His grandmother saw Sitting Bull. His great-grandmother clashed with Custer. Gov. Burgum’s deep Dakota roots
Doug Burgum's family came to Dakota Territory before the railroad. His great-grandfather was an army surgeon at Fort Rice. His pioneer ancestors survived Indian attacks and raging prairie fires.
BISMARCK — Doug Burgum often stopped at his grandmother’s house after grade school for a chess lesson sweetened by the jar of lemon drops she always kept on hand.
Those meetings as a first grader with his paternal grandmother, who lived a block away on an unpaved street, are the source of fond memories from the childhood of North Dakota’s 33rd governor.
“It was a happy place to stop at grandmother’s house,” he said.
Burgum knew his grandmother to be an accomplished amateur artist, a former school teacher and co-founder of the family’s grain business in Arthur. Burgum Hall, a women’s dormitory at North Dakota State University, was named after her in the 1960s, honoring the first female to attend what originally was North Dakota Agricultural College.
“That was something that was always talked about,” he said.
But it was only later that Burgum learned of his grandmother’s gritty pioneer past as one of the first children born in 1873 in what would become Bismarck, the daughter of a former army doctor and the frontier town’s first postmistress and superintendent of schools.
As a young child then boarding at the Custer House, Jessamine Slaughter Burgum watched with excitement when the overland stagecoach from Deadwood would arrive to fanfare.
“I was a child of four, but I can still see the old stage coach with four mustangs come dashing in with two haggard men on the box, who doubtless had run a gauntlet with Indians,” she wrote.
“There was almost as much excitement as there was when it was reported that a buffalo was seen north of town and there was scurrying for horses and firearms but the valiant beast outdistanced his pursuers and swam the Missouri river,” Slaughter Burgum wrote.
Another distinct early memory was seeing “Old Sitting Bull, the famous Indian warrior,” who regularly visited Bismarck from Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
“He was frequently seen with his blanket wrapped around him and his hair in two large braids over his shoulder sitting by the old Sheridan House where the Northern Pacific depot now stands, and selling his autographed photo for a dollar to easterners who stopped off the coast trains.”
Jessamine Slaughter Burgum’s recollections, also including accounts written by her parents Benjamin Franklin Slaughter and Linda Warfel Slaughter, were collected in a book, “Zezula or Pioneer Days in the Smoky Water Country,” published in 1937.
The book documents the Slaughters’ tenure at Fort Rice, a frontier army post near the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers, which Lakota warriors attacked regularly, and the founding period of Bismarck, a bustling stop along the Northern Pacific Railway.
While at Fort Rice, Linda Warfel Slaughter wrote of worries of being captured by hostile Indians and of the anguish of losing an infant son — and listening distraught at night as hungry wolves tried to dig up the frozen, ice-covered grave outside the post.
The stories have been passed down through the Burgum family, drawing upon the Slaughters' heirloom diaries and other accounts, including the story of when Jessamine’s feisty mother, Burgum’s great-grandmother, tangled with Lt. Col. George Custer — and won.
“In our family, the joke was that the Battle of the Little Bighorn wasn’t the first battle Custer lost,” Burgum said.
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Benjamin Franklin Slaughter, who grew up on a plantation in Kentucky, found the tranquility of his early life shattered by the Civil War.
Slaughter was loyal to the Union and as a medical cadet donned the blue uniform, commissioned in the army at the age of 24 as a surgeon with the Kentucky Volunteers in 1865.
After the war, his hometown in “chaos,” he went to Louisville and entered private practice. He found civilian life stifling, so joined the regular army in 1867 and was posted during Reconstruction in western Tennessee, where he met his future wife, Linda Warfel of Oberlin College.
After two years in Tennessee, Slaughter — which Burgum quips was an unfortunate name for an army surgeon — was ordered to Fort Rice in Dakota Territory. The couple arrived at the fort in 1870 by steamboat.
Their arrival was marred by the horror of witnessing some troops who were unable to swim when the boat taking them to shore capsized and several drowned in the swift current of the Missouri.
Fort Rice was the rendezvous and point of departure for expeditions of surveyors and engineers building the Northern Pacific Railway to the Yellowstone River. Military escorts accompanied the surveyors.
