Former North Dakota bishop prevented a potential reservation land-grab by government officials

"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen concludes the story of Bishop William Walker.

The Rt. Rev. William David Walker, photographed here in 1913.
Contributed / Samuel Hart / Public Domain

FARGO — “Bishop Walker Dead, Friend of the Indians” was the headline in the New York Times obituary section on May 2, 1917.

Twelve years earlier, when a member of Congress attempted to subdivide the Seneca Indians’ communal landholding into allotments, which would have allowed unscrupulous land speculators to swindle the Seneca out of much of their land, Bishop William Walker used his position on the Board of Indian Commissioners (BIC) to help put a stop to this action.

Walker began working with the Indigenous Americans in North Dakota in the mid-1880s, overseeing missions on the Turtle Mountain, Devils Lake and Standing Rock reservations where “he witnessed the failure of federal Indian policies.” Because of his close working ties with the Indians, he was appointed to the BIC in 1887. The original purpose of the BIC was to “advise the federal government on Native American policy and inspect supplies delivered to Indian agencies to ensure the fulfillment of government treaty obligations.”

However, Walker took his position description a step further after his friends on the Seneca reservation informed him of the ultimate goal of a member of Congress. Walker galvanized the support of influential people to stop the congressman from implementing his plan.

Walker served as the first Missionary Bishop of Northern Dakota from 1883 to 1896, and then became the bishop of Western New York. While he was in North Dakota, “Walker built 22 churches and six rectories. Eighteen of the churches were free of debt, and only one rectory was not completely paid for.”


He also covered much of the state bringing the gospel to many early settlers who lived in areas too remote to build their own church. His method of implementing that goal was to have a railroad “Cathedral Car” built that could be transported to many of those isolated communities.

After learning about “a Russian Orthodox chapel car which was used on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Walker decided to procure a similar car to provide a place for worship in the many places on the railroads where there was no church building.” Most of the funding for a car came from his very wealthy former parishioners in New York.

Once he obtained sufficient funds, he contacted the Pullman Palace Car Co. in Chicago to build it. The car was 60 feet long and was divided into two parts: The large main section served as the chapel and the small section contained Walker’s living quarters and his office. The chapel did not have pews but contained 80 chairs for worshipers, and at the very front was a small pump organ that Walker played during the services. On one side of the car the words “The Church of the Advent” were painted, and on the other side were the words, “The Cathedral Car of North Dakota.”

On Oct. 30, 1890, the construction of Walker’s “Cathedral Car of North Dakota” was completed and, on Nov. 14, it left Chicago on its way to Fargo. Wherever the car traveled, it attracted large crowds. People were impressed by its “compactness, dignity and simple churchly beauty.”

For his scheduled rounds, Bishop Walker would contact the railroad line in the area and have placards announcing its coming, and the time of the worship service. The railroad would pull Walker’s car free of charge, and transported the car to a siding near a station where churchgoers gathered for the service. Oftentimes, more than 80 people wanted to attend worship, so Walker would conduct a second service. After the services were over, the railroad would then pick up the Cathedral Car and transport it to a location where the next service was scheduled.

On July 20, 1896, Arthur C. Coxe, the bishop for the Diocese of Western New York, died, and Walker was asked to come to western New York and temporarily assume Coxe’s duties. “On October 6, a special convention of the Diocese of Western New York met for the election of a new bishop, and Walker was elected.” Walker’s diocese included the counties of Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming, and the “see city” was in Buffalo.

In North Dakota, many of the inhabitants in Walker’s diocese were Native Americans, and that was also the case in his New York diocese. The largest of the tribes was the Seneca, one of the five tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, and many of the Seneca lived on reservations in western New York. As bishop, Walker showed concern over many issues of which the elders were concerned and, in appreciation, he was formally adopted into the Seneca nation.

Much of the Seneca’s concern evolved from the passage of the Dawes Act of 1887 that “regulated land rights on tribal territories.” It gave the government the power “to subdivide Native American tribal communal landholdings into allotments for Native American heads of families and individuals.” It also attempted to force the Indians to adapt to a capitalistic economic structure when they had always operated in a communal society. This opened up the opportunity for unscrupulous companies and individuals to cheat them out of their land.


When the Seneca resisted the idea of having their land subdivided, New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt, in 1900, named Walker as one of five members to serve on the New York legislative committee to explore ways to get the Seneca to comply. Roosevelt and Walker knew each other back in the 1860s and ‘70s when Walker was the assistant priest at New York’s Calvary Episcopal Church and Roosevelt was a member. They both lived in northern Dakota Territory in the 1880s, but I don’t have any evidence that they ever met during that time.

The situation for the Seneca became dire in 1902 when Edward Vreeland, the congressman who represented western New York, introduced an allotment bill to subdivide the Seneca reservation land. It was known that this land sat atop large quantities of oil and gas and Vreeland was a partner in the Seneca Oil Co.

Walker’s attempts to thwart Vreeland’s bill were much appreciated by the Seneca. Frank I. Patterson, president of the Seneca Nation, said, “Bishop Walker has stood up for us and our rights. He is better acquainted with our condition than any other public man... He is a member of the BIC and the only member of the board that has stood up boldly for our interests.”

Bishop Walker and other like-minded individuals were able to convince the press, the courts and Congress to defeat all of Vreeland’s efforts, and his bill failed. It is interesting to note that in 1990, Congress recognized the past injustices that had been inflicted on the Seneca and voted to appropriate $35,000,000 to the tribe.

Bishop William Walker was highly regarded for the work he did in New York. After a brief illness, he died on May 2, 1917. On May 15, at the annual council of the diocese, he was eulogized noting his many accomplishments.

“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

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at or calling 701-793-8508.
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