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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published February 09 2014

Eriksmoen: Founder of Fargo’s first paper had tough luck as legislator

In 1872, it was announced that, “for the first time,” citizens of the northern part of Dakota Territory would be allowed to participate in a territorial-wide election.

With that news, Henry S. Back, a Fargo pioneer, declared that he would be a candidate for the office of representative of Dakota Territory to the U.S. Congress. The office was held by Moses K. Armstrong, a man who was active and popular in politics ever since the formation of Dakota Territory in 1861.

Other candidates for that office in 1872 were Gideon Moody, the former speaker of the territorial legislature, and Wilmot Brookings, an associate justice of the Dakota Territorial Supreme Court.

On Nov. 27, the people cast their votes, and of the 3,775 ballots judged to be valid, Back only received 36, a distant fourth place finish.

On Oct. 27, 1873, Cass County was organized, and Back was appointed probate judge and ex-officio county treasurer. Later that year, he joined others in forming the Fargo Printing Company, who, on Jan. 1, 1874, published the first newspaper in that city, the Fargo Express.

In 1874, Back became a federal land agent in Fargo and, on Sept. 9, was nominated as the Democratic candidate for the position of superintendent of public instruction for Dakota Territory.

Unsuccessful in that bid, losing to James J. McIntyre from Sioux Falls, Back next turned his attention to the territorial legislature. In 1874, his former good friend, Andrew McHench, was elected to the council (now the Senate), and Back decided to challenge him in the 1876 election.

In November, Back was declared the winner of the council seat, and Dennis Kelleher of Jamestown won the seat in the house. The district that Back and Kelleher represented was Cass, Barnes, Richland, Stutsman and Ransom counties.

After the start of the legislative session, it was learned that 100 fraudulent votes were cast in Stutsman County, supposedly planned by Kelleher.

Two election judges and two clerks were found guilty and sent to jail. Because the true outcome of the legal votes could not be determined, the council members cast ballots, and by a vote of six to five, they chose McHench, and Back was forced to surrender his seat.

In 1881, Back sold his farm and moved to Glendive in Montana Territory. Still having political ambitions he threw his hat into the ring in 1882, seeking a seat on the territorial council as an Independent.

His district consisted of Dawson and Chouteau counties, which comprised one-third of Montana Territory. It stretched from the Dakota border on the east to Glacier National Park on the west and from the Canadian border on the north to current-day I-94 on the south.

Back was from Dawson County, and his opponent, Alfred B. Hamilton, was a whiskey trader from Chouteau County. The election was held Nov. 7, and when the ballots were counted, Back defeated Hamilton 642 to 601. On Jan. 6, the Independent Record in Helena, reported, “Mr. Back, having received the plurality of votes is certainly entitled to the seat.”

However, they also reported one potential problem for Back —“a mistake in the spelling of his name” on the ballot. This “prevented him from receiving the certificate of election from the canvassing board of Chouteau County.”

On Jan. 11, Back took his seat in the legislative council, becoming one of the most active members of that body. On Jan. 26, the council received the report from John F. Murphy, the new clerk of Chouteau County, who declared that Hamilton, and not Back, should be entitled to a seat in the council. By a vote of six to five, the other members agreed to the clerk’s finding, and Back surrendered his seat in the legislature.

Back is the only person I could find in the U.S. who was forced to surrender his legislative seat because of ballot irregularities on two separate occasions.

The Independent Record ran another story about Back on May 25, 1883, reporting that he had found dinosaur bones and “lots of fossils” two miles from Glendive. It was apparent that he was knowledgeable about geology because he was employed by Minnesota Geological Survey for a month each summer between 1872 and 1874.

In the mid-1880s, Back moved to the gold-mining town of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and began practicing mining law.

At least one of his cases made its way to the Idaho Supreme Court. His client was digging for gold and other valuable minerals when he was stopped by a large mining company, alleging that he was tunneling under their property. Back tried the case in district

court and won.

The verdict was appealed to the state supreme court, which, on Feb. 27, 1888, in “Back v. Sierra Nevada Consolidated Mining Company,” reversed the lower court’s decision.

Besides his legal work, Back also was heavily involved with the experiment station out of the University of Idaho. After observing the depleted soil in the Spokane and Snake River Valleys, he “demonstrated that the application of small quantities of phosphates restored the soil to its original fertility.” For a decade, he also served as president of the Kootinoi County Agricultural Society.

In 1896, gold was discovered in the Yukon, and with an advanced knowledge in geology and the law, Back believed he was perfectly positioned to make a fortune as a prospector.

That year, he took a steamer from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Whitehorse, located on the Yukon River in the Northwest Canadian Territory. Back then traveled by boat on the river for 350 miles to the town of Dawson and sailed up the Klondike River looking for a place to pan for gold.

Back discovered a small stream that had the earmarking of productive gold dust deposits. Here, he staked his claim and, in 1897, he gave it the name “Hobo Creek.” It was reported that, from this creek, “he seemed to have enjoyed a fair measure of prospecting and financial success.”

Two years later, as he was returning from Hobo Creek, Back observed another stream flowing into Nansen Creek that bore greater potential. He made his claim and then proceeded back to Coeur d’Alene to spend time with his ailing wife. After she died in 1902, he sold his home and moved to Boise, Idaho.

In 1907, Back returned to his claim near Nansen Creek, with his son Frank, and discovered that the area was richer in gold deposits than he had previously believed. They named the small stream “Back Creek,” and his discovery in this region has turned out to be the “richest gold and silver deposit in the Yukon.” Unfortunately, Back did not get in on the fortunes made there.

In 1910, U.S. Sen. Porter J. McCumber, from North Dakota, addressed the needs of Back to his colleagues, stating that Back was suffering from all sorts of ailments and was “poor and needy.” He asked the other Senators to increase Back’s pension from $12 to $24 a month, and they voted in favor of his request.

Henry S. Back died July 28, 1929.