Dakota Datebook

Thomas Nast

Friday, December 20, 2013


By the late 1880s, Thomas Nast was already an American legend. Called “the father of the American caricature,” he had popularized satirical cartoons in the nation’s newspapers, working for the New York Illustrated News and Harper’s Weekly. His cartoons had propagated the use of such symbols as an elephant to represent the Republican Party, and in 1862, he created the popular image of a benevolent Santa Claus still used today. Nast drew on the Christmas stories of the 4th century bishop, St. Nicholas, that he had grown up listening to as a child in his native Germany; he even added elves to Santa’s image, creatures popular in German folklore. The images proved so popular that they are often credited with transforming Christmas into a popular American holiday. He also became very well known for his political cartoons, especially those produced during the Civil War. “One of Nast’s cartoons was said to have re-elected Lincoln in 1864,” and, thanks in part to his portrayals of the Union Army, Lincoln himself called Nast “his best recruiting sergeant.”

So, when Nast was scheduled to speak in Bismarck on this date in 1887, many residents were disappointed when the event was cancelled due to a blizzard. The Bismarck Tribune reported that “the Bismarck admirers of genius had looked forward to Mr. Nast’s coming with joyous expectancy as they anticipated a treat – an entertainment out of the ordinary in character as well as merit.”

Not to disappoint, Nast gave a personal interview to the newspaper, which was published for the city’s readers. He also created a self-portrait of himself in snowshoes for the owner of the Sheridan Hotel, where he was staying. He told the paper that he backed Grover Cleveland in the upcoming presidential election and expounded on his views concerning trade tariffs. His young son had accompanied him on the lecture tour, and the pair planned to travel throughout the northwestern part of the country.

Not everyone in North Dakota was excited to speak with Nast. The Jamestown Alert reported that Nast’s visit was simply a “stump for Cleveland disguised as a lecture trip;” apparently, the Jamestown editors were not cheering-on the same candidate. However, the Alert reporter did add that “Nast and his crayon are wonder workers.”


Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job



Bismarck Weekly Tribune. December 23, 1887: p. 6.

The Jamestown Weekly Alert. January 19, 1888: p. 4.






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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