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'Spoilers' novel, five films based on residents of N.D.

One of the most popular novels of the early 20th century, "The Spoilers," was based on an episode that involved three people who had lived in North Dakota: Alexander McKenzie, Arthur H. Noyes and Reuben N. Stevens. Hollywood made five movies base...

One of the most popular novels of the early 20th century, "The Spoilers," was based on an episode that involved three people who had lived in North Dakota: Alexander McKenzie, Arthur H. Noyes and Reuben N. Stevens. Hollywood made five movies based on "The Spoilers," one with Gary Cooper and another with John Wayne.

The "crafty lawyer" in the novel was patterned after Stevens, an opportunist who served five terms in the North Dakota Legislature. He was also editor of the Bismarck Tribune and the Grand Forks Republican, assistant U.S. attorney general, U.S. commissioner in Alaska, and one of McKenzie's chief lieutenants in Dakota Territory, Alaska Territory and North Dakota in the early years.

Stevens was born Aug. 10, 1852, in Orleans County, N.Y. After his father acquired a farm in Illinois in 1862, Stevens attended school in Pekin, Ill., obtaining a business education. He began studying law in 1873 with the McNeely Law Firm in Petersburg. He was admitted to the bar in 1875 and married Sarah Rourke the next year.

After being elected state's attorney as a "staunch Democrat," Stevens and his wife joined her cousin Patrick H. Rourke in Dakota Territory. In February 1882, they moved to Fargo, and settled in Lisbon a year later.

Lisbon was a hotbed of Republican political activity. Stevens joined the fray by registering as a Republican. In 1886, Stevens and Charles E. Johnson, editor of the Lisbon Star, fought for control of the Republican Party in Ransom County.


Johnson appeared to have foiled Stevens' challenge by revealing that when Stevens returned to Illinois in 1884 for a visit, the local newspaper reported "wherever he was they could always count on him as casting a ballot for the Democratic party - the party he learned to love." Stevens convinced the people the report was a mistake, and he was elected mayor of Lisbon and county auditor.

Stevens caught the attention of McKenzie, the powerful political boss of Dakota Territory. When the citizens of northern Dakota Territory decided it should become a state, a delegation headed by Stevens was organized to try to convince Congress, and their efforts were successful.

On May 14, 1889, Stevens was elected to a Constitutional Convention to draw up a state constitution. He was chosen as a member of the legislative and judicial committees and elected chairman of the preamble and bill of rights committee.

In the 1889 general election, Stevens was elected as a representative to North Dakota's first Legislature. On May 20, 1890, two months after the first session adjourned, Stevens and his wife went hunting. Stevens' shotgun discharged, striking his wife in the head, killing her instantly. The coroner's jury reported that the shooting was accidental.

McKenzie got Stevens appointed as assistant U.S. attorney general in 1890, and Stevens left Lisbon for Washington, D.C.

Stevens returned to North Dakota in 1894. Marshall Jewell, publisher and editor of the Bismarck Tribune, was about to take a two-year leave of absence, and Stevens replaced him as editor. When Jewell returned, Stevens established law offices in Bismarck and Mandan.

The biggest thorn in McKenzie's plans was George Winship, editor of the Grand Forks Herald. Winship criticized McKenzie for his actions and motives. To combat this, Stevens established a rival newspaper, the Grand Forks Republican and Northwest News, in 1898. The newspaper failed. Stevens returned to Bismarck and was re-elected to the Legislature in 1898.

McKenzie had set his eyes on the gold fields of Alaska, where Laplanders were claiming mines around the city of Nome. McKenzie tried to persuade the U.S. Congress to pass a bill prohibiting immigrants from owning Alaska gold mines. When this plan failed, he tried a new tactic - selecting a commissioner who would legalize his actions.


In 1900, Alaska was granted civil government with judicial power. McKenzie's man for the commissioner's job was Stevens. Through the influence of McKenzie and the support of Sen. Thomas Carter of Montana, who was Stevens' brother-in-law, Stevens was appointed commissioner.

On July 24, 1900, McKenzie's men, including Noyes of Grand Forks, signed papers authorizing them to seize the Laplanders' gold. McKenzie and Noyes were ordered to desist and return the gold, but they refused. James A. Wickersham investigated the matter.

In October 1901, he recommended that Stevens be removed from office. Wickersham believed Stevens was the "brains" of this "financial orgy." McKenzie and Noyes were put on trial, convicted and sent to prison. No incriminating evidence was presented against Stevens.

Stevens returned to his law practice in Bismarck and was elected to the Legislature in 1904 and 1906. In 1911, he was appointed register of the U.S. land office in Bismarck, a position he held for four years. In 1915, he began buying up land in Benson County, near Minnewaukan, where he and his son-in-law, Ralph Ward, operated a horse farm. Stevens died May 10, 1925.

"Did You Know That" 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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