Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


LIBBY, ORIN (1864-1952)

Orin Grant Libby was born on June 9, 1864, on a farm near Hammond, Wisconsin. After receiving his diploma from River Falls State Normal School in 1886, he taught in Wisconsin high schools until 1890. Entering the University of Wisconsin as a junior, he was awarded a bachelor of letters degree in 1892. He remained in Madison and was among the first graduate students of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Libby's doctoral dissertation, entitled "The Geographical Distribution of the Vote of the Thirteen States on the Federal Constitution 1787–8," may be the most important single contribution ever made to the interpretation of the movement for the federal Constitution.

After receiving his doctorate in 1895, Libby remained at Wisconsin for seven years as an instructor, teaching history and pursuing his interests in birds and bird migration. In 1902 he accepted the position of professor and chair of history at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, a position he held until he retired in 1945 at the age of eighty-one.

Realizing on his arrival that the young state's history was still in the making, Libby turned to researching the history of North Dakota, thereby earning the title the "Father of North Dakota History." He reorganized the State Historical Society, served as its secretary for more than forty years, and, until his retirement, edited the society's journals, the Collections and the North Dakota Historical Quarterly. He created the State Museum, the State Historical Library, and the State Park System. In 1907 Libby helped organize the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, and in 1903 he organized the North Dakota Audubon Society.

Libby spent thirty-five years researching the visit in 1738 of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye, and his sons to the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota. A recognized authority on North Dakota's Native Americans, Libby cleared the Arikara scouts who had served under Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn of the charge that they had acted cowardly and had been responsible for the defeat of Maj. Marcus Reno's men. In 1912 Libby interviewed the nine surviving scouts and published his findings in The Arikara Narrative of the Campaign against the Hostile Dakotas, June, 1876. Recently reissued to favorable reviews, Libby's account cannot be disregarded in any serious study of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Throughout his life, Libby recorded the memories of the state's early inhabitants, their relatives, and their descendants; excavated for artifacts and remains of historic sites; photographed log cabins, sod houses, and dugouts; collected letters, photographs, diaries, Indian legends, newspapers, and documents; and encouraged the writing of lodge, church, community, and county histories. Little of North Dakota's history escaped his interest and efforts.

Orin Grant Libby died on March 29, 1952, at the age of eighty-seven. He was survived by wife, Eva Cory Libby, daughter, Margaret, son, Charles, and four grandchildren. He was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Grand Forks.

See also WAR: Little Bighorn, Battle of the.

Gordon L. Iseminger University of North Dakota

Libby, Orin Grant. "The Geographical Distribution of the Vote of the Thirteen States on the Federal Constitution 1787–8." Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin (1894): 1– 116.

Libby, Orin G., ed. The Arikara Narrative of Custer's Campaign and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

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