May 16, 2019 — A 10-year-old town called The Devil’s Colony felt its name might be inappropriate when it opened its first post office May 19, 1884. So they changed the name to Winona, an Indian word for first-daughter.
Dakota Datebook has described many colorful characters from this Wild West town – folks like Mustache Maude and Turkey Track Bill. Today, we’ll focus on some lesser-known legends taken from the writings of Ben Barrett, who became a county agent in Emmons County.
Winona was built on the east side of the Missouri River across from Ft. Yates and the Standing Rock Reservation. Its primary purpose was to cater to some 3,000 soldiers who were stationed at Ft. Yates. In the late 1800s, liquor was illegal at the fort, as it was on the reservation. The nearest railroad station was some 40 to 50 miles away, so Winona easily cornered the market on the “entertainment” industry. While the town’s top population was only 150, it was the largest town between Bismarck and Deadwood. The town’s slogan was “Winona and vicinity has no equal” and boasted nine saloons.
North of town, an oval racetrack attracted horse racers on Sundays. Some of the finest racers came from wild stock descended from Indian ponies. Because the town swarmed with single young men, prostitutes and other women were drawn to the area. There were few laws, and those that did exist were freely broken. A graveyard south of town proved that.
Gambling was, of course, a favorite pastime. One business owner reportedly extended his building out over the river. Barrett wrote, “If a new man, through skill or trickery, showed an unusual winning streak, he would be maneuvered around the table to a spot over a trap door. If his earnings piled up to seemingly more than his share, the trap door would be sprung and he would take a watery departure.”
One winter, a saloon girl hit a particularly strong-willed customer over the head with a spittoon, killing him on the spot. The ground was frozen solid, so she and the bar owner dragged the man to back shed, where he laid until spring.
Another saloon girl met her death by her own hand. After the mail arrived that day, folks noted the she was overcome by a letter she received. That night on the dance floor she drank from a bottle of carbolic acid and put herself out of her misery.
Yet another prostitute was involved in a death when she shot and killed a drifter in her room over a saloon. When she confessed to her boss, he helped her drag the man down into the cellar, where they buried him. They hid the grave with empty beer kegs. Barrett writes, “Sometime later, the freighter who supplied the saloon discovered he was short of some of the empty kegs. He questioned the saloon keeper who, on swearing the freighter to secrecy, told of the body buried in the cellar. The kegs were taken away. No doubt, the remains of the body are still in the grave in the cellar hole.”
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.