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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published December 15 2012

Eriksmoen: First to represent North Dakota in House endorsed Democrat for president

The first person to represent North Dakota in the U.S. House, a conservative Republican, later endorsed Democrat Woodrow Wilson for president.

Henry Hansbrough also edited three newspapers, led the push to have North Dakota separated out of Dakota Territory and admitted to the Union, served 18 years in the U.S. Senate, and “achieved the peculiar distinction of being the only man known to rest forever on Capitol Hill.”

Henry Clay Hansbrough was born Jan. 30, 1848, in Prairie du Rocher, Ill., to Eliab and Sarah (Hagen) Hansbrough. Eliab, a farmer, was a close personal friend of Henry Clay, the famous American statesman. At Eliab and Sarah’s wedding, Clay suggested that they name their first son after him, and when their son was born, the statesman’s request was granted.

Henry’s education was interrupted when his school was shut down during the Civil War.

In 1867, his family moved to San Jose, Calif., and two years later, Henry was hired as a typesetter for the San Jose Daily Independent. He rose to the position of foreman of the printing department and was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1870.

While with the Chronicle, he became assistant managing editor, but in 1880, he began to have health issues and resigned.

Meanwhile, the Sauk County Republican in Baraboo, Wis., was having difficulty, and publisher Walter Noyes contacted Hansbrough asking if he would be interested in editing his newspaper.

He accepted Noyes’ offer and, after arriving in Baraboo, changed the name of the paper to the Baraboo Bulletin. While there, Hansbrough received numerous reports about the golden opportunities in Dakota Territory. Believing he could make his mark in this rapidly growing territory, Hansbrough put out his last issue of the Bulletin on May 26, 1882, and boarded a train to open a new phase in his life.

Riding with Hansbrough from St. Paul to Fargo was a reporter from St. Louis. Nine years later, this unnamed reporter’s account was printed in the New York Times. He wrote that Hansbrough “had not a dollar on earth and borrowed (money) from me to get his laundry work done. He had only one shirt to his name.”

From Fargo, Hansbrough traveled to Grand Forks and, after soliciting funding, founded a new paper, the Grand Forks News.

Grand Forks already had two daily papers, the Herald published by George Winship and the Plainsdealer published by William Murphy. Although Winship and Murphy were bitter rivals, they bonded together to force this upstart out of their city.

None of the Grand Forks papers had a wire news service. Instead, they relied on the trains coming in from Minneapolis to find out what was happening nationally and internationally. The news staffs would go through the papers from the Twin Cities and use or rewrite the articles they liked.

To put pressure on Hansbrough’s paper, Winship and Murphy hired people to board the train before it arrived in Grand Forks and buy up all the papers. Not having a source for outside news, Hansbrough eventually became frustrated and accepted an offer by his two rivals to help him finance a paper in Creel City (Devils Lake).

In March 1883, Hansbrough arrived in Creel City, where the North Dakota Inter-Ocean was published. In September, he purchased the paper. The name of the town was changed to Devils Lake in January 1884.

Soon, Hansbrough was named postmaster, replacing the town founder in that position, Heber Creel. This set up a rivalry between the two men.

In October, Hansbrough changed the name of his paper to the Devils Lake Inter-Ocean, and Creel purchased a rival paper, the Devils Lake Pioneer Press. When residents voted to select their first mayor in 1885, they elected Hansbrough over Creel, and also re-elected him in 1887.

In his newspaper during the later 1880s, Hansbrough pushed for the division of Dakota Territory and admittance of the two halves as separate states into the Union. At the northern territorial convention held in Jamestown on June 1, 1888, Republicans were to select two delegates to serve at the national convention in Chicago. Hansbrough and Newton Hubbard, from Fargo, were chosen to represent the territory.

“In case of the division of territory, Hansbrough was to be national committeeman from North Dakota.”

Hansbrough’s political appeal soon became apparent to the Republican hierarchy, and he continued to serve as a North Dakota member of the Republican National Committee for eight years.

On Nov. 2, 1889, North Dakota was admitted into the Union. The state legislature convened on Nov. 19, and the members’ first duties were to select two U.S. senators and a U.S. representative to represent North Dakota in Washington.

Gilbert Pierce and Lyman Casey were chosen to serve as senators, and Hansbrough as congressman. Normally, the term of a U.S. senator is six years, but in 1889, the two senators chose lots for staggered terms, and Pierce ended up with the short lot for two years. That meant that Pierce was up for re-election in 1891. All representatives serve two-year terms.

In 1891, Hansbrough was defeated in his bid to be re-elected to Congress by Martin Johnson. Rather than give up on his political aspirations, Hansbrough immediately announced that he was a candidate for the Senate. That year, the Republican Party was split between the Farmer’s Alliance and the Alexander McKenzie run organization.

The North Dakota legislature was composed of 61 Republicans, 22 Democrats and nine Independents.

“There were a host of candidates willing to try and wrestle control from Pierce.”

On the first ballot, Pierce received the largest number of votes but was not able to receive more than 50 percent. Other candidates gained momentum with succeeding ballots. When Clement Lounsberry withdrew from the race and threw his support behind Hansbrough, Pierce’s opportunity greatly diminished.

Hansbrough was elected on the 17th ballot and was named to the U.S. Senate. He would go on to serve North Dakota in the highest national chamber for 18 years.

Next week we will conclude our article about Hansbrough, focusing on the interesting career he had in national politics.


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“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.