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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published March 02 2013

Eriksmoen: Influential reporter in 1870s became editor in Fargo

One reporter broke the news to the nation about the two most frustrating attempts of the U.S. military during the 1870s: the efforts of the Army to capture the Indians under Sitting Bull and under Chief Joseph. John Rea was a “free-lance reporter” for a number of the major newspapers when he and Clement Lounsberry first reported the defeat of Colonel Custer in 1876. He was also the only news correspondent to accompany Gen. Oliver Howard, who led an expedition in pursuit of Chief Joseph. The chief outmaneuvered his pursuers in an attempt to bring his people to safety in Canada. Because of Rea’s reporting, the American public saw the Native Americans of the Midwest as compassionate human beings, intent on providing what was best for their people after being lied to by the American government – not as brutal savages. Rea also presented the Indian leaders as brilliant military tacticians.

Besides reporting, Rea was also an editor of newspapers in Bismarck; Fargo; Minneapolis; Omaha, Neb.; and Olympia, Wash. In addition, he headed a couple of different governmental programs and made a fortune selling real estate in the state of Washington.

John Andrew Rea was born June 18, 1848, in Lancaster County, Pa., to John Sr. and Sarah Ann (Robb) Rea. John Sr. was a successful farmer who sent his son to study at Ohio Wesleyan in 1865. That same year, a new college was founded at Ithaca in the Finger Lakes region of New York by Ezra Cornell and his good friend Andrew Dickson White. When it was announced that Cornell College would open its doors for instruction in the fall of 1868, John Jr., along with a couple of his classmates at Ohio Wesleyan, decided to transfer because of the college’s “promise of liberality in education.”

With three years of college under his belt at Wesleyan, Rea enrolled as a senior at Cornell on October 7, 1868. White, president of the college, soon took a liking to the young man and became Rea’s mentor. Rea was one of eight in the first graduating class in 1869. He then obtained a job as a journalist with the Philadelphia Press.

In 1870, Rea moved to Nebraska, where he worked as a reporter for newspapers in Omaha and Lincoln. Later that year, he became city editor in Omaha. One of Rea’s assignments would have a significant and lasting impact on him. In 1875, he covered the Nebraska Constitutional Convention, which worked to rectify the hastily written constitution that was adopted in 1866.

The first state constitution was written by the territorial legislature “with economy in mind and little consideration was given to other important aspects of state government.” It was hastily drawn up and signed by the governor only five days after it was introduced. In 1871, a constitutional convention drew up a new document, but it was rejected by voters. The convention held in 1875 was covered by Rea, and a new constitution was adopted on June 12. This experience would later come into play when it was reported that “in 1889 he organized the North Dakota state constitutional convention, serving as its secretary and helping to draft the state’s constitution.”

At the end of 1875, Rea moved to St. Paul and was hired by the Minneapolis Tribune on Jan. 19, 1876. He was soon was named managing editor. The St. Paul Pioneer Press convinced Rea to become their “editor of the Dakota edition” and sent him to Bismarck “because it was the end of the telegraph line extending into the northwest.” He went freelance when both the Chicago Tribune and New York Herald also wanted to utilize his services. On July 6, news reached Bismarck that, on June 25, Custer and more than 260 of his soldiers were killed in combat. Lounsberry, editor of the Bismarck Tribune, and Rea wrote the first news stories about that battle.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government ordered that the Nez Perce Indians be “forcibly removed” from their indigenous land in northeastern Oregon and placed on a small reservation in Idaho Territory. Chief Joseph resisted removal, and he led a band of followers as they tried to evade the soldiers who were sent to capture them. General Oliver Howard was the commander placed in charge of the soldiers ordered to pursue Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians.

When Howard arrived in Bismarck to file his strategic report via telegraph, Rea met him at the Sheridan House in hopes of obtaining an interview. Instead of an interview, Howard gave him access to his report. With this information, Rea wrote, “I put it on the wires and the next morning Generals Sheridan and Terry read it.” Not believing that Howard would have handed over sensitive information to a newspaper reporter, his commanders reasoned that Rea must have tapped into the telegraph line. Rea claimed, “I never told about the source of my information,” and in gratitude, Howard invited Rea to accompany him as he went after Joseph and his followers.

Chief Joseph eluded Howard and his soldiers in a 1,170-mile fighting retreat. “The skill in which the Nez Perce fought and the manner in which they conducted themselves in the face of incredible adversity led to widespread admiration among the American public.” This was only because of what was reported by Rea. Because of this honest and fair-minded reporter, Chief Joseph became known to the rest of the country as a humanitarian and peacemaker. Finally, on Oct. 5, 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered, but only because his followers had run out of food. It was Rea who wrote down the chief’s immortal words: “My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

When Rea returned to Bismarck, he was contacted by Lounsberry, who needed help at the Tribune. Lounsberry had lost his main reporter, Mark Kellogg, who was killed along with Custer at the Little Big Horn River. Rea agreed to help out and began work as associate editor on Jan. 5, 1878. In the fall of that year, two newspaper men from Chicago, Marshall Jewell and Stanley Huntley, arrived in Bismarck looking to get involved in the publishing business. Instead of giving them jobs, Lounsberry convinced them that they should buy the Tribune. After they raised capital to purchase the paper in October 1878, Rea resigned to accept the offer from Emmett B. Chambers to become editor of the Fargo Times.

The Times had struggled in its stiff competition with the Fargo Argus. Other editors saw the hiring of Rea as a wise move by Chambers. Col. Pat Donan, editor of the Deadwood Pioneer, wrote, “He (Rea) will secure success by deserving it. We congratulate both the paper and the town.” This was not to be, because, on May 10, 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes named Rea as register of the land office in Bismarck. Just months after Rea left the Times, the paper ceased publication.

(We will conclude our story about John Rea next week as we focus on how he was influential in drafting the North Dakota Constitution.)

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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.