The Bismarck Tribune was established in 1873, the first newspaper in Dakota Territory. The remote northern half of Dakota Territory saw few permanent European American settlers until the Northern Pacific Railroad reached the Plains in the early 1870s. In the spring of 1873 a young Civil War veteran sensed an opportunity behind the railroad construction crews. Clement A. Lounsberry had worked for several Minnesota newspapers. In May 1873, after his coverage of Minnesota's state legislature ended, he moved printing equipment by the first railcar into Bismarck. Issue number one of the Bismarck Tribune was published in July.
Most new western towns built around the advancing railroad attracted bawdy houses and lawless drifters, and early Bismarck was no exception. "Colonel" Lounsberry, who kept his old Civil War rank, as was the fashion at the time, hoped to establish order through editorial. Lounsberry asked for a "vigilance committee" to respond to town troublemakers. Dance-hall proprietors Dave Mullen and Jack O'Neil perceived this as a threat. Heavily armed, they confronted Lounsberry at the Tribune office. In characteristic words of the "fighting editor" common to the western frontier, Lounsberry claimed he challenged them to go ahead and shoot, boasting that he had "heard bullets fly before." The saloon owners demurred, however, and merely asked him to refrain from issuing attacks in their direction.
The Tribune began publishing daily in 1881. Always a relatively small daily (1996 circulation was 31,161), it nevertheless became nationally known for its coverage of two events. In 1937 it received a Pulitzer Prize for its series "Self-Help in the Dust Bowl," aimed at farmers battling the droughts of the 1930s. Better known, however, is its renown as the first newspaper to break the story of "Custer's Last Stand." Gen. George Armstrong Custer left for his last battle from Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Bismarck. Lounsberry sent along reporter Mark Kellogg. Kellogg became one of the casualties of the famous June 25, 1876, battle. His bloodstained notes found their way back to Bismarck, where Lounsberry hogged the town's single telegraph line for twenty-two hours to transmit the story as sometime correspondent for the New York Tribune. The eastern editors at first did not believe him, however, and held the story long enough for Lounsberry's own paper to get the scoop.
Lounsberry remained publisher until 1884, when he sold the paper to Marshall Jewell, who had been job shop manager. While still a relatively small daily by national standards, the Tribune has traditionally distributed over a vast geographical area in a sparsely populated state. By a 1960s comparison, the Tribune still counted a geographic circulation twice that of newspapers in similarly sized eastern cities. Because the Bismarck paper reached so far, however, distribution costs were also three times higher.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century the Tribune faced competition from five other newspapers publishing from the state capital. Even in 1930 its circulation was only 6,000, compared to 11,000 claimed by the German-language weekly Der Staats-Anzeiger. By 1970, however, the Tribune claimed 17,086 subscribers and the German-language paper only 989. Today the Tribune is the third largest daily in the state after the Grand Forks Herald and Fargo-Moorhead Forum. It is owned by Lee Enterprises.
Ross F. CollinsNorth Dakota State University
Lounsberry, Clement A. North Dakota: History and People. Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1917.
Robinson, Elwyn. History of North Dakota. Fargo: Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, 1995.
Schmidt, Paul C. "The Press in North Dakota." North Dakota History 31 (1964): 216–22.