Archive for July, 2013

Secession And The US

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

That cool cat up there is “Wild Bill” Langer, voting in the 1940 election that would send Mr. Langer to Washington.    Nothing was ever easy for William Langer: when he got to Washington, Congress refused to seat him.  They cited a history of lawbreaking, bribery, an attempt to secede from the United States, felonies, and general ethical shortcomings as reasons why he was unfit to be a Senator.

Wait, back up a bit:  sedition?  Yup, as you’ll hear in my Dakota Datebook for today, Langer decided nobody was going to remove him from office, so he called out the National Guard and proclaimed that North Dakota had declared independence.   His intentions are a bit clearer when you combine the two; just signing a Declaration of Independence for political reasons isn’t all that remarkable.   However, Langer claimed he called in the National Guard because of protestors around the capitol grounds.  His executive order, however, covered the entire state.   When the leaders of a developing nation, fearing a coup through the courts, call out the military, declare martial law, and issue a declaration of independence, the international news starts to declare either fascism or rebellion.

In Langer’s case, all was forgotten the next day.   Even the Congressional records of his Senate hearings only briefly cover his Declaration of Independence.  The biography The Dakota Maverick barely mentions the event.  It’s almost like people would rather forget that Langer got that close to really following through on his intentions.

Whenever the U.S. has been heavily divided politically, the secessionists come out of the woodwork.  There are currently a number of active secessionist movements operating in the U.S., from Hawaiian royalty to white supremacists to Native Americans.  Some of it is honest interest in establishing an independent nation, but much of it is rhetoric to emphasize how important a policy or stance is to the group.   They believe in their position so much they are willing to leave the United States to prove how important it is.

In this way, Langer was late to the came with secessionist talk.   Two years earlier, North Dakota state senator William Martin passed a resolution to advocate for secession — not just North Dakota, but a huge chunk of the west.   His motivation was due to percieved abuse by Eastern financial interests of the poor western farmer, who had been hard hit by the Depression and hadn’t recovered despite the banking industry’s rebound (sound familiar?).   Here’s what Martin’s US would look like:

This is pretty clearly more about making a point than creating a functioning nation;  Martin knew it, and when the national news started calling his motion sedition, he downplayed it as rhetoric.   Martin’s archives at the State Historical Society are almost 100% letters of support from around the U.S., thanking him for pushing his opinion through a secessionist statement, because people stood up and paid attention.

The difference between Martin’s secessionist motion, or the micronation movements, or actual seditionists, is the lack of power.   Few have any actual position of power to actually put secession into motion.  They need a leader, with financial and military power, to back their separation.

This is why Langer’s secession should have been more terrifying than any other secessionist movement:  Langer had a vibrant set of followers in his wing of the Non-Partisan League; he had power over the National Guard and support form the leaders in the Guard; the Bank of North Dakota and the State Elevator both put the state itself in a position of economic power.    When Langer and his followers signed the Declaration of Independence, the Supreme Court hadn’t yet filed their motion to remove Langer from office.  ”Wild Bill” Langer was entirely in power, with all of his assets and support, when he declared independence.    Of all the United States secessionist movements that have gotten close to actually getting their way, Langer did them one better:  he actually had the power to execute it and then actually did it.

Amenia, ND, 1880s.

Monday, July 15th, 2013

If you head north on Highway 18 from Casselton, on your way to Arthur and Hunter, you’ll pass by the little town of Amenia.  You might not even notice it: the highway takes a bend to the east, and a thick shelterbelt blocks the view of town, other than the grain elevator peeking over the trees like a giant on patrol.

Eben Chafee was an old man when his family contributed a large chunk of money to what would become the Amenia and Sharon Land Company.   The investment group had bought railroad shares, which hadn’t done well in the 1870s, and they cashed in their stock to reinvest in something else West-related.   Rather than trains, the group bought land in Cass County, North Dakota, and send ‘ol Eben west to run the place.

