Some years ago, I was out for a Saturday morning walk on Bismarck residential streets and happened by a rummage sale. I’d never have stopped if I had been driving by, but I wandered into the garage, which was quite close to the sidewalk, and spotted a box of books, with a price tag on it for something like five or ten dollars–pretty steep price for rummage sale books, I remember thinking. There were some old paperbacks, a few old North Dakota books, and, under them, a couple dozen old copies of North Dakota History magazine. Intrigued by that, I paid the lady whatever the asking price was and asked her to hold on to them until I came back with my car. Which I did after finishing my walk.

When I got home, I dug down to the bottom of the box and found the real treasure: Almost all of the first six volumes of North Dakota Historical Quarterly, the predecessor to North Dakota History, beginning with Vol. I., No. 1, October, 1926, and ending with Vol. VI, No. 2, January, 1932, all in near-mint condition. (I tried to decide if I felt guilty enough to go back and tell that lady what was in the box, and as I recall, I decided I should do that, but then I just couldn’t remember where the house was any more.) I’m missing Vol. I, No. 2 to make the set complete, so if anyone has a copy they want to get rid of, just call. I’ve read through many of them, and usually found at least one great piece in each issue. I’m going to share a few of those stories with you over the next few months, because they surely are some of the best things ever written about North Dakota. Here’s a start, some highlights from a story in the very first issue of North Dakota Historical Quarterly, back in the fall of 1926.


By Clell G. Gannon

“In June, 1925, the writer in company with George Will and Russell Reid of Bismarck completed a rowboat journey down the Little Missouri River from Medora to its mouth at Elbowoods and thence down the Missouri River to Bismarck. The journey covered approximately 350 miles by water and was accomplished in 13 days, the limit of our vacation period.”

Whoa! How’s that for an opening paragraph! A short history lesson: Clell Gannon was one of the best known Bismarckers at the time, a poet, writer and artist, and for those of you who know Bismarck, the man who built the rock house at the top of the hill on North Mandan Street. He also did the Illustrations for the seed catalogs which George Will, owner of the Will Seed Company, sent all over the world. Russell Reid was just four years away from becoming Superintendent of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, a position he would hold for 35 years. And the water trip from Medora to Bismarck leaves everyone who has ever launched a canoe on the Little Missouri with pangs of envy, since the trip became impossible after the Garrison Dam was closed in the 1950’s. To continue:

“Our boat was an 18-footer, built especially for the trip, of the flat bottom type which, when supporting a weight of about 1000 pounds drew 5 inches of water. It was christened the Hugh Glass, after the intrepid trapper of the early fur trading days, whose adventurous career has become one of the classics of western frontier life. (More about Hugh Glass another day—Jim)

“Our equipment consisted of a 7 x 7 miner’s tent, a waterproof sleeping bag for each member of the party, food, clothing, several cameras with auxiliary equipment and maps. The maps carried were those of the Missouri River published in 1894 (I have a set of those maps; they are fascinating; I’ve scanned the cover to go with this article—Jim) and plat maps for each township from Medora to Bismarck, which we had prepared from available sources. The latter maps were drawn in waterproof India ink and bound in full pigskin (these guys were really serious about this—having a boat built and maps hand-drawn—Jim).

“There was no particular motive for the trip. It was a vacation and done for the mere joy of it, although back of it all was a passionate love for the Bad Lands and the Missouri River, and an intense interest in ornithology, geology, archeology, and the historic associations with which the region is especially rich.

“Our project was not altogether a new one. The journey down the Little Missouri and the Missouri Rivers had probably been made a number of times before by the furtraders and adventurers of the early nineteenth century and perhaps many times by the Indians before them. Undoubtedly the first white man to ever make the voyage was Baptiste Le Page, who came down the Little Missouri from the Black Hills in the summer of 1804, and presumably down the Missouri as far as the Indian villages on the Knife River. It was at that point he became a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition . . .”

