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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published February 02 2014

Did You Know That: Early Fargo settler forced to leave Legislature

The first person to run for U.S. Congress from what is now North Dakota is also the only known person to be forced to surrender his seat in the Legislature, on two occasions, because of balloting irregularities.

Henry S. Back was a Red River Valley pioneer farmer whose 160 acres is now valuable real estate in Fargo. However, he sold his property and eventually became a prospector for gold in Alaska.

In his later years, Back lived in poverty, soliciting the aid of a U.S. Senator from North Dakota to plead before Congress for an increase to his financial assistance.

Henry Seymour Back was born March 4, 1837, near the town of Wallingford in south-central Vermont, to Henry Sr. and Maria Theresa (Roberts) Back. His father was a tinsmith, and Back would eventually take an interest in metals, primarily gold.

Very little is known about Back or his family until he appeared in the 1860 census working as a farmer in New Ulm, Minn.

In 1862, Back moved to St. Peter and learned some hostile Sioux had attacked the settlers in and around New Ulm. On Oct. 17, he enlisted with Company B of the 1st Minnesota Infantry and served as a “wagoner.” After the threat was eliminated, Back was mustered out on Nov. 9, 1863. However, he remained with the military at Fort Ridgely, serving as a scout and rising to the rank of captain.

In 1864, Back married Lois Cady Austin, sister of Horace Austin, a prominent lawyer and district judge in St. Peter. Back was also an attorney, and on July 10, 1868, filed a homestead claim of 160 acres near St. Peter.

In 1870, Horace Austin was elected governor of Minnesota, and he employed Back to perform certain “services in the governor’s office.”

Learning that the Northern Pacific Railroad would soon be crossing the Red River as it entered Dakota Territory, Back realized money could be made if he could determine where the railroad crossing would occur and stake out land near that location.

In late May of 1871, he journeyed by stagecoach from St. Cloud to the Red River looking for prospective sites the railroad might choose.

Back and his stagecoach companion, Jacob Lowell Jr., were soon joined by Andrew McHench in this quest. As the Northern Pacific tracks got closer to the river, the three men were able to narrow down the probable locations to only a few miles along the river.

On July 5, Back and Lowell each filed 160 acre pre-emption claims two miles west of the Red and just north of what is now Main Avenue in Fargo.

While building their homes, the men lived in tents close to the river and were soon joined by other squatters and railroad workers. The site was originally called “Tent City,” but it became Centralia when the post office was established on Oct. 6, 1871.

Back was selected to be justice of the peace, performing the first marriages and conducting the first legal hearings in what is now Fargo.

Once the tracks were laid to Moorhead on Jan. 1, 1872, land speculators put up claims in Centralia, feeling confident they knew exactly where the tracks would be laid on the west side of the Red River. Many believed they could sell their property at a huge profit, and others wanted to remain in what would soon become a boom-town.

This land was believed to be open to settlement because the U.S. government had negotiated a treaty in 1864 with the Red Lake and Pembina Indians, who previously owned the land.

The Puget Sound Land Company was formed by Northern Pacific to lay out town sites along the tracks. The PSLC believed that it had a one-mile north-south legal claim of land for a 20-mile stretch west of the Red. When the squatters poured into Centralia, the PSLC had to find a legitimate reason to force them out, and the lawyers for the land company discovered a way that this might be accomplished.

The Sisseton and Wahpeton Sioux owned the land on which Centralia was located. A little-known treaty signed in 1867 ceded the land across the river from Moorhead to the Native Americans.

Because liquor was bought and sold in Centralia, which was a violation of the law on reservations, orders were given to clear out all possible law breakers.

On the morning of Feb. 17, 1872, about 600 residents in what is now north Fargo were roused from their sleep by U. S. marshals and soldiers from Fort Abercrombie. The people were ordered to “leave immediately or have their gear confiscated and their shacks burned.”

Some of the residents were arrested and held on a $1,000 bond.

To try and get this crisis resolved, Back immediately sent a letter to the most powerful person that he knew who would be sympathetic to the cause – his brother-in-law, Horace Austin, the governor of Minnesota.

Back knew that when Austin ran for the office, he had campaigned “to regulate and restrict railways.” He also knew that the home office of the Northern Pacific was located in Minnesota, where Austin could exert pressure on the company.

This situation was resolved when the treaty with the Sisseton and Wahpeton was re-negotiated on May 2, 1873, allowing the settlers to legally return and conduct business.

Because of his prompt and decisive action in contacting his brother-in-law, causing the PSLC to pull back from its aggressive action, Back was considered a local hero.

His feelings of grandeur may have been overblown when he heard the news that, in 1872, “for the first time citizens of the northern part of Dakota Territory would be participating in a territorial-wide election.”

He announced that he was a candidate for the office of representative of Dakota Territory to the U.S. Congress, an office held by the popular Moses K. Armstrong. Back was supported by both the Republican and Democratic parties in his region.

We will conclude the story of Henry S. Back next week.


“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.