wear, Fancher had the gem taken out and put onto the chain of his pocket watch.

Fred Fancher was nominated for a second-term as governor, but dropped out shortly before the election because of health concerns. He moved to California where his health improved and he lived another 44 years, dying at the age of 92. He says he remained a North Dakota rooter.
Forum archives

A colorful life indeed. A headline in The Forum that year heralded the ex-governor for his varied successes through the years. He was still living in Los Angeles but said he was “happy his old-time North Dakota friends” had not forgotten him.

“I’ve been on the sidelines for a long time, but I’m still a North Dakota rooter and sympathizer,” he said.

Fred Fancher died four years later at the age of 92 on January 10, forever remembered as a very interesting man.


Tracy Briggs Back Then with Tracy Briggs online column sig.jpg
Tracy Briggs, "Back Then with Tracy Briggs" columnist.
The Forum

Hi, I'm Tracy Briggs. Thanks for reading my column! I love going "Back Then" every week with stories about interesting people, places and things from our past. Check out a few below. If you have an idea for a story, email me at

Rumors have circulated for 100 years that Capone was a Minnesota lake lover and friend to the owner of East Grand Forks "Whiteys" bar. But is it fact or fiction?
Stella Hildre was only a teenager when the gun-toting gangsters “in fine clothes” asked her to lock the doors of her family's cafe and serve them dinner. It became a night she'd never forget.
Sometimes called “the white sheep” of the family, what would make Vincenzo Capone choose to fight the booze trade that was making his little brother Al the most powerful gangster in the world?
Did you once have an item of clothing that made you feel like a million bucks? Where did it go? And why the heck did you get rid of it?
The Probstfield name is well known in Moorhead. Now a new book digs deeper into the lives of Catherine Probstfield and her 'difficult' husband Randolph.
On Valentine's Day 1942, the war was less than three months old, but children were already in the fight.
Esther Allen, 88, died Dec. 18, 2022 in Moorhead after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. She paved the way for generations of women, including me.
A former Fargo woman said her pilot father once brought the great aviator home for supper and a night of incredible stories.
Officials called it "the most baffling and mysterious fire cases" in the state's history. Who or what was responsible?

Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
What To Read Next
Get Local