Dakota Datebook

Belhammer Saves Child

Monday, May 31, 2004

Gordon Keeney was aboard the steamboat Dakota when he witnessed a dramatic rescue attempt by a burly German immigrant. Seventy-six years later, Keeney’s written account was published in the Fargo Forum.

In 1874, the Dakota was steaming north down the Red River with a maximum load of 175 Canadian, Scotch, British and Irish passengers. Because of the crowded conditions below, Keeney wrapped himself in his buffalo robe and spent his time in the open air of the hurricane deck. Sprawled on that deck, forward of the stern, were between 10 and 15 prisoners in shackles and handcuffs who were being transported to Pembina for trial on offenses ranging from larceny to murder. A U.S. Marshal had given strict orders to shoot any prisoners who tried to escape.

Keeney wrote, “Yet a cheerful, story-telling, card-playing bunch of irresponsible humanity they were, with one exception, Charles Belhammer. This man, who lay on his blanket next to the low railing…some 20 feet above the…water, was partly, if not entirely, a victim of circumstances. Stranded in mid-winter at Fort Seward when the (NP) railroad ceased to operate west of Fargo, he had been unable to work to keep his wife and young child from want.”

Keeney explained that Belhammer couldn’t find transportation back to Fargo, and when he ran out of supplies, he appealed for food at the post. He was denied. Finally, he broke into the commissary and stole some food and clothing. When he was found out, he was jailed in Fargo.

On this date, two days into the journey, the call for breakfast had just sounded as the boat was negotiating a rough patch through the Goose River rapids. Children would grab hold of overhanging tree branches and let themselves be dragged across the deck toward the prisoners. Suddenly, a Mrs. White cried that her 9 year-old child had fallen overboard. Keeney heard Belhammer tell his guard, “…don’t shoot, Ollie,” and he threw himself over the railing into the river. A bullet splintered the rail as he dropped out of sight.

The only thing keeping the little girl afloat was air trapped beneath her skirts. Keeney wrote, “Belhammer was striking out sideways with his hands, which were held close together by the handcuffs. He seemed to hold his own against the current, for the child drifted towards him, and just as (she) sank out of sight, Belhammer let himself under.

When he came up,” Keeney continued, “he had the child in his hands, and with a backward fling he threw (her) across his right shoulder, holding on by taking a firm grip of (her) dress band with his teeth.”

Belhammer started toward the boat, which was sputtering to reverse direction. The girl panicked, and because of his shackles, Belhammer lost his balance and both went under.

When Belhammer surfaced again, he had only a swatch of the girl’s dress clenched in his teeth. The girl was gone. He tried to wrench free of his cuffs but only drew blood.

Then he spotted the girl’s arm shoot out of the muddy water, and the passengers spotted his leg irons as he dove down. The crowd had given them up for dead when Belhammer suddenly resurfaced with the little girl. Again clutching her dress with his teeth, he struck out downstream toward a rescue boat that had been dispatched.

Back on board, the ship’s blacksmith was called to remove Belhammer’s handcuffs, and a fellow passenger, Federal Judge Barnes, summarily declared the prisoner innocent of all charges.

Belhammer’s name was reported in many different fashions, with his last name spelled Belhammer, Belheimer, Belhymer and Billhymer.

Newspaper accounts also reported his first name as Charles, Victor or George.

There also exists an alternate cause for Belhammer’s arrest, which states that Belhammer surprised a man who was rifling through his duffle bag. He clubbed the man and was arrested for murder. This version isn’t supported by newspaper accounts.

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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