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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published January 28 2012

Eriksmoen: Politician known as North Dakota’s Abe Lincoln

The North Dakota politician most often compared to Abraham Lincoln served as governor, chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court and U.S. treasurer.

John Burke, like Lincoln, was known for his honesty, integrity and wisdom. Both men were largely self-educated and became lawyers, and both championed the causes of oppressed people – Lincoln the slaves and Burke the small farmers.

Lincoln was the first Republican elected U.S. president, and Burke was the first Democrat elected North Dakota governor. Both men were immortalized by bronze statues created by Avard Fairbanks, and both men shared similar sobriquets, “Honest Abe” and “Honest John.”

Burke was born Feb. 25, 1859, on a small farm near the town of Sigourney in southeastern Iowa. When he was 5, his mother died and his father “left John and his other children in the care of a neighbor” while looking for work in Kansas, Nevada and Dakota Territory. When Burke grew up, he saved his money working on farms and, at the age of 25, enrolled in a two-year law course at Iowa State University.

In 1886, Burke completed his education and passed the exam to earn a law license. He went into practice with an older brother in Des Moines, Iowa, and then set up his own office in Henning, Minn., 60 miles east of Wahpeton. In August 1888, Burke came to Dakota Territory to help with the harvest in Traill County. When that was done, he moved to St. John, where he set up a law office and taught school. When North Dakota became a state in 1889, Burke was elected as the judge for Rolette County. In 1890, he was elected to the state House.

Burke moved to Rolla and was elected to a four-year term in the state Senate in 1892. One of the few successful Democratic candidates in North Dakota, Burke ran for state attorney general in 1894 against the popular Devils Lake attorney, John Cowan. The Republican candidates won every state office. In 1896, Burke was endorsed by the Democratic Party to run for Congress against incumbent Martin Johnson, and lost.

In 1900, Burke ran for judge in District 2. He was once again pitted against Cowan. Burke lost, and decided to give up politics to concentrate on his law practice. Struggling financially, he moved in September 1902 to Devils Lake and entered into a law partnership with Henry G. Middaugh.

Middaugh knew Burke had been a poor businessman, failing to collect many of his fees and prone to dole out free advice. Middaugh “played the role of business manager: interviewing clients, setting a fee, and then referring them to Burke.” At Devils Lake, Burke’s legal skills gained statewide repute. In his booklet “Great Judges and Lawyers of Early North Dakota,” U.S. Congressman Usher Burdick wrote, “In jury trials, Burke had no peer. It was Burke’s sincerity that won the fancy of jurors.” Famed Grand Forks attorney Guy Corliss said that as a trial lawyer, Burke was his toughest opponent. “Both the judges and the juries in all the courts of North Dakota will believe every damned word he says.”

Because Burke was a man of unquestioned integrity, he earned the nickname “Honest John.” One person Burke considered to have been proved to be dishonest was Alexander McKenzie, who controlled the Republican Party.

By 1906, McKenzie’s power began to unravel. Appleton’s Booklovers Magazine ran a series of articles titled “The Looting of Alaska,” written by Rex Beach. It told how McKenzie swindled the gold mined by many Lapland Alaskans, and a number of North Dakota newspapers reprinted these articles. Also, “the Republican Party was in disarray, torn between railroad and big money interests and an insurgent Progressive wing seeking reform.” The leader of the Progressive Republicans was George Winship, editor of the Grand Forks Herald.

At the Republican convention in Jamestown, “the minority [Progressive] Republicans were ridden-over roughshod by the McKenzie machine,” Burdick wrote. The Progressives objected to Elwood Sarles, the incumbent governor. The Stalwarts ignored their objections and nominated him for another term. On Aug. 2, at the Democratic convention in Minot, Burke was nominated as the candidate for governor.

Although a reluctant candidate, Burke eagerly accepted the challenge. He crisscrossed the state speaking seven or eight times a day. “He was a magnetic orator, and the truths he spoke could not be challenged.” Burke was supported by Winship and other progressive newspapers, as well as by prohibitionists. In the November election, Burke beat Sarles by 25,000 votes.

Next week we will continue our story about the remarkable life and career of John Burke.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.