The wildest of the Wild West towns of northern Dakota Territory and early North Dakota had to be Winona, located directly across the Missouri River from Fort Yates. This former town, on the extreme western edge of present-day Emmons County, was originally named Devil's Colony, and it certainly lived up to its name.
According to North Dakota historian, Douglas Wick, Winona was "founded primarily to cater to the off-duty wants of soldiers stationed at Fort Yates." Those wants often included things that were illegal or too immoral to be sanctioned or condoned at the fort.
According to the book "A History of Emmons County," "Big business in Winona was the saloons (as many as 9 at one time), with their fancy ladies, dance halls and restaurants. Drunkeness (sic) was rampant, and revelry continued all night long. It was said that many (dead) bodies were quietly slipped into the depths of the river on dark nights."
Not only was heavy drinking rampant, but so was gambling and entertainment provided by what were called "dance hall girls." According to Edward Milligan in his book, "Dakota Twilight," he estimated that "there were 50-100 dance hall girls in Winona in the 1890s." Since the peak population of Winona never reached 200 during that decade, dance hall girls would have constituted the largest single profession in the town.
In 1863, the U.S. Army built a military post, called the Standing Rock Cantonment, which later became Fort Yates, on the west side of the Missouri River. The purpose was to monitor the activities of the Hunkpapa, Yanktonai, Cut Head, Two Kettle, Sans Arcs, Oglala, Brule and Blackfeet bands of Lakota natives in the area. The agency that administered the affairs of the Indians on the reservation was relocated in 1873, to a site near the cantonment, and it was called the Standing Rock Agency.
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There were a number of restrictions that normally were enforced at military posts. But since the cantonment was located on an Indian reservation, the restrictions were broader and more stringent, especially when it came to the selling and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
In 1864, Congress passed a law making it illegal to "sell, exchange, give, barter, or dispose of any spirituous liquors or wine to any Indian under the charge of any Indian superintendent or Indian agent appointed by the United States." However, it was not illegal for Native Americans to buy alcohol.
In 1873, Edmond Palmer, the agent at Standing Rock, selected the site for the new settlement on the east side of the river. In the fall of 1874, William Harmon, the post trader at the agency, and John Dillon, the agency farmer, were awarded the contract to construct four buildings to house construction workers at the site. In 1875, 40 workers were hired to build 16 log cabins, and Andy Marsh, who owned a wood yard, constructed a larger building to serve whiskey and provide a facility for dancing.
Not long after Marsh’s building was constructed, soldiers from the fort began crossing the river for drinks and entertainment. They were soon joined by cowboys herding cattle north to Canada and professional gamblers. In the later 1870s, settlers began coming into area, primarily ranchers and sheep herders.
Following Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn in 1876, the military decided to strengthen the fort close to the Standing Rock Reservation where many of the Lakota lived, and 3,000 soldiers were stationed at the cantonment which was renamed Fort Yates in 1878. The soldiers got across the river by taking ferry boats while the Missouri was flowing and, during the winter months, they walked across on the ice. A number of them lost their lives by falling through the ice when it was not solid. This usually happened on the way back to the fort while they were drunk.
The arrival of many new patrons was a big boost for the economy at Devil’s Colony, and during the late 1870s and early 1880s the settlement continued to serve as a primary entertainment oasis for soldiers, cowboys, drifters, and those who catered to the desires of their patrons. However, until 1884, the only business establishments in the settlement appeared to be the saloons.
As families moved into the surrounding area, they wanted much more from the settlement and plans were made to establish it as a town. The first thing that needed to be changed was the name. It was unlikely that settlers with families would want to raise their children in a place called Devil's Colony. Also, the U.S. Postal Service did not approve of the name if they were to charter a post office at that settlement. Henry F. Douglas, a merchant at Fort Yates, who also wanted to open a store in the settlement across the river, came up with Winona, and it was accepted as Devil's Colony's new name.
In 1884, in Winona, Douglas built his new store, a post office was established, the townsite was surveyed with lots being laid out, a school was opened, and John Waldron built the Merchant's Hotel. The hotel was described "as a first-class operation, catering to the many visitors, businessmen, and contractors to the Army fort across the river at Fort Yates."
Waldron and his wife "gave lavish balls with midnight suppers, and the dancing went on until three o'clock in the morning." Cowboys, when off of their cattle drives, "wintered at the hotel." I could not locate any records of a church being built in Winona, but Catholic Mass was often held at the Merchant's Hotel.
One person who sought to tend to the spiritual needs of the citizens of the area was Thomas Spicer, who came to Winona with his family in May of 1892. After working as a blacksmith for a year, he saved up enough money to purchase a small farm one mile north of Winona. In 1895 he was ordained and formed a congregation, while his wife organized the Sunday School. What happened two years later made national headlines and sent shock waves throughout the community.
On Feb. 14, 1897, Spicer, his wife, mother-in-law, daughter, and two infant grandsons were brutally murdered at their home, and several items were taken. When some of those items were found in the possession of a couple of young Lakota braves on the Standing Rock Reservation, they quickly became suspects. The two young men, Paul Holy Track and Phillip Ireland, confessed and identified three adults who also took part. All five were arrested and were to be tried individually. The first one, Alex Coudette, who was half French, was convicted. At the second person's trial, George Defender, a full-blood Lakota, the trial ended in a hung jury.
Before the trials could continue, about 40 citizens from Winona stormed the jail in Williamsport, where Coudette, Holy Track and Ireland were imprisoned. The mob overpowered the jailer and took the three prisoners outside and lynched them. The other two suspects, Defender and Black Hawk were imprisoned in Bismarck. Because the eyewitnesses to the crime were now dead, and with the lack of any other evidence, the two men were released.
Since the purchase and consumption of alcohol had been a major issue in the Spicer massacre, law officials were compelled to enforce the liquor laws. When North Dakota became a state in 1889, it did so as a dry state. Law officials in Winona knew that the town's existence relied on its ability to flaunt the drinking law. Consequently, they did not enforce the law, but now they were compelled to do so.
Most soldiers at Fort Yates no longer had a reason to go to Winona, and the few that did go there left the area when the Army pulled its troops out of Fort Yates in 1903. Fires also had a big impact on the decline of Winona. The Merchant's Hotel burned down in 1889, the last general store in 1903, and the school in 1916. Most of the businesses that remained relocated to Linton when it was incorporated in 1906. In the 1960s, the Oahe Reservoir was built, and the former town of Winona is now an island in Lake Oahe.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.