Long before white settlement of the northern Great Plains began, a ford on the site of present-day Bismarck was known to Plains Indian tribes as one of the narrowest and least dangerous crossings of the Missouri River. Stone tools and weapons found in the vicinity indicate that the area was used thousands of years ago by prehistoric tribes who hunted big game. By the time white explorers arrived in the eighteenth century, those tribes had been displaced by the Mandan and Hidatsa peoples, who settled in villages on the western bank of the Missouri around the site of present-day Bismarck and developed a thriving northern Great Plains trading hub. The site also became known through Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery explorations in 1804–1806. From the 1830s, the small white settlement, known as Crossing on the Missouri, grew as a port for steamboats carrying military troops and supplies to forts and Indian agencies in the Missouri River basin. In 1832, the Yellowstone,the first steamboat on the Upper Missouri, connected the site with the fur post at Fort Union on the border of present-day Montana.
In 1872, during territorial times, the community was named Edwinton after Edwin Perry Johnson, a chief engineer for the Northern Pacific (NP) Railway at the time the railroad reached the eastern banks of the Missouri. The name was changed less than one year later to honor German chancellor Otto von Bismarck in an effort to attract German immigrants. When Burleigh County was organized in 1873, Bismarck became its county seat. The discovery of gold in the nearby Black Hills in 1874 was a significant impetus for growth. The Bismarck Tribunepublished its first edition in July 1873 and gained prominence in 1876 with the first account of George A. Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The territorial capital was moved from Yankton to Bismarck in 1883, and in 1889, Bismarck became the capital of North Dakota. A fire destroyed much of the city in 1898, but it quickly rebuilt. The Northern Pacific constructed a railroad bridge across the Missouri in 1882, and a vehicular bridge, the Liberty Memorial Bridge, opened in 1922. This bridge, which completed the coast-to-coast link for U.S. 10, was the main east-west highway through the region and ran through downtown Bismarck. The Liberty Memorial Bridge increased traffic dramatically and contributed to Bismarck’s growth as a commercial and governmental center for the western part of the state.
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