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.

The Kennedy Assassination 60 Years Later: North Dakota’s Secret Service Connection

a man is shown partially in a convertible with one leg hanging across the back while he protects the passengers as the convertible drives off to safety

The limousine carrying mortally wounded President John F. Kennedy races toward the hospital moments after he was shot in Dallas, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963. Secret Service Agent Clint Hill climbs onto the back of the car, as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy leans over the president. Justin Newman, AP Photo

A few critical seconds from Nov. 22, 1963, still replay in Clint Hill’s mind—even 60 years later. On that horrific day when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Hill, who grew up in Washburn, was serving as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s United States Secret Service agent in the presidential motorcade.

Photographs from bystanders and the infamous Zapruder film immortalize images of the events that changed history and Hill’s life. Footage shows President Kennedy clutching his throat after being hit by a bullet about 40 minutes into a city parade. Seconds later, Hill, from a position on the running board of the follow-up car, sprints toward the presidential convertible, scrambles onto the trunk, then pushes the first lady—crawling on her hands and knees on the trunk—back into her seat before throwing himself across Mrs. Kennedy and the slain president.

According to accounts by Secret Service agents, President Kennedy had wanted the limousine top off during the motorcade so he could be closer to the people. When the fatal bullet shattered the president’s skull, Hill selflessly turned his body into a living convertible canopy. He clung to the car with his left hand, his feet positioned to protectively cover the first lady and the president lying in her lap as the limousine sped four miles to Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Eleven years ago, I interviewed Clint Hill about his courageous actions that fateful day and his lingering sense of guilt. The retired agent was still struggling with the death, his voice cracking at times with emotion.

“I’ve always felt that sense of responsibility and guilt that I was unable to get there quick enough to intercede and really make a difference,” he said then. Hill believed it was his bullet to take. “Every day I think back to November 22. It never leaves me.”

an older man takes a portrait photo in a black suit with a black background

“I’ve never emotionally left North Dakota,” former Secret Service Agent Clint Hill told me in 2012. “North Dakota has a very special place in my heart that will never go away.” Photo by Michael Collopy

Read my article based on a 2012 interview with Clint Hill in North Dakota History, which includes his telling of the story and details he shared for the first time. For more on Kennedy, read another article in this journal issue by humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson, “John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt: Parallels and Common Ground, Including North Dakota.”

Since our conversation, the 91-year-old Hill and his wife, Lisa McCubbin, have co-authored books about his time in the Secret Service serving multiple presidents. Until recently they’ve traveled the world representing the United States and our state. Hill has never forgotten his North Dakota roots. He continues to provide interviews about his Kennedy experiences. In 2018, Gov. Doug Burgum presented him with North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, the state’s highest honor.

As Hill continues to share his personal memories about Nov. 22, new theories have surfaced about the killing of JFK. Just a few weeks ago Hill’s Secret Service colleague Paul Landis released a new and differing firsthand account of the “magic bullet.” Nevertheless, Hill remains true to his version of the tragic events he witnessed in Dallas.

While Hill’s actions that day can be viewed as part of his professional duty, no other Secret Service agent took the risk to their own life. President Kennedy could have been describing Hill when he once remarked, “The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy.”

Thank you, Mr. Hill, for serving as a magnificent ambassador for North Dakota and your courageous service in various Secret Service positions, protecting Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, as well as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. We are grateful.

President John F. Kennedy, William Guy, an Quentin Burdick, all wearing suits and ties, are shown smiling as they look towards the person taking the photo

On June 19, 1960, John F. Kennedy flew into Fargo to attend then-Rep. Quentin Burdick’s 52nd birthday party. JFK is pictured at the bash along with William Guy (center), who was making his first run on the Democratic ticket for governor, and Burdick, who was facing off against popular Republican Gov. John Davis for an open U.S. Senate seat. In a perfect trifecta, all three men won their elections, changing the political landscape of the state and the country. SHSND SA 1960-00021

How Fun Are These? Historical Facts From the State Archives, Part II

Fun Fact: The State Archives team can’t get enough fun facts! In celebration of American Archives Month, our staff is sharing interesting and unique stories they have learned about North Dakota. Read on for part two of our favorite fun facts about the state! (View part one here.)

Sarah Walker, Head of Reference Services

Did you know that Laura Eisenhuth was the first woman in the United States elected to a statewide office? Eisenhuth, who was living in Foster County at the time, was elected state superintendent of public instruction in 1892. She had been first nominated to run for this office in 1890 but was initially unsuccessful. Eisenhuth served a single term, which lasted through 1894. She was then succeeded by another woman, Emma F. Bates. 

All of this is extraordinary to me, especially since North Dakota continued to struggle with the idea of woman suffrage for many years. The topic recurred in much early legislation in both Dakota Territory and the state of North Dakota, including at the Constitutional Convention. North Dakota women did gain more agency in their lives and were able to vote for president just prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women across the country the right to vote. How interesting that these early women were still eligible to hold these offices and helped others break through the glass ceiling!

Laura J. Eisenhuth, superintendent of public instruction, circa 1894. SHSND SA A1591-00001

Greta Beck, Audiovisual Archivist

I have always heard stories from my grandparents who farmed near Sawyer that Black Butte used to be home to a ski lift and jump. Black Butte rises from the prairie at 1,716 feet and overlooks the Mouse/Souris River Valley, dominating the landscape for miles. With the help of the State Archives newspaper collections, I was able to find articles confirming that Black Butte was used as a ski hill in the 1930s. Prior to becoming a ski hill, Black Butte was used as a meeting and camping place for Dakota and Métis bison hunters.

Emily Kubischta, Manuscript Archivist

In the early 1930s, teacher Gertrude Evart’s history class at Bismarck High School created a model of the four blocks from First Street to Fifth Street on Main Avenue, as they appeared in Edwinton, Dakota Territory, in 1873. Each student handmade one or more of the street features, which included businesses, Camp Hancock, people, fences, flagpoles, a railroad depot, train, sidewalks, signs, a stagecoach, houses, chimneys, windows, wagons, Red River carts, barber poles, and an eagle. Even soldiers were molded and painted for the display. Unfortunately, the model was destroyed while moving it into the newly constructed Bismarck High School in 1935. However, a typed layout of the businesses and list detailing which students created which aspects survives in the George F. Bird Papers (MSS 10216). Both documents tell us a lot about Bismarck’s Main Avenue in the early days.

Edwinton’s Main Avenue, 1873. This photograph shows some of the buildings likely depicted in a model of the street made by Bismarck High School students in the 1930s. SHSND SA C0529-00004