Sakakawea gets all the attention. Arguably the most beloved, and I’ll bet the most photographed, historical monument in North Dakota is the statue of Sakakawea emplaced by the state’s women’s clubs and now situated between the capitol and the heritage center. The Fairbanks monument to the pioneer family has prominence, but not traffic. And practically overlooked is the monument, off to your right as you enter the capitol, memorializing Honest John Burke.
John Burke came to Dakota Territory in 1888 and made his way by hard work—pitching bundles, teaching school, reading law, publishing a newspaper. He served in the state house, the state senate, the governorship, and the state supreme court, and he was secretary of the federal treasury under President Woodrow Wilson—by which you may gather, he was a Democrat.
His statue, cast by Utah sculptor Avard Fairbanks, the same guy who did the pioneer family memorial, stands in the hall of statuary of the United States Capitol. “Nicknamed ‘Honest John,” Burke was a man of unquestioned integrity,” literature from the hall of statuary proclaims. He was a progressive governor who backed legislation to limit lobbying, to establish primary elections, and other reforms.
The John Burke monument alongside the state capitol came as a sort of a byproduct. In 1959 the state legislature established a national statuary hall commission to decide whose statue would be the first representation of North Dakota in the capitol gallery. James Connally, director of the state auto club, was actively campaigning on behalf of the historic chief, Four Bears.
Governor John Davis appointed the commission and charged its members to select a person “who is illustrious for historic renown or for distinguished civic or military service.” As for what happened after that, I rely on the research of one of our fine seminar students, Cal Schaible.
First of all, the decision was made, no Indians. James Connolly asked the commission directly, “Does the North Dakota Statuary Hall Commission have the courage to name an Indian?” And the commission said, no. The state librarian objected to enshrining, as she put it, “Indian war-fare.” Asked for his opinion, historian Elwyn Robinson of the University of North Dakota said it would be OK to have an Indian, but only if there were also a statue of a white person; a single, Indian statue would not be a fit representation of the state.
The commission settled, instead, on John Burke. Burke met the commission’s own standards of public service, personal integrity, and long residence, but there also was a fourth standard: “popular acclaim as a hero of his generation.” John Burke was a good man, an able man, perhaps even a man beloved of North Dakotans, but a hero? Well, it’s open to debate.
And that debate took place, as Cal points out, after the revitalization of the Democratic Party stemming from its merger with the Nonpartisan League and after the election of the progressive Democrat, Bill Guy, as governor. Bill Guy was, in his way, a state parallel to the election of John Kennedy as president, only with Kennedy it was charisma, and with Guy it was competence. This is North Dakota after all.
Cal thinks this political swing influenced the selection of Burke, and he has the evidence. The columnist Roy Johnson came out for Burke, and Governor Guy, in writing, promoted Burke to the statuary commission.
So Burke got the nod. Then somebody, it’s unclear who, decided there should be two statues, one for Washington and a second for the North Dakota capitol grounds. And thus it was done.