(Here are some of Gannon’s descriptions of parts of the trip—Jim)

“We reached the vicinity of Redwing Creek for noon. The scenery all the way had been sensational, and every bend of the river brought the unexpected, however, to our way of thinking none of it quite equaled the Redwing country in scenic grandeur. Rain and wind had washed the buttes into grotesque and weird shapes. Cedar dotted the slopes, and sagebrush covered the river flats, adding variety to the soft purples, yellows and greys of the buttes . . . Early (the next) morning we passed Cherry Creek which enters the Little Missouri a mile above its original mouth by means of a cut-off. This creek has a wide valley, which in pre-glacial times, with Tobacco Garden Creek, was the course of the Little Missouri into the Missouri River. When the glacier blocked that portion of its course it was diverted into an easterly direction forming the valley that it now occupies. At noon we reached a point directly north of the Killdeer Mountains and climbed the high river bluffs, through heavy thickets of black birch, aspen, and oak, to view them some eight or ten miles to the south. The view from the top overlooking a canyon-like reach of the Little Missouri was of the kind that gains little and suffers much from the inadequacy of a written description (emphasis added—a problem that has plagued almost every writer trying to describe the North Dakota Bad Lands for the last century-and-a-half—Jim). To the south the breaks of the Bad Lands faded into a rolling plain which reached away to the Killdeers, looming blue against the sky. To the east the river stretched in serpentine curves for miles, bordered by a fringe of cottonwoods. To the north and west the Bad Lands toppled and rolled, seemingly without order or design until lost in the blue haze that melted into the horizon. Large, white cumulus clouds floated motionless in the deep blue above, casting intricate patterns of sun and shadow across a vast expanse of land dripping with color . . .

“It was with something of a thrill that we entered the Missouri River on the afternoon of the next day, June 15. In fancy we could see it peopled with the explorers, furtraders, and adventurers of other days in mackinaw or keel, or Indians in their bull boats of skin. Lewis and Clark, Maximilian, Catlin, Ashley, Lisa, Colter, Glass and scores of others passed by in pageant fashion. Soon we, too, were caught in its clutch and hurried along in the swirl of the June flood . . .

“It had been a most worth while vacation. Geo. Will, who has traveled extensively, remarked that he had seen nothing in the way of scenery to surpass that along the Little Missouri. Of all else the Bad Lands are first of all a land of color. Verendrye the younger, who in 1742 was probably the first white man, together with the other members of his party, to see the Bad Lands of North Dakota, took note of that fact and recorded in his journal:

‘I noticed in several places soils of different colors such as blue, a vermillion shade, meadow green, shining black, chalk white and others the color of ochre.’ “

Gannon went on to list the species of birds, wildlife, plants and trees they observed, as well as providing a commentary on the geology of the area:

“The geology of the Bad Lands region is intensely interesting. Erosion, wind and the burning out of lignite beds are agencies constantly at work sculpturing new and intricate forms. The coal beds and petrified stumps tell a story of the centuries gone by, and the cutting of the river gives wonderful cross-sections of the earth’s secrets. Brick-red scoria, resulting from the action of heat from the burning lignite on the clay above and below, forms one of the most characteristic colors of the Bad Lands landscape.”

I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a “canoe trip gang” that has been canoeing the Little Missouri and Missouri Rivers together for a long, long time. This will be our 36th consecutive year. We’re planning a four-day float on the Little Missouri in May and another on the big Missouri in Montana in September. Thanks to General Pick and Director Sloan, we can’t do them together. But it was pretty obvious that those three historical figures, Gannon, Will and Reid, enjoyed their float immensely, just as we do ours–Jim.

Post Script

It’s Spring, and there are hundreds of flower and vegetable plants, started from seeds, growing in my basement in preparation for being transplanted into my garden. I want to share with you a wonderful, thoughtful Spring poem by Clell Gannon, a well-known poet of his day, and author of today’s entry into the catalog of the Best Things Ever Written About North Dakota.


by Clell G. Gannon

A seed is such a very little thing,

Unlovely, uninspired, a wrinkled mite;

But it becomes a living thing at Spring

And bursts from darkness into warmth and light.

There is a force beyond the might of man,

A dormant power that waits its measured time

To consummate fulfillment of a plan

And make from ugliness a thing sublime.

The cycle from the seed to fruit repeat,

The miracle of life that mystifies

The wisest man; for all is made complete

And death apparent has its own disguise.

Here in a seed lies dormant the same power

That drives the universe and makes it flower.


  1. Wonderful report of a lovely trip. Thanks for leading with the prairie crocus (“pasque flower”) first flower to show its pretty face this time of year.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s