Dakota Datebook

Otto Von Bismarck

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Many cities and towns of North Dakota have been named after celebrated figures that once inhabited the wild plains of the state.  Yet oddly enough, North Dakota’s own capitol bears the name of a European man who never once set foot in America’s western frontier:  Prince Otto von Bismarck.  You may wonder why the city was named after a foreigner with seemingly no connection to the territory.  The simple answer is money.  During the Panic of 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad was in dire financial straits.  Hoping to attract German investors, the railroad officials decided to rename the city of Edwinton in honor of the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.  This strategy did not work out as well as the Northern Pacific Railroad had hoped, but the city’s name stuck, nevertheless.

On this date in 1898, the Bismarck Tribune paid tribute to the memory of von Bismarck, who died the week before on July 30.  Otto von Bismarck was a prince, military officer, and the first Chancellor of Germany-a worthy figure for any namesake.  Though he was already a highly honored statesman, von Bismarck was pleased to have an American city named in his honor.  The Tribune remembered the renaming of the city and the Chancellor’s favorable response to this tribute.  When von Bismarck received word of the city’s dedication in his honor, he replied with his “sincere thanks for so flattering a compliment.”

When the cornerstone of the first capitol building was laid in Bismarck in 1883, the city officials wrote to the Chancellor: “Proud of our city’s name, we are confident that our future career will not be unworthy of the fame of Your Highness.”  Von Bismarck sent his regards and expressed his hope for “the rapid development” of the city.

On von Bismarck’s 68th birthday that same year, the people of Bismarck sent the prince a special gift: a beautiful map of the city bound in maroon leather, lined in white silk, and stamped with golden letters.  Despite all the other grand presents he received that day, the Chancellor was highly pleased with this map, showing it off to his guests at the party.

Friendly relations between the people of Bismarck and the prince continued until his death in 1898.  Otto von Bismarck is remembered in history as a skilled politician who managed to unify Germany in a time of great turmoil, but North Dakotans will always remember him as the man whose name graces their state capitol.

Dakota Datebook written by Carol Wilson

Bismarck Tribune, April 1, 1965.
Bismarck Tribune, August 4, 1898.
Bismarck Tribune (weekly), May 18, 1883.
Letter from Otto von Bismarck, October 27, 1883.

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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