GRAND FORKS — George Bailey Winship made a name for himself as the founder and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, “the leading newspaper of the Northwest,” as he called it, soon after he published its first issue on June 29, 1879.
He made the Herald the undisputed voice of progressive politics both in Dakota Territory and in the new state of North Dakota. Historians remember him for his role in combating the machine politics represented by Alexander McKenzie, the so-called “Czar of North Dakota.”
He’s still making a name for himself, although the reasons are very much more disturbing, and will diminish Winship’s reputation. It’s as if there are two Winships, the one we knew historically, and the one we met last week.
George Bailey Winship came from “Old American stock.” His mother’s family arrived in New England in 1635, only 15 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. His father’s family arrived somewhat later, in 1774. The senior Winship, also named George, was a kind of wanderer. He moved around New England; living in Saco, Maine, when his eldest son was born in 1847. When young George was 3, Winship Pere set out for the West, landing first in Wisconsin and later in La Crescent, Minn. At age 13, the younger Winship went to work as a printer’s devil there, basically doing the odd jobs at the print shop while learning the trade that he followed for most of his long life, leaving for military service and to raise some money to establish a newspaper of his own.
In 1863, Winship lied about his age, saying he was 18 rather than only 16, and enlisted in the U.S. Army. Rather than fighting Confederates, he found himself assigned to Company A, Second Minnesota Cavalry. The commander was Gen. Alfred Sully, and its assignment was to retaliate for the Dakota War that ravaged the Minnesota River Valley. Winship was with Sully at Killdeer Mountain and the Badlands, but he missed the Battle of Whitestone Hill, in south central North Dakota.
After the war, Winship worked briefly in Minnesota, then went to Winnipeg, where he worked as a printer and played a small role in the Riel Rebellion that led to the formation of the province of Manitoba. As an American Winship was uncomfortable with this role in Canadian politics and he headed south, for Turtle River, where he established a stage station and trading emporium near where Manvel, N.D., is today. His partner was Billy Budge, one of the early benefactors of UND. The partnership was lucrative, providing the stake that Winship needed to buy a press and have it shipped overland to Grand Forks. The first issue of the Grand Forks Herald came off that press in late June 1879.
From that moment, Winship used his press again to pursue a political agenda favoring the progressive movement. He gained fame opposing a machine run by Alexander McKenzie, scoring a couple of important victories. He was instrumental — as a member of the state Senate — in defeating McKenzie’s candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1893. McKenzie remembered, and contrived to deny Winship the nomination for governor in 1900. Winship retaliated, providing both financial aid and publicity for John Burke, who won the governorship in 1906 and initiated progressive reforms that drew attention around the nation.
Winship sold the Herald in 1911 and moved to California. His wanderlust led him to accept a spot on Gov. L.B. Hanna’s “peace ship," which visited Christiania, now Oslo. Later, Winship endorsed Hanna for re-election over the progressive candidate, Usher Burdick. Hanna won. Burdick suggested that Winship owed Hanna the endorsement because of the trip.
Winship’s reputation has not been without blemish historically.
Just three years after its launch, the Herald had a big story, when a mob dragged Charles Thurber, a Black man, from a cell in the courthouse and hanged him, without trial, to a railroad bridge. The date was Oct. 24, 1882.
The Herald’s coverage of the lynching was lurid, and so thoroughly charged with racist sentiment, that Mike Maidenberg and I, both Winship successors, agreed that it was “reprehensible.” Current Publisher Korrie Wenzel said he was "pained" to read the past coverage and the Herald last week published an editorial apologizing for the 1882 reporting.
I told Herald reporter Joe Bowen that I was glad that a portrait of Winship I had kept in my office was destroyed in the flood and fire of 1997. “I don’t have to decide whether I should take it down.”
I have decided. Taking it down would have been a gesture of acknowledgement. Maura Ferguson, who helped lead a decades-long effort to commemorate the event, put this convincingly at a memorial service for Thurber held Saturday, Sept. 13, almost 138 years after the deed was done. She said, “This is a really important step in our community toward acknowledging past wrongs in the spirit of moving forward in a healthier direction.”
It is also an important step in broadening and deepening our understanding of journalism on the frontier and of George Winship himself, a figure who looms large in that story and in the stories of the commercial, cultural and intellectual development of Grand forks and the political history of North Dakota.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.