Slaughter, who went into the field with the soldiers, treated men wounded by bullets and arrows, men who were frozen, suffering from gangrene, injured by horses and suffering from dietary deficiency diseases such as scurvy.
He wrote in his diary of a memorable morning in June 1871 when, shortly after finishing his early rounds at the infirmary, Indian scouts came “dashing across the plain at a furious rate” with word that a Sioux war party was raiding the fort’s herd of 100 cattle, horses and mules out grazing on the prairie.
Soldiers came “pouring out of the fort,” clashing with the raiders, who got away with six ponies belonging to Arikara scouts, following a melee that lasted 15 minutes.
More tragically, Slaughter recounted the time during a patrol with surveyors a day’s ride from the fort two lieutenants wandered off, one following a wounded antelope who rode out of sight.
“But shortly after he disappeared, a force of Indians appeared in full view on a neighboring hill. One of them, the famous Hunkpapa warrior Gall, taunted the soldiers by waving “some object in his hand, which by the aid of field glasses was discovered to be the scalp of the unfortunate officer.”
Before marrying, Linda Warfel wrote two books, including “Freedmen of the South.” She worked on the underground railroad to help slaves escape and the Burgum family believes she was North Dakota’s first female college graduate.
Camp Hancock, an army encampment at the site of what became Bismarck, experienced its first Indian attack in September 1872 when Sioux attacked some herders tending cattle on Apple Creek, killing one of the herders. The next day soldiers retrieved the mutilated body, which was kept overnight in the hospital in the back of the Slaughters’ tent before burial.
“If the Indians were to be feared in a strongly garrisoned fort, how much were they to be dreaded in a frail tent that offered no resistance to their entrance?” Warfel Slaughter wrote.
Once, while out riding away from the camp with an officer, Warfel Slaughter was suddenly lunged at by an Indian who had been hiding in the bushes, but escaped unharmed.
A short time later, an Arikara scout came to her tent at Camp Hancock and presented her with a “fresh Sioux scalp, with a long, black scalp lock and having one ear still attached” — an offering the scout thought she would appreciate, since it belonged to the man who had tried to attack her.
Warfel Slaughter felt faint, and gave the Indian an order for ten pounds of sugar as a reward.
On a happier occasion, Warfel Slaughter wrote the first telegram sent on Aug. 24, 1873, from the frontier town of Edwinton, as Bismarck was initially called.
“Edwinton, the newly christened child of the Northern Pacific railroad, sends greetings to the world!” the introductory telegraph said.
Another milestone in 1873 was the arrival of the first passenger train in Bismarck. Excited townspeople ran to welcome the train as it stopped to fill its water tank and disembarked passengers stood on the prairie, waving their hats and cheering.
The Slaughters’ third child, a daughter named Jessamine — Doug Burgum’s grandmother — was born “on one of the coldest days just before Christmas” of 1873 in log quarters at Camp Hancock.
The arrival of Lt. Col. George Custer and his Seventh Cavalry changed the character of Bismarck by attracting dance halls and saloons, resulting in “no cessation in the daily and nightly routine of revelry and wickedness,” Warfel Slaughter wrote disapprovingly.
In 1874, Warfel Slaughter became postmistress of Bismarck, succeeding her husband after a law was changed to allow a married woman to hold the position, with a yearly salary of $12.
As postmistress, Warfel Slaughter came into regular contact with almost everyone in town. “I wrote hundreds of letters for those who could not write,” she wrote. “I was the recipient of countless confidences. Those who received good news in their letters turned back to tell me of it. Those whose letters bore ill tidings waited to confide their sorrows to me.”
But it was as postmistress that Warfel Slaughter feuded with Custer, who broke from the previous commander’s practice of allowing the post office in Bismarck to sort mail for nearby army posts, which came intermingled with the town’s letters and packages.
Instead, Custer had the mail bag taken to his headquarters at Fort Abraham Lincoln across the river. Discovering that the bag couldn’t be opened without a key, Custer sent his orderly to retrieve a key from Warfel Slaughter, with a request to return the key and the town’s mail as soon as possible.