Most of the other “bonanza” farms were merely owners, not farmers; the investors managed inventory and land and workers, but land was leased out, or crops were grown on a cost-sharing method, so there wasn’t a whole lot of tools lifted by the full owners of a bonanza farm.    Chaffee saw things differently:  sure, it was a lot of work to grow crops, and labor was expensive, but Chafee knew that the fertile land of North Dakota could be very profitable if the Amenia and Sharon Land Company controlled everything, from seed to trains.

They attempted to build their own rail line, but not much came of it; the big railroad companies were happy to run rail lines themselves where needed.   Everything else, though, Chaffee build himself: a network of grain elevators, towns full of general stores and blacksmiths and gas stations and hotels, everything needed to support an army of farmers hired to work the land for the Amenia and Sharon Land Company.

The company existed until the 1920s, well past the age of the bonanza farm, but the towns Chaffee built are still there.   Amenia may not be much today, less than a hundred residents on the census, but in its day the town was a industrial hub, providing a valuable service to hundreds of farmers, all for the profit of the Amenia and Sharon Land Company.

The town might not be visible, but Amenia was where this photo was taken — which was immortalized on a two-cent stamp commissioned for the 1891 Trans-Mississippi Exposition.   The stamp shows Chaffee’s farmers working the land with a massive horse teams all lined up.   This stamp bent the rules a bit: only in the past years have US Postal Service rules allowed for a living person to appear on a postage stamp.     In the “Farming in the West” stamp, however, it was quite certain that there were at least a couple of the people in the photo still living when the stamp was released.   Although the town of Amenia might not have the value it once did, the “Farming in the West” stamp still holds value to stamp collectors.

Learn more about Chaffee and the founding of Amenia in the Dakota Datebook story I filed for today.

The Steamboat Montana

Friday, July 5th, 2013

My Dakota Datebook today tells the tale of the Wreck of the Montana.   In June, 1879, a tornado hit the boat landing at Bismarck, wreaking havoc on the steamboats moored there.   Three were tied up; the Montana’s sister-ship Dakotah and the Col. Mcleod made it through with minor damage.  The Montana, pictured below, didn’t fare so well.

The Coulson Line had the largest, fastest, and finest fleet of steamboats on the Missouri River.   In early 1879, the newly-launched Montana was their flagship of a half dozen large riverboats.   She was 250 feet long, 48′-6” wide, and had a two-cylinder steam engine.  Each cylinder was 18″ across and had a seven foot stroke — a massive engine to push around the largest stern paddle wheel  ever made, eighteen feet in diameter and 36 feet long.  The size of the Montana provided plenty of room for both passenger cabins and cargo holds, and even with 500 tons of weight on board only drew 3 feet of water.

In June of 1879, Captain Buesen had climbed to the top of the Montana to make sure the smokestacks were secure — unfortunately, they were about the only thing that survived when the tornado hit, along with the hull.   The cabins were torn apart, the pilot house is tipped forward over the bow, mass destruction ensued.   Only four members of the crew were on board when bad weather hit, and all survived with minor injuries.  The Montana, however, had to be sent in for repairs.

After a season in the shop, the Montana was put back into service on the lower Missouri and possibly also on the Mississippi and Ohio for a time.

On June 22, 1884, however, the Montana made its last voyage.  Loaded with freight, the steamboat hit either a submerged log or a bridge piling and sank near Bridgeton, Missouri.  The captain at the time, Bill Massie, managed to limp the Montana onto a sandbar near shore where the boat finally sank to the bottom in only a few feet of water.  The shallow wreck allowed for much of the cargo to be salvaged.

The Montana, however, rises from its grave from time to time.   The wreck was never entirely salvaged; when the water level of the Missouri drops due to drought, like last fall, you can see the remains of the Montana’s hull in the muddy banks of the river.  This has been a boon to researchers, who have little left to go on for these huge steamboats of the Missouri.

You can learn more about the Montana in the book The Steamboat Montana and the Opening of the West, which I sadly have not read yet but is now on my list.