Dakota Datebook

Walter Burleigh

Friday, March 8, 2013


News of its namesake’s death reached Burleigh County on this date in 1896; Walter Burleigh had passed away the evening before in Yankton, South Dakota. Burleigh’s duplicitous character made him a prominent figure in the early days of Dakota Territory.

Born in Maine in 1820, Burleigh initially went into the study of medicine. He opened a practice in western Pennsylvania, but soon became interested in politics. He campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and helped carry Pennsylvania for the 16th President. In return, he wanted a political appointment, and the President offered to make him Indian Agent at Greenwood in Dakota Territory. Burleigh told the President that the meager salary would require him to “steal or to starve” in order to survive. The President replied, “Dr. Burleigh, if I am any judge of human nature, you won’t starve.” And starve he did not. Immediately upon his arrival at Greenwood, Burleigh began a system of forgery and fraud that lasted throughout his tenure, and made him and his family very, very rich.

Today, he is known for many progressive reforms at the Agency, including his favorable dealings with Chief Struck By The Ree. With his help, he built up the Agency’s facilities and implemented all of the requirements of the 1858 treaty. He assured land rights and monetary payments to the children of tribal members and was also able to persuade the Yanktonai not to join in the Minnesota Sioux War. He also established the Yankton Scouts, who helped maintain peace along the James River.

Despite these beneficial acts, however, Burleigh also participated in defrauding the government and the tribes on a massive scale by stealing annuity payments and livestock, falsifying receipts for labor and goods never purchased, and hiring family and friends for unnecessary positions. This led to his removal from office in 1865. By that time, he had amassed an enormous ranch and sufficient wealth to relocate to Burleigh County, where he won a contract with the Northern Pacific Railroad to grade fifty miles of track by Bismarck. Of course, knowing the course of the line, Burleigh used the information to his benefit, and was able to build the first house in that city and profit from the town’s development. Despite his past corruption, he went on to become a successful politician.


Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job



Hoover, Herbet T. 2004 “Walter Atwood Burleigh,” published online: http://sunburst.usd.edu/~hhoover/


Lounsberry, Clement Augustus. 1919 Early History of North Dakota: Essential Outlines of American History. Liberty Press: New York: pp. 382.





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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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