Dakota Datebook

Dakota’s Destitute

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


When John Miller became North Dakota’s first Governor in the fall of 1889, he had little idea how demanding his new position would be.  In addition to setting up a new state government, Miller was about to face a severe economic crises.  Miller, a wealthy bonanza farmer with over 17,000 acres of land, had little experience with poverty.

North Dakota’s economy in the late and 1880s was declining; wheat, the state’s primary crop, had fallen nearly 70%, from $1.00 a bushel in the mid-1880s to only 35¢ in 1892.  The drop in price proved devastating.  Many farmers went bankrupt or lost their farms.  With little hope, many families had trouble putting food on the table.

On this date in 1889, Governor Miller finally recognized the growing crisis and asked the State Legislature to authorize the Commissioner of Agriculture to look into the problem and distribute relief.  On December 30th, the commissioner reported that at least 4,000 people in the state were hungry and homeless, and in desperate need of help.  A month later, the Senate passed a bill appropriating $5,000 for the destitute, but it was not enough.

Despite the problem, immigrants continued to arrive, many of them poor.  Between 1890 and 1900, North Dakota’s population grew by 67%.

In February of 1890, Senator Pierce was forced to introduce a bill to the United States Senate for a federal appropriation to relieve the many starving Native Americans in North Dakota, especially in the Devils Lake area.  North Dakota’s needy were also recognized outside of the state: James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railroad organized clothing drives in Minneapolis and Chicago, and had the clothes shipped to the needy on his railroad cars.  “In 1892, Governor Andrew Burke requested Chicago charity groups to stop collecting money for ‘destitute North Dakotans.’”  Burke thought such advertisement was not good for North Dakota’s image.  Fortunately, by the turn of the century, commodity prices rose enough to alleviate much of the suffering, and the state looked forward to better times in the new century to come.


Dakota Datebook by Jayme L. Job


Atkins, Annette.  1984.  Harvest of Grief: Grasshopper Plagues and Public Assistance in Minnesota,             1873-78.  Minnesota Historical Society Press: St. Paul, MN.

Crawford, Ellen.  October 17, 1999.  “Food for the Hungry, Shelter for the Poor,” The Forum: Fargo, ND.

Hennessy, W. B.  1910  History of North Dakota: Embracing a Relation of the History of the State from             the Earliest Times Down to the Present Day: p. 210-211.  The Bismarck Tribune:  Bismarck.

Kingsbury, George Martin. 1915.   History of Dakota Territory. S. J. Clarke Publishing Company:             Chicago.





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.

« Go Back

50 Years
A Million Thanks

Public NewsRoom

Log-on and dig deep into the news of the day. It’s all online in our Public NewsRoom.

» Visit the Public NewsRoom

Breaking News

Support Radio

Your contributions make quality radio programming possible.

» Pledge your support today.

Sign up for our Email Newsletter
For Email Marketing you can trust