Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The capital of North Dakota and seat of Burleigh County, Bismarck is located in the southcentral part of the state on the eastern bank of the Missouri River. Its sister city, Mandan, is situated on the opposite western shore in Morton County. Though originally a rich agricultural center and regional river and railroad transportation hub, during the last quarter of the twentieth century Bismarck evolved into a diversified regional medical, governmental, industrial, and technological center.

Bismarck was founded in 1873, the child of both Missouri River steamboat transportation and late-nineteenth-century Great Plains railroad expansion. Originally called The Crossing, the town was a strategically located port for steamboats, which carried upriver immigrants, and military supplies. In 1872 Camp Greeley (later Camp Hancock) was built by the military as a warehouse and supply depot for troops that were protecting the Northern Pacific Railroad survey crews. Indeed, the town was at one time named Edwinton after the railroad's first chief engineer, Edwin Johnson. However, the financially distressed railroad's need to attract German bond investors induced the railroad's board of directors in 1873 to rename the city Bismarck in honor of Germany's "Iron Chancellor," Otto von Bismarck-Schönhausen.

Bismarck was named the capital of Dakota Territory in 1883, and when Congress passed the 1889 Omnibus Bill, dividing the territory into North and South Dakota, the city became the capital of the new state. The city was officially incorporated in 1875, adopted the commission governing structure in 1913, and began operating under a home rule charter in 1986.

Bismarck grew from a Dakota river town of 1,200 in 1874 to a metropolitan center with a population of 55,532 in 2000. Much of the recent growth has centered around the city's development into a regional health center, with two major hospitals, allied and independent clinics, health-care services, and nursing and elder-care facilities. The next largest employers are federal, state, county, and city governments. Bismarck also functions as a wholesale and retail center, serving a trade area of a 100- mile radius with more than 170,000 customers. The city's growing technology and energy industries are other major employers.

Bismarck has also become a regional education center, with a comprehensive two-year college, Bismarck State College, the Benedictine- founded University of Mary, and an intertribal United Tribes Technical College. In addition to these institutions, there are two colleges of nursing, a school of respiratory care and radiological technology, a university graduate center, and the Bismarck campus of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine.

Long the center of state politics, Bismarck is home to the state's Heritage Center, the law library, the penitentiary, and the Bank of North Dakota. The bank, chartered in 1919 to promote the state's agriculture, commerce, and industry, is the nation's only state-owned bank. Bismarck's most recent national accomplishment was being named an all-American city in 1997.

Bismarck offers a wealth of cultural organizations and activities for its citizens, including an arts and galleries association, art schools, summer musical productions, amateur theater, a symphony orchestra, dance studios, men's and women's choruses, and a national tribal powwow. The city owns and manages 2,525 acres of park facilities, including forty-eight parks, thirty miles of recreational trails, and one of the nation's fifty Millennium Legacy Trails.

Bismarck's historical connections with the Custer legacy center on its proximity to his command post at Fort Abraham Lincoln and its status as the port for the famous steamboat, the Far West, whose epic journey to transport the wounded from the Little Bighorn battlefield in 1876, a distance of 900 miles in fiftyfour hours, stands unrivaled in Missouri River steamboating history.

See also MEDIA: Bismarck Tribune .

J. Michael McCormack Bismarck State College

Bird, George F., and Edwin J. Taylor Jr. History of the City of Bismarck: The First 100 Years, 1872–1972. Bismarck ND: Bismarck Centennial Association, 1972.

Bismarck-Mandan North Dakota Community Profile. Bismarck: Bismarck- Mandan Area Chamber of Commerce, 2000.

Robinson, Elwyn B. History of North Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

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