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Pierce made mark on N.D., politics and print

The person in the U.S. who is considered "the leading scholar" on Charles Dickens was elected to the U.S. Senate from North Dakota. Gilbert Ashville Pierce was an officer during the Civil War, an Indiana state legislator, secretary of the U.S. Se...

The person in the U.S. who is considered "the leading scholar" on Charles Dickens was elected to the U.S. Senate from North Dakota.

Gilbert Ashville Pierce was an officer during the Civil War, an Indiana state legislator, secretary of the U.S. Senate, novelist, playwright, newspaper editor, governor of Dakota Territory, and University of North Dakota presidential-designee before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1889.

After serving in the Senate, Pierce became managing editor and 50 percent owner of the Minneapolis Tribune. He is also the person for whom Pierce County, N.D., is named.

Pierce was born Jan. 11, 1839, in East Otto, N.Y. In 1854, his family moved to Valparaiso, Ind. After graduating from high school in 1858, he married Anne Marie Bartholomew. For two years, Pierce attended Chicago University, where he studied writing, literature and law.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Pierce enlisted as a 2nd lieutenant with the 9th Indiana Volunteers. He was appointed captain three months later and saw action at the battles of Paducah, Fort Donaldson, Shiloh and Grand Gulf. He also played an active role in the capture of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.


In November 1863, Pierce was appointed lieutenant colonel and was stationed at Matagorda Island in Texas. In 1864, he was appointed colonel and named inspector general of the War Department. He was mustered out of the Union Army in October 1865.

Pierce returned to Valparaiso and set up a law practice. He also became involved in Republican politics and was elected to the Indiana Legislature in 1868. In 1869, Pierce became assistant financial clerk of the U.S. Senate and moved to Washington, D.C. He resigned in 1871 to take over as associate editor of the newspaper Chicago Inter Ocean.

The Inter Ocean had a large national circulation and specialized in national and international news. It also printed literary works submitted by noted writers. This was a perfect venue for Pierce, who had immersed himself in the writings of Dickens. In 1872, Pierce released his first book, The Dickens Dictionary, which referenced every novel, short story, play and poem published by Dickens. It soon became a standard reference book in Great Britain and the U.S.

Pierce became managing editor of the Inter Ocean in 1877. The next year, an incident in New York significantly changed his career path because of the way he reported it. Chester A. Arthur was collector of the New York Customs House, the largest federal office in the U.S.

Arthur supervised more than 1,000 employees who were responsible for collecting taxes on imports. Arthur was fired when investigators found that some of the employees stole money from the Customs House. Pierce defended Arthur in his editorials. When Arthur became president, he owed Pierce a big favor because of his support.

Pierce became a noted writer, not only with his newspaper. He published articles in the Atlantic Monthly and other prestigious magazines. His first novel, "Zachariah, the Congressman," was published in 1880 along with his first play, "One Hundred Wives."

Pierce published his second play, "Peggy, A County Heroine," in 1883 and released his second novel, "A Dangerous Woman," in 1884. Because of the success Pierce achieved as a writer, he was hired to become managing editor of the Chicago News.

In 1881, President James Garfield was assassinated and Vice President Arthur succeeded him.In 1883, Dakota Territory was in turmoil.


Through manipulations by Alexander McKenzie and Territorial Gov. Nehemiah Ordway, the capital was moved from Yankton to Bismarck. Residents in the southern part of the territory were outraged. After Ordway was indicted by a grand jury in 1884, Arthur removed him from office.

Many people in the territory thought Ordway would be replaced by Clement Lounsberry, editor-publisher of the Bismarck Tribune. Lounsberry was so convinced that he sold the Tribune to Marshall Jewell. But Arthur recalled how Pierce rushed to his defense over the Customs House affair and appointed Pierce as the new governor of Dakota Territory on June 25, 1884.

Pierce was in his own Dickensian tale of two cities. Ultimately, he had to decide whether the capital would be in Yankton or Bismarck. To assuage the southern Dakota fears, he first went to Yankton to be sworn in July 25, 1884. He then traveled to Bismarck, the new capital. Both houses of the Territorial Legislature passed a bill to move the capital from Bismarck to Pierre. Pierce vetoed that bill, declaring that it broke a contract entered into by the capital commission, which represented the government of Dakota and the city of Bismarck.

Pierce supported a bill in Congress that said the southern portion of Dakota Territory could be admitted into the Union as a new state. On March 9, 1885, he approved enactment of this law, which set into motion the admittance of North and South Dakota into the Union as separate states. Next week we will look at the brief, but remarkable, career of Pierce in North Dakota.

"Did You Know That" is a Sunday column that focuses on interesting people, places and events that had an impact on North Dakota, or even the country. It is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net .

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