The mail arrived the next day, “hopelessly mingled together,” including army mail for several posts. Warfel Slaughter sent for her key and Custer refused, igniting a clash of wills and a lengthy dispute that finally was settled by army headquarters, with orders to direct the military mail carrier to leave mail for the army posts at the Bismarck post office.
Custer, of course, was killed along with every soldier under his direct command at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, and the army’s long war with the Lakota Sioux ended the following year.
With the Indian war over, horse thieves and prairie fires emerged as major threats to Bismarck and the surrounding area, with homesteaders being the most vulnerable.
“The horse owners would stay up all night and camp beside their picketed horses with loaded guns,” Jessamine Burgum wrote. “To lose a team of horses meant bankruptcy for the horses represented the claimholder’s wealth and means of livelihood.”
The Slaughter family, which staked a homestead claim north of Bismarck, repeatedly fought prairie fires; repeatedly they lost the battle.
“Three times was our claim house destroyed in as many summers,” Jessamine Slaughter wrote. “In spite of fire breaks the flames, swept by the wind, leapt over all barriers.”
In spite of the hardships of life on the frontier, Warfel Slaughter became a booster for Dakota Territory. Her writings in the Bismarck Tribune extolling the opportunities to be found caught the notice of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which commissioned her to write weekly letters to newspapers in St. Paul, Chicago and New York, rewarding her efforts with two lots on the south side of Main Street that proved to be uninhabitable.
She organized the Ladies’ Historical Society in 1872, which was instrumental in preserving the early history of the state and Bismarck — and endures today as the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
The historical society’s archives, in fact, are the repository of diaries, documents and photographs contributed by descendants of the Slaughter-Burgum families, including a portrait of Linda Warfel Slaughter that hangs on a wall in the governor’s residence.
Warfel Slaughter herself made history, becoming the first woman elected in what became North Dakota when voters chose her as Bismarck’s first superintendent of schools — running against men at a time when she couldn’t vote for herself, although she championed women’s suffrage.
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Doug Burgum rarely mentions his pioneer ancestry. He did briefly note his frontier lineage when announcing his first campaign for the governor’s office in 2016.
And in May 2022, while congratulating the city of Bismarck on its 150th anniversary, Burgum did mention that his grandmother Jessamine Slaughter Burgum was “among the first children born in Bismarck.” No mention that she saw Sitting Bull standing and signing autographs, or the Deadwood stage rolling into town, or fighting prairie fires that engulfed three homestead shacks.
“I would say I wouldn't try to trade on history,” he said. “I think it's sort of odd. I mean, we can be proud of our ancestors or not proud of our ancestors, but we don't have any choice in who we were related to. So I want to make sure I don't come across like that. I'm not, you know, filled with pride about something that I had nothing to do with.”
As a young woman, Jessamine Burgum taught school in Emmons County, where her students spoke no English, but with a smattering of German, Swedish and Norwegian, and McLean County.
While in McLean County, in the spring of 1884 she met Joseph Burgum, whose parents had emigrated from England and who was homesteading along the Missouri River near Washburn. At the time, Jessamine was teaching school at Painted Woods, near Washburn, and sometimes rode her pony side-saddle to Bismarck, a distance of 40 miles, then back on Sundays.
They were married in Bismarck in 1894 and made their home in Washburn until they moved to Arthur in 1900, where Joseph became manager of a grain elevator company before the couple started their business in 1906, Arthur Grain Elevator, which is still in the family. Jessamine was active in the business, keeping the books and serving on the board for many years.
Burgum credits the family tradition of strong women for his comfort in surrounding himself with accomplished women, noting that when he managed the former Great Plains Software, now part of Microsoft Business Solutions, the employee roster was 51% female, rare in the male-dominated technology sector.
When Burgum first became governor, he inherited the tense standoff between Standing Rock protestors and law enforcement over the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which later crossed the Missouri River near the mouth of the Cannonball — which is to say, near the site of old Fort Rice, where his great-grandfather had served, and where his grandmother’s infant brother once was buried.
That connection to family history was just one of the things he had on his mind as he searched for a peaceful resolution to one of his first challenges in office.
Although he tries not to “trade” on his heritage, he does find inspiration in their pioneer accomplishments.
“They were people that had real struggles,” he said. “They were building community.”