The 1890s in Review: Economic Problems Plague State

December 31, 1899

The review of the past decade is a mixed one. Population continued to grow, from 191,000 in 1890 to 319,000 in 1900 — 67 percent. More and more people homesteaded; the number of acres in farms more than doubled. Most of the land in the Red River Valley and Drift Prairie has been settled. The building of the Soo Line diagonally from Hankinson to Portal has opened up the land along that route. Towns such as Harvey and Fessenden have been organized on the line and are growing.

But population in the Missouri Plateau region, about 50 percent of the state’s land area, has less than 15 percent of the population.

Plowing on the Kingman Farm two miles north of Hillsboro, North Dakota.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies.

Economic times have been tough. The price of our number one crop, wheat, declined nearly 70 percent in the late eighties and early nineties. By 1892 the price had fallen to just over 40 cents a bushel—it had been over $1.00. In 1893 there were some elevators that paid under 30 cents! This spelled hard times for most farmers and disaster for some.
The state has had to fight to pay its bills. Taxes have often not been paid. Governors have been forced to veto many appropriation bills. In 1895 Governor Roger Allin all but eliminated funding for higher education. For the University, the Governor provided salaries for only two positions — the president and the janitor. Local residents conducted a fund drive to pay the faculty or the school would have had to close.

A man, his horse, and dog; a shelter made from prairie sod, the gift of health.  What greater wealth can man expect from God?  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies.

James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railroad organized clothing drives in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He shipped carloads of clothes to needy North Dakotans. In 1892 Governor Andrew Burke requested Chicago charity groups stop collecting money on the streets for “destitute North Dakotans.” He believed that such action was not good for North Dakota’s image.

The difficult economic time has caused unrest among the state’s farmers. Most of them are burdened with mortgages and the drop in farm income brought them to or near bankruptcy. They have been angry over high interest rates, unfair grain grading methods, and high railroad rates.

Washing clothes in the good old days in the late 1890s.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies.

Many became members of the Farmers Alliance, an organization that supported political candidates who were sympathetic to helping farmers. In 1892 the Alliance joined Prohibitionists and reform-minded Republicans to elect Eli C.D. Shortridge, an Independent and successful Larimore farmer, to the governorship. It was the only time that a Boss McKenzie candidate for governor has been defeated during the entire decade. But because the state had almost no money, Governor Shortridge could do nothing to help the farmers. The legislature did pass an appropriation of $100,000 to build a state-owned terminal elevator at either Duluth, Minnesota, or Superior, Wisconsin. That would have provided farmers with a place to sell their wheat at a fair price. But it was not built. Funds did not become available and neither Minnesota nor Wisconsin would allow the building anyway.

Eli C. D. Shortridge.  Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

In spite of the depressed times of the 1890s, signs of recovery are all about as the new century begins. Crops have been better and prices are rebounding. Most North Dakotans remain confident that better times are ahead.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Grade Level

3-4, 7-12

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change