Dakota Datebook

1st Governor

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Today marks the birthday of the first Governor of North Dakota, John Miller, who was born in New York in 1843.

In the late 1860’s a group of wealthy investors from out east had been financing the building of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The rails were to run from Wisconsin to the Pacific Ocean on land given to them in the largest government land grant in American history.

A wealthy financier, Jay Cooke, helped support the project during the time the railroad crossed into Dakota Territory. But by 1872, Cooke went bankrupt, along with the NP Railroad project.

To keep the project moving, the investors decided to sell some of the land that had been given to them by the government. Huge portions of land in the Red River Valley were sold to land investors, leading to the era of the “Bonanza Farms,” the smallest of which were 3000 acres.

One of the larger of these bonanza farms was formed in 1878 when John Miller and his partner, Jeremiah Dwight, moved to Richland County. They purchased 17,000 acres of rich Valley soil and organized the Dwight Farm and Land Company; they had a board of thirteen directors to manage the farm’s operations.

Eleven years later, in 1889, Dakota Territory was split up to form North and South Dakota. Miller was then a 46 year-old Republican whose only experience in politics was as a member of the Territorial Council of Dakota the year before.

Miller was a man of integrity who valued his independence; people trusted and respected him. They asked him to run for office but, surprisingly, Miller had no desire to be governor. The region was in the firm clutch of the Alexander McKenzie political machine, and to go up against McKenzie would be no bowl of cherries. But after intense pressure, Miller finally agreed to run and was appointed governor on November 20th, 1889.

Once in office, Miller soon proved that the people’s confidence wasn’t misplaced. He couldn’t be bribed or even swayed by the powers that be, and he firmly turned away the efforts of outside lobbyists. He also wouldn’t cater to state newspapers that were under the influence of politicians like McKenzie. And when it came time to open the state for further homesteading, Miller refused to allow the circus-like chaos of a Louisiana Lottery to take place.

Miller did a good job, but two years later, when it came time to run again, he decided against it and went back to expand his farm operations. Within five years, the John Miller Land Company was organized for the purposes of “buying and selling of grain, produce, and merchandise; the handling of grain and produce on commission; and the purchasing, owning, leasing, and operating of elevators.” He set up his offices in Amenia, North Dakota, and in Duluth, Minnesota.

In 1906, Miller became president of the Chaffee-Miller Milling Company, which was incorporated to buy and manage public and private grain warehouses, and to manufacture and sell flour, feed, and other mill products.

Two years later, in 1908, Miller passed away just three days short of his 65th birthday. If you haven’t guessed by now, the reluctant governor died a very wealthy man.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

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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