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.

Time-Traveling Partnerships

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a French marquis, a Dakota sheriff, and a future United States president walk into a bar…sound familiar? It may seem ludicrous, but it happened—at least, it sort of happened—right here in the Badlands of North Dakota!

A man with a moustache pointed at the ends stands wearing a cowboy yeat, jacket with tassles, striped shirt, and pants with tassles down the sides.

The Marquis de Morès in his Badlands attire. He is known to have said that he was as comfortable in buckskins as he was in a silk shirt, and he often posed for photos that enforce his claim.

You already know the story of the Marquis de Morès, a headstrong dreamer with goals of fortune and fame, and his attempt at building a cattle empire in the heart of the Dakota badlands. The railroad reached the Little Missouri River in 1880, and just three years later the Marquis stepped off a train car and into the annals of history. He built an abattoir (meatpacking plant) and a hunting lodge, known as the Chateau de Morès, in addition to spearheading other ventures in fortune.

Convinced that his town, Medora, needed a direct route to the Black Hills for tourists, businessmen, and freight, the Marquis founded the Medora-Deadwood Stage and Forwarding Company in 1884.  It must have been fate, because the sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota, Seth Bullock, was campaigning for a freight line to connect his city with the railroad in North Dakota.

Poster that reads Medora & Black Hills Stage & Forwarding Co. Regular lone of coachs to Deadwood and the Black Hills connecting with the Northern Pacific R.R. at Medora. Shortest and most comfortable route passing through the most interesting portions of the famous "Bad Lands." Purchase through tickets to Deadwood via Northern Pacific R.R. & Medora.

Business poster for the Medora-Deadwood Stage and Forwarding Company.

Down in the Black Hills, Bullock had purchased land, built infrastructure, and tried to convince others that his city of Deadwood, founded in 1876, lacked only a connection to the outside business world. When the Marquis’s company came to town, Bullock shifted gears and began working with the Marquis to convince the Northern Pacific Railroad to help make the line permanent.

Man with a large mustache wearing a hat and suit complete with vest and tie.

Seth Bullock, sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota, frontiersman, businessman.

Bullock volunteered a parcel of land on his ranch for a stage stop and dubbed it “De Morès.” Within a few months, the little stop had a saloon, a hardware store, and even a small neighborhood. Coaches stopped regularly with passengers and goods that had come in on the railroad. The Marquis and Bullock’s dream seemed to be coming true.

However, over the course of the next year, the company began to lose steam. The railroad funded other plans that left Medora on the sidelines, and Deadwood sought other means of commerce. Just one year after its birth, the stage line failed.

It was around this time that Seth Bullock met a young man from New York with big ideas of experiencing the wilderness. Can you guess who it was? Yes, it was Theodore Roosevelt himself. He had met the Marquis, even dined in his hunting lodge and borrowed books from his library and knew of the Marquis’s dreams of financial success. But the two of them in the same town was like two giant fish in a little pond.

A man holds a gun wearing a beanie looking hat, a jacket with tassles, and a bandana tied around his neck. Trees are in the background.

Theodore Roosevelt, a neighbor of the Marquis, friend of Sheriff Bullock, and future president of the United States.

As you know, Roosevelt became president of the United States in 1901, and he famously credited the North Dakota Badlands with giving him the experience he needed to become the leader of the country. Not only did the Badlands shore him up for D.C. challenges, but it also gave him connections. In Deadwood, Bullock and Roosevelt hit it off. As their personal aspirations lead them on separate paths, they worked hard to preserve their friendship. Bullock even erected a monument to represent the esteem the two men held for each other.

Today, Medora and Deadwood have once again begun a partnership. The Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission, based in Sheriff Bullock’s hometown, reached out to the Chateau de Morès, home of the Marquis in Medora. Now, the Chateau de Morès State Historic Site is host to a traveling excellent exhibit that shares the intricacies of Roosevelt’s friendship with Bullock.

Four tan colored exhibit banners with text and images. Some of the images are documents. Others are of people and horses.

Current exhibit at the Chateau de Morès Interpretive Center, featuring the friendship of Roosevelt and Bullock. Free and open to the public through Labor Day, 2020.

The success of this new venture between our two sites depends, in part, on you! Be sure to visit the Chateau de Morès this summer to learn more about three great men—the Marquis, the sheriff, and the president—and then journey down to Deadwood to discover even more! You’ll uncover a history that makes you smile, and, if you’re lucky, you might even hear a joke that makes you laugh. All three gentlemen would approve.

Red River Ox Cart Trails—Our Early Highways

Mention ox cart trails, and many of us visualize deeply rutted paths traveled on by squeaky-wheeled carts. But just as the Pembina Highway in Manitoba and Interstates 29 and 94 in North Dakota and Minnesota are important links in international trade between Winnipeg and the Twin Cities today, the Red River trails of the 1800s were equally important to 19th century trade.

