Plains Folk

The Story of William Small


When William Small, in July of 1921, hopped a Great Northern freight train in Davenport and rode it into Casselton, he was just one of tens of thousands of transient laborers arriving to work the spring wheat harvest in North Dakota. Railroad detectives let them ride when their labor was needed, then prodded them out of the territory when it was not.


On this day something went awry—there was a dispute between Small and the railroad dick in Casselton, one Arnold Bell. The situation was complicated by the fact that Small was a black man. I suspect that Bell figured he could shake Small down, not an unusual experience for such travelers.


Only this time the hobo was armed. Small pulled a revolver and emptied it at Bell, though failing to hit him. Then Small ran off into the town, where of course, he was pretty conspicuous. He tried to hijack a car driven by a local citizen, Julius Rousch, but either Rousch killed the engine or it just died. Whereupon Small shot and wounded Rousch.


Then he took off again afoot, this time coming across an oil truck parked on the street. Before he could take it, Bell caught up with him and opened fire, reinforced by another armed citizen. They and he exchanged shots in front of the home of one Emil Priewe. A stray shot hit Mr. Priewe’s daughter, Florence Veronica, in the arm.


Small surely knew by this time he was in deadly peril. He drove out of town in the oil truck, pursued by a posse led by Mayor W. J. Bell – not sure of his relationship to the railroad detective. Small drove to the Dalrymple farm and holed up in a garage. There was a shootout, Small was wounded, and he surrendered with hands up.


At this point I would interject that race is a permeating element in the narrative. I hardly think that Small would have been hassled by the railroad detective if he had been white, like all the other harvest hands. Once he became a fugitive, he was truly a stranger in a strange land. It is a remarkable development that he was able to surrender, instead of being riddled with bullets. Mayor Bell and his police chief, a man named Bunker, obviously exercised reasonable command and control.


Small served a term in the pen in Bismarck, and then he is lost to history.


The scholar who unearthed this episode from 1921 is Blake Frink, one of my research methods students at North Dakota State University. He and his classmates were assigned to use the records of the Cass County District Court to study what happened when citizens brought lawsuits against the great railroads, the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern. You see, Florence Veronica Priewe’s father brought suit against the Great Northern, arguing that its agent, detective Bell, had provoked a shooting incident with reckless disregard for the safety of the citizenry.


Priewe brought suit against the railroad, rather than against detective Bell, as a matter of deep pockets. The railroad had money, whereas Bell, explained Priewe’s attorney, was “of very doubtful financial responsibility.”


The judge was fairly sympathetic. He awarded $600 to the plaintiff. I think this was sympathy money. For the railroad to have been found to have been at fault would have required accepting the testimony of a black transient against a local railroad detective. Not likely.
Whose story is this, anyway? Surely the Priewe girl deserves sympathy, perhaps even compensation, but despite how the court case of Emil Priewe v. Great Northern Railroad unfolded, the central figure in the story obviously is William Small. The case file contains no testimony or affidavit from him.

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