American Folklore

American Folklore: North Dakota

American Folklore: North Dakota

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Admitted to the union in 1889, North Dakota is the 39th state. You don’t hear too much about North Dakota. They tend to be pretty quiet up there. However, this does not mean that there is nothing going on in the state. It has some of the most gorgeous natural scenery in the nation, and a rich Native American and American pioneer history going back thousands of years.

The Mandan and Lakota tribes lived in the North Dakota area for millennia. The first known European explorer did not show up there until a French-Canadian trader named Pierre Gaultier went there to trade with the Mandan people in 1738. He was guided to the Mandans there by members of the Assiniboine tribe. The area was part of Spanish Louisiana from 1762 until 1802, then became an American territory. However, its remote nature meant that it was only sparsely settled by Americans until the late 19th century when the railroad came along and made the area more accessible.

North Dakota still remains sparsely populated, being the fourth least populous state in the nation, despite having such a large area of land. Still, the people who have lived there over the centuries have compiled some truly unique folklore that couldn’t be found anywhere but North Dakota. Here are some of the highlights of it.

Custer House Ghosts

Everyone has heard of Custer’s last stand. However, how many people know the story of the real General George Armstrong Custer and his wife, Elizabeth? Well, they lived in North Dakota for a time, and their former home is said to be haunted… by them.

George and Elizabeth were very much in love. In fact, theirs is one of the first truly passionate, romantic stories to come out of the Old West. Elizabeth’s father was “old school,” from a time when people married more for practicality than for love, and he was deeply suspicious of George’s professed passion for Elizabeth, but reluctantly agreed to allow them to marry.

While the couple never had children (though from their letters to each other, it seems like they expected to, and were surprised when they did not), they went virtually everywhere together, with Elizabeth following George to every military outpost that allowed her to come. She went into a period of deep mourning after he was killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and though she lived more than fifty years beyond him and was still a young woman when she was widowed, she never remarried. Instead, she spent the rest of her life touring the country, giving speaking engagements to restore her late husband’s reputation.

Tour guides at the couple’s reconstructed North Dakota home say the Custers are still in residence, reunited at last and staying in the place they last spent time on this plane together. There have been reports of a presence tapping people on the shoulder, dishes, and candlesticks that have moved on their own, and handprints appearing on valuable antique linens.

The Story of Bloody Knife’s Horse

Going back to the story of General Custer, his Native guide at the Battle of Little Bighorn has a tale all his own. Bloody Knife was an Arikara tribe member and was at Custer’s side during the infamous battle, as well as at several other successful campaigns before that. Like Custer and most of his men, Bloody Knife fell at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but his horse survived. Somewhat incredibly, the horse found its way home on its own after the battle… about five hundred miles away.

To this day, the Arikara people tell the tale of Bloody Knife’s horse. Their belief is that all of the spirits of everyone who fell on the battlefield that day, both Custer’s men and the Natives he campaigned against, became embodied in the horse. When the horse returned home, it told the tale of the brave deeds of all of the men whose spirits it carried.

 Miniwashitu — North Dakota’s Own River Monster

Some places have lake monsters. North Dakota has a river monster on the Missouri River called the Miniwashitu. Unlike most other lake and river monsters, which are either indifferent to people or friendly, Miniwashitu is something you don’t want to go near. It is said to have red hair like a buffalo, only one eye like a cyclops, a horn on its head, and a long and jagged spine that actually sticks out of its back.

While many have seen the outline of the monster swimming below the river, the description comes from the only person to have actually seen it rise out of the water and live to tell the tale without going too mad to describe it. The man who saw Miniwashitu did lose his mind shortly after seeing and describing the monster and died shortly after that. In fact, the legend says the same thing will happen to anyone who sees the monster rise up out of the river.

The Haunted Governor’s Mansion

The former governor’s mansion in North Dakota has been haunted since 1889. This is the year that Governor Frank Briggs died of tuberculosis in the house. He hadn’t been gone long when those who knew him began saying his spirit was still in the mansion. Ghostly footsteps and voices were heard by many who lived and worked there.

The governors of North Dakota continued to use this mansion as their residence until 1960 when a new mansion was built. The old one was converted into a museum. However, the ghost is still there, with the same ghostly voices and footsteps being heard by workers and visitors alike.

Creepy Riverside Cemetery in Fargo, North Dakota

Plenty of cemeteries seem to be haunted, and Riverside Cemetery in Fargo, North Dakota is the most famous of these in the state. It is a favorite with ghost hunters and paranormal researchers. Knocking sounds have been recorded by the doors to several mausoleums there, voices have been heard coming from headstones, and many visitors have reported feeling like they were being watched, even when no one visible was there.


About the author

Ancestral Findings

Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has been involved in genealogy research for over 24 years. The excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his entertaining surname.