Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Anna Killian's blog

10 Surprising Facts About North Dakota’s Famous French Aristocrat

If you have visited Medora, you have no doubt heard of the Marquis de Morès and his dream to transform the Western cattle industry. You may have heard a few colorful stories about the man, as well. Yes, it’s true—the Marquis was involved in a gun fight on the outskirts of Medora! It is even possible you heard a myth or two about this French aristocrat-turned-cattleman. No, he didn’t break a bottle of champagne over a stake on April 1 to mark the spot where he wanted to begin building his new town. But he did take plenty of other steps that made his legacy memorable and fascinating. Read on to learn a few things you might not have known about the Marquis.

1. He was born in Paris, France, on June 14, 1858, in his mother’s family home.

The Marquis showed an interest in the military from a young age. Here he is dressed up like a soldier when he was just a toddler! SHSND SA 00042-00001

2. By the age of 10, he spoke French, German, Italian, and English.

3. During his college years in Paris, he volunteered to serve in the French navy, but due to sickness he was rejected. Nevertheless, he persisted in his education and was admitted to the premier French cavalry school, known as the Special Military School of Saint-Cyr, the equivalent of West Point, where he excelled in his studies to become an officer. He went on to hold a few short posts with the French cavalry in Algiers.

4. He was an incredible horseman, which only added to his success at Saint-Cyr and later helped him find his footing in the West.

The Marquis excelled at Saint-Cyr, particularly in his equestrian courses. He brought his love of horses with him to Dakota Territory. SHSND SA 00042-00010

5. By 1882, he had killed two men in duels.

6. That same year he met and married Medora von Hoffman on the French Riviera. They honeymooned in Biarritz, France, a town known for its high culture and whale watching.

Medora von Hoffman pictured just a few years before her 1882 marriage to the Marquis. SHSND SA 00042-00060

7. After their honeymoon, the Marquis accompanied his wife’s family back to New York City and turned his eye toward the cattle ranches of the West. With his father-in-law’s money backing his plans, the Marquis packed his private train car and followed the rails to Dakota Territory.

8. The Marquis planned to revolutionize the ranching business in Dakota Territory. Instead of raising cattle on the range, then driving them north to the rail line and shipping live animals to slaughter in Chicago, the Marquis wanted to provide slaughter facilities on the range and ship fresh beef straight to market. Eventually, he hoped to ship beef—and a multitude of other products—up into Canada, down the Mississippi, around the Great Lakes, and to both coasts.

Workers at the Marquis' abattoir (slaughterhouse) pose beside one of his refrigerated train cars. This car would leave Medora and travel all the way to Chicago and beyond, taking fresh Dakota beef to hungry customers in the East. SHSND SA 00042-00150

9. He established a stagecoach line between Medora and Deadwood. For $26 (roughly $600 today), travelers could take a bumpy ride in his stagecoach and in three short days roll into Deadwood. The Marquis envisioned this would help establish trade between his town and the rich goldfields of the Black Hills. He even partnered with Sheriff Seth Bullock to see this vision come true.

This poster lauded the overland stagecoach between Medora and Deadwood. You can travel almost the same route today—just follow U.S. Route 85 from Belfield to Belle Fourche. SHSND SA 11354

10. After the brutal winter of 1886-1887, the Marquis’ plans were put on hold (as were most cattlemen’s plans), and he returned with his family to New York City. When his father-in-law withdrew financial support from his Western ventures, the Marquis began searching for other adventures. This eventually led him to northern Africa, where he attempted to establish trade with nations there. On his way through the Sahara Desert in 1896, he was murdered by his Tuareg guides just a few days before his 38th birthday.

Check out those views. Summer is just around the corner, and the Chateau is the perfect spot to explore on your next vacation. Photo by Tawnya Bulger

There is so much to his incredible story! When you plan your summer holidays, add the Chateau de Morès State Historic Site to your itinerary and discover even more about the Marquis’ Western dreams. We look forward to welcoming you!

Top 5 Highlights of Winterizing the Chateau de Morès

Did you know that some historic houses hibernate? Like a giant bear in one of our national parks, the Chateau de Morès must be carefully conditioned to survive the frigid North Dakota winter. And, y’all, it gets cold. Last year, temperatures in Medora clocked in at well below zero, and, for both the Chateau and this Carolina gal used to spending Christmas in flip-flops, that is cold enough.

Why do we shut the Chateau down? Because it lacks a modern heating system. By mid-October, it is simply too cold for guests to tour comfortably. And it was too cold for the Marquis and Madame as well. When he built the Chateau, the Marquis included only one fireplace. Despite its size and central location—the fireplace is about 5 feet deep by roughly 4 feet tall in the middle of the home—it did not provide enough warmth for year-round living.

So we follow their example! Before frost forms on the windowpanes, the Chateau team arms itself with white gloves, bed sheets, and (at least in my case) layers of wool and synthetic blends. Then we head out to protect fragile linens, pack away prized china, and cover century-old furniture. This undertaking is one of my favorite parts of the job because it gives us the opportunity to examine our artifacts. During the summer, our focus is sharing the Chateau with guests from around the world—just like the Marquis and Madame! But the cold weather gives us the chance to make sure the house is fit to survive another season. All 26 rooms plus the basement—that’s a little more than 7,000 square feet—get some tender, loving care from the team.

Welcome to my Top Five Highlights of Winterizing Our Chateau!

1. We get to touch the artifacts! First, let me put our curator’s mind at ease: We wear agency-approved gloves and always use both hands. Still you can’t deny there is something truly incredible about holding the same teacup that Madame used 137 years ago.

A man in a plaid shirt and white gloves holds a white teacup and saucer with blue flowers and leafy vines

Ed Sahlstrom holds a teacup, part of the original collection used by Madame and the Marquis from 1883-86. Madame chose this Gower pattern for its dainty durability—the perfect set of china for life in the badlands.

2. We explore all the nooks and crannies of the Chateau. The house may be small compared to French chateaus, but for us there are still spots tucked away. For example, Madame’s maid was the only servant who had her own workroom hidden beneath the staircase.

3. We treat any problems we discover. It’s an old house, and sometimes things go wrong, or they just need a little TLC. When that happens, we always try to take care of any issues before the first snow. This year, the porch needed conditioning, so we grabbed our brushes and got to work.

A man stands on the porch of an old house painting the floor with a mop while another man stands on the grass in front of the house holding a hammer

Ed Sahlstrom (assistant supervisor) and Mike Sunday (grounds personnel) stain the porch of the Chateau. The porch will live to see another summer!

4. We crawl underneath the Chateau. You read that correctly — we get to go underneath the house. How cool is that? We make sure nothing is nesting in the crawl space and confirm that the unfinished basement is as protected as possible. This basement may look uninteresting, but it once held about 600 of bottles wine, beer, and mineral water that the family left behind. Check us out on Facebook to learn the whole story and find out where you can buy the same wine the Marquis left when he headed east.

5. Finally, we walk on the roof! We historians aren’t usually a thrill-seeking bunch. At least not physically. Give us a good archival mystery, and we are entertained for days. But it’s not so often we do gravity-defying activities. Except at the Chateau, where we annually traverse the second-story rooftop to close the shutters. Don’t worry—we use a spotter and basically hug the house as we make our way across the surface. But it’s a thrill, and the views are incredible.

So there you have them—my favorite aspects of winterizing the Chateau. Happy fall, y’all! This Carolina girl is already bundled up.