As site supervisor of the Pembina State Museum and Gingras Trading Post State Historic Site, a great deal of the history we present revolves around the Métis, the fur trade, and the Red River carts (the centerpiece of the museum—see photo below). The history of this transportation system created a lot of questions and field trips for me.

Prior to 1800, almost all commerce in the frontier was accomplished by canoe. The Hudson’s Bay Company hauled furs north—including a crossing of Lake Winnipeg—eventually ending up at posts on the shores of Hudson’s Bay where ships waited to transport the furs to Europe. The Northwest Company carried their furs east through the Great Lakes, with a lot of river and lake hopping via portages, until reaching Montreal and the ships bound for the hungry European markets. But travel by canoe was difficult and dangerous.

Credited with using the first carts in the Red River region was Northwest trader Alexander Henry from his post at Pembina. They were relatively small and had solid wheels.

covered wagon

An example of an early Red River cart as would have been used by Alexander Henry

In the early days, the primary route of travel closely hugged the banks of the Red and Minnesota rivers. Due to the nature of the soil in the Red River Valley, these horse-drawn carts could only be used during dry periods, with mud being a major limiting factor. However, cart design and trail location would quickly evolve to meet the challenges of overland travel.

Métis ingenuity created larger carts able to haul up to 1,000 pounds that could be pulled by oxen. Wheel diameter was increased by several feet and were spoked rather than solid. The wheels were dished, or curved inward, to add stability and better handling. By 1830, the more well-known carts were in use and replaced the canoe as the primary means of shipping goods between Winnipeg and St. Paul.

Ox cart

A traditional Red River ox cart. This example, housed in the Pembina State Museum, was built in the 1920s by Louis Allery in the traditional style of the Métis.

While the specifics of the carts themselves are interesting, the selection for trail routes fascinated me. Along with the more versatile carts came new trails. Although the river trails were still used during dry times, the primary trails were moved out of the Red River Valley onto the ancient beach ridges formed by glacial Lake Agassiz. Aptly called the Ridge Trail or West Plains Trail, the soil was much sandier and well-drained, making mud less of a factor. In Minnesota, the trail shifted from following the Minnesota River to a much more direct cross-country route called the East Plains Trail. These remained the principle routes until an unfortunate incident.


Map of the primary trails

In a case of mistaken identity, a group of Métis buffalo hunters attacked a group of young Dakota hunters, with several Dakota being killed. Seeking retribution, the Dakota began patrolling the Plains Trails. In order to avoid a confrontation, the next train of ox carts leaving St. Paul turned north and cut a trail through the forests of Minnesota, which was Ojibway territory, a people friendly to the Métis. Cutting the trail was slow and arduous, but the resulting Woods Trail was used on and off for years depending on the political situation between the Métis and Dakota.

Travel by ox cart was slow, but efficient. Made entirely of wood and leather, there was no need for a blacksmith for on-the-trail repairs. Able to move 15 to 20 miles a day, the course of the trails was carefully selected so that at the end of the day there was always a supply of wood for repairs and cooking fires, and water for the animals. Routes were also chosen based on locations where crossing streams and rivers was easier.

By the 1860s, several thousand carts were making the trip between Winnipeg, Pembina, St. Paul, and the many fledgling settlements along the way. The primary trails saw improvements done by both stagecoach companies and the military, both of which heavily used the trails. Even the Hudson’s Bay Company saw the practicality of overland travel and negotiated trade agreements with the U.S. government to ship their goods via the trails.

Red River Ox cart train

Red River ox cart train

The thriving economy created by the Métis in the Red River region, centered around the bison trade and their carts, was short-lived, however. Competition existed with steamboats but was erratic due to the normal fluctuations in Red River water levels. The arrival of the railroad at Breckinridge in 1871 and Moorhead a year later, combined with dramatically declining bison numbers, forced the Métis bison hunters north and west, leaving a few ruts in the landscape as the only tangible reminder of a prosperous era.

Ox cart ruts

Remnants of ox cart ruts along the old Red River trail

Although most of the cart trails are gone, having been cultivated for decades, some remnants still survive. Finding them can be a bit tricky, but with a little hunting they can be discovered. One spot is at Icelandic State Park near Cavalier, although locating the trails there is a challenge and requires staff assistance. Several other trail pieces have been recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. These include various sites in the Ridge Trail Historic District in Pembina and Walsh counties and the Dease-Martineau House, Trading Post and Oxcart Trail Segments near Leroy, North Dakota, although permission is needed to enter. Contact the Pembina County Historic Preservation Commission at 701.265.4561 or for more information. An easily accessible place to view a trail is in Crow Wing State Park near Brainerd, Minnesota. An incredible source for more information is the book The Red River Trails: Ox Cart Routes between St. Paul and the Selkirk Settlement by Rhoda R. Gilman, Carolyn Gilman, and Deborah M. Stultz.