You might think your town is old, but it probably isn’t the oldest in the country.
That is unless you live in St. Augustine, FL. Which looks pretty good for being 454 years old.
That’s older than America for those playing at home.
So that got us thinking, what is the oldest city in North Dakota? And how old is that when you put it into perspective of St. Augustine or American Independence in 1776?
Because even if your North Dakota city or town is old, it isn’t really all that old in the grand scheme of things. For example, the Pyramids in Egypt were built around 2600 BC, a cool 4100 years before St. Augustine.
And now that we have you thinking about how the time line of your existence is really kind of unimpressive on the timeline of history, let’s drop right into the analysis.
These are the 10 oldest cities and towns in the Peace Garden State according to their ‘date of foundation’:
- Grand Forks (Photos)
- Bismarck (Photos)
- Minot (Photos)
- Fargo (Photos)
- West Fargo (Photos)
- Williston (Photos)
- Dickinson (Photos)
- Mandan (Photos)
- Jamestown (Photos)
- Wahpeton (Photos)
For being 148 years old, Grand Forks doesn’t look a day over 40. And the newest city in North Dakota? That would be Valley City — a brand spanking 113 years old.
How We Determined When A City Was Founded In North Dakota… Or Is It Settled?
Surprisingly, there’s not a definitive data set that contains the dates of incorporation or settlement for cities in America. Put differently, there’s no official data set from the Census that contains when every place in America was founded.
So what did we do instead?
Use the internet’s version of official government data — Wikipedia of course!
For the majority of cities in North Dakota, Wikipedia offers data on some kind of ‘date of foundation’ in the infobox. Unfortunately, because it’s Wikipedia and not a sprawling government bureaucracy, that can take the form of any of the following nomenclature (plus others):
And then even more stuff — for example Atlanta has a ‘Terminus’ date, whatever that is.
If no ‘date of foundation’ was found in the infobox, we looked to the general text in the History section of the city for ‘Founded in XXXX’.
All in all, we were able to collect data on 12 out of 14 in North Dakota with over 5,000 people. That’s good for a 85.7% completion rate.
We then ranked them from oldest to newest with Grand Forks turning out to be the matriarch of North Dakota at the ripe old age of 148.
Here’s a look at the top ten and a snippet of their history from Wikipedia.
1. Grand Forks
Prior to settlement by Europeans, the area where the city developed, at the forks of the Red River and Red Lake River, for thousands of years had been an important meeting and trading point for Native Americans. Early French explorers, fur trappers, and traders called the area Les Grandes Fourches, meaning ‘The Grand Forks’. By the 1740s, French fur trappers relied on Les Grandes Fourches as an important trading post. This was French colonial territory.
For thousands of years, present-day central North Dakota was inhabited by indigenous peoples, who created successive cultures. The historic Mandan Native American tribe occupied the area long before Europeans arrived. They spoke the Hidatsa language. The Hidatsa name of Bismarck is mirahacii arumaaguash (‘Place of the tall willows’); the Arikara name is ituhtaáwe [itUhtaáwe].
In 1872 European Americans founded a settlement at what was then called Missouri Crossing, so named because the Lewis and Clark Expedition crossed the river there on their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804-1806. It had been an area of Mandan settlement. Later the new town was called Edwinton, after Edwin Ferry Johnson (1803–1872), engineer-in-chief for the Northern Pacific Railway. Its construction of railroads in the territory attracted workers and settlers.
Minot came into existence in 1886, when James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway ended its push through the state for the winter, after having difficulty constructing a trestle across Gassman Coulee. It was the end of the railway’s line, so whenever a train came into the town and the stop was announced, the conductor would call out ‘Minot, this is Minot, North Dakota, prepare to meet your doom’. A tent town sprang up overnight, as if by ‘magic’, thus the city came to be known as the Magic City, and in the next five months, the population increased to over 5,000 residents, further adding to the nickname’s validity.
Historically part of Sioux (Dakota) territory, the area that is present-day Fargo was an early stopping point for steamboats traversing the Red River during the 1870s and 1880s. The city was originally named ‘Centralia,’ but was later renamed ‘Fargo’ after Northern Pacific Railway director and Wells Fargo Express Company founder William Fargo (1818–1881). The area started to flourish after the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the city became known as the ‘Gateway to the West.’
During the 1880s, Fargo became the ‘divorce capital’ of the Midwest because of lenient divorce laws.
5. West Fargo
The West Fargo School District (then referred to as ‘School District No. 6 in Cass County’) was formed on 9 October 1876. In January 1887, Nina Hall was hired to teach for two months. She was paid $40. ‘This first school was large enough to handle the pupils of the district until 1910 when it became necessary to build the Fairview School in the western part of the district. The two schools continued to operate until 1923.’ In 1922, North School was built, which included two classrooms and a gymnasium. The following year, Jennie Worman Colby became the first principal. In 1939, a new school building was built for grades 7-12. Today the building, The Clayton A. Lodoen Community Center, houses the West Fargo Community High, Clayton A. Lodoen Kindergarten Center, and West Fargo Public Library.
Founded in 1887, Williston was named for Daniel Willis James, a merchant and capitalist, by his friend, railroad magnate James J. Hill.
Dickinson was founded in 1881. Dickinson was named for its founder, W. S. Dickinson, a native of Malone, New York.
In 1871, a Northern Pacific Railroad work crew set up camp where the railroad would cross the James River, adding another section to the new northern transcontinental line. In 1872, the U.S. Army established Fort Seward, a small post garrisoned by three companies (about 120 men) of the Twentieth Infantry Regiment, on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the James River and Pipestem Creek. The fort guarded the crossing of the James by the Northern Pacific Railroad. The fort only lasted five years, being decommissioned in 1877 – but the railroad remained, establishing a repair yard that was among the city’s main industries until the 1960s.
The first European explorer in the area was Jonathan Carver in 1767. He explored and mapped the Northwest at the request of Major Robert Rogers, commander of Fort Michilimackinac. This British fort at Mackinaw City, Michigan, protected the passage between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron of the Great Lakes. In 1763 the British had extended their reach in Canada after defeating the French in the Seven Years’ War.
Oh How Time Flies For The Oldest Towns And Cities In North Dakota
So there you have it, a look at some of the oldest places to live in North Dakota. If we missed your city’s ‘date of foundation’, let us know in the comments. Or feel free to take a look at the table of the oldest places in North Dakota.
And now, let’s raise our glasses, to the next 100 years of existence for these cities and towns in the Peace Garden State.
And for those wondering, here are the newest additions to North Dakota:
- Valley City (Founded in 1905)
- Devils Lake (Founded in 1905)
- Wahpeton (Founded in 1905)
Detailed List Of The Oldest Cities In North Dakota