In the summer of 1875, Ralph Meeker, a reporter for the New York Herald, arrived in Bismarck to investigate corruption committed by officials of the War and Interior Departments during President U.S. Grant’s administration. With the assistance of Ben Ash, Meeker discovered evidence that government agents were stealing goods that were supposed to be shipped to Native Americans living on reservations.
His findings were verified by James Emmons, and Meeker’s articles were relayed to the Herald by Linda Slaughter, who was the Bismarck postmistress. The stealing of supplies destined for reservation Native Americans was an egregious and unlawful practice, but the illegal issue that drew the most significant action by Congress was the selling of post trader positions.
A person that Meeker personally knew from their time together in Hiram, Ohio, Col. William Hazen, had discovered evidence that the post trader at Fort Sill, Okla., was required to pay $12,000 to the wife of William Belknap, the Secretary of War, in order to be appointed post trader at Fort Sill. Hazen informed Congress about this and a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on it, but since both chambers were controlled by Republicans, no action was taken.
Meeker worked closely with Col. George Custer on this issue, and this is what they were able to piece together. In 1874, Columbus Delano, the Secretary of the Interior, revoked all of the Native American trading licenses of the traders along the upper Missouri River and, “to get them renewed, traders had to deal with Orvil Grant,” the brother of the president. The price rates that Grant charged were “$12,000 per annum from each of the posts at Forts Buford, Lincoln and Rice. Smaller sums were paid for other forts.”
Traders who would not pay these bribes were replaced by those who would. Custer first became suspicious when he received a letter from Belknap, dated May 23, 1874, that Robert Seip had been appointed post trader at Fort Abraham Lincoln, replacing S. A. Dickey and Robert Wilson, who jointly owned the trading post. The letter explicitly stated that “all traders not holding a letter of appointment from the Secretary of War” could not sell goods at the fort.
Prices on all of the goods dramatically increased as soon as Seip took over, causing a great hardship for the soldiers at the fort. To try and relieve the financial stress, one officer took a wagon to St. Paul, purchased supplies and resold the items at cost. Custer also sent soldiers to Bismarck to buy certain items. When Seip learned of this, he complained to Belknap who warned Custer that this must never happen again.
Wilson, the former trader at Fort Lincoln, contacted Custer that something fishy was going on, and he accused Belknap of corruption. Custer discovered that the reasons for dismissal of Wilson and Dickey were bogus and that Seip, who had been a quartermaster’s clerk at Fort Buford, had somehow come up with sufficient bribe money to pay Orvil Grant. With that information, Meeker submitted more scathing articles to the Herald.
From July through October 1875, Meeker’s articles were printed in the Herald. As knowledge of the scandal’s extent became better known, Delano resigned as Secretary of the Interior on Sept. 30. On Feb. 29, 1876, the U.S. House, now controlled by Democrats, launched an investigation to determine how deeply Belknap was involved, and both Custer and Meeker were called as key witnesses.
When it became obvious that the House would vote for Belknap’s impeachment on March 2, he “raced to the White House, handed Grant his resignation, and burst into tears.” Later that day, members of the House voted unanimously to send five articles of impeachment to the Senate. Belknap was charged with “criminally disregarding his duty as Secretary of War and basely prostituting his high office to his lust for private gain.”
The trial in the Senate lasted from early April through July, and on Aug. 1, a majority of the senators voted against Belknap, but since the votes fell short of the necessary two-thirds, he was acquitted. Sadly, the Grant administration would not be the last presidential administration where family and cabinet members would be accused of committing improprieties.
“With success as a reporter, Meeker was sent to Washington, D.C., where he served as the Herald’s Capital correspondent from 1875 to 1877.” In 1877, Meeker was assigned as a war correspondent during the Russo-Turkish War and, at its conclusion in 1878, he remained in eastern Europe to cover other events.
“Upon returning from Europe in 1879, news of his father’s death at the White River Agency, in western Colorado, and the capture of his mother and sister by Ute Indians reached him.” Nathan Meeker, Ralph’s father, was appointed agent at White River in 1878. His insistence that the Utes at the agency take up farming led to bitterness by some of the Native Americans.
On Sept. 20, 1879, a band of disgruntled Utes attacked the agency and killed all of the white males and then took the women children with them as they attempted to elude the pursuing soldiers. Ralph Meeker rushed to Ouray, Colo., to be reunited with his mother, Arvilla, and sister, Josephine, who had been held in captivity for 27 days.
In 1883, Meeker returned to Greeley, Colo., and purchased the Greeley Tribune. He edited that paper for two years before returning to the New York Herald. Meeker remained at the Herald until 1916 when he retired and returned to Greeley to write the history of the city.
Ralph Lovejoy Meeker died on Dec. 5, 1921.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.