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.

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!

Data May Be King, But Relationships Fuel State Historical Society Mission

These days, much attention is paid to data. In fact, those of us working in the history field are continually asked: “What does the data say?” And let’s face it, we live in a world where data rules. Big technology companies, social media, and the retail world are almost single-mindedly driven by data. More data means more money, and everyone tells us so. Someone is paying big money for your data. Important as data may be, I think it is wise to remind ourselves that organizations such as the State Historical Society of North Dakota are powered by an old-fashioned fuel called relationships. In fact, we thrive on them. It is my hope that every day we build at least one new relationship.

One of our most important partnerships is with the State Historical Society of North Dakota Foundation. The Foundation raises nongovernmental funding for us. The Foundation team is made up of a dedicated group of staff and board members from all over North Dakota. When people with financial resources want to support our work, the Foundation is the mechanism through which those funds are leveraged for our mission. The Foundation has been with us on the big projects such as the 2014 expansion of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum, but also on the smaller projects. The Foundation provides valuable assistance in volunteer recognition and appreciation events. It provides funding for staff development grants and helps our staff share their knowledge with people across North Dakota.

Another important state partner is the office of North Dakota Tourism. This partnership is very important to the State Historical Society because they assist with marketing our museums and historic sites. We are currently working with North Dakota Tourism to co-brand a few of our interpretive centers as state visitor centers. North Dakota Tourism does not currently have official visitor centers. The State Historical Society has interpretive centers on major transportation routes in North Dakota. We feel that by partnering with the state tourism office we can deepen existing relationships and build new ones. Our first visitor center pilot project will be at the Chateau de Morès State Historic Site in Medora, opening in April.

Until the late 1960s, the State Historical Society and North Dakota Parks and Recreation were one agency. Since then, we have continued to partner with their agency on a variety of projects. Recently, for instance, I have been part of a team that consists of our historic site managers and new media specialists working with state Parks and Recreation counterparts to develop a program that will encourage new audiences to explore North Dakota’s state parks and state historic sites. We also work closely with their agency on archaeology and historic preservation projects.

Drawings of a picnic shelter that resemble a log cabin

Drawings of a Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park picnic shelter held by our agency are helping the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department plan for the reconstruction of the shelter, which burned this past fall. State Series 30249 Historical Society. State Parks, Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park Records

At the ND Heritage Center & State Museum, we also share our physical space with paleontologists from the North Dakota Geological Survey. Because the missions of the two agencies are parallel, we collaborate on some fossil projects in the Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time. It’s a win for all, as visitors to the State Museum can take in millions of years of history in a single stop. And data confirms that people love dinosaurs!

A dinosaur fossil with skin preserve on it sits on a mount ready for exhibit.

In a partnership with North Dakota Geological Survey, their paleontologists are working with our staff to update a State Museum exhibit about Dakota, a rare fossilized Edmontosaurus in our collection. Here, one of Dakota’s arms is fitted into a mount for future exhibition.

No conversation would be complete for us at the State Historical Society if we didn’t mention our friends groups that support the work at our historic sites across the state. By my count, we have 10 official friends groups supporting our work at Fort Abercrombie, Fort Buford, Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site, Chateau de Morès, Former Governors’ Mansion, Camp Hancock, Whitestone Hill, Stutsman County Courthouse, Fort Totten, and Welk Homestead. If you were to add up all the volunteer work and financial contributions of these groups over the years, the totals would be staggering. The work these groups help us achieve is truly remarkable.

The interior of barracks with white wooden bunk beads and black framed cots with blue trinks at the foot of them.

Friends of Fort Union and Fort Buford were instrumental in providing funding for the barracks exhibit at Fort Buford State Historic Site.

The exterior of an old, large, light green house with dark green trim and brown shingles. There is a frong porch on the house.

One of our friends groups, the Society for the Preservation of the Former Governors’ Mansion, raised about $40,000 for a new roof at the state historic site. The group has been helping support the upkeep of the mansion at 320 E. Ave. B in Bismarck for decades.

The left image is of a red church with dark colored trim. The roof alternates between the dark color and red. There are four sets of double windows. The first is stained glass but is too small to see what the image is. The right image shows an old version of the stained glass window before it was restored.

Our newest friends group, the Bismarck Historical Society, is fundraising to help us restore the stained glass windows at Camp Hancock State Historic Site’s Bread of Life Church.

Finally, we must not forget the relationships that we have with our elected officials. The secretary of state and state treasurer serve on the State Historical Board. We also work with the governor’s office and staff on various programs and projects. With the North Dakota Legislative Assembly currently in session, we are reminded of our close relationships with our legislators.

A view looking from the stage of an auditorium out towards the crowd. Three men and two women sit among the blue cushy chairs.

Members of the state House Appropriations Committee, Reps. Mike Nathe, David Monson, and Mike Schatz, and staffers try out new auditorium chairs at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum. Support for the auditorium remodel came from both state funds and the State Historical Society of North Dakota Foundation.

Don’t get me wrong, data can provide us with information about our visitors, how much they make, where they live, how many children they have, how long they have been married, and if they are likely to visit us again. It is good to have data. One thing the data tells me is that that we need to pay close attention to our relationships—we need to nurture the ones we have and look for new ones. All of them are important, and all of them are beneficial.