Home > Grand Forks Notes, North Dakotiana > George Walsh and the Founding of UND

George Walsh and the Founding of UND

Despite the inclement weather the University of North Dakota is scheduled to unveil a strange kind of monument today: a bust of George Walsh (here’s the genuinely bizarre press release).  Walsh is one of the “founding fathers” of eastern North Dakota and was responsible for the siting of the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.  His interest in the locating of the University was largely economic, and he used his political power (and audacity) in the provincial legislature to beat out Jamestown and other competing sites for the location of the school. Walsh was a relative of Captian Alexander Griggs who ran the local steamboat line and himself owned the local paper, the Plainsdealer, and served as the president of the town council when Grand Forks was founded in 1878.  Walsh county is named in his honor.

Once the university was founded, Walsh ensured that the school continued to receive appropriations from the state legislature throughout the late 19th century.  Moreover, he served as the first secretary of the board of regents for UND. (It is fun to imagine that he recorded the minutes of the first meetings in his elegant hand). More importantly, perhaps, he penned the first history of the founding of the University which President Webster Merrifield incorporated into the first “Founder’s Day” celebration at the University’s 21st birthday in 1904 (Geiger, 178).

From a historical standpoint, then, Walsh followed the tradition of writing himself into the history of the university at the moment where the young school was most intent on creating new “invented traditions”.  This is not to discredit Walsh’s contribution to the founding of the university, but to place the creating myth of the school within its proper context.

Here is Louis Geiger’s definitive description (followed in this recent op-ed in the Grand Forks Herald (the rival newspaper to George Walsh’s long defunct Plaindealer):

“… Walsh was deeply involved in the complicated intrigues and politics of the crucial legislative session of 1883 at Yankton where so much of the present educational and institutional pattern of both Dakotas was set.  Ordway had fired the opening gun in his annual message, in which he recommended the establishment of territorial institutions in the north. The next step, which had been prearranged, was to split the southern dedication, which was in overwhelming majoring in both houses – ten to three in the Council. With the approval of Ordway and the northern crowd, J.O.B. Scobey of Brookings was quickly elected president of the Council.  The South Dakota break was further exploited when Walsh after some talk of removing the capital to an entirely new town site on the open prairie, introduced a bill to move it from Yankton to Huron, also in the south.

In late January, while Walsh was held up by a blizzard in St. Paul, where he had gone on a short business trip, the South Dakota group attempted to re-form their lines by making overturns to S. G. Roberts and Jonston Nickeus, the representative from Fargo and Jamestown, who were not satisfied with the plans for the north.  They introduced their own set of bills appropriating a half a million dollars for institutions, most of them in the south.  Walsh hastily returned and pulled together his wavering northern colleagues, apparently by accepting a proposal that they draw lots for the university, agricultural college, and the insane asylum and penitentiary. (He wrote years later: “I took the University, Jamestown the insane asylum and Fargo took the agricultural college.  The penitentiary went to Bismarck.”).  He then counterattacked by promising the north’s support for establishment of an agricultural college at Brookings, Scobey’s town, and for appropriations to launch the Dakota University established at Vermillion in 1862 and the normals established by the 1881 Assembly at Spearfish and Madison.

With his lines partially re-formed, Walsh managed to bury the South Dakota institutional bills in the appropriations committee, of which he was chairman.  Fearing that his still restive northern colleagues might yet walk off with the prize, he hastily introduced into the legislative hopper some blank sheets of paper inscribed “a bill for an Act Locating the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, N.D., and Providing Government thereto.”  In the two days required for first and second readings, which were by title only, Walsh prepared the bill modeled on the University of Wisconsin act and substituted it for the dummy when it was routinely referred to his appropriations committee. As he put it: “No one would be any wiser, and no harm would be done by anyone, and I would get my bill ahead of Fargo or Jamestown, which I succeeded in doing. The Jamestown member was very much disappointed.”

Geiger, 18-19.

What is interesting to me is that Walsh’s bust – situated outside of the administrative building – will be one of the few monuments to a specific individual on campus here (aside from names on buildings).  On historical grounds, it is curious that he’d be chosen. While there is no doubt that his energies helped the university survive its formative years, one could easily argue that personalities like President’s Webster Merrifield or Frank McVey or even John C. West had a more transformative influence on the institution as a place of higher learning.

In contrast, Walsh’s unique contribution seems to have been acts of arguably rather self-serving political cunning, and the opportunity to write himself into the history of a university at the moment when it was looking to establish a set of traditions around which to forge an identity.  It is perhaps not coincidental that Walsh’s lonely bust is being dedicated at a time when the University continues to seek an identity and forge distinct traditions in the competitive world of higher education.  In fact, it’s hard not to think that the decision to commemorate this little known founder of the University suggests a gentle touch of irony from that least ironic of institutions: the University administration.

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