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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published April 20 2013

Woodcutter one of first ND lawmen to die in line of duty

George Custer’s first adversary upon arriving at Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory was not Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse or any of the other northern Plains Indian leaders, but a woodcutter.

It was lumberman Charles H. McCarthy, a former legislator, Supreme Court law clerk, and soon-to-be Burleigh County sheriff.

McCarthy was born in 1830 (some sources report 1836) in Cork County, Ireland. He arrived in the U.S. on May 17, 1851, and settled in St. Paul. With the start of the Civil War, McCarthy enlisted with the 2nd Minnesota Regiment Volunteer Infantry in 1861 and served until the Battle of Chickamauga, when he was wounded on Sept. 19, 1863.

He returned to Minnesota to recuperate and, in 1864, traveled to Sioux City, Iowa. Across the Big Sioux River from where McCarthy lived was the newly organized Dakota Territory.

On Feb 23, 1865, President Lincoln appointed Minnesota Congressman Jefferson Kidder as associate justice for Dakota Territory. In 1857, Kidder moved from Vermont to St. Paul and hired McCarthy as his law clerk in 1865.

Later that year, McCarthy relocated to the Ponca Reservation in southern Dakota and successfully ran for a House seat in the Legislature. The legislative session began on Dec. 4, 1865, in Yankton, nearly 200 miles east of the reservation. One of the first acts of the Legislature was to authorize the building of a road to the Ponca Reservation.

During spring 1866, McCarthy traveled north to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to cut wood for riverboats that steamed up and down the Missouri River. He was joined by two other men, John Dillon and Edward Donahue. They are credited with being the first three white men to live in Sioux County.

In the fall, McCarthy returned to the Ponca Reservation to successfully run for re-election.

It was widely believed that revenue officials in Yankton County were illegally assessing and collecting taxes. Legislators in the 1866-67 session appointed McCarthy as a key investigator of revenue officials.

In 1867, McCarthy left Dakota Territory to try his luck at gold and silver prospecting in Nevada and California. He returned in 1869 and established a trading post in the northern part of the Standing Rock Reservation. While there, he fell in love with a Hunkpapa woman named Itatewin (Wind Woman), whom he called “Maggie,” and the two got married. In spring 1872, McCarthy homesteaded 160 acres along Apple Creek, a few miles east of Edwinton (present-day Bismarck).

Western Dakota, both north and south, was largely composed of one governmental geographical unit called Buffalo County. McCarthy petitioned the governor to organize a new county. The 1872-73 Legislature created Burleigh County, which was organized on July 16, 1873. McCarthy and Edward Donahue were appointed county commissioners.

Along with Donahue, McCarthy set up a livery business at the corner of Third and Thayer, where they rented buggies and saddle horses and provided feed stables. McCarthy also received a contract from the post quartermaster at Fort Abraham Lincoln to provide cord wood. McCarthy often felled the timber on, or near, the military reservation. One day in 1873, while he was sawing wood on Sibley Island, which was on the reservation, Custer, the new commander at Fort Lincoln, had him arrested and thrown in the guard house.

Upon receiving news about their client, attorneys Erastus A. Williams and John A. Stoyell rushed to Fort Lincoln and ordered Custer to release McCarthy. Custer refused, and the two men told him they were going straight to the quartermaster general. As soon as the lawyers were out of sight, Custer had McCarthy freed, “marched to the edge of the reservation and warned never to enter it again.”

Custer soon had McCarthy rearrested and arraigned before the U.S. commissioner, who dismissed the case. The Burleigh County Pioneer’s Association “adopted a long resolution of grievances against Custer and sent copies to Generals Alfred H. Terry, Philip Sheridan, and William Sherman.” They also had these grievances printed in the Bismarck Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Shortly after, McCarthy was elected Burleigh County sheriff. In the three months prior to McCarthy’s election, Burleigh County had gone through three sheriffs – William Woods, John White and Clinton Miller. In June 23, 1874, McCarthy’s business partner, Donahue, sold his shares back to McCarthy. McCarthy brought in his younger brother, John, and made him a partner.

In early December, a Swedish settler, John Peterson, was murdered while chopping wood three miles northwest of Bismarck. An inquest was to be held on Dec. 14 in Bismarck, and McCarthy needed to subpoena witnesses and look for more evidence. He got Clinton Miller, who was now a deputy U.S. marshal, to go with him. On Dec. 12, McCarthy hitched up a sleigh and the two lawmen began their journey. When they failed to return for the inquest, McCarthy’s friends feared foul play.

A search party headed by Donahue and James Emmons picked up the trail, which led to the Missouri River. They saw a hole in the ice with sleigh tracks leading up to it, and figured both men had drowned.

It has been reported that McCarthy and Miller became the first two official lawmen in what is now North Dakota to die in the line of duty.

On Dec. 24, 1874, the county commissioners appointed Alexander McKenzie as sheriff.


“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.