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Holten: North Dakota's French connection

Kevin Holten1 / 2
2 / 2

Do you know who first bought North Dakota? No one did. The French got it for free.

No licenses, deeds, contracts, real estate agents, bank checks, titles or American Express cards. Just some guy shouting from the hilltops: "I am claiming this land!"

That was in 1682, when a Frenchman with the world's longest name, René-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle, wandered west from the Atlantic seaboard and the New World settlements and claimed all of the land surrounding the Mississippi River for France, including the southern half of North Dakota below the Missouri River.

Later on, France said, "Oh, by the way, we forgot the northeastern half of North Dakota and we want that too," and apparently the rest of the world said, "OK, take it." And they did. Then, for some crazy reason in 1713, they decided to give it to Great Britain, proving the real estate market was a whole lot different back then.

In the midst of it all, one can only assume that the Frenchman with two first names, René-Robert, who was really good at shouting from hilltops, had flunked his vision test. How else would he have failed to notice the 500 Indian tribes that were already occupying the North American continent? Unless, of course, they were in hiding.

Oh sure, you say, the Indians didn't actually own the land anyway and that is true. Except that most of the Great Plains Indians didn't think they had to own land because, prior to that time, they'd never met anyone who wanted to buy dirt. This led the legendary Indian leader Crazy Horse to say, "One does not sell the land people walk on."

Of course that came well after Massasoit, the Wampanoag Indian chief from Massachusetts, had said, "What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, streams, and everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?"

Confusing, isn't it?

Still, it's hard to believe how easy it was for the French to acquire the land, especially since Frenchy Two Names had never even seen, much less stepped on, North Dakotan soil? Instead, the first known explorer to actually visit North Dakota was French-Canadian Pierre La Vérendrye who, with his sons, stopped by the Mandan villages near present-day Bismarck, apparently on a site-seeing tour or as part of a summer vacation.

The French called the area that ran from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rocky Mountains, Louisiana or New France, in honor of King Louis XIV.

Then in 1762, they gave it to Spain, who in turn gave it back to France in 1803 and then France turned around and sold it to Thomas Jefferson for $15 million, if you include the cancellation of American debts, which had to be a relief to Tommy because it's no fun owing money to a Frenchman.

Yet it seems cheap for 828,000 acres, doesn't it? Except France never paid anything for it anyway so, really, it was a sweet deal. But heck, if Tommy had waited a little while, they might have just given it to him free, but that's water under the bridge.

Skip ahead 60 years and Congress created the Dakota Territory, which included present day North Dakota and South Dakota and a large part of Wyoming and Montana.

It was then the Feds said that if you're white and of European descent, we'd love to have you settle in this area for free, as long as you improve the land, which leads one to assume they thought man could do a better job than God had already done.

Few settlers took them up on the deal when it came to North Dakota, however, because rumor had it that the winters got a little harsh, in addition to another rumor that some Indians were failing to lay out the welcome mat.

Ultimately this reminds me that many years later, Kelly Jones, a raspy-voiced Welsh singer-songwriter and guitarist and the lead singer of the band Stereophonics, said, "The song Dakota was first written in Paris. It was snowing and the hotel room was really cold and boring, and for some reason I just had a go on the guitar and the song came pretty quick."

Leading us to wonder if North Dakota will ever be free of its French connection? Apparently not, which leaves us little to say but, uff da!

Holten is the manager of The Drill and a columnist for The Dickinson Press, which are a part of Forum News Service. Email him at